ARLINGTON, Va.—Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ), a non-profit public interest law firm, sent a letter to the city of Richfield, Utah, calling on officials to repeal an ordinance that bars individuals from living in motel rooms for more than 90 days. If enforced, the ordinance would kick dozens out of their current living arrangements and onto the streets.
“Our nation has a massive housing affordability problem. Local governments should be creating policies that make it easier for people to find affordable housing, not kicking people out of the homes they have found,” said IJ Senior Attorney Erica Smith Ewing, the author of the letter.
To combat the housing crisis, motel owners in Richfield opened their rooms for long-term renting. Many of the individuals renting the rooms are families, people with stable but low paying jobs and even survivors of domestic violence. For instance, one motel, Ville 647, currently provides housing for 78 adults and 35 children. These guests have built a community at the motels, even using motel space to hold meetings for veterans and those recovering from addiction. Enforcing the ordinance would make these people homeless and deprive them of important stability and community.
“The city should be commending the motel owners who are offering private solutions to the affordable housing crisis. Instead, the ordinance makes their solution into a criminal offense,” said Smith Ewing.
Richfield passed its ordinance in October 2021 and it went into effect in January of this year. The mayor justified the law by arguing that long-term rentals are using rooms that could instead be used by potential tourists. After eviction notices were served on hotel guests at the end of the March, the guests went to a City Council meeting to protest the ordinance. At the meeting, the City Council seemed to decide to temporarily stay enforcement of the ordinance, but it is unclear how long they will continue to stay enforcement. The city has yet to repeal the ordinance. IJ’s letter asks that the city repeal the ordinance quickly, to relieve the uncertainty and anxiety of the motel guests that they may receive an eviction notice any day.
Among its main provisions are that motels may not allow individuals to stay for more than 90 days, long-term rentals may not make up more than 25% of a motel’s total rooms and any room that is rented for more than a week must have a full kitchenette. Currently, many of the long-term rentals have hot plates, mini fridges and microwaves.
Failure to comply with the ordinance is considered a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of six months in jail or a fine of $1,000, with each day counting as a different offense. The city plans to enforce the law by requiring motel owners to keep detailed guest logs, which would be subject to warrantless search by the Richfield City Police Department. If an owner refuses the search, they could be subject to fines and jail time.
“Not only is this ordinance a bad policy that would leave dozens of Richfield residents without a home, it also very likely violates both the United States and Utah Constitutions,” said Smith Ewing.
IJ has fought against similar laws that prevent individuals from helping those experiencing homelessness. For example, IJ has successfully sued a North Carolina city that was using zoning laws to prevent a homeless shelter from being opened and a city in the state of Washington that banned a woman from feeding people out of a “little free pantry” in her yard. Back in 2014, IJ also successfully represented motel owners offering low-cost rooms in Massachusetts when a city tried to forfeit their property after some of their guests were arrested for drug dealing.