Walking from her SUV to her hotel room after treatments, Katherine Harris could barely put one foot in front of the other.
Though she’d raised three kids, she’d never felt so tired. The chemotherapy that was crushing her cancer was also shattering her.
She yearned for rest, but it was often elusive. She heard folks hollering and children running in the rooms and hallways around her. And the worries inside her head were even louder. Would one of these strangers pass a virus to her already feeble body?
“I really just want to get in an (apartment),” the 43-year-old said. “I can’t be compromised right now.”
While receiving treatment for breast cancer in the summer and fall of 2022, Harris and her husband, Fred Scott, bounced back and forth between a pair of southeast Memphis hotels. Apartment managers had refused to rent to them since she filed for bankruptcy in 2020.
The couple’s journey is an increasingly common one in Memphis and the rest of the U.S. The country’s housing shortage is pushing a growing number of renters to dwell in hotels, despite the fact that few would choose to. And in Shelby County, bankruptcies play a major role in who ends up living at properties built for travelers.
Once there, renters are subject to the whims of the hotel’s management. They have little protection against immediate evictions or drastic rate hikes.
In Memphis, a room at an extended-stay hotel — which includes a kitchenette — rented for an average of $93 per night in 2022, 23% higher than in 2017, according to research from The Highland Group. For most of last year, Harris and Scott spent between $1,300 and $2,100 per month in a city where the average one-bedroom apartment still rents for about $950 per month.
Even before these recent price jumps, long-term residents spent far more on their stays than they would have on apartments. According to a 2019 study, about 85% of extended-stay hotel residents in Georgia used more than the recommended 30% of their income for housing, and 25% used more than 80% of their income.
These costs make it extremely difficult for people such as Harris and Scott to save up for a deposit on an apartment.
“These people … don’t have any chance to get a decent place to live,” said Alejandra Cadiz, a nonprofit worker who helps longtime hotel residents in Georgia find apartments. “They are paying a higher rate, and they are not building credit. … It’s a circle that’s very hard to get out of.”
Harris was more direct.
“(It’s) a trap.”
A scarlet ‘B’
In 2020, when health officials around the globe were asking residents to stay at home, Harris was having major issues with hers.
At her rental home in Westwood, the pipes were leaking, creating mold, she said. And the floorboards were rising, allowing bugs to crawl in.
Never afraid to advocate for herself, Harris filed a complaint with code enforcement. And then she made what housing experts say is a big mistake: She stopped paying rent. When tenants don’t pay rent because of poor maintenance, landlords can easily file for eviction. And that’s just what Harris’ landlord did in July 2020.
Through research, Harris learned her landlord wouldn’t be able to boot her out if she entered bankruptcy. Plus, it would let her wipe away thousands of dollars of medical debt accumulated during the years she had little to no insurance and reset a credit history marred when a relative opened accounts in her name.
Attracted by the promise of a fresh start, Harris filed for bankruptcy in September.
While this saved the couple from immediate eviction, Harris didn’t realize most local property management firms have policies against renting to people who’ve filed for bankruptcy. (Eight of the 10 leasing agents contacted by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism said applicants must have had their bankruptcies discharged at least two years before applying.)
Since the pandemic began, bankruptcies have become less common across the country, thanks to a growing economy and increased federal assistance to needy families. Still, Shelby County leads the nation in personal bankruptcy filings per person, with a rate five times higher than the national average.
And because of housing shortages across the country, fewer and fewer apartment complexes are willing to look past prior bankruptcies or evictions, Cadiz said. When property managers have no issue renting empty rooms, they have no reason to take risks on tenants such as Harris.
“They can choose someone with no evictions and a great credit score,” Cadiz said. “These people that don’t have that are out of the picture.”
Right after Harris filed for bankruptcy, she and Scott began looking for another home. But in the seven months between when Harris filed for bankruptcy and their lease ended, they’d spent about $900 in application fees at more than 15 rentals and still hadn’t found anything.
Finally forced out of their home, the pair moved into Extended Stay America in East Memphis in May 2021.
“Why is it that someone filing a bankruptcy (means) you can’t live nowhere?” Harris said. “(When I filed), I didn’t know I was just supposed to be homeless because I got a bankruptcy.”
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
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