A Black woman sits on the edge of the driver's seat of a small black SUV. A Black man stands next to her with his arm wrapped around her.
Katherine Harris and Fred Scott stand for a portrait with their Nissan Rogue in May. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

This is the second part of a story about a couple surviving housing instability. Part 1, which you can read here, describes the increasing use of extended-stay hotels as housing and how bankruptcy stops so many Memphians from finding homes. Read Part 3 here. Read more of our housing coverage here

While living in the extended stay, Katherine Harris and Fred Scott continued to look for a home, but also formed a community.

Harris made friends with the housekeeper, the front desk workers and fellow residents. She cooked healthy meals for Mr. Williams, who was used to a diet of McDonald’s but was fighting diabetes, and for Mr. John, who taught at LeMoyne-Owen College. 

“She’s an amazing person … (and) she always paid her weekly balance on time,” said Samantha Cowan, a former front desk worker.

The outside of an Extended Stay America at dusk.
Harris and Scott formed a community in this Extended Stay America in East Memphis, but it never felt like home.  Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Though Scott had landed a relatively high-paying job setting up power equipment for events and Harris was working part-time, the couple had difficulty keeping up with their other bills while paying the hotel $500 per week. A few months after moving in, Scott filed his own bankruptcy to lower his debt payments.

But throughout the second half of 2021, they were still hopeful they’d find an apartment soon.

Those hopes faded the week of Christmas. Water started seeping through the floorboards in their room, so Harris demanded a different one. The hotel manager showed her another, smaller room that smelled awful. Standing up for herself, as always, Harris said she needed something better, and the manager walked to her office.

Water pools on the floor of a hotel room.
Water seeps into Harris and Scott’s hotel room in November 2021. Photo provided by Katherine Harris

A little while later, Harris said she was summoned to the office and given a choice: Accept the new room or get out by 3 p.m. Harris agreed to move and picked up her husband from work, so he could move their things. But she also called the corporate office to complain. She then left to pick up some Instacart orders.

While driving in Cordova, she received a call from her husband. Police had arrived at the hotel and told him they had to leave. It didn’t matter that they had already paid for the rest of the week. It didn’t matter that they had lived there seven months or had nowhere else to go. The cops told Scott  – falsely, as it turns out – that the hotel was legally allowed to throw them out for any reason.

Under Tennessee law, hotel residents must be treated as tenants once they’ve lived there for 30 days,  according to West Tennessee Legal Services managing attorney Vanessa Bullock. That means hotel managers must get an eviction from a judge before showing someone the door.

Neither the Memphis Police Department nor Extended Stay America responded to repeated requests for comment about Harris’ removal.

The bed of a hotel room is reflected in a mirror.
A room at the Extended Stay America in East Memphis where Harris and Scott lived until they were kicked out with less than a day’s notice. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50
Harris and Scott stand for a portrait in March. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Malik Watkins, a public service associate at the University of Georgia who has studied extended-stay hotels, said hotel residents rarely receive the same rights as renters, partially because they’re largely ignored by both academics and politicians. His 2019 paper was one of just a few MLK50 found while researching this article.

“There’s a chasm when we look at housing policy (for hotel residents),” he said. “It’s a severe blind spot. … A lot of folks in local governments don’t even know it’s a problem. It’s not even on their radar.”

With little data available, it’s difficult to say how many Memphians are living in hotels. According to The Highland Group, there are about 2,200 occupied extended-stay hotel rooms in the Memphis area. Of those, about half are likely rented to long-term residents, according to Highland Group partner Mark Skinner. However, far more Memphians are living in cheap hotels and motels across the city that don’t include the kitchenettes required to count as extended-stay properties — including one of the hotels Harris and Scott lived in last year.

Even if politicians start paying attention, cops follow the law, and residents learn their rights, Watkins said, it will be tough for tenants to stand up for themselves when a hotel manager tells them they have to leave.

“There’s a difference between knowing your rights and being able to enforce them,” he said. “Are they supposed to leave their stuff sitting outside the unit and go call legal aid? … The practicality is they need to go find a place to stay.”

Harris and Scott couldn’t find a place the night they were kicked out. Having just spent $200 on groceries for Christmas dinner, they couldn’t afford most of the hotels they looked at. When they arrived at a cheap hotel in Cordova, it was full.

They asked the hotel’s security guard if they could park in the lot overnight. He agreed. So, on a cold December night, they got what sleep they could in their Nissan Rogue, which was packed to the brim with their belongings.

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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