This is the third and final 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. Part 2 covers the lack of legal protections for hotel residents, as the couple is kicked out of their long-time home with less than a day of notice.
In April 2022, while Katherine Harris and Fred Scott were still staying in hotel rooms across the county, her doctor diagnosed her with triple-negative breast cancer.
By summer, Harris’ hair was falling out, her fingernails were curling up, and her toes were turning black from the chemotherapy.
Despite the extreme pain and exhaustion, Harris said seeing her reflection in the hotel room mirror was the hardest.
“All my hair is gone. … It’s horrible,” she said. “I’ve been wearing my hair long all my life — nice and long and thick.”
This mental battle compounded the stress from living in hotels, worrying about the viruses other guests might carry and never knowing when another manager may uproot her life.
Anxiety is the norm for long-term hotel residents, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare.
“(Residents) experienced an unrelenting emotional struggle with their inability to get out of this temporary housing solution,” the study says. “They feel trapped, boxed-in, and unable to escape the realities of their financial situations.”
These financial struggles often occur despite steady employment. Almost 70% of households living in hotels have at least one member with a full-time job, according to a 2019 study by Malik Watkins, a public service associate at the University of Georgia. Scott, for instance, worked full-time throughout the couple’s hotel stays. Though he left his power equipment job when Harris was diagnosed so he wouldn’t have to travel as much, he quickly found work at a local railyard.
Many of these families could easily be paying rent at apartment complexes — if they weren’t constrained by an eviction, bankruptcy or apartments’ requirements to pay first and last month’s rent when moving in, Watkins and his colleagues found. If given a chance at an apartment, his study found, almost 80% said they wouldn’t need long-term financial support to keep it.
To give more families that chance, Watkins said cities and nonprofits should focus on “the root issue” of building more affordable housing.
The City of Memphis recently included $5 million in its budget for affordable housing, but the city has about 35,000 fewer affordable housing units than it needs, given its number of low-income residents, according to a 2023 analysis by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Faced with this reality, national experts say Shelby County elected officials must make it easier to build rentals. Currently, housing developers here run up against some of the most exclusionary zoning rules in the country, which don’t allow apartments to be built in most parts of town.
Occupancy in affordable extended-stay hotels is intertwined with the price of apartments nearby, Skinner said. If more apartments are built, causing local rental rates to fall, fewer people would live in cheap hotels.
While not every apartment is better than every hotel room, Harris said having a decent apartment of her own during chemotherapy would have made a huge difference.
“(In hotels), you always feel like you’re on the run. You don’t feel settled,” Harris said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable staying at a hotel.”
The one time Harris was truly able to relax in 2022 came in late September. In between “red devil” treatments, she and Scott visited Gatlinburg with her cousin from Atlanta and friends from Chicago. On the porch of their cabin, she and her cousin sat on rocking chairs facing the woods for hours upon hours.
It was the opposite of hotel life.
“It was just comfy and cozy,” Harris said. “There was a warm feeling. And I got to rest.”
A crushing blow
In December, the same month she completed chemotherapy, Harris finally found a place willing to take a chance on her and Scott — the Almadura Apartments.
The Almadura is located in a low-crime part of Midtown and costs much less than the hotel they were living in. It seemed like a great deal.
So the couple signed a lease, not having seen the recent TV news story about the building’s falling bricks and other safety risks.
It didn’t take long for the Almadura to take its toll on them. Cockroaches became frequent guests. And black mold began to abound beneath their sink, causing Harris to have severe coughing attacks. Her doctor prescribed antibiotics but urged her to move somewhere safer while she received her immunotherapy treatments. Gynecologist Sanjeev Kumar, who owns the building, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
The couple kept searching for a better home — until the afternoon of June 15.
Scott had stopped at the liquor store to pick something up for Father’s Day. Since he knew it’d be a quick stop, and their car wouldn’t start without being jumped, he decided to leave it running.
Someone stole it while he was on his way into the store.
Since that day, Scott hasn’t been able to get to work. He’s searching for employment within walking distance but hasn’t found anything. Even if he finds a job, he doubts it will pay nearly what the railyard did — which already wasn’t enough to cover their rent, his debt payments and Harris’ medical bills.
Harris started a GoFundMe, but as of Wednesday, it’s only raised $75.
If this had happened two years ago — before the hotel payments or cancer treatments — the couple probably would’ve been alright. Now, it’s a crushing blow.
Less than two weeks after the theft, the couple received notice that their landlord had filed an eviction. They had fallen behind on rent long ago but had hoped to stay in the Almadura until they found a viable alternative.
Because of their recent bankruptcies, they can’t use that system to save them this time.
At their first eviction hearing, they were granted a two-week delay, but they’ll likely be forced out of the Almadura by the end of July. They’re desperately searching for a way to avoid homelessness.
But they haven’t found one.
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
Read parts 1 & 2 of this series
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