Longtime Wells Motel tenants fight eviction
Since the sale of the Springvale building where she rented an apartment for three years, Jamie James has learned to take things day by day.
She focuses on her three children and her work. She is asking for new rental units – more than 50 so far. And then, some days, she thinks about where she’ll store her things if she has to leave the motel in Wells where she’s been staying for a year.
Last week, James was one of at least 10 people staying at the Majestic Regency Resort in Wells who were told they had days to move or face arrest.
“They say there is light at the end of the tunnel. The tunnel collapsed on top of me,” she said. “The reality is that there is nowhere to go.”
On Monday, Pine Tree Legal Assistance, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income Mainers, filed suit and sought a temporary restraining order on behalf of James and nine other tenants in York County Superior Court. in an attempt to stop the motel from forcing them to leave. The complaints argue that the evictions are illegal and discriminate against people on public assistance.
The 10 rooms for tenants at the Route 1 Motel were paid for under a rent relief program designed to help people stay or find housing during the pandemic.
Later Monday, Judge Wayne Douglas granted the request for a temporary restraining order in each of the 10 cases that prevents the motel from evicting tenants. The judge said in his ruling that the threat of homelessness posed an irreparable threat to the tenants and that the argument that the motel violated Maine’s human rights law could succeed in court.
The temporary restraining orders will be in place until a hearing is held on the complaints.
The legal filing and decision comes nearly a week after Wells selectors discussed the Majestic Regency and two other motels at a public hearing. Council members told the hearing that the motels violated a local land use ordinance which states that motels and hotels can only rent rooms to people for up to 28 days.
An attorney for Blue Diamond Management LLC, owner of the Majestic Regency Resort, told the hearing that the company intends to notify people who have been at the motel for more than 28 days that they must leave on Saturday or will be arrested by Wells Police.
Wells selectors considered renewing the lodging licenses of three motels – the Majestic Regency, USA Inn and Ne’r Beach. Officials say they are concerned about the number of times police have been called to motels since the end of 2021 and the alleged crimes associated with people staying or visiting the motels.
CALLS TO POLICE CITED
Police responded to the three motels 177 times from December to April for calls ranging from requests for citizen assistance to theft to domestic violence, Chief Jo-Ann Putnam said, and 53 of those calls were for at the Majestic Regency.
“Our organization is extremely concerned about all the chaos and disorder we have seen in recent months and the devastation and unrest our city services and businesses have had to endure,” said Eleanor Vadnais, president of the chamber of commerce. of Wells. selectmen at a May 17 public hearing on motel licensing.
His concern about the “turmoil” was echoed by board members and several community members at the meeting.
Breeders should consider whether or not to renew hosting licenses on June 7.
Lawyer Julien Guerard, who represents the owner of the Majestic Regency, told elected officials that his client was working with police to address concerns and intended to close the motel from October to April 2023. He said that The landlord planned to take steps “to remove long-term tenants from this facility.
Last Wednesday, the 10 residents represented by Pine Tree Legal were told they had to vacate the motel by Saturday.
The people who received these notices stayed at the Majestic Regency because they had no other housing options during an unprecedented housing crisis in the area, said Katherine McGovern, chief counsel at Pine Tree Legal.
“It’s terrifying to suddenly learn that you have to leave in a few days and the police are going to come and arrest you if you don’t come out,” she said. “They have their life in these rooms.”
McGovern said her clients include an 80-year-old, parents with children as young as 1 and 3, and people with disabilities. If forced to leave, they will likely be homeless, she said.
The Majestic Regency does not provide these tenants with typical hotel amenities, including the continental breakfast offered to guests during the summer or laundry and cleaning services, McGovern said. Because these people stay at the Majestic Regency between two months and nine years, they have a landlord-tenant relationship with the landlord, she said.
TENURE OF TENANTS ONE KEY
McGovern said his clients are tenants at will and are entitled to the eviction process outlined in state law. This process requires a longer notice period and the possibility for tenants to defend their situation in court. Customers’ rent was paid through May 31 by York County Communication Action Corp., the agency that administers the rent relief program.
James, 39, first moved into a cottage at the Majestic Regency last June and took a part-time job at the motel cleaning rooms and doing laundry. She paid $150 a week for the cabin, which is typically used for seasonal workers but had to move into a regular room in October when it got too cold.
Unable to pay the $150 daily rate on her part-time salary and the disability benefits she receives for being legally blind, James began receiving housing assistance through York County Community Action Corp. Without this help, she said, she would be homeless.
James understands the city’s frustration with the number of police calls to local motels, but said many people staying at the motel are not involved in illegal activity.
As she spoke about her situation on Monday afternoon, a young girl was playing outside in an adjoining room and guests were walking their dogs on the neatly trimmed lawn.
“People have this stigma with homelessness where they think if you’re homeless you’ve done something wrong,” James said. “Many of us have done everything right.”
The complaints filed Monday, one for each tenant, asked the judge to issue a temporary restraining order to stop the motel owner from denying the complainants access to their rooms and property. He also asked the court to formally rescind the trespassing notice the motel residents received on May 18.
The complaints allege that the motel owner engaged in business practices “that are unfair and deceptive in the business of an owner” and that the owner inflicted emotional distress on the complainants.
COMPLAINTS ALLEGING DISCRIMINATION
The complaints also allege that the motel owner discriminates against complainants who receive public assistance to pay for accommodation. Maine’s Human Rights Act prohibits “any person providing rental space or public accommodation from refusing to rent or imposing different rental terms on any person receiving federal, state or local…primarily due to a person’s status as a recipient,” the complaints state.
“At the May 17 board meeting, public commentators called on the defendant and other local accommodations to remove long-term residents, most or all of whom are ERA recipients. , and suggested that these individuals were causing ‘chaos’ and ‘torpedoing’ the city’s reputation,” the complaints state.
An official who answered the phone at the Majestic Regency on Monday said he could not comment on the legal action. Messages seeking interviews with the owner and his lawyer were not returned on Monday.
Sean Roche, chairman of the board, said city ordinances state that lodging facilities cannot be used as residences.
“City ordinances specify that all city accommodation facilities, including motels, are intended for short-term occupancy by the traveling public and may not be used as residences. We have an obligation to ensure that lodging establishments comply with both city ordinances and their licensing requirements,” he said in a statement. “Additionally, we understand that under state law, hotels, motels, and inns are not subject to landlord/tenant laws.”
McGovern, however, says it’s important to recognize that the city’s licensing rules are a separate legal issue from the motel’s actions toward the people it has housed.
The motel has received large sums of money from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program and to shut down suddenly is “particularly outrageous”, she said.
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