More evictions at hotel

More evictions at hotel

March 4th, 2011 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

The billboard for the Town and Country Inn stands over the hotel in Chattanooga. Some of the residents of Town and Country perform chores for the hotel in exchange for rent. Now many are being forced to leave.

Photo by Jenna Walker/Times Free Press.

New owners at Town & Country Inn have issued another round of eviction notices, telling longtime tenants at the extended-stay hotel to get out within the week.

Several residents, who claim to be up to date on rent payments, said one of the new owners from Florida, Jeff McFarland, is trying to clean house at the hotel that once let homeless people work in exchange for rooms.

"They are trying to get rid of the undesirables," said Joe Fason, who lived and worked at Town & Country on East 23rd Street for six years and is being evicted.

Fason, who said he can't work because of chronic shaking and respiratory problems, will move to federally subsidized housing at Patten Towers on 11th Street, but most of the residents, who came to Town & Country as a last resort, could go back onto the streets.

"[McFarland] is making a lot of people with disabilities leave because they are in their rooms all day using electricity, using the television," Fason said.

Repeated attempts to reach McFarland were unsuccessful.

Town & Country was sold last Thursday after a six-month federal labor investigation put the hotel's treatment of employees in the limelight.

The U.S. Department of Labor is looking into whether the hotel's previous owners, David and Steven Bernstein, owe dozens of former employees back wages.

Residents who doubled as employees for years say they worked between 40 and 80 hours a week for rooms advertised for $129 a week. Many say they never received a single paycheck from the hotel.

Nearly 15 employees were fired by Bernstein last week and told to make plans to leave the property because new owners were coming on site.

In November, Bernstein told employees they could continue to live at the hotel only if they were willing to volunteer their work and prepare the hotel, which he said was failing financially, for sale.

"We weren't getting paid, so we don't have a lot of options," said Paul Bruce, who lived and worked at Town & Country for 21/2 half years. "We don't have any money. Just to kick us to the curb with no options, it's bad. They weren't willing to work with us at all."

A ministry housed inside Town & Country called Grace in Action brought many homeless people to the hotel and asked churches to pay for their first few weeks at the facility.

Grace in Action has been given one month to leave the property and clean out more than seven rooms the ministry had used for storage and meetings, said Tommy Peak, the ministry's founder.

Legally, it's hard to know whether Town & Country tenants are protected under Tennessee's landlord-tenant law and should be given more time to evict, said Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Clarence Shattuck.

Under that law, landlords are required to give a 10-day notice to weekly renters and a 30-day notice to monthly renters. But written leases could give a landlord the right to evict on shorter notice if the renter is behind in payments, he said.

"This is a unique situation," Shattuck said. "Just because you call it a hotel doesn't mean it's a hotel. This is, in effect, an apartment complex. It wouldn't be difficult for a judge to rule that someone should be given a longer period of time."