With national and state moratoriums on evictions in place, a Charlotte landlord displayed a “Wall of Shame” featuring tenants who were behind in rent.
Jonteiz Barrier was working at a sous chef in Charlotte with dreams of opening his own restaurant when the pandemic hit in March, leveling the restaurant industry and throwing hundreds of waitstaff and cooks out of work.
In some way, Barrier was lucky. He didn’t lose his job. But, his hours fell drastically.
He was living with his partner in the City Inn, a Charlotte hotel that charges weekly rates and has several long-term tenants. Though he never missed a payment entirely, he said, he was unable to pay in full.
At first, City Inn, prohibited from seeking an eviction because of federal and state moratoriums, pledged to work with him, he said.
Then in January, the hotel staff posted in its lobby a “Wall of Shame,” a posterboard bearing the drivers licenses of Barrier and 18 other residents behind on rent. Under each license was the amount the person owed.
The Wall of Shame was humiliating, he said. And infuriating.
“I’m pissed, I’m going to be honest with you,” he told Cardinal & Pine.
The tenants were just doing their best in a situation that has staggered the world economy. None of them are happy with being unable to pay, he said.
“This is not the plan,” he said. “This is not what we wanted to be doing, living in this hotel.”
Here Are Renter’s Rights
While landlords are unable to evict tenants for failure to pay rent, harassment like the “Wall of Shame” is common, advocates say.
Landlords who can’t evict their tenants legally often try to pressure them to leave on their own, said Isaac Sturgill, Staff Attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina, which helps provide legal help to low-income residents. In some cases landlords turn off water or power, threaten to throw a tenant’s possessions on the street, change locks, and attempt other forms of harassment.
These efforts, known as “self help evictions,” are illegal in North Carolina.
It is important for tenants to remember that there is only one legal way landlords can evict a tenant, Sturgill said. They have to go through the courts.
“Unless a landlord gets a court order against them, if you’re a tenant that is the only way they can get you out and you are entitled to have a trial first.”
There are also fair trade practice laws that could apply in the City Inn’s case. Landlords are considered debt collectors under state law, and there are clear rules against collecting debts through “unconscionable means.”
A judge could rule that something like the City Inn’s action falls under either of these categories, Sturgill said.
“That’s pretty bad,” Sturgill said.
People who think they are being harassed or threatened by their landlords during the evictions moratorium can contact Legal Aid of North Carolina at legalaidnc.org, or the state attorney general’s office at 1-877-5-NOSCAM and www.ncdoj.gov/complaint.
Laura Brewer, the communications director for the NC Department of Justice, said in an email last week that the AG’s office had had not received any complaints about the City Inn, but on Friday, the office sent an investigative demand letter to Abera Enterprises, LLC, the company listed as City Inn’s owner in documents filed with NC’s Secretary of State’s office. The letter says the owner is required, among other things, to “produce any and all documents containing the phrase wall of shame.”
Renters Trying to Catch Up
Barrier says he hopes something will be done.
Neither the owner nor hotel manager talked to him about the poster. There was no final warning to pay. The poster just went up.
It flew in the face of decency and the hotel owners’ initial pledges to work with him, he said.
“If they had done what they said they were going to do,” Barrier said, “they would know we weren’t trying to screw them over.”
Barrier says he owes about $4,000 in back rent, and is now working nearly 40 hours a week in a pizza restaurant. He’s trying to get caught up. COVID relief efforts are stalled in Congress, but once cleared they will help too.
After Fox 46, the Charlotte TV news affiliate that first reported the story last month, filmed the poster, it was taken down from the lobby.
According to Better Business Bureau data, Abera Enterprises is run by Eskind Abera. A person answering the phone at City Inn last week declined to comment. Messages left on a phone number connected to Abera Enterprises through the Better Business Bureau database were not returned.
Meanwhile, all Barrier wants to do is work for his family, give them shelter and security, and one day, open his own restaurant and cook his own recipes.
“I cook my butt off,” he said. “I can cook you a 5-star meal,” he added, “right here in this hotel room.”