Tilmeena Hart, 38, said she sometimes takes phone calls in the bathroom to keep her four kids from overhearing her in the single hotel room they’ve lived in since January. She doesn’t want them to worry—she’s out of money to pay the Ramada Inn in East Orange, New Jersey. 

"I’ve been praying for a miracle," Hart said. "I’m praying that something comes through for me so me and my kids could be OK."

Hart lost her job as an aide helping transport students a few weeks ago when the state’s schools shut down. Still needing to pay the $115 day rate and $130 weekend rate to afford her room, she burned through the money she was saving to get her own apartment one day. 

But that ran out, too. 

The hotel threatened to kick her out and shut off the water. 

Listen to Karen Yi's report on WNYC:

Housing advocates contend families like Hart’s who can prove long-term residence at hotels have the same rights as any other tenant: A hotel must get court approval to remove a resident permanently residing in a room. 

Those rules just aren’t always followed but are even more paramount as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through the state. And now New Jersey has added even more protections to keep people safe inside. 

“You don’t want to create homelessness,” explained Jose Ortiz, the deputy director for Essex Newark Legal Services that helped fight Hart’s eviction. “Where are these families gonna go and make a situation worse? We have a critical housing shortage in New Jersey, you don’t want to add to that. For a lot of families, affordable housing is a room in a hotel.” 

Governor Phil Murphy in March banned landlords from kicking out tenants during the public health emergency. But the order carved out an exception for “transient guests” at hotels and motels, leaving ambiguity over who was protected—and who wasn’t. 

“There was confusion as to whether it applied to hotels and motels,” Ortiz said. “All of a sudden people were being kicked out of hotel and motel rooms without any process.” 

Late last month, state officials clarified that people living in hotels and motels on a “continual basis” were not considered transient and protected by the moratorium. 

Connie Pascale, a retired housing lawyer for Legal Services of New Jersey, says that still leaves some wiggle room for who qualifies as a transient guest. But he argued that anyone without a place to go should be protected. 

“That's their home. And given the public emergency, the definition of transient … has to be greatly truncated down to someone who has no other place to go because that's how we protect the public,” he said.

Hart added she’s not the only long-term resident living at her hotel.

“When you walk past, people have bags and bags and bags, they don’t look like they just got there,” she said.  “When I used to go to work, I used to leave for work at 7 a.m. You see the same faces.”

The hotel did not respond to a request for comment. But Ortiz says the hotel agreed to let Hart stay, though they will stop providing linens. 

Ortiz emphasized it’s important for these rules to be enforced and for tenants to know their rights. 

“A lot of the families who are living in the hotels and motels are essential workers, people restaurants, maintenance, they are trying to survive, they are trying to continue, some may be undocumented,” Ortiz said. He doesn’t believe all the hotel owners are following the rules—and it’s not always easy for residents to find help. 

“Before they could walk into our office and say can you help me -- now they gotta call in or email,” he said. “It's much more difficult for these individuals to access legal services.”

The New Jersey Hotel & Lodging Association did not return a request for comment. According to Pascale, state and county governments need to find ways to relieve hotel and motel owners who are losing money. He says there also needs to be a plan for what happens after the moratorium is lifted – to catch everyone who could suddenly find themselves without a place to live.

“At the end of it we’re going to have to find a way to deal with it, try to put in place a set of rules and funding sources and protections that will enable things to move forward,” Pascale said. “What we don’t need is a million people displaced.”