On Wednesday, an employee of the Majestic Regency Resort, a motel along a bustling stretch of Route 1 in Wells, knocked on Glenda Duncan’s door and handed her a piece of paper. She needed to pack up her belongings and leave the property by Saturday morning, the paper said, or management would report her to the police department for criminal trespassing.
“This has been my home for nine years,” she said Friday afternoon, her voice straining with emotion as she scanned her small living room and stroked her emotional support dog, Pearl. “Four days is not a long enough time to tell people to get their stuff together and get out.”
The motel’s order came after the Wells Board of Selectmen threatened its license following repeated complaints about long-term residents, citing a land use ordinance that doesn’t allow motels to act as residences. Across Maine, people struggling to find a permanent place to live during the pandemic have used emergency rental funds to stay at motels. In some places, municipal officials and neighbors have complained about disruptive behavior that’s strained police resources and worried members of the community.
But the motel’s decision to force out residents by threatening them with a criminal trespass order, meaning they could face arrest if they don’t leave by Saturday, struck housing lawyers as an unusual and possibly illegal mechanism for kicking people out.
People like Duncan — who pays to live at the Majestic Regency in monthly installments and does not receive typical hotel amenities such as daily housekeeping — more closely resemble tenants who are renting from a landlord than hotel guests, according to lawyers with the aid group Pine Tree Legal Assistance. But when landlords want a tenant to leave, they can’t just call the cops. Rather, they need to initiate eviction proceedings in civil court.
“Even in situations when landlords threaten to walk people out, there is usually not the threat of arrest involved. It makes this situation particularly alarming,” said Katherine McGovern of Pine Tree Legal.
As of Friday afternoon, her firm had been in touch with at least nine residents of the hotel seeking help after receiving a notice to leave, with more referrals pending. If the motel doesn’t agree to change course, lawyers could ask the court to stop it from ejecting the residents on the basis that it’s an illegal eviction, she said.
Julien Guerard, an attorney representing the motel, did not return two phone calls Friday afternoon. A manager with the motel did not return a phone call.
During a selectboard hearing on the motel’s license on Tuesday, however, Guerard acknowledged to officials that residents of the motel have “strained the town,” especially the police department. He said his client would take immediate action to “become a better business and better neighbor” by removing all guests who were there for an indefinite period.
Before making those comments, members of the public and business community had complained about safety issues and “havoc” at the Majestic Regency and two other motels along Route 1 in Wells, concerned that the newer residents were threatening the town’s reputation as a safe place to live. The selectboard will hold similar licensing hearings for those motels in early June.
Duncan understood the concerns, but she said she sees herself a little differently given the length of her time at the motel.
She began living at the motel in 2013 when her then-boyfriend got hired there to do property maintenance. When they broke up this winter, she applied for emergency rental assistance to remain there with Pearl. Since then, she’s been looking for a place of her own, but it isn’t easy to find affordable housing in southern Maine.
It’s especially difficult in four days, she said.
“I’ve waded through deeper water than this, but this scares me,” she said, mentioning that she recently completed treatment for breast cancer. The only people she knows who might be able to take her won’t be able to take Pearl, too. In her desperation Friday morning, she called a women’s shelter and learned they were full, she said.
Duncan’s only hope was that her attorney with Pine Tree Legal, Sarah Austin, had gotten through to Guerard on the phone and reached an arrangement to initiate the eviction process instead of moving ahead with the Saturday deadline, she said. When she had not heard anything by Friday afternoon, she called Austin again.
Tears flooded Duncan’s eyes as Austin gently explained over speakerphone that she had just spoken to the motel’s attorney, and nothing had changed.
“‘She’s been here for nine years. You can’t evict her this way,’” Austin had told the lawyer, she relayed to Duncan. “He said, ‘You’re probably right.’”
Together, they walked through what Duncan would do if police showed up the next day and threatened her with arrest. While Austin doubted they would take her to jail, she suggested that Duncan try not to be too confrontational and to make sure she had any essential belongings with her if she needed to walk away.
“I don’t have anywhere to walk to,” Duncan replied, breaking down in tears.