Erica Smith Ewing and Daryl James: Utah city punishes poverty during housing crisis

Richfield has no business telling owners or guests how long people can stay in local hotels.

Fighting homelessness should not be a crime. But motel owners in Richfield, a central Utah city, found themselves operating outside the law when they let desperate families stay longer than three months.

Many of the extended-stay guests have nowhere else to go. As Utah housing costs have soared, they have found themselves priced out of the market. Some of them are battered women fleeing abusive relationships. Others are Richfield residents stuck in low-paying jobs.

Kim Campbell is a single mom with two teenagers and an aging parent under her care. The motel where she stays provides shelter for 78 adults with 35 children. The families pay for their rooms, and the owners are happy with the arrangement. But the city wants something different.

An ordinance, which took effect in January 2022, criminalizes any motel booking that extends past 90 days. Families cannot merely check out and return to the same room or go down the street to a different motel. Once they hit the term limit, the ordinance seems to ban them from occupying any motel room within city limits for the next three months. Essentially, they would become outcasts in their own community.

Penalties for noncompliance include up to six months in jail and daily fines of up to $1,000. Eviction is also possible, although code enforcers have not yet thrown anyone onto the street. The Richfield City Council agreed to delay enforcement during a special hearing on March 22 after dozens of guests received eviction notices and protested. Yet the ordinance remains on the books, leaving Campbell and her neighbors vulnerable to a renewed crackdown.

Besides being cruel, especially during an affordable housing crisis, the ordinance raises several constitutional concerns. Our public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, lays out the potential civil rights violations in an April 26 letter to the mayor and City Council.

The first problem involves unreasonable searches. A motel booking is a private contract between consenting parties, so municipal code enforcers normally would not have access to check-in and checkout dates. Richfield attempts to get around the hurdle by forcing motel owners to keep detailed guest logs and then share the information with the police upon demand. Any motel owner who refuses to share this information with police can be arrested on the spot.

The city says the requirement is necessary, but government agents cross a line when they give themselves standing permission to snoop on citizens. The U.S. Supreme Court already struck down a Los Angeles ordinance that allowed the police to review motel guest logs without a warrant, so Richfield does not need to test the boundaries.

The ordinance also violates property rights and economic liberty — the ability to earn an honest living without arbitrary or excessive government interference. Laws restricting how a property is used or how a business is run must serve a legitimate public interest.

Richfield’s rationale for coming between hosts and their guests is to free up motel space for tourists driving between Salt Lake City and St. George — a more lucrative clientele for tax collectors because travelers spend out-of-town cash. Unfortunately for Richfield, pushing one group of people out of the way to make room for wealthier replacements is not a legitimate government activity.

If motel owners want their guests to stay, and the guests want to stay, then the government has no business interfering. Unfortunately, similar examples of regulatory overreach are common, and the targets are often lower-income families.

The Institute for Justice successfully sued one North Carolina city that refused to allow a homeless shelter to open. In other cases a Washington city near Boise tried to ban a woman from feeding her indigent neighbors with a “little free pantry,” an Ohio city tried to stop a man from housing the homeless on his commercial property and a Georgia city is trying to stop a charity from building affordable housing on its own land.

Rather than opposing private solutions to difficult problems, cities should commend citizens who get involved. Housing prices will not come down anytime soon. Until the market stabilizes, cities can use all the help they can get.

Erica Smith Ewing

Daryl James | Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.

Erica Smith Ewing is a senior attorney and Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.