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Shrewd ruse slows evictions at motels

Motels along 34th Street resort to paying unwelcome customers to leave after one claims to be a ''resident.''

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 18, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Here's a switch:

Motel operators along one of St. Petersburg's main streets have paid customers to leave, according to the president of the 34th Street Business Association.

Such a twist developed because a motel guest, recently faced with eviction for having a prostitute in his room, tried to declare himself a resident rather than a short-term transient, Peter Sharp said.

Under the law, a resident, or tenant of a rental facility -- as opposed to a short-term hotel or motel guest -- can go through a court process before being forced out. It can take several weeks. Short-term guests, on the other hand, can get booted quickly if they do something bad, also a state law provision.

The guest succeeded with the "resident" ruse and has since spread the word among others whom owners would prefer to see gone from their establishments.

Owners are getting no help from police, Sharp said.

"These people are undesirables and they know they're going to be thrown out, so all at once they want to declare residency," Sharp said.

And so, rather than face a long wrangle, some owners have offered money, a few more days' stay, or both, Sharp said, hoping to make a deal that would persuade unwelcome guests to leave.

It is the latest odd chapter in a years-long saga pitting business owners on 34th Street N against drug dealers and prostitutes, who periodically have attempted their own brand of enterprise along one of the city's busiest commercial strips.

Hotel and motel owners have made strides toward winning the struggle but worry this latest development could be a setback.

"We're not just going to sit back and idly take this. Next thing you know, (undesirables) will be overtaking our rooms," said John Sharp, Peter Sharp's son and a co-owner of a Days Inn on 34th Street N.

Peter Sharp said he has had no problem throwing out unwanted guests, whereas other owners, some of whom have mom-and-pop establishments, are not as willing to confront troublesome guests. He said his electronic room key system lets him change lock codes, while owners who still use keys don't have that option.

Adding to the owners' woes is that St. Petersburg police say their hands often are tied when it comes to helping owners get rid of unsavory customers.

The line can be vague regarding who is a "transient" and who is a "resident," said Sherman Smith, the Police Department's lawyer.

"If we arrest someone, we face a possible false arrest suit," Smith said.

The Sharps have a letter from a state official backing the motel and hotel owners' position.

In the letter, Gail Scott-Hill, lawyer for the Division of Hotels and Restaurants, said a guest cannot establish residency at a transient lodging facility without specific written consent from the owner.

Nor can a guest use the landlord/tenant act, which requires legal processing in eviction cases, to get around the law that lets owners kick out unwelcome customers, Scott-Hill wrote.

Smith said problems arise from the police perspective when there is no documentation that a motel or hotel guest planned to check out on a certain day. He said rooms sometimes don't have rental rates posted, receive no maid service and have provisions for guests to cook their own meals -- all of which blur the lines between who is a "resident" and who is a "transient."

He said owners may "play both sides of the street. They want steady income and long-term tenants, but when things go south, they say 'I'm a motel"' to facilitate eviction.

That position doesn't impress the Sharps. They want the Police Department to help enforce the hotel and restaurant division's interpretation of the law. They have sought to discuss the matter with Mayor Rick Baker, but say they have been unable to do so.

Now they're contemplating another step.

"We have 19 owners pooling their money for a suit against the city," Peter Sharp said. "We're damned serious."

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