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With hotels serving as emergency housing, civil rights investigators navigate new challenges

A Dover motel in May 2022.
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
As the pandemic took hold, many Delawareans with unstable housing turned to motels and hotels for temporary housing.

After a growing number of Delawareans moved into hotels and motels during the pandemic, state investigators responsible for reviewing fair housing complaints ventured into new territory.

Delaware’s Division of Human and Civil Rights investigates discrimination complaints filed by the public, including a rising number of complaints involving alleged housing discrimination.

With thousands of Delawareans relying on hotels and motels for housing during the pandemic, complaint investigators and hotel owners alike were faced with a new challenge: at what point does a hotel become a housing provider, and how does that impact what standards the hotel owners are held to?

Investigator Ines Hungria told the Delaware Human and Civil Rights Commission last week that when people rely on a hotel as their only housing, the hotel becomes subject to fair housing rules.

“Owners of hotels and motels might not know the intention of a person coming to stay," she said. "You don’t know if someone is coming because they have nowhere else to live and that the rules have now changed. It’s gone from just a place that serves the public to being someone’s home.”

That opens the door for investigations of hotel policies that allegedly discriminate against people with disabilities, for example. Hungria says while many hotel owners aren’t initially aware of this, complaint investigators have no choice but to hold them to fair housing standards.

“We are looking at these cases, and it’s blatant that the individual didn’t know, but lack of knowledge of the law does not give you a pass," she said.

The Division has also requested more information from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development about how to apply fair housing rules to hotels.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.