Price-gouging rampant in Charlotte during Democratic convention

A budget hotel room goes for $500 a night. A turkey bagel sandwich will set you back $9. Five bucks will get you a single President Barack Obama button. Are we in Charlotte anymore?

Clearly, this is no average week in North Carolina’s largest city.

The Democratic National Convention may be a financial boom to merchants and hotels in and around Charlotte, but it is putting a deep dent in some people’s wallets.

Delegates from the 50 states and other convention guests are not the only ones feeling the financial pain. Advocates say the city’s poor and homeless are among those who have been hit the hardest, as higher convention prices forced dozens of people from the motels they called home.

Their struggles shine a light on the fragile living arrangements of low-income people across the country who stave off homelessness by scraping together daily or weekly payments to live in extended-stay motels. Such places fill the gap for those unable to secure more stable housing because they can’t afford a deposit, lack regular work or have criminal histories.

In Charlotte, local social service agencies scrambled in the run-up to the convention to set up temporary shelters that would keep hotel dwellers – and their children – off the streets as Obama comes to town to accept his party’s nomination.

“We’re serving a lot of individuals who were displaced, both from hotels and benches uptown,” said Dale Mullennix, executive director of the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte. “I don’t know who can pay those kind of rates.”

Still, the Better Business Bureau of Charlotte hasn’t received any formal complaints about price gouging or spotted rates that raised concern, said president Tom Bartholomy.

“Nothing that we’ve seen so far comes close to meeting our state’s law on price gouging,” said Bartholomy, adding that he has seen even higher hotel prices during NASCAR races in the city.

The state law provides merchants fairly broad protection, prohibiting excessive pricing during a disaster, emergency or an “abnormal market disruption” for critical goods and services. Such disruptions must be declared by the governor.

GROUPS UNITE TO PROVIDE HOUSING

Gouging or no, the prices are stinging local residents who couldn’t afford the steeper rates that some extended-stay hotels implemented to cash in on the deluge of convention visitors.

Mullennix said homeless advocates in Charlotte sprang into action just a few weeks before the event’s start after hearing that hundreds of people had been displaced from their hotel homes in Denver during the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Already grappling with a spike in family homelessness in recent years, Charlotte advocates raised $20,000 from the community in about two days to help cover new needs prompted by the convention.

They have used some of the money to subsidize low-income families’ hotel costs, pay for staffing and food at expanded shelter space and cover travel costs for people who were forced to move.

One local church agreed to house and feed 30 people for the entire week of the convention, and other faith congregations hosted the homeless on a rotating basis, as they do during the cold winter months.

A chief concern was keeping uprooted children from missing school due to their new locations, said Annabelle Suddreth, executive director of A Child’s Place, a nonprofit that works with homeless youth in schools and their families.

Some hotels were willing to negotiate more reasonable rates for families facing eviction, Suddreth said, but tenants who saw prices increase sixfold had to leave.

“One mother said, ‘I’m not even asking you for that amount of money,'” Suddreth said. “She ended up being displaced from that hotel, but we were able to negotiate with another motel to get her in.”

Local business leaders said many hotels were sensitive to the predicaments of their low-income guests and weighed balancing their housing needs with the chance to make higher profits during the convention.

The Arlington Suites in Charlotte raised rates for new guests this week to between $119 and $299 a night from about $49, but said it kept rates at their normal level for long-time guests, said manager Gail Beiser.

“We had decided that we weren’t going to penalize our current long-term guests due to the convention being in town,” she said.

On the bright side, Suddreth said the forced relocations allowed her organization to connect with families who might not otherwise have crossed its path.

“We don’t begrudge the hotels,” she said. “I think that part of the excitement of having the convention here, beyond having the spotlight on Charlotte, is there are some people who are going to make money, and that’s capitalism at its best.”

(Editing by Edward Tobin and Doina Chiacu)

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters

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