Cheap rooms, rampant crime: Inside the controversy over Baton Rouge’s Oyo Hotels | News

The names, paint jobs and décor of a handful of budget hotels across Baton Rouge have changed over time, with facades that used to advertise a Calloway Inn and a Magnuson Hotel now reading “OYO.”

But no rebrand or decorating scheme has fixed a slew of underlying problems at the properties, which city-parish data shows have been riddled with crime and emergency calls for paramedics for at least the past five years.

Data from 2017 shows that two hotels at 9999 Gwenadele Drive and 10920 Mead Road — both of which now bear the Oyo brand — fell among the worst offenders on a list of city-parish motels with the most 911 calls. The Gwenadele property logged 130 calls that year, while the Mead location clocked 115.

Since then, the problems have only worsened: The Oyo on Gwenadele has had 523 calls to 911 since the start of 2021 — more than one per day, Baton Rouge Police Department records show. The Mead location has logged 347.

Rajesh N. Patel, the man who owns those hotels and eight others in the Baton Rouge area, acknowledges the dire situation. He attributes the problem to COVID-driven staff shortages, a large number of homeless people seeking shelter and a corporate mandate that at one time dropped room rates to as low as $14 per night.

While a recent killing at the Oyo on Gwenadele focused the spotlight on Patel’s business in particular, it also revealed a startling fact — that despite an ordinance passed in 2018 to tackle widespread crime problems at budget motels, East Baton Rouge Parish officials haven’t used it even once against any of the roughly 70 properties out of compliance.

And some people who depend on such lodgings feel like they’re forced to choose between money and safety.

“I’m shopping for the cheapest price, but sometimes the cheapest price ain’t always good for you,” said Allen McPherson as he sat outside of the Oyo on Mead this week.

McPherson, 44, lost his home in Lake Charles during Hurricane Laura and said he’s been bouncing around Baton Rouge hotels since then.

He described staying at the Oyos on both Mead and Gwenadele, and said he’s witnessed robberies, drugs, prostitution and assaults. He said he’s called the police to both hotels more than once, despite hotel employees discouraging him from doing so — including once when he saw a man beating a woman in the parking lot.

“It’s a dog-eat-dog world over there,” he said. “It’s like prison. The police go but they can’t stop anything. There’s only so much they can do without cooperation.”

050122 Rajesh Patel hotels map

Legal troubles mount for Patel

Patel has full or partial ownership of at least 10 hotels in Baton Rouge, Denham Springs, Donaldsonville, Gonzales and Port Allen, including several Oyo franchises, a Super 6 and Cajun Country Inn.

His business ventures extend beyond Louisiana: In response to a 2020 federal lawsuit that alleged he was failing to pay a desk clerk overtime, he argued he had not been properly served with the suit while he was checking on a rehabilitation facility in Palm Springs, California, and another facility in Boston, Massachusetts, that he has interest in. The employee later voluntarily dismissed the suit.

Complaints of violence at his properties have dogged Patel’s two Baton Rouge Oyo hotels. City-parish Chief Administrative Officer Darryl Gissel said he, Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, District Attorney Hillar Moore III and Police Chief Murphy Paul met with Patel on April 26 after the outcry over the fatal shooting at Oyo, which left 32-year-old Jaci Bergeron dead. And after The Advocate reported that the 2018 motel ordinance hasn’t been enforced, a Metro Council member called a meeting for later this week with city leaders and the city-parish permitting office to come up with a plan of action.

As scrutiny mounts over the violence on Gwenadele, Patel — who was once praised for offering free hotel rooms to health care workers during the pandemic — has other problems on his hands.

Court filings in East Baton Rouge Parish show that two banks, Investar and First Guaranty Bank, are trying to seize his properties — including some hotels and his home in a Denham Springs subdivision — over his alleged failure to pay back $7 million in loans. An attorney for First Guaranty Bank declined to comment, and an attorney for Investar did not return messages. Patel says he has reached an agreement with First Guaranty.

Meanwhile, he is also being sued by Motel 6. The national motel chain alleges in three separate complaints filed in East and West Baton Rouge Parish courts that Patel owes them more than $600,000 from contracts he signed over the years to brand three of his Baton Rouge-area properties — the Mead and Gwenadele hotels, plus one in Denham Springs — under the Motel 6 name. Phone calls to Motel 6 and the Opelousas law firm representing the company, Sandoz Law Offices, were not returned.

“Those suits are an ongoing battle between the franchise and the hotels because I terminated the agreements due to lack of reservation contribution from the brand, which they promised when signing the franchise agreements,” Patel said. His motels on Gwenadele and Mead Road in Baton Rouge and West Rushing Road in Denham Springs each now bear the Oyo name, along with three other hotels in the capital region which he owns.

While Patel acknowledged the depth of the problems at his Gwenadele property, he says the hotel’s ownership and workers are not alone to blame.

Over the past two years, crippling staff shortages caused by COVID have made managing the property difficult, he said. Destructive weather events like Hurricane Ida and flooding last spring posed further challenges. Patel said he and his wife have had to work at the properties — folding towels at some of their hotels.

“It’s tough for us to monitor everybody, all the time, 24/7,” he said.

But he also focused on a push by Oyo’s corporate leadership to sell rooms at rock-bottom prices. With rates that low, the Gwenadele hotel started seeing even more crime and safety complaints, he explained.

“When you have such low rates, you’re going to attract clients that you do not want staying at your hotel,” he said. “The biggest issue was (Oyo’s) main objective was to grow their brand. Their objective was to increase their occupancy.”

The hotel advertises its Gwenadele location as a “trendy stay option” with “elegant furniture,” an in-house restaurant and “chic” bathrooms. The Mead location, its website says, is a “sought after accommodation option” that’s located near enough amenities for those seeking “leisure as well as recreation.”

Oyo grew out of India, where entrepreneur Ritesh Agarwal launched the chain in 2013 under the “Oyo” name, which is shorthand for “on your own.” It has rapidly expanded across the U.S. since 2019, cultivating an active social media presence where the brand muses mostly about the joys of leaving work for a vacation.

Oyo’s corporate offices in Dallas did not return messages for this story.

How Oyo operates

Oyo’s business model has drawn criticism from some hotel owners elsewhere in the country. Those critics decry what they describe as Oyo’s habit of adjusting room rates without the input from the owners.

Oyo’s model varies sharply from that of a “traditional hotel company,” according to Bob Rauch, a hotel owner and hospitality industry expert based in California.

Twice daily we’ll send you the day’s biggest headlines. Sign up today.

Most mainstream hotel companies set up booking services, provide amenities and enforce quality standards at hotels that use their brands. But Oyo charges hotel operators for what amounts to little more than a booking service, Rauch said. The company reserves rooms for guests — usually at some of the lowest prices on the market — while letting the facilities’ owners operate as they please, Rauch explained.

“They’re not an Airbnb or a short-term rental,” Rauch said, referring to the company that lets homeowners and investors lease rooms or whole homes and apartments to travelers. “But they’re also not a traditional hotel company.”

In Baton Rouge, city-parish officials say an apparent lack of standards and oversight for Oyo properties is one of the factors allowing crime to proliferate there.

“If you get thrown out under a few different names, Oyo seems to be a last resort,” said Gissel, the city-parish chief administrative officer.

Crime and safety complaints at Oyo hotels belonging to Patel are not unique to East Baton Rouge. Patel owns a total of six Oyo facilities in the region — two in Port Allen, one in Donaldsonville and one in Denham Springs, plus the two in Baton Rouge. The Donaldsonville Oyo, according to Ascension Parish Sheriff Bobby Webre, is among the hotels with the highest number of calls to law enforcement in the sheriff’s response area.

Webre thinks the low prices and apparent lack of oversight by management are to blame for that trend.

“It’s just a bad management model, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Problems outside of Baton Rouge

Moore, the district attorney, is reviewing calls to police from the Gwenadele Oyo in the past five years to see if the property should be declared a nuisance under Louisiana law, he said this week. Dwellings or businesses where a certain number of crimes occur, such as a violence-plagued LSU apartment complex, can face shut-down under the rule.

Patel’s properties aren’t the only ones with high calls for service — several budget hotels in Baton Rouge have similar problems. While Patel owns two Baton Rouge Oyos, there’s a third next door to his Gwenadele site called “Oyo Hotel midcity” that he does not own. That site, a former Days Inn at 10045 Gwenadele, was another top offender in the 2017 rankings.

Patel’s hotels outside of Baton Rouge get mixed reviews from law enforcement and customers.

“We have issues with all of our hotels — drug issues, prostitution issues,” said Major Zack Simmers of the West Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Department. “I’m not going to single out the Oyo.”

Webre, though, said his department fields calls from the Oyo Townhouses in Donaldsonville, a blue building just past the Sunshine Bridge on LA-70, more frequently than most other hotels in the area. Drug-related calls are frequent, he said. Once, deputies booked a hotel employee for theft after a vendor in town for a local gun and knife show reported some of his wares stolen. And last July, deputies were called to investigate a homicide caught on security footage that occurred in one of the Oyo’s hallways.

The homicide was a result of a fight between two people who had been previously banned from the hotel, Patel said.

Jeremy Rester, a travel construction worker who’s stayed at an Oyo on La. 1 in Port Allen for a few months, said the hotel was quiet and clean, and that he’d never seen crime happen there.

“This is not your 5-star hotel, but it’s not bad,” Rester said.

Patel is also partial owner of a second Port Allen Oyo on South Lobdell Highway, but a front desk clerk there assured visitors that it was nothing like the ones across the river.

A guest there, Felicia Franks, said she was worried about staying at the Oyo after hearing about the shooting in Baton Rouge, but added that she’d had no problems and enjoyed barbecuing by the pool with other guests.

“They don’t let the nonsense go on here,” she said.

Other hoteliers push for more oversight

Patel said he could use more help from the city-parish to curb crime at his properties. He said he recently asked BRPD to assign an extra-duty officer to the Gwenadele location and has been shopping around for security companies to monitor that property.

“I’m not saying there are no problems,” he said. “The problems are there. But at the same time, when I met with the authorities, I had to ask them for help.”

Other hotel operators in Baton Rouge say they supported the 2018 ordinance to change hotel licensing in East Baton Rouge Parish in hopes that hotel guests would have better experiences and the industry’s reputation as a whole would improve. The ordinance said that hotels and motels would have to be permitted through City Hall, and that permits could be revoked or suspended when a hotel “negatively impacts the health, safety and welfare of its guest.”

The ordinance encouraged hotel managers and staff to report crime to law enforcement, saying they would not be punished if the hotel staff reported crimes themselves.

But otherwise, hotels could be fined or even shut down for racking up three or more felony arrests for drug or prostitution incidents within 90 days. The law said hotels could lose their permits for having five or more calls to law enforcement within 30 laws reporting illegal activity on their property.

Hotel managers who say they’ve complied with the law say it’s unfair that others have not done the same.

Gary Jupiter, president of the Baton Rouge Lodging Association, said hotel owners should not turn a blind eye to what’s happening on their properties. But he said city officials need to step in as well.

“The city has to hold that owner or operator responsible,” Jupiter said. “The ordinance clearly states that after certain occurrences, you run the risk of losing your occupancy license. But if no one’s afraid of losing that licensing, it’s hard for that ordinance to carry the weight that it’s supposed to.”

Ben Blackwell, the board chairman for the Louisiana Hotel and Lodging Association, said it’s been frustrating to see the lack of accountability.

“That’s why we did this: so that everyone would be held to the same standards,” Blackwell said. “It’s very frustrating for the hotels that are not complying because we want to see a better lodging industry in Baton Rouge and in the state in general.”