Parked: New state law brings hope to Colorado’s mobile home residents

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Parked-Half the American Dream3

In this Aug. 30, 2019 photo shows residents of Lamplighter Village, a manufactured and mobile home park, spending time outdoors in their community in Federal Heights, Colorado. Across Colorado, where the housing crisis impacts both rural and urban towns, the strife between mobile home park residents and park owners approaches a boiling point. The business model -- in which homeowners pay lot rent to park their houses on someone else’s land -- capitalizes on the immobility and economic fragility of tenants who often can’t afford to move or live anywhere else.

“There was a convergence.” Politics, a housing crisis and activism produced a long-awaited sign of hope for mobile-home owners.

On a late-August Sunday afternoon, state Rep. Meg Froelich readied the meeting room at the Sheridan Library for a town hall with constituents. There was one item on the agenda: a recently enacted law designed to give mobile-home owners more protections and a way to handle disputes with the managers and park owners who control the land beneath them.

As she tended to cookies and lemonade, the stream of local residents quickly filled a few rows of folding chairs. And they kept coming. Froelich and others scrambled to set up more seats to accommodate a crowd that topped 60 residents from the handful of mobile-home parks in her district.

Why the big turnout? The 34-year-old Mobile Home Park Act had finally cut some enforcement teeth, and residents wanted to learn more about changes to the law laying out rights and responsibilities of homeowners and park owners, which critics say has been ineffective in curbing decades of abuses by park owners.

Froelich, a Democrat whose district encompasses both Sheridan and Englewood, which contain several parks, as well as upscale Cherry Hills and Greenwood Village, has known frustration in trying to bring out residents for town halls. But this effort to explain the new law and hear feedback touched a nerve.

“I could send a thousand postcards into a neighborhood, and they wouldn’t generate one person,” she said of her previous experience trying to bring out constituents. “This was just amazing, the number of people interested in finding out what’s going on. It put a very local face on the issue.”

That issue — the often-contentious relationship and power imbalance in mobile-home parks — has gained national attention amid an affordable housing crisis. More than 100,000 people live in more than 900 parks across Colorado, helping to fuel an industry that’s increasingly consolidated by investors eager to reap the benefits of a business model whose dynamics have largely favored park ownership.

And while for years Colorado has been among the vast majority of states where park residents have few protections, the 2019 legislative session began to change that. Aided by Democratic control of both chambers and the governor’s office, lawmakers pushed through House Bill 1309, which gives residents a little more breathing room to address eviction proceedings and also provides a mechanism to respond to grievances without the expense of taking matters to court.

Froelich brought Rep. Edie Hooton, the Boulder Democrat who sponsored the bill, and Cesiah Guadarrama Trejo, from the nonprofit 9to5 Colorado, to walk the residents through the primary features of the bill — some of which already are in effect, while some will kick in by May 2020:

  • Extends the time a homeowner has to move or sell a mobile home after an eviction order to 30 to 60 days from the current 48 hours.
  • Allows counties to adopt and enforce rules for safe and equitable operation of parks in unincorporated areas.
  • Creates a database of mobile-home parks with five or more homeowners, plus their locations and ownership information. It also collects a registration fee from the parks.
  • And perhaps most significantly, creates a dispute resolution and enforcement program that starting May 1, 2020, can receive, process and adjudicate complaints concerning violations of the Mobile Home Park Act. The program also collects and annually reports data generated by disputes and violations.

Residents took in the presentation, posed questions and proffered opinions — the strongest of these maintaining that rents are still too high, especially for those on fixed incomes. But they also expressed gratitude that politicians finally seemed to be doing something about a long-festering problem.

The passage of House Bill 1309, regarded as only a “first step” by affordable housing advocates, reflected a shift that has been four years in the making.

Boulder led the way to protect “vulnerable families”

Mobile homes, and the parks that contain many of them, stretch all across the state. But this type of affordable housing has been watched with particular interest in Boulder, where both the city and county have sought measures to protect and maintain mobile-home parks.

It was here that Seattle attorney Ishbel Dickens, former executive director of the National Manufactured Home Owners Association, responded to a request for proposals to help local mobile-home parks. Over the course of more than two years, she helped local communities organize and work to pass helpful city ordinances.

A group of Boulder homeowners grew into the statewide Colorado Coalition of Manufactured Homeowners, which set its sights on legislative reform, “because state law is very biased in favor of landlords, and weak for homeowners,” Dickens said.

“It was suggested that we get some kind of tangible report to the legislature that would help illustrate the issue,” she added. “‘He said, she said’ isn’t going to work. We wanted to show that there were significant problems that homeowners were facing, that landlords without any regulation could run rampant over powerless, vulnerable families and get away with quite a bit.”

So the group filed a “sunrise review application” with the state Department of Regulatory Agencies, proposing that mobile home park owners and managers be licensed. As part of the application, the coalition needed to give specific, verifiable examples of the harm that resulted from the actions of park owners and manager. To protect the homeowners, the application did not immediately reveal individuals’ names or the names of the parks where they lived, but it did list a wide array of allegations, including:

  • Retaliation: “Comply or vacate” notices for trivial and sometimes nonexistent rules would be issued, sometimes against homeowners who had testified publicly about park conditions.
  • Threat of eviction by posting “quit or cure” notices that sometimes, especially in cases where the homeowner was hampered by a language barrier, resulted in the homeowner simply selling the mobile home at a loss to avoid dealing with the issue.
  • Improperly passing of responsibility for maintenance and repair to homeowners, or doing the work and then billing the homeowner for it.
  • Trespassing on homeowners’ property and harassing homeowners, especially those without good English-language skills, by telling them it’s against the law or park rules, to join the park’s homeowners association.
  • Predatory towing of vehicles without notice.
  • Unexpected charging of fees without discernible improvement in the property.

After investigating the allegations, and hearing many more complaints during site visits, from witnesses who submitted testimony by writing and in media reports, DORA last year offered its findings, which read, in part:

“Clearly, harm is occurring in manufactured housing communities. Those instances of harm are not due to a lack of professional competence among manufactured housing community owners and managers. The harm largely stems from the lack of enforcement of existing laws, bad actors exploiting a relatively loose regulatory structure, and the inevitable tension that arises when the house belongs to one person but the land beneath it belongs to someone else.”

DORA found that, despite the obvious harm to homeowners, regulating park owners and managers wasn’t likely to fix the problem. Nonetheless, the findings of harm vividly illustrated the issue, as Dickens had been told it would. Those findings, coupled with the ongoing affordable housing crunch and the 2018 elections in which Democrats assumed majorities in both legislative chambers (while Democrat Jared Polis won the governor’s office) set the stage for a bill to address some of the issues that dogged homeowners.

That became House Bill 1309.

“There was a convergence,” Rep. Hooton said. “The impetus was there for a long time, but now the political makeup of the chamber of the legislature has changed to make this more possible. ... This sunrise report helped define clearly at least the first thing that needed to be done, and that was to have an enforcement provisions for Mobile Home Park Act passed in 1985 — and never enforced.”

New law already reducing evictions 

But before the bill passed, it went through a long, bruising committee hearing in which testimony unfolded at the Capitol while a snowstorm slowly shut down the city. Although the testimony in past years would have been little more than a prelude to such a bill’s defeat, this year the political winds favored its proponents — even when taking on traditionally powerful lobbies.

“There’s been a big shift at the Capitol now, because some industries have never had to negotiate on anything,” Hooton said. “Any attempt to negotiate would be scoffed at or they’d bring down the hammer. Certain industries have just been able to shut everything down.”

She includes owners of mobile-home parks among the untouchables. The measure would end up passing in the House with no Republican support. But Hooton and others were gratified when six Republicans in the Senate crossed the aisle to vote for the measure, making it at least nominally bipartisan.

Confusion over rights and responsibilities abounds, on both sides, and it was obvious during statehouse testimony.

Residents fear park owners can toss them out within days, even though an eviction requires a judge’s order — and that usually takes several weeks. Park managers testified they fear for their lives when they evict a problem homeowner, unaware of a provision in the law that allows for a 10-day eviction when a dangerous person or vicious dog is involved.

In general, homeowners are required by their leases to keep up their home exteriors and yards, including the skirting along the bottom of the home designed to keep rodents from nesting underneath. The interior of the home is their business.

What’s murky territory is landscaping — the park owner is responsible for major landscape projects, but does that include tree removal? Depends on whom you ask.

Testimony lasted for hours, as one resident after the next — some speaking in Spanish with translators — detailed the times they were threatened with eviction if they didn’t make requested improvements. Attorneys representing residents said park managers are often trying to see what they can “get away with.”

Attorney Jason Legg, who works with 9to5 Colorado, testified that one of his first cases involving a mobile home park resident centered on a water fee of a few hundred dollars tacked onto a rent bill.

“As soon as I started asking questions, it was withdrawn,” Legg said. “There was no there, there. It was completely illegitimate. It was just a pass to see if they could bring in additional revenue.”

On the flipside, park managers lined up to tell lawmakers they were opposed to the legislation. Most park managers go out of their way to keep residents in their homes, they said, and it typically takes 30 to 90 days to get an eviction through the court system anyway.

 Parked: Half the American Dream

This project is the result of an ambitious, first-of-its-kind collaboration between the Montrose Daily Press, The Colorado Sun and more than a dozen Colorado news organizations. Newspaper, online, radio, TV and wire service journalists fanned out across the state to focus on the evolving landscape for mobile homes — Colorado’s largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing. Among the findings:

  • More than 100,000 people live in more than 900 mobile home parks across Colorado. But the number of parks is declining and ownership is consolidating as mom-and-pop operations sell out to large investors, sometimes leading to displacement and redevelopment.
  • In Adams County, which has the state’s largest concentration of mobile homes, the number of both homes and parks has dropped to 11,300 homes in 66 parks today, from more than 13,000 mobile homes in 71 parks 20 years ago, according to assessor records.
  • About a third of Weld County’s mobile homes were built from 1960 to 1979, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That means many homes don’t meet modern safety standards. Some homes continue to have aluminum wiring, which increases the fire hazard.
  • About 1,300 households live in 45 mobile home parks across La Plata County, and residents in the Durango area say they have seen lot rents increase by 50% to 100% in parks owned by corporations.
  • The 2013 floods continue to reverberate for many mobile home residents in northern Colorado. In just three communities — Lyons, Evans and Milliken — researchers tracked the destruction of 273 mobile homes, most of which were not rebuilt or replaced because parks failed to reopen.
  • Aspen first took steps in the early 1980s to preserve a mobile home park in the middle of town that still exists today as a cherished affordable housing neighborhood. Pitkin County has since bought or helped preserve four more mobile home parks in the upper Roaring Fork Valley for affordable housing.
  • In Telluride, the last nearby mobile home park — in unincorporated San Miguel County — closed in the early 1990s.
  • In Ouray, one woman discovered how her investment in a single-wide for her aging mother quickly turned into a near-total loss for her as a result of park rules that demanded the unit be moved if it changed hands.
  • In Steamboat Springs, developers had designs on the attractive real estate where a mobile home park sat, but once residents moved and the recession hit, the land remained vacant for years. And in the last decade, the number of mobile home units in Routt County has been reduced nearly by half.
  • Not far from Greeley, the Hill-N-Park community provided a low-cost option where you could invest in a mobile home and actually own the land beneath it. But now, the once-promising place feels abandoned by Weld County officials, “like the red-headed stepchild,” in the words of one resident.
  • The Aspens Mobile Home Village in Avon is home for many workers in the hospitality, service and construction industries — an economic necessity in a notoriously pricey area. It’s also a home-away-from-home for the many immigrants who fill those jobs.
  • More than a year ago,  Aurora seemed poised to become a national model with its moratorium on redeveloping mobile home parks. But since then it has struggled like many areas to address parks’ role in providing affordable housing.
  • Even Durango’s middle class is finding mobile homes — the “affordable” option — too pricey in a town where the median home goes for $500,000. So they’re moving.
  • In Fort Collins, the city council has put a moratorium on redevelopment of mobile home parks until August 2020. The city is considering increasing the current six months’ notice for redevelopment of a mobile home park and giving residents or nonprofits the option to buy the land if it goes up for sale.
  • An Adams County mobile home park is among the latest to shut down due to redevelopment. The Crestville Mobile Home Park, near Federal Boulevard and West 56th Avenue, is filled with abandoned homes and at times, neighbors say, animals and vagrants. The owner would not say what's next for the property.

Contributors to this project include: The Aspen Times, Associated Press, Aurora Sentinel, Colorado Sun, Colorado Independent, Cortez Journal, Delta County Independent, Durango Herald, Fort Collins Coloradoan, Fox 31-KDVR, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Greeley Tribune, KUNC, Montrose Daily Press, Ouray County Plaindealer and Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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