by Mark Fearer * ( This article appeared in the Boulder Weekly on November 17, 1994.)
This is a story about intimidation, community, fear and affordable housing. We're talking mobile home park living.
Boulder's last refuge of unsubsidized affordable housing is home to both a different kind of community, and an increasing sense of frustration, fear and anger. Mobile home parks are neither parks nor are the homes very mobile - in fact, the preferred term, at least by the industry, is "manufactured housing." They are also home to a lot of working and retired people in the nether world ranging from low-income to middle-class.
Most people still don't think too fondly of mobile homes or the parks as a place they would want to live, despite an upgrade in image. Yet thousands in Boulder county do live there, and they often say there is a community feeling they can't find elsewhere. Many report friendly neighbors (even if they know just a few), and a pride in their own home.
But probably the most compelling reason is affordability, with prices for units ranging from $2000 for a used, smaller mobile home to $60,000 for a brand new 3 BR, 2 bath double wide unit with a full kitchen and a living room with vaulted ceilings.
However, owning a mobile home and paying a mortgage on it is not as stable as it might seem.
Many mobile home owners will tell you that one unique and often frustrating aspect about living in a mobile home is that residents own their own home, but rent the lot it sits on, making them both homeowner and renter. And, given the very low vacancy rate of area mobile home and the expense of moving the 'mobile' home (upwards of $1000), residents are a captive audience, with little choice in rules, policy or enforcement.
Additionally, park owners are often out-of-state corporations, which rarely ever see or talk with residents of the park.
Boulder county is home to over 20 parks, with nine of them in the city of Boulder (mostly north and northeast). A number of parks outside of Boulder (notably in Longmont and Lafayette) have also had their share of manager resident problems.
The largest three parks in the county which are in or near Boulder, seem to have the most troubled history of good relationships with their residents. The biggest , Boulder Meadows, with about 630 homes, has a number of residents reporting a high level of intimidation. Most of them interviewed for this story were too afraid of retribution from management, asking their real names not be used.
Homeowners say that selective enforcement of rules, general harassment, taking property, cutting down trees, and gentrification by eviction have all been used against them by management. Annual and unjustified rent increases are also a big worry for many, especially those on fixed incomes.
But on-site manager Charles Langston at Boulder Meadows, denies those charges, saying he runs a well kept park, and it's only a handful of people that are rocking the boat. He is an employee of Uniprop, a corporation that manages 40 other mobile home parks throughout the county.
Boulder Meadows is owned by a partnership in Michigan.
Probably the biggest concern residents voice is about a trend they see of management evicting older single-wide homes (usually 12 feet in width) and bringing in double-wide units (28 feet wide) that fetch higher lot rent. "It seems in the last year, this company has really pushed to get people out so they can get their new homes in," said Jaime Shuey, a Boulder Meadows resident and member of the park's small Residents Organization.
"Rebecca" agrees with Shuey. She said she sees a number of people leaving the park each month. "They're evicting people left and right in this park on trumped-up charges." At 67, Rebecca seems to be a victim of that trend herself. Although not being evicted, she had to move to another lot to make room for a larger mobile home. "I've been here in the park for 10 years, and I'm really disappointed in having to move, but they're going to get me out one way or another," she said.
Despite her situation, she says she's not intimidated. "I'm not afraid. I'm disappointed that I have to lose my nice lot near the bus, seeing the mountains...I'm too old to be afraid. I just don't want to go through the hassle of fighting something."
Several of Simons' friends were upset with how they saw management force a move on someone on a fixed income. "It was very, very heavy handed," said resident Deena Hauser.
When Simon's mobile home was moved, it took 4 weeks before she was able to move back into her home last month. She stayed with a friend during that time.
Many complain of false charges by management in trying to get people out of the park and Rebecca is one of them. Examples given include dents in the trailers, steps not painted, lawns not sufficiently mowed or watered, or having dogs that are too big. "They looked very hard for things to trump up against me, so they couldn't find it, and they gave up, and then offered me this deal." The deal was that they will pay her moving costs (approximately $1000).
Concerning Rebecca, Langston sees it differently. Although he did admits moving in a larger mobile home on her former lot was "part of our motivation," he also claimed "she didn't have to move. I can't force her to move under the state law." That law says that a trailer cannot be evicted from the park simply to make room for another trailer, but is unclear about moving it elsewhere in the park.
He said Uniprop was already subsidizing her rent, "simply because we're nice people - can you believe that?" And because Uniprop wants to charge market prices for her lot, they gave her the choice: move to a substantially smaller lot, or lose the $44 month subsidy they had been giving her. She is on a fixed income, and said she couldn't afford the rent raise.
Jeff Long didn't get that choice, as he recently watched workers prepare his trailer for eviction. He had been cited for dents in his trailer and a mess in his driveway and yard. Although Long said the mess was only there for two days, he admitted "I'd rather not fight it, get out of here, and not have to deal with these people anymore." But he still says "I'm being evicted so they can move these newer homes into the park."
Jeff's wife Pam agreed, noting that a nearby newer home, had "broken screens, a torn down water bed on their porch for well over a month, their lawn is all weeds and not mowed - but they weren't served an eviction notice. Theirs is a newer home that was sold to them by Uniprop."
She was also the third women to note, in talking with other women in the park, that "he's cordial to the husband, but not to the wife."
Jeff Long said he had another place to move in, but he didn't know what he could do with the trailer. But he seemed more concerned about his neighbors, now that he's gone. "They're worried everyday that they're going to come home and find an eviction notice on their door, like I did," he observed. Several homeowners say they've seen 15-20 evictions per month in the park. Langston said 25 eviction notices per month for non-payment or rule violations are not unusual, although not all will result in people leaving the park. Last month, 12 were actually evicted, five for non-payment, and seven for rule violations. Other area mobile home parks don't report that high a turn over.
"Tom", who knows Long and lives in the park, was disgusted with what had happened to his friend - and fears he could easily find an eviction notice slapped on his door. "I can't believe they evicted Jeff - he has three kids, and they gave him a month to move out." He vocalizes what a number of his neighbors have told him. "I hate using the word Gestapo, but that's the way I feel, the way the tactics are used here. Everybody hides from Charles, because he goes around writing things down, sending letters."
Tom himself has a dog, as did Long, and because it's over 15 inches in height (the maximum allowed by the rules), he faces the possibility of eviction. But he said many other people have dogs that violated the rules - perhaps half the park. He also felt moving older homes out was standard procedure.
"If residents are not being treated equally, they should tell us and we'll take a look at it," said Ron Bunce, Uniprop's vice-president in Denver. "I welcome those comments." He added that the policy of evictions "is not that selective - it's based on the covenants (rules)."
Both Bunce and Langston say they are trying to upgrade the image, but deny evicting people who don't deserve it. "Older homes are not welcome into the community - we don't let them in, that's true," said Langston. "But the ones that are here are protected by state laws. I don't think there's a real good understanding among people that have these concerns, (which have been) expressed to me. The lease is good as long as you pay the rent and obey the rules. We can't terminate the lease out of some desire on our part. I promise we don't manufacture causes - it wouldn't be right."
"I don't believe that," Meadows resident Dena Hauser bluntly said. "By harassment, they can get someone to leave who hasn't paid rent or some minor rule violation. I've seen many lots empty," she said. Hauser, who works with homeless people (some whom have been evicted) and need emergency shelter, feels the lack of self-esteem that here clients face is very present at Boulder Meadows. Although she hasn't faced harassment herself, she says the mangers are "getting away with a lucrative game, and they're going to continue because no one has challenged them."
"I think it's obvious that certain people are targeted," agreed Jaime Shuey. She said that "People they think they can harass, who don't know their rights" are main targets. She cited some examples she has seen of notices given to people to paint their trailer or fix steps, that was not followed up on, and others who are "harassed daily if they don't comply."
"Paul" who not only lived in Boulder Meadows but also worked with management, saw some things he said "weren't my ethics." Although he didn't see the harassment first hand, he heard from other residents that "they would pick on one house, typically an older house, and harass them until they get them out. I was aware of their desire to get rid of the older homes to bring in new ones. That's the way upper management felt. I don't think it's Charles himself that feels that, but it's up above him."
Additionally, Paul along with a number of others currently or formerly in the park, questioned how the wife of the manager could also be the realtor who sells new mobile homes to only incoming residents. "It's a conflict , because you've got the husband as management, and the wife as sales. I don't think that they can separate the two of them and not have it get twisted once in awhile."
Neither Bunce nor Langston saw a problem with the current arrangement. "Where's the conflict of interest?" asked Langston. "We can't legally restrict it to (my wife) Juliette's customers. I wish we could, but we can't." He said homeowners can and do buy from any dealer.
Someone else who used to work with management and didn't want to be identified said "It should be obvious to anyone who's aware of the situation," that people are evicted to make room for new units. He added, "They have an elitist attitude - I heard this from a lot of people in the park. It felt like he was trying to clean out the poorer elements."
Again, Langston denied that, saying, "I have no instructions about age of homes - that has never been brought up by Uniprop. Their focus is not on the old homes, but the raggedy ones - where there are long standing, persistent covenant violations - people that will not or can not maintain their homes to the minimum community standards, whether old or new."
And then there's the "sweeps" or clean-ups by management, in order to keep park appearances up. Last November, Uniprop ordered the first one in at least 15 years. "They came on to people's lots and took all kinds of things - ladders, paints, wheelbarrows, picnic tables, bicycles," said Jaime Shuey. " The only things they say you can have on your lot is a BBQ grill, and lawn furniture - their definition of lawn furniture." Management employees moved a number of items to the curb for hauling. Many residents were able to rescue their belongings, but a number lost possessions to scavengers and haulers.
"It was a mindless thing - and very manipulative - it had the entire mobile home up in arms," said Suzanne Claire, who was lucky and only had some cuttings taken from under her porch.
After a very vocal and negative response from residents, management issued a written apology, and Langston said several people were compensated for things they lost in the sweeps. The sweep in April of this year seemed to attract less animosity, and the one last month seemed to have gone unnoticed.
Almost all former and current residents interviewed talked about a pervasive fear throughout the park - either of harassment or eviction. But Bunce said, "I'm not aware of it. I don't hear that. In fact, just the opposite - there are several residents who are very happy about things that are going on there. I wonder why they feel that way (fearful). We're not treating people any different from others in the community."
Boulder Meadows certainly doesn't have a monopoly on those kinds of complaints. San Lazaro Mobile Home Park lies just outside the city limits of Boulder, at Valmont and 55th. It's unwelcome neighbor to the west is the egg farm, which often makes for nasty stench. But residents seemed to have more problems with management, living in an atmosphere of fear until recently.
"People were treated like scum or trailer trash," said Patty Schindler of the management's past attitude. Harassment was used in the form of notices about cars or lawns, and "the rules weren't applied fairly."
But then mediation was set up between the owners of the park and residents. "There's been a big change in attitude now," reports Schindler, and for the better. The harassment has disappeared, and "they're improving general landscaping for the first time, and we have more playground equipment and the pool is better maintained."
She said there are still room for improvement, but management is more responsive. Comparing it with Boulder Meadows, she reflected, "When I hear about what the other parks are going through, I think, it wasn't that bad here. Nobody ever came on to people's property and hauled stuff off."
Vista Village Mobile Home Park, near the municipal airport, has seen it's share of problems between residents and management. Homeowner complaints mirror the other parks: selective and unreasonable enforcement of rules, harassment, eviction threats and rent increases. "We had two absolutely horrendous managers - she made it a very paranoid experience for those of us who were interested in starting an association," recalled Aziza Scarpelli. "The whole park is based on the notion of divide and conquer. They don't want you to organize." A new set of managers started there several months ago, so residents are taking a wait and see attitude.
Throughout the county, mobile home parks are no stranger to controversy. For at least the last 20 years, residents have been organizing against unjustified rent increases, unreasonable rules, and "general tyranny", as one Lafayette resident described it. Sometimes they organized a homeowners association to deal with it, although the existing laws almost always favor park owners. Now, for the first time, residents from different parks are being organized by the Boulder County Community Action Program (CAP).
CAP originally started helping mobile home residents two years ago, when San Lazaro residents asked them for help, and they responded by involving the city's mediation program. Since then, they have aided residents in Boulder Meadows, Vista Village and San Lazaro, and have found issues repeating themselves. Esperanza Ybarra, a program specialist with CAP, was hired specifically to help organize mobile homes, and saw variations on a theme. She listed as examples, "rent increases, relationships with management, a lot of the same sort of harassment issues, and eviction notices. And residents didn't really understand what their rights were. All the rules and regulations were enforced arbitrarily, leading to what residents felt were unfair practices. They were afraid there would be a backlash if they spoke up or took action about it."
CAP worked with residents, managers and owners fairly successfully, although not always. "In one of the mobile homes that we got involved with after San Lazaro, there was definitely a lot of tension about us being there, by management - it made them nervous and uneasy," recalled CAP's Janet Heimler, who has seen quite a few mobile home meetings.
What does CAP hope to accomplish? "We decided a more effective way to working with these communities was to bring them together, for the purpose of working on those issues collectively, so we could help them establish greater organization, a stronger voice, and help build support between the parks, since issues are the same. For the most part, people don't tend to talk to others in other mobile homes."
Boulder is certainly not alone with problems: mobile homes all over the state report similar issues. Colorado Senator Jana Mendez from Boulder has pushed, unsuccessfully, at the state level for laws that would protect residents from abuses. Her parents live in a mobile home, and has seen where "residents are not treated like customers anymore, they're treated like captives. Some park owners are wonderful, but there is a problem with so many being owned by out-of-state owners, where there's a detachment with what's going on."
One bill she is still pushing for "would allow residents first right of refusal, for when their park is being sold." She believes that residents would be better served if they could cooperatively own their own park.
One city official who has worked on this issue but didn't want to be named, said "These owners sometimes think they have a right to whatever they want, regardless of the impact on people. I think it's immoral."
Uniprop's Ron Bunce summed up how he saw the big picture with mobile home parks. "Manufactured housing has grown into a respected investment vehicle and industry, and it's going through a lot of growing pains. You need to take it as a whole, and not single out how 6-7 residents feel, that you talked to."
Meadows resident Sam Fuqua sees it differently. "Uniprop exists to make money off their investments. It's logical for them to charge what the market will bear, and to target higher income level tenants. But when your business is where people live, their homes, you have to take other things into consideration then just the bottom line. To me, the bigger problem goes beyond any individual park - it's the fundamentally unequal relationship between management and mobile home owner."
Boulder Meadows Sidebar
Joe Petty and his family are living in an RV these days, parked in his sister's driveway, and they may be there for the rest of the winter. When Petty was evicted from lot #422 in Boulder Meadows late this summer, it had been the culmination of over a dozen threats of eviction.
He moved there two years ago to help take care of his father who had just suffered a stroke. His father is better now, which is good, since Petty said, "I'll never live like that again- I call it Little Russia."
All residents get a 10-page booklet or rules ("Covenants"), listing over 100 regulations. That's where Petty officially got on the bad side of mangement.
He listed some of the reasons on the separate Notices to Quit: shoes on his porch, bikes leaning up against the porch, a hose not coiled on his lawn and taking too many neighborhood kids to the pool. He said he was also told to leave becuase of a cracked window (which he said he fixed two months before that ) ; paint his mobile home (which had been painted two years before), and fix steps that were newly rebuilt. Additionally, he was given an eviction notice for not watering his lawn (his neighbors felt he had one of the best lawns in the neighborhood.)
He admits to having some tires in this back yard and doing some discounted car work for some elderly park residents, ("commercial enterprise" is prohibited) - both causes for eviction. But when he pointed out to park manager Charles Langston that many others were doing the same things he said he was told to mind his own business.
Although Langston said most residents like living in Boulder Meadows, Petty said, "That's a laugh." When he had a yard sale, he talked to almost 100 of his neighbors: 75% of them were "not happy with Charles at all- they want to string him up."
Petty also has strong suspicions about the real motivation behind his eviction. A month before he got a summons to appear in court for the eviction, a woman came over, looking at his lot. When he asked her what she was doing, she said she had a new double-wide home, and was told by management that he was moving - which he had no plans to do. Several days later, he got his latest eviction notice, which like a fireworks finale, listed all the previous reasons given to him on past notices, even though he said thay were either made up or dealt with.
A few days before his court date, a man approached him to buy his mobile home. Because he was told by Langston that he couldn't sell his home, Petty ended up trading his home for the RV he now lives in. "They kept hasseling and hasseling me. I was starting to lose sleep over, and decided it wasn't worth it."
* Mark Fearer was the Director of the Boulder Tenants Union from 1981-1986. He now writes for local and national publications.
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