New state law brings hope to Colorado mobile home residents
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.
One park manager said a resident she was trying to evict came to her home and stabbed her husband. Another said it took him a month and a half to evict a convicted drug dealer who threatened another resident.
A few short months after the law took effect, some of its effects are apparent.
A key part of the law gives residents 10 days — double what they had before — to pay late rent before eviction proceedings can begin. And it is preventing evictions, according to Aimee Bove, an attorney who represents 20 mobile-home parks along the Front Range and in the mountains.
Bove estimates evictions are down 35% in the parks she represents since that part of the law took effect May 1.
But Bove has concerns about other parts of the law, saying too much regulation could cripple park owners’ incentives to run them and entice them to sell their property to developers. Another part of the law gives homeowners 30 days to move after an eviction.
The point of that delay was to give homeowners time to figure out whether to sell their home or move it to a new spot, instead of walking away from their equity. But it could mean that residents stay in their home for up to two months without paying rent — because it typically takes one month for a judge to sign an order of possession, and then the resident has 30 days before a sheriff can remove them. The resident could use the savings of not paying rent for two months to move to a new place.
“For people who have been unable to pay their rent, they may see this as a carrot,” she said. They might not realize what an eviction does to their rental history, and that “it’s a very quick slip to homelessness.”
Bove said the mobile-home industry was blindsided by the legislation last spring and fought for its place in the discussion. It shouldn’t have to feel like a resident-versus-park-owner battle, she said. Bove is advocating for a return to the legislation next year, with more input from both sides.
“It does not need to be a war,” she said. “In the end, it’s a community where people live. With our tightening of housing here in Denver, these are important conversations to have.”
LAW MODELED AFTER WASHINGTON STATE
Sponsors based House Bill 1309 on similar legislation passed four years ago in Washington state that also gave parties recourse for resolution outside of the courts. With passage of that law, complaints spiked the first year, then fell off dramatically.
“Washington’s interpretation of this is, with the enforcement in place, the law is being followed by everyone,” Hooton says. “They had complaints filed by park owners, too. There are plenty of opportunities for park owners to have complaints. But for a homeowner, if they have a complaint, their only option was the court. And they don’t have the money to do that.”
Proponents hope Colorado will see similar results when the dispute resolution program is up and running in May. But so far, advocates for mobile home owners seem to temper their expectations for the impact of the new law.
“I’d like to be optimistic,” said Dorie Glover, a resident of a Boulder mobile-home park. “I don’t think it’s ever going to be easy. But maybe, even if park owners will just hesitate, just think twice. I guess the most vulnerable will continue to be exploited. But those of us who could fight back, even a little, will be emboldened, I think. I hope.”
Dickens, who helped start the political ball rolling in Colorado, figures that House Bill 1309 is a good “first step,” but sees continued engagement by homeowners as key to further success.
“Homeowners are more sophisticated than they were in inviting legislators to candidate forums, but it’s still pretty hit or miss in parts of Colorado,” she said. “Only so many (candidates) are sympathetic to their situation. I like to think things are turning around, but it depends on who’s in power at a certain time. There’s not a groundswell across the political spectrum. Homeowners have to use their vote.”
And Froelich, whose constituent gathering at the Sheridan Library opened her eyes further to the issues in play with mobile-home parks, sounded pleased with the progress so far but certainly not satisfied.
“I think it’s on a trajectory, a good trajectory, with implementation still a ways out,” she said. “I’m optimistic, but we’re not there yet. We’ll be tweaking, especially after hearing dozens more questions and just the stories of raised rents and what that does to people on fixed incomes.”
One of her constituents who watched the meeting with interest, 75-year-old Charlene Moore, offers an instructive account that underscores the importance of a balance of power — and perhaps cause for optimism over the dispute-resolution program — when it comes to homeowner-park manager conflicts.
She has lived with her husband, Al, in a custom-built, 1968 double-wide for more than 30 years and through, by her count, five park management teams. She also said she has fended off what she describes as multiple eviction threats.
Moore claims park management has threatened to kick her out while taking issue with a small hairdressing salon that she opened in the early ’90s — with the park’s permission, she notes — in a back room of her home. When this happened, she phoned a lawyer.
“We couldn’t afford it, but we got him and we’re glad we did,” Charlene said. “We probably would have been bullied out of here several times over.”
The attorney, Rick Watrous, notes that once he made contact with the park’s attorneys, any issues were resolved quickly without going to court.
“Once they knew she wasn’t going to roll over and go away, we were always able to resolve the problem,” he said. “There is at least somewhat of a sense that these residents are less financially able and can be bullied.
“Obviously, Charlene couldn’t be.”