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Fish Creek Mobile Home Park next to the Yampa River and bike path. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

New rules have begun to take shape to help Colorado mobile home owners at odds with their park-owning landlords, with the first phase outlining thousands of dollars in potential fines for parks that violate the law and providing protection for home owners from landlord retaliation.

The rules, part of last year’s revamp of the Mobile Home Parks Act, will provide the framework for a new dispute resolution process that will allow mobile home owners to seek remedies through a state-run program for issues that previously would have required them to rely on the legal system — often an option they couldn’t afford.

House Bill 1309, passed last year, provided the first mechanism for enforcement of mobile home park laws that have been in place since 1985 and restored a sense of balance within Colorado’s largest inventory of unsubsidized, affordable housing. In the vast majority of cases, residents own their mobile homes but pay lot rent to park owners. 

That arrangement, coupled with the reality that it’s often prohibitively expensive or logistically difficult to actually move the homes, has meant that park owners held leverage over residents to comply with whatever regulations and fees they sought to impose.

But the new legislation has finally added some teeth to the old law and extended the time mobile home owners have to comply with eviction orders. It also allows counties to adopt and enforce rules for safe and equitable operation of parks in unincorporated areas.

“We’re super excited about the program,” said Cesiah Guadarrama, lead housing organizer for the advocacy group 9to5 Colorado. “We think it’ll help enforce the law that was already there and be a great resource to a lot of mobile home owners across the state. It’s reasonable, and the piece about retaliation is super important to make sure folks feel comfortable using the program.”

READ MORE: The Colorado Sun, with media partners across the state, produced a project taking a deep look at mobile homes and their place in Colorado’s housing picture. Read Parked: Half the American Dream.

Provisions in the rules to guard against park-owner retaliation outline 10 areas that residents repeatedly have raised — everything from arbitrary rent increases and new fees to unjustified threats of eviction to surveillance targeting a resident who files a complaint. 

Another area clarified by the new rules: trees. Maintenance of those growing on rented property has been a point of conflict, particularly when park owners have ordered residents to pay for it. Now, unless a resident agrees otherwise, trees are presumed to be the responsibility of the landlord unless they were planted by the mobile home owner.

The rules also establish fines to cover various infractions by park owners, from failing to register or renew registration on time (up to $3,000 for first offense, up to $5,000 for the third) to failing to comply with the state’s final order stemming from a violation (same scale, but the fines accumulate per day that the landlord is out of compliance).

Fines for retaliation against a mobile home owner range from $5,000 to $10,000.

A second round of rulemaking begins on Friday and will involve more stakeholder meetings across the state to further define the process before the dispute resolution and enforcement program, which operates under the state Department of Local Affairs’ Division of Housing, opens for business on May 1.

“People are anxious to get going, to have complaints investigated and mediated,” said state Rep. Edie Hooton, a Boulder Democrat who spearheaded the legislation. “But that takes time to get the process in place. We have to talk to a lot of people about rules and what they look like before setting them in place. Admirably, it’s been a very thorough process.”

Once the program begins taking complaints, it’s expected to be deluged, based on the experience of a similar program in Washington state that provided a road map for the Colorado effort. But after the process has been in place for a year or so, complaints tend to drop off.

The state also is working toward its Feb. 1 deadline for all parks to be registered.

DOLA program manager Mo Miskell notes that while the registration window opened Jan. 2, he hopes that one month will be enough time for all parks that meet the requirements to sign up and pay their registration fees. He and two staffers sent registration packets to 1,025 landlords, and he acknowledges there might be some glitches on the first go-round.

“We’re on an aggressive timeline and doing the best we can,” he said. “We’re going to hit the deadlines, but it won’t be as clean as if we had more time.”

The biggest challenge: Determining whether some properties actually meet the definition of a mobile home park. 

“We have statutory requirements, and we try to clarify it in the rules, but there are amazingly interesting hybrids out there,” Miskell said. “That’s where we’re spending a lot of time, discussing with parks whether they need to register or not.”

The statutory definition of mobile home parks does not include a property that rents space to camper trailers and other recreational vehicles unless it also rents space to five or more occupied structures that meet the law’s definition of mobile homes.

Although the industry began referring to these as “manufactured homes” in the mid-1970s, the law continues to call them mobile homes.

“It’s amazing,” Miskell said. “People get very creative with housing. They come up with all sorts of mechanisms that I don’t think were considered when the Mobile Home Parks Act was written and became law in 1985. It will be interesting to see if the definition evolves at some point.” 

Initially, each mobile home park will be charged a registration fee of $24 per unit. Park owners may pass along half that cost to the home owners. But whether the income from that fee will cover costs of the program remains to be seen, and the amount could be adjusted accordingly.

In this Aug. 30th 2019 photo shows residents of Lamplighter Village, a manufactured and mobile home park, spending time outdoors in their community in Federal Heights, Colo. 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.(Kathryn Scott/The Colorado Sun)

“We can fine tune with actual (numbers) as the program comes into place,” Miskell said. “We’ll go through that every year. The first year is the hardest, because it’s an educated guess. If we get a lot more complaints than anticipated, that’s an issue. If we get into a lot of litigation, and our legal fees go up, that could also have an impact.” 

It’s also difficult to predict how quickly complaints might be resolved. Miskell noted that right now, there are two staffers plus him to handle the workflow. The program will gain two more staffers, but not until the new fiscal year begins in July.                                  

“We’ll be acknowledging receipt of complaints in a timely way,” he said, “but it takes time to get through a complaint. We’ll also be prioritizing depending on what the complaints are. People have been sitting on issues they’d like to have addressed. At this point in time, it is challenging to come up with a time frame that works for everybody, since it’s unknown what we’ll see.”

The second round of rulemaking could streamline the process somewhat if it includes provisions for multiple residents with the same complaint against the same park owner to file as a group, rather than as individuals. 9to5 Colorado’s Guadarrama said that her organization will continue to hold training to familiarize homeowners with the details of House Bill 1309 and offer tools to help residents use the dispute resolution program.

“For a couple years now, 9to5 was the ‘mobile home hotline,’” she said with a laugh. “People would call us and say, ‘We heard you were organizing, can you help us?’ As an organizer, I expect folks to call us and we’ll make sure they feel comfortable using it.”

Guadarrama added that the rollout of the program has gone exceptionally well, with the stakeholder meetings in several counties allowing residents ample input — including by phone hookup to the events.

Jack Regenbogen, senior attorney with the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, which advocates for low-income residents, also gave the initial steps of the new law high marks so far.

“I’m definitely very happy with the implementation of 1309,” Regenbogen said. “If I had to characterize it, I’d say I’m happy but also will continue working on the issue. The law is still decades old, and things need to be refined.”

Those refinements already are in the works. Although House Bill 1309 marked major changes in the dynamics between park owners and mobile home owners, more legislation will soon be in the pipeline to continue the overhaul. 

Hooton notes that two bills currently are in the drafting stage: One would allow residents the opportunity to buy the park where they live; another continues to update the Mobile Home Parks Act, with a focus on issues such as utility billing, fees and landlord retaliation — items left out of last year’s legislation due to concerns that House BIll 1309 would become too unwieldy.

The first bill would give mobile home owners 90 days, once a park goes up for sale, to determine whether they want to make an offer. It would require 51% of residents to sign on. Hooton said she’ll be meeting with park owners to share language in the bill and get their feedback before finalizing a draft by Jan. 29.

The bills would be introduced simultaneously in the House. The update to the Mobile Home Park Act will have the same sponsors as last year’s legislation — Democratic Reps. Julie McCluskie and Hooton, plus Sens. Steve Fenberg and Pete Lee. The opportunity-to-purchase bill will be sponsored by Reps. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez and Hooton, with Sens. Dominick Moreno and Joann Ginal.

“We’ve been working on this since the governor signed 1309 last year,” Hooton said, “so everyone’s pretty well-versed on them.”

Kevin Simpson is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a general assignment writer and editor. He also oversees the Sun’s literary feature, SunLit, and the site’s cartoonists. A St. Louis native and graduate of the University of Missouri’s...