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Coronavirus dampens debut of program to give mobile home owners a fighting chance in disputes

A centerpiece of lawmakers’ 2019 push to challenge abusive actions by park owners was expected to bring an initial deluge of complaints. That hasn’t happened -- yet.

The Eagle River Village mobile home park is shown in Edwards on Aug. 28, 2019. The park is less than 10 miles from world-class skiing at Beaver Creek Resort and represents one of the last bastions of affordable housing in the area. An estimated 100,000 people live across about 900 mobile home parks throughout Colorado. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)
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Nearly a week ago, the long-awaited mechanism designed to level the playing field for mobile home owners in their beefs with the park owners who control the ground beneath them finally went live — May 1, right on schedule. 

Some expected that, after years of pent-up frustration, residents would quickly send a flood of complaints to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs’ new dispute resolution process. But that simply hasn’t materialized — yet, at least.

Six days into the program, which posted its online complaint form on Friday, DOLA reported receiving only four complaints — a far cry from the surge that supporters of the newly minted program anticipated.

Maulid “Mo” Miskell, manager of DOLA’s Mobile Home Park Oversight Program, said Colorado’s slow start “absolutely” surprised him.

“I thought we’d be deluged with complaints by now,” Miskell said. “At the same time, we went live on Friday. It’s still really early. If some people filed by paper and not electronically, it could be in the mail.”

But advocates for mobile home residents point to the coronavirus pandemic, with its shutdowns and job losses and eviction concerns, as the economic wet blanket thrown over efforts to address decades of alleged abuses by park owners — measures from arbitrary fees to questionable rules to harassment.

MORE: Read the Sun’s series on mobile homes, “PARKED: Half the American Dream.”

Michael Peirce, a resident of Boulder’s San Souci mobile home park, also serves on the steering committee of the Colorado Coalition of Manufactured Home Owners, a statewide advocacy group that has long anticipated the implementation of the dispute resolution process.

“With residents from my HOA, the plan was to be all tooled up to have a boatload of complaints,” Peirce said. “But there’s been absolutely no time to put into it. The COVID thing has just sucked up so much time, work and resources that there is almost no time left over.”

State Rep. Edie Hooton, the Boulder Democrat who spearheaded the effort in the House, said she thought that, under the circumstances, it was a monumental achievement that DOLA met its mandated May 1 deadline to have the program ready to accept complaints. 

So she’s not judging anything on its first week, especially with the state’s unemployment rate at 20% after ranking lowest in the country six months ago. 

“It’s worth evaluating the value of the program over the course of three, six, nine months,” she said. “I don’t think that in the first week of roll out, the complaints would be an accurate reflection of the need for the process.

“A lot of homeowners in the parks are among those who comprise a large percentage of the unemployed. So we’ll see when this new normal will shift and give people more time to regroup and then refocus their attention on complaints they feel are justified.”

Mobile home owners, much like traditional renters, have taken some relief in Gov. Jared Polis’ recent order protecting them for 30 days from eviction and late fees, as well as utility shut-offs. For some, a provision in the federal CARES Act provides longer protection if the park owner has a federally backed loan. Park owners are required to inform their tenants if they have the added protections.

But Peirce said that, for the most part, the emergency measures amount to “punting.”

“It’s just delaying when evictions are going to happen, at least for people who’ve lost income and fallen through the cracks,” he said, pointing to people like immigrants living in the country illegally or those who work on a cash basis. “The worrisome folks are ones who are outside of the ordinary income reporting channels. There are a lot of cash economy folks — handyman, lawn maintenance, babysitters, child care providers, elderly caregivers, live-in nannies. Also musicians in the cash economy, who play for tips or door receipts.”

The governor’s order also directs DOLA to create model rent repayment agreements for tenants unable to cover their rent. 

A mobile home and trailer park sits half a block from new housing on West Kentucky Avenue and South Utica Street in the Westwood neighborhood of Denver, CO. January, 17, 2019. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Mobile Home Parks Act revisited

The mobile home park business model — in which residents pay to park their manufactured homes on someone else’s rental lots — traditionally left residents vulnerable to abuse, yet also economically or logistically unable to move homes generally rooted to the land. In most cases, residents had no choice but to take disputes to court — if they could even afford it — where well-heeled park owners held a distinct advantage.

Laws enacted last year to strengthen the Mobile Home Parks Act, which hadn’t been significantly updated since 1985, included creation of a dispute resolution process designed to avoid the need — and expense — of court. That momentum carried into this legislative session as two more bills, one that would further update language in the Act and another that would offer residents the opportunity to purchase their park, made it to the Senate before the pandemic brought the General Assembly to a halt.

Even now, with lawmakers focused on reimagining the state budget and school finance, Hooton feels that both measures fall into line with the pared-down legislative focus and could make it to Polis’ desk.

“Looking at the criteria of legislation, housing is an absolute priority,” she said. “Now, there are no guarantees. We have three weeks. But I feel very optimistic.”

For months since the bill passed last year, DOLA worked on the rulemaking process with stakeholders and scheduled sessions to convey that information to the larger community of mobile home residents. But when the coronavirus was discovered in Colorado in March, the stay-at-home order stifled outreach efforts by the state and advocacy groups alike.

Peirce said that made it difficult to familiarize residents with the dispute resolution program. He added that the plan was to give homeowners a copy of the complaint form and a list of rights under the Mobile Home Parks Act that would help residents formulate valid complaints. 

“So the idea was to get training materials up, so people know whether they can make a complaint DOLA has power to act on,” he said. “None of that training material has been communicated.”

He added that he’s been working on getting the coalition’s new website up and running to help facilitate that effort.

“I have a feeling that people know this is an option,” Peirce said of the dispute resolution program. “But I don’t know how many people know, because it’s hard to get in touch with residents. For example, we were planning on a door-knocking campaign that got nipped in the bud.”

What happened instead was that DOLA sent out an email to mobile home stakeholders and landlords on Friday, notifying them that the complaint form could be accessed online and that, because of COVID-19, the program would prioritize complaints related to eviction as well as public safety issues.

“Number one, we don’t want people to potentially lose their home,” DOLA’s Miskell said. “It’s an unsecure time financially and, of course, health-wise. Number two, we also want to adhere to the governor’s order as well. So it’s kind of working with both, prioritizing in that way. At same time, if we see complaints that involve people’s health or safety, not related to eviction or COVID, we’re of course prioritizing those as well.”

In this March 4, 2018, photo shows the Phillips Trailer Park near Aspen, Colo. which has been in the same family for more than 50 years. While the existence of five mobile home parks in Colorado’s wealthiest county might come as a surprise to some, they are actually an integral part of a affordable housing system, (Anna Stonehouse / The Aspen Times)

Advocates anticipate more complaints

Cesiah Guadarrama Trejo, a community organizer for the advocacy group 9to5 Colorado, said that while no one has told her directly that they’ve filed a complaint or plan to, she continues to receive calls raising concerns — and so assumes that activity with the program will increase.

Trejo said she’s aware that some landlords have notified homeowners of rent increases, although that’s not specifically covered by the dispute resolution process. But with the latent demand for relief on a variety of other issues that do fall under the program, she added that she’s eager to find out what complaints the state will consider for the quickest action.

“Right now, a lot of people have lost their job and income and can’t pay rent,” she said. “But there are still other issues with maintenance or other things that folks have been waiting to file. I don’t know that from the community end people will be slow to submit. I think people will still submit things, but I’m curious to see the types of issues that will be considered priority because of the time we’re in.”

The complaints remain confidential until they’re resolved, Miskell said, and then become part of a public database the agency reports annually. 

Trejo said her attention now turns to figuring out how best to get information on the process to residents digitally, since the stay-at-home order made her typical in-person organizing impossible. Many residents lack access to computers or the internet.

Renée Hummel, who lives in Boulder’s Vista Village mobile home park and also serves on the steering committee of the Colorado Coalition of Manufactured Home Owners, said some residents might wait to file complaints until the bills currently waiting in the legislature become law — giving them more avenues to seek relief.

She’s also not too surprised at the slow start to the complaint process, “considering how caught up we are in COVID situation.”

Her conversations with neighbors center on the uncertainty that lies ahead. As residents struggle with when they might be able to return to work, they’re also juggling not just rent payments, but the monthly crush of other bills.

One conversation, with a woman who lives nearby, typified the collective angst.

“She cleans houses — non-essential services under the order,” Hummel said. “She managed to pay rent, but now it’s the rest of the bills. It’s such an uncertain time, we don’t know what’s going to happen, how fast people can get back to work.”