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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
March 5, 2024

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Community mobilizes to keep woman in Vancouver mobile home

Officials say low-income mobile home park residents targeted by landlords, property owners

By , Columbian staff reporter
3 Photos
Matrix Roof and Home roofers Alfredo Mendoza, left, and Jorge Gutierrez, second from right, lend a hand as construction continues on the roof of a low-income senior, Lynn, on Wednesday morning. The roof repair enables Lynn to stay in her home after receiving a cease-and-desist notice in September demanding she repair her failed roof within five days.
Matrix Roof and Home roofers Alfredo Mendoza, left, and Jorge Gutierrez, second from right, lend a hand as construction continues on the roof of a low-income senior, Lynn, on Wednesday morning. The roof repair enables Lynn to stay in her home after receiving a cease-and-desist notice in September demanding she repair her failed roof within five days. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

In late September, Lynn, a senior citizen who lives on less than $1,000 a month, received a cease-and-desist notice from an attorney representing the Vancouver mobile home park where she has lived for more than 25 years.

The notice said her home’s roof was rotting and in immediate need of repair. Failure to contact the attorney’s office within five days with a permanent solution would result in “immediate eviction,” it stated in bold, underlined letters.

Lynn’s roof started losing its shingles about two years ago. Then it started leaking, causing mold to grow inside her house, said Lynn, who asked her last name and name of the mobile home park not be used for fear of retaliation from the park owner.

Unable to afford professional repairs, her daughter tried to rectify the situation by nailing plastic sheeting and a tarp on the roof. But the plastic shriveled in the sun and split into small pieces that blew into neighbors’ yards.

Yet Lynn said she was shocked to receive the notice. She had never had an issue with the park owner before. “There was no warning,” she said.

Unsure where to turn, she reached out to the Clark County Treasurer’s Office, which had been assisting her with property tax exemptions. Treasurer Alishia Topper immediately took to Facebook to ask for help. “She has no other place to go. I am looking for ideas for roof repair at low- to no-cost for her,” Topper posted.

Within hours, the community mobilized for Lynn. Wendy Marvin, owner of Matrix Roof and Home, sent an inspector to assess the roof and schedule its repair.

Construction began on Lynn’s roof this week. Marvin secured a donation from a materials manufacturer, GAF, through Habitat for Humanity. ABC Supply donated plywood and metals, while Waste Connections offered a dump box. With the additional assistance of community cash contributions, the repair will be fully paid for, Topper noted.

“Everybody reached out to everybody that they could think of just to try to get things happening fast enough,” said Marvin, whose family-owned roofing company has worked in the community for the past 16 years.

Lynn was also connected with Northwest Justice Project attorney Carl Snodgrass to help with the legal side of the cease-and-desist notice. With a backlog of eviction cases following the end of the state’s eviction ban last year, Snodgrass said Lynn’s case is not unique.

“The thing that I found the most unique about it is how much support she has in her community,” he said. “A lot of folks in similar situations are just stuck, and the system just doesn’t have resources to help them.”

Lynn said she has felt overwhelmed by support. “I want to thank Alishia and the other community members for their stunning, stunning generosity,” she said.

Targets and vulnerabilities

While the community’s quick response enables Lynn to stay in her home, her situation sheds light on a larger issue within the housing market: landlords and property owners targeting vulnerable low-income seniors.

“Research is showing that seniors in mobile home parks are being targeted,” said Dianna Kretzschmar, board president of the Elder Justice Center in Clark County. “This lady didn’t have any resources, she didn’t have an attorney she could turn to, all of these things. We’re seeing this more and more and more with landlord-tenant issues.”

About one-third of adults who live in mobile homes nationwide are seniors, according to a 2022 report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The report found about a quarter of these older adults struggle to afford household expenses, going without nutritious food because they can’t pay for groceries or keeping their homes at unsafe temperatures to lower energy bills.

Low-income seniors are vulnerable because they tend to be on fixed incomes. This means when landlords raise rents or spring other expenses on them — like roof maintenance — they often do not have a way to pay for it.

Lynn is on a fixed income, and spends $580 per month on rent. That’s more than half of her Social Security.

“The reason they’ve been living in those mobile home parks is because their rent has been very affordable,” Kretzschmar said. “But investors are buying them up, raising the fees and rents for the land under the home, and then they evict seniors who can’t pay. This has been a growing problem in the United States.”

Topper said the issue of low-income seniors — especially widows — being unable to afford home maintenance is a growing problem. “There’s a need for a community fund or some program for folks like Lynn who are income-qualified and just need repairs so they can stay in their home,” Topper said.

Marvin, through her roofing work, has also noticed a trend of insurance companies targeting vulnerable seniors by conducting home inspections and demanding maintenance.

“We’re seeing widows that are being affected like this by the insurance industry, where they get 30 days’ notice to replace their roof,” Marvin said. “First and foremost, we can’t even put a new roof on in 30 days. It’s just impossible.”

Fixing Lynn’s house requires a full new roof, including replacing the plywood under the shingles, said Joe Hoover, Matrix’s director of external operations. He estimated the total cost for this project without the donations would have been around $14,000.

From the landlord’s perspective, the debris falling off Lynn’s roof had become a potential safety hazard for residents, according to the cease-and-desist notice. It goes on to state that neighbors have complained the condition of her home is an “eyesore” that impacts the market value of their homes.

The notice gave Lynn five days to “permanently remedy” the situation. If the community hadn’t stepped up to fix the roof, that remedy likely would have involved selling her home.

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“If I am somehow forced to sell this, I’ll be on the road to homelessness,” Lynn said. “There’s nowhere I could afford to live.”

Scare tactics

Snodgrass, Lynn’s attorney, said the legality of notices like this lie in a gray area.

“It’s an area of the law that is not really well defined,” he said. “I think a lot of landlords exploit the idea of ‘nuisance’ because there’s not a clear legal definition of what nuisance is.”

His main goal was to work with the mobile home park’s attorney to prevent Lynn’s case from going to court for an eviction, he said. So far, he’s been successful. “That is an awful process to go through and has all sorts of implications for credit and housing, if you have an eviction case on your record,” he said.

Though eviction has been avoided for now, Snodgrass said these types of notices still have an impact on the people who receive them.

“It matters in the sense that it is intimidating,” he said. “These notices are designed to be as scary as possible to kind of force people to do what the landlord wants them to do as quickly as possible. And, whether that’s legal or not, it’s a bully tactic.”

Lynn agrees she thinks the notice was meant to scare her into complying with the park owner’s demands. “They were hoping that I’m a dumb old lady,” she said.

Now that the roof issue is being resolved, Lynn’s only remaining concern is whether her daughter, who works as her informal caretaker, is able to continue living with her. The notice demanded her daughter vacate within five days, as she was being housed “without permission.”

The park normally requires residents to advise its management if new people are moving in so that the person can be screened to ensure the community’s safety. Lynn did not go through this process. But she needs someone in her home to assist her with her medical needs, she said.

Snodgrass has been working to give Lynn’s daughter official caretaker status under park rules so they can continue living together. “It would be a big benefit to her and to the community to have her be able to have her daughter provide care for her in the house when she’s in need of help, instead of having to hire a caregiver she doesn’t know,” Snodgrass said.

Though Lynn has found this experience upsetting, she is extremely grateful to her community and glad she is no longer in danger of needing to leave her home, she said.

Kretzschmar thinks uniting people from all different sectors — nonprofit, business, health care and government — is key in situations like this to protect the community’s older adults.

“Within a span of three hours, we had a solution,” Kretzschmar said. “We had a team mobilizing to make a difference. That’s what it takes. In no other community have I seen that happen like it has happened in Clark County.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

Columbian staff reporter