<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=192888919167017&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Saturday,  April 20 , 2024

Linkedin Pinterest
News / Business

WA mobile home communities organize against ‘economic eviction’

Port Orchard-based Hurst & Son LLC bought dozens of parks in recent years. Now residents say the company is raising rents and cutting services.

By Farah Eltohamy and Mai Hoang, Crosscut
Published: October 9, 2023, 6:04am

From her pristine garden to her punchy graphic tees, 78-year-old Judie Short emanates a great warmth and appreciation for everything around her.

Upon entering her home in Aberdeen’s Leisure Manor Estates, guests find an office nook lined with vintage knickknacks and Seattle Seahawks memorabilia. Her kitchen shines in a resplendent shade of cherry red, and its many windows let in sunlight that carries on to the rest of the house. It’s a three-bedroom home, but she has converted the second and third bedrooms into a cat-themed craft room and a playroom for when her grandchildren come to visit.

“When we moved in five years ago, it was going to be an affordable place to live and … everybody here got along so well,” she said. “We had activities and you could go out and walk and visit with people and it’s just a good community – and now everybody’s nervous and nobody knows what’s going to happen next.”

In late 2021, Port Orchard-based mobile home management company, Hurst & Son LLC, acquired Leisure Manor in a string of pandemic-era purchases – and since then, its tenants have faced steep rent increases, threatening them with “economic eviction,” along with new alleged problems with upkeep and maintenance that did not exist before.

Hurst & Son’s growing presence in Washington state reflects a broader pattern in which investors increasingly purchase and centralize such communities, making one of the last reliable options for lower-income housing less and less affordable. Lawmakers opened the door this year to expanding resident-led ownerships of park communities, but other proposals to regulate the industry and cap rising rents stalled.

Leisure Manor has since become an example of how mobile park residents can band together with other communities to push back and defend their homes.

“This is not trailer trash,” longtime tenant Bill Hardy said during a recent tour of the park. His wife, Caroline, helped found a new tenants association and has rallied neighbors to organize in opposition – from filing complaints to the attorney general’s office to coming out in support of a rent notice ordinance at their local city council.

“We’re hoping to get all these people together,” Caroline Hardy said, “so that we can fight.”

A growing threat of displacement

Leisure Manor Estates – a lush, idyllic mobile home community tucked off Highway 105 — has long served as a retreat for seniors away from some of the surrounding small-town dreariness. Pastel homes line the streets, front lawns lovingly adorned with kitschy lawn gnomes and wooden figurines. An average day in the community is quite still – save for the occasional dog bark or cheerful greeting between neighbors on their morning walks.

In this community, everybody knows everybody – and despite the supposed impermanence of these homes, many of Leisure Manor’s tenants have settled into this steady way of life for decades. When Hurst & Son LLC, which owns one park in Woodland, took over the park in late 2021 their lives were upended – and many “FOR SALE” signs have since gone up throughout the park’s nearly 200 lots.

“I came home from my walk this morning, seeing those other for-sale signs, and just wanted to throw a sign on the front of [our] place,” Short said. “I just wanted to get the hell out of here.”

Residents said they paid around $485 in rent and utilities under the previous management. Now, with Hurst & Son’s most recent rent proposals, residents will be expected to pay closer to $750 – an increase of approximately 55%. Residents also told Crosscut that Hurst & Son introduced separate charges for garbage and sewer services, costing community members closer to an additional $100 a month.

They said Hurst & Son also cut landscaping service, leaving residents to mow their own lawns and maintain common areas. Older residents, some in their 90s with limited mobility, now pay additional costs to hire lawnmowers. If residents do not comply with Hurst & Son’s rules on mowing or parking – they risk a $65 fee per violation.

“It’s a real racket,” Short quipped. “Maybe I’m just jealous that I didn’t think of it.”

Run by husband and wife Caleb and Kristina Romack, Hurst & Son has acquired 60 mobile home parks since 2017, according to the company’s website, with many of those purchased during the pandemic. The company now lists 73 manufactured home communities across five states, including 56 parks in 21 Washington counties. The company also owns several commercial properties.

Records from several county assessor offices indicate that Hurst & Son spent at least $116 million on 35 parks in Washington state in the past six years. Many of them were purchased well above assessed value, including Leisure Manor Estates, which was purchased for $11 million, close to double the county’s assessment value of $5.65 million. (Federal data shows the company also received approximately $200,000 in pandemic economic aid in 2020.)

Hurst & Son continues to expand into other parts of the Northwest, with purchases in Idaho and Montana and even has gone as far as North Dakota, where they now own three parks.

Caleb Romack declined to comment when Crosscut reached him on his cell phone. The Romacks did not respond to multiple emails or follow-up voicemails requesting response to complaints in this story. The couple have pledged to address complaints or park damage in previous news stories. Emails from Hurst & Son to state officials contend they are following relevant laws.

Earlier this year, the Yakima Herald Republic detailed rent hikes at Hurst & Son communities in Yakima as well as e. coli contamination in the water at one of those parks. The Moscow-Pullman Daily News covered a meeting in March when residents from multiple Hurst & Son communities in Moscow sought guidance from housing advocates on their rights in light of rent raises and limits on selling their homes.

Bellingham tenants shared similar complaints last year. Other reports described a 2019 flooding at the Squilchuck Creek Community in Wenatchee, in North Central Washington, and a fire at a recently acquired mobile home community in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, last year.

For this story, Crosscut spoke with dozens of Hurst & Son community residents across the state, housing advocates and lawmakers. Crosscut also obtained lease records, emails between Hurst & Son and residents, property sale records and consumer complaint data from the state attorney general’s office.

In recent years, many mobile home community landlords like Hurst & Son have grown rapidly, acquiring and consolidating management over parks amid an explosion of investor interest. Residents say new owners often implement steep rent increases and cut services that reduce property values and quality of life. “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver outlined the trend in 2019, but the pandemic has only exacerbated the market pressure on those communities.

Management companies have argued that rent increases are necessary to keep up with market rates and to have funds to make improvements to the community.  Some sell potential investors on purchasing manufactured home communities by saying such homes add to a region’s housing stock and help improve housing affordability.

However, Victoria O’Banion, who works with manufactured home owners in Washington and North Idaho to form ownership cooperatives to purchase their communities, argues such rent increases are part of a multiyear “gentrification cycle.” She said the end game is to move residents to higher rents and flip the park for many times the purchase price.

In other words, manufactured home communities become another housing option for higher-income earners — while those with tighter incomes are left with fewer choices. Seniors and other fixed-income residents increasingly get priced out of one of the last accessible housing options.

“Eventually,” she said, “Grandma Sally is economically evicted.”

Channeling frustration into action

For 25 years, Elva Simmons owned a five-bedroom home in Yakima — until a family emergency in December 2020 forced her to sell. She first moved to the Broadmoor Park manufactured home community in Yakima. Rent increases there pushed her out within a year. She said she spent the next several weeks living in her car, hotels, and a tent at Yakima Sportsman State Park.

Simmons, who spent many years working in agriculture, said she eventually found a rental rate in her price range at Hurst & Son-owned Sun Tides Community in nearby Gleed, just a few miles west off U.S. Highway 12. The area boasts a family-owned fruit stand, a townie dive bar and an 18-hole golf course.

She said she has spent thousands of dollars on repairs and renovations on her home. One room serves as a craft space where she works on roped baskets that she sells at local bazaars. She hoped she had found a new refuge after months of instability.

Now 72, Simmons showed visible frustration in her face as she once again grappled with the same frustrating cycle. Sun Tides raised her rent this year from $535 to $610 a month. And she just received notice that rent will increase again to $650 a month come January.

“What am I going to do? I’m stuck,” she said. “I tried to make the best of it.”

The rent increase came after months of struggling with e. coli contaminated water throughout the 56-lot park. From November to March, Simmons and her fellow residents bought their own bottled water and waited for help from Hurst & Son. Simmons said all they got was a notice when the water was drinkable again. To this day, she said she continues to purchase bottled water because she doesn’t trust that Hurst & Son has resolved the issue.

“Do they think so little of us that we’re not worth a bottle of water?” she asked.

With help from housing advocates, Simmons has taken on organizing her neighbors in communities around Yakima, helping them compare notes. She sometimes visits nearby parks like the White Dove Community in Union Gap where she met Guillermo Limon.

Limon has lived in White Dove for nearly 15 years. He said the park had provided an affordable housing option for him, his wife and his daughters.

Since Hurst & Son took over in 2021, Limon’s monthly housing costs have doubled, he said. His lot rent increased $400 to $600. He now separately pays for utilities previously included in lot rent. And he’s received multiple notices with claims of policy violations, each one with a $65 fee. Some statements alleged late rent despite his documentation of timely payment.

As Limon walked through the park during a visit with a Crosscut reporter earlier this month, he pointed to the dry, brown lawns in many lots to emphasize the deterioration of the park.  Despite many requests, management has yet to turn on irrigation water, Limon said, noting he has kept his lawn green using city water.

“I just don’t live happy anymore, like [I] used to,” he said.

In recent months, Simmons has connected with an emerging network of other Hurst & Son residents across the state. Most recently she participated in a monthly meeting of Hurst & Son residents — conducted both in-person and via Zoom — in July, talking with worried residents in Aberdeen and Spokane. Between her virtual and in-person connections, she’s heard numerous stories that echo her own struggles and frustrations: rising lot rents, excessive notices of alleged policy violations and deterioration of park maintenance.

“It’s eye-opening,” she said. “I can’t believe a company would take advantage of low-income people, hard-working people.”

Building a collective case

Deb Wilson and Caroline Hardy, long-term residents of Leisure Manor, said they had no experience organizing or networking before Hurst & Son took over the Aberdeen park. Now, they feel like it might be their best chance to save the community they love.

“We thought this was going to be our forever home,” said Hardy, who moved in back in 2008.

Shortly after the acquisition, the women began to notice how deeply the rest of their community bore the weight of Hurst & Son’s management. They said tenants confided their fears – of eviction from no longer being able to afford to live inside their homes, to speaking up about any other inconveniences within the park.

“There are some people who have been told ‘Don’t talk to your neighbor about this, or you’ll get evicted’ or – there’s just, there’s a sense that if you talk with them, something bad will come back at you, you know, in one way or another.”

One of their earliest moves was to contact Anne Sadler, a longtime mobile home owner in Mount Vernon, and now the current president of the state’s sole organization advocating on behalf of this community – the Washington Association of Manufactured Homeowners.

Sadler said she had kept an eye on Hurst & Son and feels like their practices have become increasingly predatory in recent years.

“They’re all about the money, that’s all they care about. They care nothing about these people,” she said. “Another little, frail, elderly woman who could barely struggle out of her unit came up to me and she said, ‘I’m not going to be able to pay my rent. I’m not going to be able to live here. I have nowhere else to go.’”

With few options for legal recourse, Sadler has advised tenants to take up their concerns with the state’s attorney general’s office. The office oversees a Manufactured Housing Dispute Resolution Program for helping negotiate conflicts between residents and landlords. Hardy and Wilson said they have helped several neighbors submit complaints.

“The attorney general – we’ve got people filing complaints, but they don’t do much,” Hardy said recently. “You know, the system is there, but it’s functioning against these people.”

Data obtained by Crosscut show the attorney general’s office has received at least 102 consumer complaints filed against mobile home parks owned by Hurst & Son since 2016 – 82 of which are closed.

The office acknowledged receipt of the complaints, but declined to answer questions about their handling of those complaints or their interactions with Hurst & Son managers.

In emails between the attorney general’s office and Hurst & Son, regional managers told officials they had followed all provisions of the RCW 59.20, the Manufactured/Mobile Home Landlord-Tenant Act, in raising rents and notifying tenants.

“[T]here is no formal rent increase notice provided by RCW 59.20,” one email reads.

Ishbel Dickens, a retired attorney with experience working in manufactured housing tenant rights, said the act prevents manufactured home owners from being evicted without any cause – but does not place any limits as to how far a landlord can raise a tenant’s rent, which has been the case with landlords such as Hurst & Son – who “could evict them just by making it too expensive to stay there.”

In what they hope can serve as a template for other communities, Hardy and Wilson helped establish the Leisure Manor Tenants Association in February 2022 to collectively push for new protections — including a city-level ordinance requiring longer notice of any rent increases so residents have more time to adjust their finances or find new housing.

Another Leisure Manor resident, Butch Coic, 61, told Crosscut he can no longer afford to live in his home of 40 years – and has no clue as to where he would go.

“What am I going to do?  I have no other options but to tear my trailer down and move on,” he said. “I ain’t gonna give it to them – there’s no way in hell. These people don’t care about the elderly, or anybody. It’s just all they care about is money.”

Market pressures keep rising

Nearly 400 miles from Leisure Manor Estates sits the Hideaway Community, a Hurst & Son community just outside Spokane city limits. Housing prices have skyrocketed in nearby areas following the construction of a nearby Amazon distribution center, a common issue throughout the Spokane region.

The manufactured home industry often highlights its role in providing affordable housing, especially as home prices have spiked during the pandemic. In 2022, the average sales price for all new manufactured homes in the U.S. was $123,300, compared to $540,000 for a new home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The manufactured home price does not include the cost of renting the underlying property.

Stay informed on what is happening in Clark County, WA and beyond for only
$9.99/mo

In Spokane, Realtor.com lists mobile and manufactured homes for as little as $49,000, but a newer or larger home could go for almost $200,000. Even top models remain well below the average price of a traditional house, which Zillow.com pegs at almost $400,000 despite some recent cooling in the Spokane market.

At the Hideaway Community, residents range from longtime owners who have multiple generations living in the park to newer residents who purchased trailers from Hurst & Son in search of affordable homeownership. Crosscut talked to approximately a dozen different families in the park. The adverse relationship with the management has led to most of them asking to be anonymous for fear of retaliation.

One resident willing to provide her name was Miranda Romero, 37. She had lived in an apartment but as rent went up, she started searching for new housing.

“I want to own my home,” she said.

She said she provided a $25,000 down payment for a new manufactured home that cost $125,000 at Hideaway last year, but didn’t receive a receipt until months later. She said she still doesn’t know how much exactly she still owes on the house because managers are so infrequent with documents.

Romero’s story illustrates the fragile nature of manufactured homeownership. Most residents who own such homes must still lease the underlying property. Paying off their home does not guarantee stability since they still remain subject to the rental rates of the underlying property owner.

Many residents own homes that have become too old to move if there is a major issue, such as a dramatic rise in rent or the manufactured home community closes. They may be called “mobile” homes, but more often they are functionally anchored to their lots.

Washington’s Department of Commerce reports about 30 communities with a combined 582 lots have closed statewide since 2017. The agency offers a relocation program where they provide both technical and financial assistance to eligible residents — based on income — who are impacted by a community closure. However, there’s a limit to the amount of financial assistance — up to $11,000 for a single-wide home and $17,000 for a double-wide.

In some scenarios, owners may still have to sign over their home to the community owner because even with cash assistance it might not be financially or practically feasible to move their home. The cash assistance might instead go toward finding other housing rather than preserving their mobile home.

One resident who lived in Hideaway for nearly 24 years said Hurst & Son had promised improvements to the park when they purchased it back in 2015. They repaved the roads in the community, but the company has done little work since.

If anything, the park looks worse, the resident said. The trees that once surrounded the community are now gone.

Residents also complained about a new water fee policy that they said split water charges evenly across tenants each month instead of tracking use with individual meters, meaning a single retiree pays for consuming as much water as a large family household regardless of actual usage.

Several residents, who had the option to live with family or other means, have already left the community in frustration. But many others, including the community resident of 24 years, said they cannot just leave and they fear continuing rent increases will force them out.

“I’m going to lose my home — the only one I’ve known,” she said.

A call for stronger protections

Washington lawmakers passed a new law earlier this year requiring the state’s Department of Commerce to provide notifications when a mobile home community goes up for sale, allowing residents a chance to band together to purchase parks themselves. Sen. Noel Frame, a Democrat representing Seattle’s 36th Legislative District, said she authored the bill after growing concerns over the “broader trend of displacement for low-income folks and seniors.”

“We’ve all noticed how much housing costs and land costs have gone up over the last many years,” she said. “And when you’re talking about low income and senior folks on fixed incomes – they weren’t even getting an opportunity to compete or to purchase, and now they have that opportunity.”

The bill also builds in a penalty of $10,000 if landlords willingly fail to comply with notifying the state of a pending purchase. If the problem continues to persist, Frame said, the attorney general’s office will get involved.

Commerce officials started listing community sales on the market in July. O’Banion, with the resident-owned cooperative group ROC Northwest, said the new law should immediately empower more residents to pursue self-ownership of their communities.

ROC Northwest has worked with two dozen owner-cooperatives to purchase manufactured home communities in Washington and North Idaho. O’Banion noted the average annual rent increase for resident-owned manufactured home communities across the U.S. is 0.9%, well below the double-digit increases seen at Hurst & Son communities.

Several Hurst & Son community residents say they wish they had a chance to pursue similar ownership options, but many mobile home community residents never hear about a sale or change in ownership until after the deal has gone through.

“We kind of got thrown into the situation, because all of a sudden, one day we were notified that the rent was going up and we got new leases,” Wilson said. “And what they did was – we couldn’t fight the purchase, because they went directly to the owner, and unless the purchase was advertised, we had no recourse, we had no time to offer to purchase the park.”

When a community goes up for sale, O’Banion said ROC Northwest now starts meeting with resident homeowners to assess the feasibility of a cooperative and vote on the matter. She said a successful cooperative generally needs the support of 57% of the residents and a strong commitment to collective ownership.

Given the upfront cost, the owners might still have to weather an increase, she explained, but the hope is that the lot rent will eventually stabilize, and residents would not have to endure the numerous drastic increases seen in other communities.

O’Banion and other housing advocates argued mobile home park residents still need additional help from state and federal agencies to compete with the deep pockets and aggressive management of investors looking to take advantage of these communities.

A separate bill to bolster resident protections in Washington state law failed to pass the Legislature this year. Sen. Kevin Van de Wege, D-Sequim, introduced a proposed bill to prohibit mobile-home community rent increases larger than the rate of inflation and giving the state Utilities and Transportation Commission new authority to regulate rates and services in those communities.

SB 5697 would have also imposed fines of up to $100,000 against landlords who violated the limits on rent increases. The bill did not make it out of committee.

O’Banion said her organization and other advocates are going to continue working with legislators to push for additional policies, such as rent stabilization, to ensure continued affordability for manufactured-home owners.

“Manufactured homes must be preserved, maintained and developed as part of the landscape of affordable housing,” she said.

An early victory and ongoing efforts

In mid-July, the Aberdeen City Council gathered to consider a proposed ordinance to expand the required notification period on rent increases greater than 3% from 90 days to at least 120 days. Wilson and Hardy had spent the preceding months inviting local officials to Leisure Manor’s community clubhouse to meet their residents and petitioning neighbors for signatures in support of the ordinance.

Leading up to the vote, Wilson came before the podium – speaking on behalf of “those without transportation, those who are bedridden and those who cannot get here to show their support for the ordinance in person or via Zoom.”

She told the council passing the ordinance is the least they could do – as the advance notice would help residents of Leisure Manor and elsewhere prepare ahead of time for potential economic eviction.

“We must find a new affordable home and sell our forever home,” she said. “We must pack and/or get rid of many years of memories, household items and furniture – remember these bodies are not the bodies of our youth. This will be overwhelming and physically draining.”

Hardy’s husband, Bill, took time to recognize other mobile-home residents in attendance and emphasize the importance of these protections for all renters, not just Leisure Manor residents.

“I am delighted to see one of the other mobile-home park people come to our presentation tonight, because these ordinances we’re working on are going to affect you,” he said. “These things affect people throughout the city. I really appreciate your support.”

City Ordinance 6698 passed unanimously. Caroline Hardy said the vote validated a lot of their work. Councilmembers praised the tenants for going up against their own property managers.

“We felt like someone was finally listening to us,” she said.

Wilson and Hardy say they will continue to coalesce solidarity among other parks for a potential class action lawsuit – visiting a community in nearby Westport and meeting with other Hurst & Son residents in the Puget Sound area. They still hope the attorney general’s office will step in and eventually build enough of a case to hold their landlord accountable.

In the meantime, some tenants have started sending Hurst & Son two checks every month — one check in the amount of their previous rent and a second for the difference of the rent increase.

They hope the separate checks will make it easier to tally financial damages if they can take a claim to court. But they also want to send Hurst & Son a message.

On the memo line of those second checks, they always inscribe two words:

“In protest.”

Crosscut is a service of Cascade Public Media, a nonprofit, public media organization. Visit crosscut.com/donate to support nonprofit, freely distributed, local journalism.
Loading...