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News / Business / Clark County Business

Rents have skyrocketed at Woodland East Mobile Home Park; now residents want to buy their park but are running out of time

“Now what’s happening because of rent increases … is people have to make a choice between their medicines”

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter, and
Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: January 13, 2024, 6:14am
5 Photos
Woodland East Mobile Home Park resident Jim Schulze looks over the various rent increase notices he has received Wednesday in Woodland.
Woodland East Mobile Home Park resident Jim Schulze looks over the various rent increase notices he has received Wednesday in Woodland. (taylor balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

WOODLAND — Helplessness washed over Woodland East Mobile Home Park residents last fall as they watched the eviction of their neighbor, a woman in her mid-70s.

They stared at the woman as she sat outside the home she owned but resting on the land she could no longer afford to rent. They wondered who would be next.

Rents at the 55-and-older community have increased by about 250 percent since mobile home park mogul Michael Werner of Vancouver bought the property in 2017, residents say. The seniors, many on fixed incomes, are struggling to pay the $1,050 charged a month per spot — and rents are slated to go up to $1,250 in March.

Senate Bill 5198, which took effect in July, was supposed to change things for tenants like them. It aims to give mobile home park residents a chance to buy their parks and have a say in their future.

So when Woodland East was listed for sale, residents thought that law was their savior — a chance to slow the seemingly endless rent hikes. Instead, their effort to buy the park has exposed cracks in the new law.

Woodland East Homeowner Association President Meg Freimarck, 77, is still holding out for a chance to buy the park, but she knows the residents are running out of options — and time. She’s asked lawmakers how they plan to help seniors in their position. More affordable housing, they tell her.

“Goodness gracious, they want more affordable housing when we have to get out of our own affordable housing because of rent gouging,” Freimarck said. “We thought this would be our forever home.”

‘Pins and needles’

Woodland East residents know some of their neighbors struggle to afford food due to rising rents. Some grow food in their gardens so they don’t have to buy produce. Residents place extra food on their mailboxes for their neighbors.

It didn’t used to be like this.

When Kay Knutson, 74, moved into the park 20-odd years ago, two local men owned the property, she said. They maintained it and hardly ever raised the rent. But when Werner bought the park in 2017, residents began worrying about changes. Knutson formed a homeowner association.

“We knew there were going to be issues. We needed someone to stand up for our park,” Knutson said.

Those issues quickly turned into what Knutson describes as a “nightmare.”

That first year, tenants paid a more than 70 percent increase in rent (from $352 to $600), according to receipts provided by a resident.

Now residents are paying more than three-quarters of fair market rent for a one-bedroom in Clark County — just for the land on which their homes sit. Some are also paying on the loans they took to buy their homes. Most residents say they’ve reached a breaking point.

“Now what’s happening because of rent increases … is people have to make a choice between their medicines,” Freimarck said.

Jim Roseman, 71, said the rent increases have left the community on edge. He had only lived in the park one year before the rent increases began.

“Everybody’s on pins and needles until the first of (the month) trying to figure out how much we’re going to be hit with for rent increase,” Roseman said.

Roseman said that with the increases, rents are approaching the amount most residents receive in their Social Security checks.

More in This Series

The Woodland East Mobile Park Homeowners Association meets Jan. 10 to figure out how to buy the land underneath their homes after rent increases over the past five years.A lifeline for Woodland mobile home park residents? Groups step forward after reading Columbian’s story
Two investment groups have a plan to protect Woodland East Mobile Home Park residents from skyrocketing rents by building a new park in Woodland and…
Woodland East Mobile Home Park resident Jim Schulze looks over the various rent increase notices he has received Wednesday in Woodland.Rents have skyrocketed at Woodland East Mobile Home Park; now residents want to buy their park but are running out of time
Helplessness washed over Woodland East Mobile Home Park residents last fall as they watched the eviction of their neighbor, a woman in her…

Residents pay their rent to Deer Point Meadows Investments, a company owned by Michael Werner and his wife. The company did not respond to interview requests.

Residents said representatives from Deer Point Meadows told them the rent hikes were due to property tax increases.

According to Cowlitz County records, property taxes on the park increased by $18,404 between 2018 and 2023. However, Werner is receiving at least $500,000 more in rents from Woodland East this year than in 2018, assuming all 130 units are paying rent.

Residents have also complained about lack of maintenance at the park.

Since 2017, the Washington State Office of the Attorney General has received more than 100 complaints about Woodland East Mobile Home Park, including several for violating rental agreements and failing to make repairs.

Listing surprises residents

In November, Freimarck stared at her phone in disbelief. Her community was listed for sale on a site called Loopnet.

Two thoughts ran through her head: one, Deer Point Meadows did not inform residents the park was for sale as outlined in the law, and two, this was the residents’ chance to take back their homes.

The residents filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office about the lack of notification. Two days later, Deer Point Meadows sent official notices to residents. Then residents reached out to ROC Northwest, based in Olympia. The nonprofit coaches residents on how to buy their mobile home courts.

Victoria O’Banion, ROC Northwest’s marketing and acquisitions coordinator, crunched the numbers. They didn’t pencil out.

Cowlitz County assessed the value of the park at a little over $8 million. Deer Point Meadows put the mobile home park on the market for $33 million.

The residents would have to double their rent to cover purchase of the park, O’Banion said.

“The residents may say, ‘Sure, that’s fine. I’ll do it just to save my home.’ I understand that. But … no lender is going to say that’s a safe risk — to double the lot rent on a bunch of older adults,” O’Banion said.

Residents of other mobile home parks have run into the same predicament. O’Banion said about 480 households have tried to buy their parks but couldn’t afford them.

"The Sound of the Waves" composed by Scott Hewitt & Mike Lambe and performed by The Bard Owls with Rick Kahn on lead guitar.

Although the asking price for Woodland East is high, O’Banion believes the park is still attractive to buyers because most seniors have fixed incomes from Social Security, unlike all-age parks where incomes depend on consistent employment.

Owners of 55-and-older parks know they can raise the rent until they reach the limit of what residents can hand over from their monthly checks, O’Banion said.

“We’re trying everything right now,” Freimarck said. “I am completely gobsmacked at this point that we are just sitting ducks. We don’t seem to have any backup to protect us or to advise us.”

A deadline approaches

Woodland East residents have a Jan. 24 deadline to make an offer — 70 days after they received notice of the landlord’s intent to sell.

By the numbers

250%: How much the rent has increased for most residents at Woodland East Mobile Home Park.

101: Number of complaints filed against Woodland East with the Attorney General’s Office.

The window is also closing for other eligible organizations — including local governments, housing authorities, nonprofits and community land trusts — to purchase the park.

But that deadline might not matter. According to Loopnet, Woodland East is already under contract. Deer Point Meadows did not respond when The Columbian asked the company to confirm the existence of a contract.

Residents have been communicating with O’Banion and Assistant Attorney General Sebastian Miller about whether a contract before the end of the 70-day waiting period is allowed under the law.

O’Banion, who helped draft the law’s language, said the bill’s intent was to have owners wait the full 70 days to give residents and other eligible organizations a chance to participate in the competitive process.

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“There are plenty of others that should have the opportunity to compete, which would prevent them from entering into a contract prior to the 70 days,” she said.

The Attorney General’s Office can only take enforcement action after the sale closes, according to the law, and that wouldn’t void the transaction.

The law sets forth a fine of $10,000 — hardly a deterrent for owners who stand to make millions of dollars, residents argue.

“Ten thousand dollars is like them going to Walmart. Does it even scare them?” Freimarck said. “They wouldn’t even stutter at a violation fee like that.”

What happens to home if owner gets evicted?

Many manufactured home owners in Washington rent the land underneath their units. In the case of an eviction due to unpaid rent, a tenant is given 120 days to sell the home or relocate, according to RCW 59.20.073. This rule doesn’t apply if the tenant was evicted due to criminal activity.

—Mia Ryder-Marks

Lawmakers have not said whether they intend to amend the law to make this intent more clear ahead of the 2024 legislative session.

With such a high price tag on the mobile home park, residents worry rents will continue to go up if the property is sold to someone who wants to make a profit.

Residents can’t just sell their houses, Freimarck explained. The high rents will be a turnoff for potential buyers, lowering the value of their homes. They’re looking for legal counsel, but in the meantime they’re stuck, she said.

“Where do we go if we can’t pay our rent? And I’m going to tell you — you go to your car, you’re homeless or maybe to your child. Maybe you could afford to go to assisted living or maybe you could afford another park,” she said. “But the same thing is going to happen to that park.”

House bill aims for stability, protection

Lawmakers and housing advocates have introduced House Bill 2114 into the mix this legislative session. The proposal aims to improve housing stability for tenants subjected to the residential landlord-tenant act and the manufactured/mobile home landlord-tenant act by limiting rent and fee hikes.

The bill would also require notice of rent and fee increases, limit fees and deposits and establish a landlord resource center.

Vancouver Democratic Reps. Sharon Wylie and Monica Stonier are secondary sponsors of the bill.

—Mia Ryder-Marks

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.