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Thornton mobile home owner's fears reflect national crisis

Fines, threats keep people in housing insecurity
Posted at 8:00 PM, May 04, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-05 00:36:37-04

THORNTON, Colo. -- Trapped. Threatened. Scared. That is how thousands of people across the Front Range are feeling and they all have one thing in common: They live in manufactured homes.

With housing costs out of reach for many people in Colorado, the only path to home ownership is often through a mobile home park.

The problem is that while they own the home, they do not own the land it sits on and that puts them at the mercy of their landlord.

Several residents reached out to Contact7's Theresa Marchetta about problems they face in their mobile home community.

After weeks of digging for answers and accountability, Marchetta uncovered the problems at one local mobile home park reflect a growing national crisis and a system failing to protect those who live there.

At Friendly Village of the Rockies, homeowners say management does not live up to the name. 

"You can either do it or just get out," said one homeowner who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation by park management.

"Put a note on your door, do this within a certain amount of time or you'll be fined," said another resident in the community, Anthony Velasquez.

They called Contact7 when they got a letter ordering them to take down their fences in 60 days or face fines and eviction. 

The Velasquez’s told Marchetta they paid $3,000 for their fence to keep stray animals and people out. They appealed the new policy, but no one would even talk to them.

And that's not all.

"We get our cars towed for no reason," said Velasquez.

"Rents keep going up for almost no reason," said another resident.

Homeowners, many too afraid of being evicted to go on camera, shared stories of retaliatory rent hikes, predatory towing practices and bullying by management.

Casey asked us not to use his last name because his parents have already faced rent increases and other retaliation for complaining to park management.

"They were out here hooking the car up right away. My mom said, 'What are you doing, she's leaving right now.' Well, it took some money for them to set the car down. Then they raised the rent on my mom right after that because she complained about it," Casey said, "A hundred dollars. A hundred dollars a month is what they charged her."

Velasquez said his wife's car was towed after she misjudged their driveway in the snow.

"The tire was on the dirt, or 'the landscape', as they say, off the driveway.  And you can't park on the landscape, so they towed it off," said Velasquez.

Contact7 did not see any formal landscaping around the Thornton mobile home park. 

Instead, Contact7 found cracked, uneven sidewalks, over-grown weeds and patches of dirt, unstable stairways and free-roaming dogs and cats.

There was also a heart-breaking sign posted on a tree outside one home on a corner lot.

It is a memorial to "Sparky", a dog attacked and killed by a stray dog, while on a leash being walked by his owner.

The Velasquez’s said this is exactly why they do not want to take down their fence.

University of Colorado Sociologist, Esther Sullivan, says 80 percent of the residents in places like Friendly Village own their homes. 

"When I share with you the predatory practices I've seen in this mobile home park, you're not surprised by that?" Marchetta asked.

"No, this is indicative of cases occurring across the country," said Sullivan.

Sullivan has become an expert on the topic, spending nearly a decade documenting housing insecurity in mobile home parks. 

"These issues that you see at Friendly Village may seem unique to this one park, but they are indicative of the capricious and arbitrary actions landlords take in mobile home parks across the nation. You hear these same stories over and over again," said Sullivan.

The professor and author has lived in two mobile home parks in Texas and Florida and documented the impact as they were sold off and closed down.

She has seen it all, first hand.

"They're subject to rent hikes, often without notice, upon fees that are tacked-on, a lack of maintenance or an expectation they maintain the land that they don't own," Sullivan said.

Contact7 uncovered it is all perfectly legal. 

Through television appearances on National Geographic, TED talks and a new book out in August called 'Manufactured Insecurity, Mobile Home Parks and Americans' Tenuous Right To Place', Sullivan is exposing how property owners are wringing profits out of low-income homeowners in mobile home parks across the country like Friendly Village.

"Have you seen the apathy that I have found on the part of local government to confront this and do something to protect these citizens?" asked Marchetta.

"Absolutely," said Sullivan, "Local governments are complicit in this process."

Sullivan said cities and municipalities stigmatize mobile home parks, zoning often keeps them hidden away from traditional residential housing in industrial areas and local leaders fail to recognize the crucial source of affordable housing they provide for the local workforce.

"Do you believe there needs to be a call to action among our legislators to do something?" Marchetta asked.

"Absolutely. We can't build our way out of our current affordable housing crisis which we all can see in Denver," Sullivan said.

There are more than 960 mobile home parks in Colorado alone.

Kingsley Management out of Utah owns seven of them in the Denver metro area, including Friendly Village.  

Contact7 sent several e-mails and left multiple messages asking to speak with someone regarding residents' concerns, with no response.

Marchetta also tried to talk to the on-site property manager about the accusations against them.

"Hi, Sylvia, can we talk to you for just one second?" said Marchetta.

Friendly Village manager, Sylvia Navarrette, hid in a back office and threatened to call police if Contact7 did not leave the property.

Sullivan said they do not have to talk with anyone because as it stands right now, the law is on their side and no one is holding them accountable.

The portion of Colorado's mobile home statute referenced by Friendly Village in their letter to residents dates back to the early 1970's.

Contact7 checked. It says management can change park rules "...without the consent of the home owner on sixty days written notice if the amended rules and regulations are reasonable." 

But, the unanswered question is, who decides what's reasonable?

There is no enforcement of the rules and most mobile home owners cannot afford to hire an attorney to fight management in court.

Contact7 tried to get answers from the Attorney General's Office, but received a form letter in reply stating the office cannot discuss their cases.

There are some cities and counties recognizing this is something they need to look at soon.

Aurora has suspended the rezoning of mobile home parks temporarily and other counties have purchased parks to retain the affordable housing option.

Contact7 is still waiting to hear back from some state legislators about how they are addressing their constituents' concerns.