Council's rent abatement for closed mobile home parks called unconstitutional

Monday, December 19, 2011 | 6:36 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — The three-month break on rent that the Columbia City Council decided to require for tenants being evicted from mobile home parks faces a challenge from a council member.

Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl, who is pushing for the provision to be repealed, thinks it violates the Missouri Constitution. City Counselor Fred Boeckmann agrees.

Kespohl has requested a bill that would repeal the provision, which the council passed on Nov. 7. The provision was an amendment, proposed by Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe, to an ordinance requiring that the owners of mobile home parks give tenants at least 180 days' notice of eviction when they plan to close a park.

Kespohl's bill was scheduled to be introduced at the City Council's regular meeting Monday night and should come up for a final vote at its Jan. 3 meeting.

Kespohl said he objected to Hoppe's amendment when it was passed.

"The ordinance was trying to mix issues" by attaching the rent abatement to the eviction notice requirement, he said.

Kespohl said it is illegal to "alter a rental contract" without both parties signing on. He said he checked it out with a friend who is a lawyer, as well as with Boeckmann, who looked into the amendment's constitutionality. Both agreed with Kespohl that the law is illegal.

According to a memo Boeckmann wrote to the council, the amendment breaches Article 1, Section 13 of the Missouri Constitution, which forbids "the enactment of any law that impairs the obligation of contracts."

Kespohl said he also spoke with a friend who owns a mobile home park, as well as the manager of Columbia Regency mobile home park. Both told him of the high monthly costs of maintaining a mobile home community.

Those costs include water and sewage utilities, insurance, taxes and "all the things that go into running the park for a month," Kespohl said. If the city forces mobile home park landlords to forgive tenants' rent for three months, then owners have to pay those expenses out of pocket.

That not only breaks state law, Kespohl said, but "it's almost unethical for that to happen."

Hoppe said her rationale for the rent abatement was to help residents save for relocation when mobile home parks close. "It's very expensive to move," she said.

Although the amendment was inspired by the Columbia Regency closing, it would not have affected it. Hoppe said a provision in the development agreement between the tenants and Aspen Heights, who will buy the Regency property, compensates residents for the cost of moving at a rate that would exceed three months' rent.

Boeckmann never mentioned a constitutional issue with the amendment to her, Hoppe said. "I don’t know how (the rent abatement amendment) would differ from requiring advanced notice," she said.

Hoppe, who also is a lawyer, said she is still looking into the amendment's legality  and said she plans to oppose the effort to repeal the amendment.

"Unless I'm convinced that it really does violate some provision of the Missouri Constitution," she said. "There's more than one interpretation to something."

Kespohl, however, said he expects the repeal will pass.

"I talked it over with several city council people, and they're in agreement that it shouldn’t have been passed."

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John Schmidt December 19, 2011 | 7:19 p.m.

I might be in favor of repealing that one just as soon as the city and county allow the owners the freedom to put their homes on their own property instead of forcing them into the limited number of mobile home parks already in existence.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield December 20, 2011 | 11:37 a.m.

"Hoppe said her rationale for the rent abatement was to help residents save for relocation when mobile home parks close. 'It's very expensive to move,' she said."

In some of the newspaper photos and TV coverage, quite a few Regency tenants had extensive tattoos -- sleeves, in a couple of cases -- and were smoking. That money could have been saved for a rainy day such as this.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro December 20, 2011 | 2:45 p.m.

("That not only breaks state law, Kespohl said, but "it's almost unethical for that to happen.")
The courts can sort through the legality and ethics can be opinionated.
My opinion is that it's unethical for Columbia City Council members to vote for a rezoning of a property where the private sale of that property is contingent on their approved vote which runs contrary to the city's planning and zoning commission's findings.
I also agree with John Schmidt's observation that the city should allow "mobile home/trailer park-type homes" on private, resident owned land. This certainly would help provide some independence and security for low-income housing candidates.

(Report Comment)

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