COLUMBIA — Paul Brown is one of the few tenants who still live in Columbia Regency mobile home park. Two weeks ago, Regency of Columbia sued Brown, demanding unpaid rent and late fees and threatening eviction.
Brown's case was one of the 22 rent and possession lawsuits filed recently by Regency, which is closing the mobile home park in May, against remaining tenants. The lawsuits, a few of which have been dismissed, originally sought a total of $26,000 and the forced eviction of the targeted tenants.
Michael Carney, an attorney with Mid-Missouri Legal Services who will represent some of the tenants, said the charges are against the bulk of the people still living in the park.
"I think there are probably five or 10 people more who were not sued," he said.
Regency of Columbia, a subsidiary of the Churchill Group of Carbondale, Colo., sued Brown for $744 of unpaid rent plus a $120 late fee. Last week, the owner offered to dismiss the suit, but only if he left within five days.
Brown said he was unable to take the offer. He and his mother, Lorna Brown, 73, both have disabilities, and it will be a month before they can add ramps and carpets at the place to which they plan to move.
Paul Brown said their current mobile home, for which they still owe $4,600, is too old to move. But it has a ramp and a handicap-accessible door and shower.
Because the new place lacks a ramp, Lorna Brown said, it would take her 15 to 20 minutes to get into the door.
"We need carpeting there, and there are 15 holes that need to be fixed in the walls," she said, adding that they could probably live in it now if they had to, but it would be rough living.
"I don't expect to get rich out of this thing," she said. "All I expected is not to go backwards in my life at my age."
The mobile home park was rezoned in November to make way for a student apartment complex that will be built by Aspen Heights. The developer agreed to allow tenants to stay until the end of April, or until the end of May if they have school-age children.
At its Nov. 7 meeting, the Columbia City Council granted three months of rent abatement to all tenants. The following month, however, it amended that ordinance so that it would apply only to future rental contracts and not to the existing contracts Regency had with its renters.
Brown admits he stopped paying rent in December, after the rezoning was passed. Before that, he said, they paid on time for almost 13 years.
Carney said he was a bit surprised Regency filed the lawsuits, given that the park was scheduled to close in May.
The defendants are schedule to appear in court either Monday or Friday. Carney said that if they don't show up, they could be evicted as early as March 19.
"By and large most people will have between two weeks to 30 days," he said.
The Regency park controversy unfolded over much of last year. The Missourian reported in January 2011 that the park had more than 250 health violations. Later, news of the pending sale and rezoning of the property gave way to the personal stories of the people who lived there. Although residents and advocates fought the rezoning, the council eventually approved it.
The debate highlighted the city and state's lack of legal protection for mobile home owners. Missouri has no specific statutes addressing mobile home tenants' rights.
The last attempt to pass such protections came from Missouri Senate Minority Leader Maida Coleman in 2005. Her bill, which would have required landlords to keep parks in good condition and provide tenants with a full 120 days notice before ceasing operation, received no further attention after a committee hearing.
Other states have passed similar laws.
In Florida, if a mobile home park is sold, the owner must compensate residents for moving expenses: $2,750 for a single-section mobile home and $3,750 for a multi-section mobile home. A Vermont statute requires 18 months of notice for a mobile home park closure. In Maine, park owners must either give tenants one year's notice or provide six month's notice plus removal and relocation costs.
Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe, who voted against the rezoning last year, said she was planning to talk with Aspen Heights about intervening more.
Charlie Vatterott, Aspen Heights' vice president for development, said in an email that the company has been "unsuccessful in getting the seller to retract the 22 lawsuits." He confirmed that until the park closes, Regency of Columbia will continue covering its operating costs.
Vatterott said his company doesn't know Regency's intentions regarding the lawsuits. Some residents, however, pointed out that a handwritten phone number left on the notice that offered to dismiss lawsuits for residents who left the park by Feb. 29 turned out to be an Aspen Heights Columbia information line.
Vatterott said Regency's maintenance staff had written the number on the flier "without our authorization or instruction."
"Aspen Heights apologizes for the confusion it may have caused," he said.
Aspen Heights offered to pay $1,800 to the owners of single-wide mobile homes and $3,000 to the owners of double-wide mobile homes when the City Council approved rezoning that allowed an apartment complex. It also offered a $500 bonus to any tenants who signed a form saying they would accept the assistance.
On Thursday, Daniel Cook was cleaning trash outside his mobile home. Not far away, a huge dilapidated mobile home was being dragged away. Cook said it's an everyday scene at the park. Homes in disrepair are everywhere. Some have even been disassembled and tossed into a big red Dumpster.
Cook said he is trying to leave as soon as possible.
Cook, who is allowed to stay in the park until the end of April as promised by the developer, was initially sued by Regency for $486. He paid the rent on the morning of Feb. 16 but received notice of the lawsuit that afternoon. His lawsuit was later dropped.
"It's just greedy," Cook said.
Hoppe said Regency of Columbia's actions don't sit well in a community where people are encouraged to volunteer and help others. "It doesn't seem unreasonable for people who benefit so much from rezoning to also be charitable."