Keeping Up Appearances

Owners and tenants share the responsibility for maintaining parks
Wednesday, June 9, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:20 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Drive through one trailer park in Boone County and you’ll see havoc. You’ll see discarded washing machines, cars with grass growing up around the tires, makeshift sheds spilling over with junk. You’ll see trailers that look like they’re falling apart and residents sitting on sunken decks eyeing unfamiliar cars suspiciously. You wouldn’t want to drive through at night because there are no lights to illuminate the nasty potholes waiting to ruin your car’s suspension.

But drive through another park, perhaps just down the street, and you’ll see quite a different scene. Cruising down a smooth road, you’ll see look-alike trailers forming neat rows and featuring small, landscaped yards, grills on the decks and maybe even driveways.

The difference between the two is investment. Smooth roads and lights cost money, and so does fixing up a decrepit trailer. Some park owners aren’t willing to make that investment — and some park residents can’t afford it.

“It’s about money,” says state Sen. Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, who sponsored a failed bill this year that would have codified statewide standards for mobile home parks. “And it’s about time that mobile home park owners would have to invest to run an above-board operation.”

The problem of responsibility

Columbia and Boone County together have more than 45 mobile home parks. As some of the older parks decline, some residents worry what will happen to the places they call home. City and county standards for parks were strengthened after existing parks were built, so there isn’t much to hold park owners accountable if the infrastructure starts to fall apart.

“Eighty to 85 percent of landlords that have property in Columbia — they don’t want to put any money back into the property,” said Rick Brewer, who manages Mobile Village on Wagon Trail Road in Prathersville with his wife, Heidi. “If they do fix it, it could be in the cheapest manner possible.”

But upkeep of the park is the responsibility of tenants as well, said Ed Sachs, who owns El Ray on Mexico Gravel Road and Ed’s Mobile Home Park on Lenoir Road.

“As an owner, you can send that person a notice to get rid of that junk car,” Sachs said. “You look bad, but it’s not your fault.”

When it comes to cleaning up, park managers are the enforcers. While owners sometimes live out of town and travel in to visit their parks every now and then, most managers live in the parks. The managers are the front line when it comes to keeping up the parks, issuing citations for trash, junky vehicles, dilapidated trailers and the like.

An on-site manager might also be a park’s best defense against crime, said Sgt. Tom Reddin of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department.

“Probably the key thing in having nice, safe mobile home parks is the management,” Reddin said. “Unfortunately, we do seem to have mobile home parks with a higher density of criminal activity than single-family dwellings in the middle-income area. For those who do background checks on their residents, I applaud them.”

Many park managers check would-be residents for criminal backgrounds, which leads to a concentration of those with records in the few parks that don’t. And many park owners are famous for evicting residents if they don’t abide by park rules.

Randall Blake, manager of Ed’s Mobile Home Park, said he’s just interested in keeping his community of 27 trailers and residents a group of “very respectable, quiet people who respect each other.”

“You’ve got some tenants that’ll just go to any extreme,” Blake said.

Passing a trailer with a sagging wooden deck, Blake pointed to a pile of dry leaves underneath the boards.

“I’m writing him a nasty letter right now,” he said. If the tenant doesn’t get that cleaned up, he said, he might face eviction. Blake sees the leaves as a fire hazard and doesn’t tolerate clutter and waste in his park. Maintaining a nice atmosphere means he’s apt to draw a better clientele, he said.

Blake keeps careful files on tenants and his communications with them. If they’re cited for trash, he records it. If they ignore his prodding, he’ll know the specific dates he cited them.

If evicted, a tenant might have anywhere from 10 to 60 days to get out, depending on the reason for eviction. But if he or she wants to take a trailer along, it can cost anywhere from $1,200 to $6,000 to move it. Then there’s the issue of finding a place to go.

“You can’t just pack up and move overnight,” Coleman said.

Coleman’s bill, based on concerns brought to her by Missourians for Adequate Housing and the Alliance for Justice in Mobile Home Parks, allows park owners to evict tenants for failure to comply with park rules. It also spells out tenants’ and owners’ responsibilities for keeping trailer parks clean.

Failure to pay rent is another reason owners can evict, and park owner Sachs said some tenants squat on the land, hiding behind so-called “rights.”

“In this day of lawyers and everybody’s rights and so on, you’ve got people who move around getting free rent for six months until they get booted out,” Sachs said. If a tenant forces an eviction to court, he said, it can take up to four months to get that tenant out.

“All the burden now is pretty much on the landlord,” he said. “The court has made it that way. The tenant’s got so many rights that they can just tell the owners to go shove it.”

Begging for regs

Coleman’s bill stalled in a legislative committee early this year, facing lobbying opposition from the Missouri Manufactured Housing Association and the Missouri Association of Realtors. The Manufactured Housing Association, a nonprofit organization representing mobile home park owners, manufacturers and dealers, has opposed the bill for the past three years, Executive Director Pettina Duenckel said.

“One of our biggest concerns about the bill was it required community owners to provide a 12-month lease,” Duenckel said.

Among those pushing Coleman’s bill were many mobile home tenant advocates who started their crusade in Boone County. Two years ago, the local Grass Roots Organizing, a social welfare advocacy group, produced ratings of the county’s mobile home parks. GRO took its results to the Boone County Commission and demanded regulations that would apply to older parks. Commissioners said it’s a good idea, but one they can’t act upon without a mandate from state government.

“Unless there’s a health hazard or a safety hazard, it’s not government’s responsibility to go in and manage the day-to-day operations of these parks,” Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin said.

Elkin said tenants should be careful what they wish for. Even if owners keep operating the trailer parks, any effort to fix roads, provide lighting and make other improvements will show up in the price of lot rent, he said.

“Management’s not going to pay out of their pocket,” he said. “They’re just going to pass those charges along.”

It’s a private property issue, Presiding Commissioner Keith Schnarre said. If tenants demand improvements from owners, they might decide to give up on the park altogether.

“That’s your catch-22 on pushing regulations too far on these mobile home parks,” Schnarre said. “You’ll just close them down.”

At least three trailer parks in Boone County have closed in the past few years. After Walnut Woods closed in 2000, state Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Columbia, filed legislation that would give residents of trailer parks more notice if the owners of their parks plan to sell the land for other uses. While the bill didn’t make it through the legislature that year, the city of Columbia adopted an ordinance in 2001 that gives residents 120 days’ notice. Wilson amended her bill to provide 120 days’ notice after the Columbia ordinance passed.

The bill Wilson started, combined with an identical measure sponsored by state Rep. Mike Sutherland, R-Warrenton, passed this year, and Gov. Bob Holden signed it into law on Monday. It’s a narrow law because it applies only to park closings, not individual evictions that happen for other reasons. Though very specific, Wilson said it should call attention to “the situation in mobile home parks: who lives there, the fact that they are an involved, active voice and what some of their specific needs are.”

“There is a stereotype that they are a less stable population and less likely to vote and be involved in the community,” Wilson said of mobile home residents. “As a result, they can be invisible on the political horizon, unfortunately. Their activism on this issue proved that stereotype wrong.”

Doing it on their own

Park owners, who have the Missouri Association of Realtors and the Missouri Manufactured Housing Association on their side in the legislative lobby, are as individual as the tenants they oversee. And until state law changes to require more from them, they decide whether to prolong the lives of their parks or allow them to decline.

Some owners are vocal about their decision to maintain the parks. Those owners are usually easier to reach, as well. The less attentive ones can be difficult to contact.

“Our company chooses not to have any slums,” said Bob Teare, who oversees about 15 parks for his company and tries to visit Woodstock in Boone County every three or four weeks. “We have middle-class parks.”

“The days of the green shag carpet and orange countertops are gone,” Teare said.

Woodstock’s manager, William Burnham, is a former deputy sheriff who does credit and criminal background checks on those who want to live there. He and his wife live in the park, so they have to abide by the same rules as the tenants.

“It makes it a lot easier if you do this by demonstration rather than yelling and screaming,” he said.

Burnham, who has four children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, said he pictures his own family when he sees kids running around his park. That’s why he takes his responsibility seriously, he said.

“What kind of a community and an environment do you want your kids in?” he said.

Many park owners own multiple businesses — sometimes multiple parks — and some are also in the business of selling mobile homes. Windell Tyree runs Tyree Parts & Hardware in addition to two mobile home parks, one of which is technically a subdivision because some of the tenants own their lots. He says upkeep of the park is up to the tenants.

“The people in the park that want things done — if they want to pay for it, it gets done,” Tyree said. “If they’re not willing to pay, it doesn’t.”

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