Jessica Cruz fears that her $370 rent for a lot at Imperial Mobile Home Park off Loudon Avenue in Lexington won't make it to the Dallas office of the park's owner by the first of each month.
If the company doesn't receive it by the first, she'll be charged a $100 late fee, and the management of Imperial Park could say she's late on rent and force her to leave a mobile home she owns but can't move.
She's seen many of her neighbors — some of whom owned their mobile homes — leave after the Texas-based company bought the Lexington mobile home park in February.
Kentucky is one of 14 states that has no specific protections for people who own their mobile homes but lease land in a mobile home park.
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For Ginny Chappell of Louisville, that meant she had little recourse when she was given an eviction notice in April 2014 for "non-renewal" of her lease after living at Autumn Lake Pointe for eight years.
Chappell said she was given the notice after she complained repeatedly about the new park owner, who charged people what Chappell and others claim are exorbitant amounts for water.
William Schrader wasn't given any reason for his eviction notice in April 2014 from a Louisville mobile home park. Unlike many people in mobile home parks, Schrader had the money to move his mobile home, which he bought for $4,000 four years ago. He spent thousands of dollars on improvements. But the mobile home was damaged in the move. It has cost him more than $10,000 to move the mobile home and fix all the problems.
"I was told that if this was Ohio, or just about any other state, this couldn't happen," Schrader said.
Art Crosby, director of the Lexington Fair Housing Council, said mobile home owners often do not have the $2,000 to $5,000 needed to move a mobile home. Or the home is so old, it will break apart if it's moved, he said.
Most people don't bother, instead choosing to abandon the mobile home or selling it at a fraction of the purchase price.
It's a recipe for abuse, mobile home residents and housing advocates say.
Efforts to provide more protections for mobile home park residents have been stymied at the state level by the manufactured home industry, which has fought bills in the Democratic-controlled House for years.
The proposals would make it too difficult for landlords to evict bad tenants, according to the industry. The state already has sufficient protections in its current landlord and tenant law, they argue.
Moreover, the new owners of Imperial Park as well as other owners of mobile home parks say they are investing thousands of dollars in their parks, many of which have crumbling infrastructure. Some longtime residents don't like those changes because they are accustomed to few or no regulations, they say. Many don't pay their rent on time and aren't used to park owners who expect to be paid, they allege.
"Since taking over the park, Imperial has spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to improve the two parks" near Loudon Avenue, said Jaron Blandford, a Lexington lawyer who represents the Texas-based Imperial Parks Properties LLC. According to property tax records, the group bought the parks in February for $8.2 million.
"Imperial has put into place strict rules and regulations and written lease agreements so that all residents will know what the expectations are while living in the community," Blandford said. "The rules and regulations are also necessary to enforce the residents' compliance with the city's code regarding mobile home parks.
"Some residents have complimented the manager and district manager for all the improvements made at the park. Other residents do not want to abide by rules or were in violation of city code at their properties, and therefore resisted the changes."
Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, who sponsored bills from 2004 to 2007 to make it more difficult to evict mobile home owners who live in parks, said residents have not been granted protections because they are mostly poor, elderly or undocumented. They are not organized, he said.
"This is a good example of the power of money in government," Wayne said of the failure of the bills to gain traction. "The manufactured housing industry is intent on maintaining the status quo. They don't want any type of government intrusion. They are out to make the cheapest product possible."
New owner, old problems
Kentucky has 2,120 mobile home parks, according to state figures maintained by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Although there have been problems with mobile home parks in the past, the number of complaints to housing and other advocates have increased in recent years because many of those mobile home parks have switched ownership.
After Imperial Mobile Home Park was sold in February, the Lexington Fair Housing Council was flooded with phone calls from people who live at Imperial Park and the adjacent Imperial Estates.
The new owners were requiring people pay for and get stickers for any vehicles they own, residents were receiving notices of fines for having messy yards, the owners had installed water meters, and people were receiving high water bills, Crosby said.
"Mobile homes are one of the last affordable housing options left," Crosby said. "People want to own their own homes. But they don't own the land. Once you live in a mobile home park, you are trapped. If the water or the rent goes up, you have to pay it."
Lexington follows Kentucky's landlord and tenant laws. That means for people who have not signed a lease but rent month-to-month, a landlord can evict a tenant by giving them a 30-day notice. Landlords don't have to specify a reason. If there is a lease, it's more complicated. For nonpayment of rent, renters are given a seven-day notice and are told to pay the rent by a certain date or face eviction. For other violations, it's a 14-day notice.
But many people in mobile home parks don't have leases for a variety of reasons.
"Most people start on a one-year lease," Crosby said. "But they don't know to renew the lease after the first year." Others never sign a lease. That means many people Crosby deals with are given 30 days to either find the money to move a mobile home, abandon it or sell it typically at a fraction of what they paid for it.
Even proving who owns a mobile home can be tricky.
Cruz estimates that she has spent more than $6,000 on buying and adding to her mobile home. Moving the home would be difficult if not impossible, Cruz said.
But Cruz can't prove that she owns the home. She said she paid for the home but the former owner and manager of Imperial Park never transferred the title to her. Cruz said that she saw the title at one point in the Imperial Park office.
Mobile homes in Kentucky are titled as personal property, similar to a car or a truck, and are not real estate, or real, property. Yet, Cruz pays property taxes and showed the Herald-Leader her property tax valuation and bill from the Fayette County PVA.
Blandford, the lawyer who represents Imperial Park, said he went to the Fayette County clerks' office to help many Imperial Park mobile home owners get access to their titles so they could prove ownership. The problem is, sometimes the titles don't get transferred between buyers and sellers, he said. That's not the park's responsibility.
"To the extent that the new owner (of Imperial Park) has the right and ability to transfer any mobile home titles, it has done so," Blandford said. "The new owner contacted the prior owner on behalf of current residents to obtain any titles in its possession. Unfortunately, on some of the mobile homes, the clerks' office advised that the titles were not in the name of the park, but were in the name of an individual. Therefore, the park had no authority to transfer the title."
Water bills and lawsuits
Cruz and others say the new owners put water meters on their trailers. Some people — including Cruz's mother, who also lives in one of Imperial's parks — have received water bills that are more than $100 and sometimes as high as $300, they said.
Under Kentucky law, mobile home parks and apartment buildings are able to install water meters, read them and bill their tenants.
Blandford said residents receive the first 3,000 gallons free and only have to pay for water over that amount. Blandford said Imperial Park owners' records show that no tenant in the Imperial Mobile Home Parks has received a bill for more than $300.
Blandford said that the new water meters were an attempt to rectify long-standing code violations. The new owners have spent more than $60,000 on water meters.
High water bills are part of a complaint in a class-action lawsuit filed against SSK Communities — which owns seven mobile home parks in Jefferson County and about 25 across the state — in Jefferson Circuit Court in October.
The lawsuit alleges that SSK has violated several portions of the Kentucky Consumer Protection Act, including unfair eviction practices and failing to maintain the infrastructure, resulting in costly water bills for residents.
The lawsuit alleges that SSK Communities has forced out people in SSK mobile homes in order to make a profit. "These evictions compel residents to abandon mobile homes that they own because the cost to relocate is too high," the lawsuit alleges. "SSK seizes the abandoned home, releases it to a new tenant at a higher monthly lease or sells it to a new consumer and in the process builds a substantial fortune while displaced families are left homeless," the lawsuit alleges.
Chappell lived in Autumn Lake Pointe, which is owned by SSK Communities, for eight years. Chappell said she repeatedly complained about high water rates, even taping one of the owners of SSK Communities and posting it on YouTube. In the spring, she was told that her lease would not be renewed.
Chappell said she successfully fought the eviction in court. But many mobile home residents don't bother fighting, she said. She moved her mobile home to another park in August after the owner of the new park offered to pay to move the mobile home. She's now $5,000 in debt to the new park owner.
"I felt that I could fight these people better if I no longer lived in the park," Chappell said. "I know four people who were kicked out in the past month. These aren't people who were kicked out because they didn't pay their rent or they weren't following the rules. I have a lot of people who come to me and say they are having problems but it's because they didn't pay their rent. If you don't pay your rent, I can't really help them."
James Craig, a lawyer who represents the SSK Communities residents, said in many cases, his clients are simply told that their leases will not be renewed. Under the law, a landlord doesn't have to give a reason for non-renewal of a lease.
"These are some of the most vulnerable residents in Kentucky — they are the elderly and people who are on fixed incomes," Craig said.
Nathaniel Smith, one of the owners of SSK, did not return phone calls seeking comment. But Kathy Groob, a spokeswoman for SSK, did.
"This lawsuit is without merit, and we have filed a motion to dismiss with the court," Groob said. "There have been no specific claims made against our company and the suit is lacking evidence and is based solely on broad allegations with no basis in fact."
SSK, in its response to the class-action lawsuit, said the complaint makes broad claims regarding fraud but does not support its complaint with any facts.
"Among the most glaring deficiencies in the complaint is the dearth of factual allegations," lawyers for SSK wrote in a response filed in Jefferson Circuit Court.
Smith, a former vice chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party and co-chairman of Attorney General Jack Conway's campaign for governor, has given more than $30,000 in donations to various local and state politicians since 2002, records with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance show.
Allison Martin, a spokeswoman for Conway, said Smith has had no influence on the attorney general's office and its oversight of manufactured home complaints through its consumer protection division. The office has received no complaints against SSK Communities. The department's consumer protection division tracks complaints by name of the mobile home park, she said. Mobile home parks do not always include the name "mobile home" in their names, making it difficult for the attorney general to categorize all mobile home complaints.
A road to change?
Wayne filed bills beginning in 2004 that would make it more difficult to kick a mobile home owner out of a park. For example, the 2007 bill would require a good reason to evict someone and require a mobile home park owner to give residents 60 days if they were not going to renew their leases.
The bill was passed out of committee in 2005 but was never called for a vote on the House floor, according to legislative records. The bills in 2006 and 2007 did not get a hearing in committee.
Rich Seckel, executive director of the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, a nonprofit, was one of several groups — including the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) — pushing for the change in the law. The bills changed over time, "but the central tenant was to make sure there was good cause for eviction," Seckel said.
Seckel and Wayne said that the manufactured home industry was able to block the bill each time.
Betty Whittaker, executive director of the Kentucky Manufactured Housing Institute, the main trade group for the industry, said she was not in her current position at the time the bills were filed. But Whittaker provided the Herald-Leader with the institute's talking points on why the institute opposed the legislation.
"Community owners/operators cannot continue to provide residential spaces for manufactured home owners under the provisions of (this bill)," the talking points from 2005 noted. The bills would also give the mobile home owners more protections than those that owned the land, the institute argued.
Kentucky's current landlord and tenant law offered sufficient protection for mobile home owners, the documents said.
Wayne said he stopped filing the bills after 2007 because it was too difficult to get the proposals passed.
"When you are fighting for people with no money and no power, you have to have a very strong coalition of people behind it," Wayne said.
Ishbel Dickens, executive director of the National Manufactured Home Owners Association, a mobile home owners group, said the 36 states that have enacted legislation to protect mobile home owners have typically had grass roots-level organization and one or two champions at the state level.
"Nearly every jurisdiction in the country is looking for more affordable housing," Dickens said. "These are affordable homes. Manufactured home owners want home ownership. They want security. But they basically become prisoners in their own homes. They don't have the ability to move their homes."