A landlord’s high and constantly changing standards for trailers at Island Cove Mobile Home Park in Durango placed financial pressure on tenants and led some to leave the park, current and former residents say.
When Dan Smith bought the park about two years ago, he asked residents to improve their trailers and lots, but residents said the new requirements were constantly changing and inconsistent from one tenant to the next. Some residents said they felt pressured to meet Smith’s standards and feared eviction or rent increases.
“There was a lot of threats, like verbal threats,” said former resident Laurel Foster.
Smith’s required upgrades put financial pressure on families who live in the park because it is affordable, residents said.
“It’s really hard to budget nothing into something,” said former resident Eve Presler.
Foster and others said they did not receive new leases from the new ownership laying out new expectations, although they did receive ever-evolving written rules and verbal direction that varied from resident to resident. For example, Foster couldn’t keep her fenced garden, but a neighbor was allowed to have one.
In some cases, residents abandoned their trailers because they could not bring their homes up to Smith’s standards to sell them in the park. Others accepted a lower price than they normally would have in their rush to leave.
“They are running their own little dictatorship,” said Ted Lambert, a former park tenant.
Smith, the owner, did not respond to phone messages or an email with a list of questions from The Durango Herald. A park manager, who did not give his name before he hung up on the Herald, also said park management did not want to comment.
The Herald spoke with 14 current and former residents of the park for this story. Some current residents asked not to be named because they fear retribution from park management, but they did confirm the stories of former residents.
An aggressive approachResidents said not all of the change under the new ownership has been bad. Smith upgraded the park’s water pipes and put in new benches on a river island near the park, located at 485 Florida Road. Smith also verbally committed to maintaining the land as a trailer park for several years, which relieved some residents who feared a new owner would develop the park into condominiums.
However, residents describe the management approach to cleaning up the park as aggressive. The standards also went beyond trailer maintenance to existing landscaping on leased lots and requirements on how personal property must be stored.
Residents said park maintenance workers cut down plants, bushes and trees on leased lots without notice, leaving a changed landscape.
“It’s just very sterile now,” Presler said.
Colorado state law provides some protection for residents of trailer parks who own their homes, but not the land they are placed on.
“A mobile home park’s rules and regulations are supposed to be for the purpose of promoting the convenience, safety or welfare of the park’s homeowners and to protect and preserve the park premises,” said Kathleen Bryne, a Denver-based attorney. “The destruction of well-tended landscaping on a homeowner’s lot hardly seems to fit within those purposes.”
Rules and regulations that do not serve the purposes of state law are subject to legal challenge, and a court may then find they are unenforceable, said Bryne, who successfully represented the residents of a Boulder trailer park in a recent case over water bills.
To protect mobile home owners, Colorado law says that they are entitled to enjoy their lot “free from unreasonable, arbitrary or capricious rules.”
But it can be tough for residents to find a way to defend themselves if they feel the rules do not fit state standards because park management tends to have the upper hand in these kinds of conflicts, said Dave Anderson, executive director of the National Association of Mobile Home Park Owners.
An unexpected rent increaseJim Fuge, a 20-year resident of the park, was on board with improving the look of the park and put $4,500 into his trailer to bring it up to the park’s code. He painted, relaid patio stones, installed a new shed and improved his back deck, among other investments. After making improvements, he ripped out his back deck at the request of the park.
An email he sent to fellow residents in 2016 showed his willingness to work with the new owners and encouraged others to do the same.
“Everything we do makes our places more valuable and then sellable right here,” he wrote in an email.
He was working to meet the park’s requirements, but in November 2016, the park gave him notice that his lot rent would increase from $650 to $950 per month in February, without giving him a reason, he said.
Nico Foster, a former resident of the park, recalled Fuge’s commitment to helping encourage others to work with the new ownership.
“To me, when they went after Jim, I just thought that was the most ironic and sad thing they could have done. He was their biggest advocate when they first bought the place,” Foster said.
Fuge paid the rent increase, but he wrote separate checks, one for the rent and one for the increase. He wrote on the checks for $300 that it was disputed rent because he wanted the owners to understand that he disagreed with the increase.
In June, he was late with the disputed rent because he thought he had met the park’s demands. He paid it immediately after being notified that he was late, and he was later served eviction papers in July.
Shortly before Fuge’s court date, he was offered help by a local attorney and decided to fight the eviction. Legal proceedings between Fuge and the park are ongoing, and he is trying to resolve the dispute through court-ordered mediation.
Unable to afford repairsFormer resident Richard Neuenschwander, who lived in the park for two years, described requests that started out small. The park management wanted him to paint his door and fix the skirting on his trailer. But the requirements started to stack up. He was asked to paint his porch and trailer, replace the skirting he had already fixed, replace a window, put up curtains and replace the newly painted door.
In the first notice he received, the park mentioned eviction, and he felt pressure from that note to meet their demands.
“We were having trouble affording all these new repairs. ... We had to get out or go under,” Neuenschwander said.
Park management also took out the landscaping around his trailer.
“They wiped out all our trees and bushes and plants,” he said.
He determined he could not upgrade his trailer enough to be permitted to sell it on its current lot, so he decided just to give it away.
Neuenschwander said he could have probably sold his trailer for $1,000 or $2,000 and used the money to move into his new home. But he said he couldn’t fight the park’s demands.
“There was no money left in our savings for us to even think about getting a lawyer,” he said.
State law allows park owners to require upgrades to mobile homes when they are sold, according a summary of the law provided by Bryne. But it is silent on whether the park owner can require the seller or the buyer of a mobile home to bring the home into compliance with park rules.
Former resident Michael Long faced similar demands to upgrade his trailer. He spent $3,500 on painting the trailer, installing skirting and replacing the deck. In the end when he sold the trailer, he lost $4,500 on his initial investment in the home.
He said park management also cut down his lilac bushes and trees without permission and micromanaged his property, asking him not to store bikes on his porch and to make sure his curtains matched. He drew the line at changing his curtains.
“I don’t know how they can get away with such demands,” he said.
According to a written notice provided by a former resident dated April 2016, the park forbids residents from storing bikes, boats, tools and other personal items outside. It did not address curtains.
Neuenschwander’s mother, Suzan Faus, lived in the park for 18 years and loved the area and living in town, but decided it was best to leave. She sold her trailer for $2,000 less than she could have because the park’s demands were causing her husband, Ted Lambert, so much stress. He didn’t know it at the time, but he had rectal cancer that was causing severe fatigue.
The couple tried to meet some of the park requirements, including painting the porch. They told park managers they were living paycheck to paycheck, and the couple couldn’t keep up with improvements. In the end, it didn’t matter.
“They wanted it their way or the highway,” Lambert said of the management.