Mobile Home Residents Seeking More Rights Target Lawmakers

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The Cap Times
By: Jessica VanEgeren
April 11, 2010

For the past 12 years, retired state employee Kristen Zehner has been waging a one-woman, grassroots' campaign to bring greater home security to thousands of state residents who own manufactured homes.
Lately, that battle has landed her in front of Rep. Leon Young's office in the Capitol with a picket sign. She has singled out the Milwaukee Democrat, calling him the "fly in the ointment" for his reluctance as chair of the Assembly Housing Committee to schedule a vote on a bill that would provide more options and security to mobile home owners when park owners put the park up for sale. Her efforts have pitted her in a David-versus-Goliath-style battle with the Wisconsin Housing Alliance. Composed of industry builders, suppliers and manufactured park owners, it is the only organization to register against the bill.

"This is the first bill I've worked for," say Zehner, the founder of Wisconsin Manufactured Homeowners Association, the state's first and only tenants association for mobile home owners. "I'll come and stand outside his office every day until he schedules a vote. I'm not backing down. Nobody should have to live knowing they could be uprooted with little warning if someone decides to sell the land beneath their home."

With the current legislative session coming to an end April 22, time is not on Zehner's side. The two sides still disagree on many issues in the bill, even though the bill's primary sponsor, Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison, says she has "made concessions, large and small," to appease the Wisconsin Housing Alliance.

"We are trying to spur solidarity among property owners so they don't feel so vulnerable," Roys says. "This bill is taking a very modest approach in accomplishing that."

But Young, whose district in Milwaukee County includes 16 manufactured communities with roughly 1,600 lots, says he wants to see more compromises before he'll schedule a vote. "I am still willing to do a vote, but we are waiting for a compromise," says Young, who declined to elaborate. "At this point, that hasn't happened."

Under the Wisconsin bill, if an offer is made to purchase a mobile home park, residents would have to be given 90 days to make their own offer. Before residents could make an offer, however, they would have to form a tenants association. The association would function like a cooperative and, if interested in the property, would make a collective offer to purchase it.

The park owner would not have to accept the offer but consider it in good faith.

This is one aspect of the bill that rubs the Wisconsin Housing Alliance the wrong way. "The bill requires the community owner to negotiate in good faith, but not the park tenants," says Ross Kinzler, the alliance's executive director, suggesting that tenants could make offers simply to stall a sale to a third party. "That makes the bill one-sided."

The group also objects to the timing of when tenants need to be notified of an impending sale.

"In today's market, postponing the sale by giving another party time to make an offer will almost always lead to problems," Kinzler says. "Just think how much the interest rate could fluctuate in a few months."

Under the bill, once park residents make an offer, they would be given an additional 60 days to secure financing and finalize an offer. The Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, if necessary, could be used to help obtain funding.

In the end, if an offer from tenants is not accepted, residents must be given a 120-day notice if the park is being sold and redeveloped for another use. Under current law, park residents are given 5-, 14-, or 30-days notice if a park is closing, depending on the length of each tenant's lease.

"What we are dealing with is class discrimination," says Carolyn Carter, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, who helped write the Wisconsin bill. The bill, she says, offers "some kind of property rights and protections."

Roys and other supporters of the bill say it's an affordable housing issue.

"Current laws aren't adequate to protect this population," Roys says. "They are homeowners, but they're also renters. That can put them in a vulnerable position."

Tanya Cohen found herself in such a position in November 2005. She returned to her mobile home in the Hickory Lane Mobile Home Park off West Broadway in Monona to find a note on her door from the park owners. She was told she had until August to vacate the property.

To encourage and assist park residents to leave the park, local developer Kevin Metcalfe, who was proposing to develop the park into a condominium site, offered to pay each resident $5,000 to help with relocation costs once he purchased the property from the park owners. Since it can cost between $5,000 and $9,000 to move a manufactured home, many residents held out for the money. When the project failed to move forward, the promise of money disappeared, leaving many residents, like Cohen, having to foot the bill herself. She had yet one more problem. Most mobile home parks no longer accept homes made more than 13 years ago. With her home too old to move, she sold it for $1 to a company that agreed to cart it away. No longer a mobile home park, the land is surrounded by new homes and well-kept business parks. Several old structures remain on the land.

Cohen now lives in Country View mobile home park on the border of Oregon and Fitchburg.

"At least if this bill had been in place, we would have at least been able to try and buy the land," Cohen says. "We wouldn't have been jerked around by the promise of money, only to have the whole deal fall through."

Cohen, like Zehner, has been lobbying lawmakers on the Wisconsin bill and says she will continue in the final days of the session.

Zehner says it's been a tough battle, dealing with prejudices about "trashy" trailer parks and the fear among park residents that voicing discontent with park owners will get them kicked out of the community. She says she has no plans to "cave in" to these pressures.

"She's very passionate," Roys says. "If you listen to her points, it's hard to see where she's wrong."

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