Marjorie Wall, 82, has lived in her mobile home in Meadow View Estates in Medford for the last 13 years. When she first moved in around December 2003, her monthly rent was about $200, which included most utilities, she says. Now her rent, without utilities, is $497.
"Two more years and I can't afford to live there," Wall says.
Wall says her monthly rent at Meadow View has been increasing between $30 and $50 annually. Resident Janice DeChant says her rent has more than doubled in 16 years at the park; resident Tom DeLong reported an increase as high as $50 in a recent year.
Tenants of Meadow View and other local parks owned by California-based Investment Property Group Inc. were presented with a new lease agreement Wednesday, igniting concern over rising rents in mobile home communities. Residents are now facing tough decisions that will affect their financial futures.
The owner of Country Quilts in Medford, Wall works seven days a week and takes no income from her business. She says she receives $1,400 per month in Social Security. Apart from rent, she pays electricity, gas, water, insurance and property tax. Though Wall purchased her home in full up front, some residents pay mortgages on top of other expenses.
“The sad part is you get a lot of senior people barely getting by on Social Security and pretty soon, they can’t afford the rent," says Gary Walker, Southern Oregon district director of the Manufactured Housing/Oregon State Tenants Association, an advocacy group based in Eugene. "It’s getting bad.”
According to Oregon's manufactured dwelling park directory database, there are 103 parks listed in Jackson County, which together provide about 6,400 spaces.With 20 percent of Jackson County's population being 65 and older, 55+ communities especially may be impacted by the rising costs.
"It's a statewide problem," says Rich Rohde, an Ashland Housing and Human Services Commission member and former organizer for Oregon Action. "That's the last place for affordable housing in Southern Oregon. People are sort of trapped ... Supposedly you’re not subject to rent increases, but that’s what we’re seeing.”
Amber Monte, president of IPG, says rent increases such as Wall's are not typical.
"The vast majority of homeowners at Meadow View have received an annual rent increase in the range of $10-$15 per month each of the past 5 years," Monte says in an email. "There are a few rare instances at Meadow View where homeowners were paying so much drastically less than their neighbors where a $50 increase was warranted in the past."
New lease worries residents
On Wednesday, IPG management met with Meadow View tenants to explain long-term lease options that will be distributed to all the residents for consideration. Though IPG would not let Mail Tribune staff sit in on this meeting, Wall, who attended, said that the new leases would be 15 to 25 years, with a 4 percent yearly rent increase. At that rate, in 15 years, Wall's monthly rent would be about $860, for a yearly increase of more than $4,000.
Based out of Irvine, IPG owns parks in six Western states. Among 32 mobile home parks across Oregon, IPG owns four others in Jackson County, according to its website: Bear Lake Mobile Estates in Phoenix, Gold Hill Mobile Home Park, Cascade Village Mobile Home Park in White City and Butte Crest Park in Eagle Point. Earlier this year, IPG came under fire by residents complaining of rent increases at a mobile home park in Camarillo, Calif.
As with Wall at Meadow View, Bear Lake resident Duane Wolfe was given a similar long-term lease from IPG. The Mail Tribune obtained a copy of this agreement, which includes 15-, 20- and 25-year options incurring 4 to 5 percent annual rent increases based on CPI.
Wolfe says he found other elements of the document concerning.
The proposed agreement releases IPG from liability for loss, damage or injury to tenants or property and allows numerous reasons for IPG to raise base rent in addition to the annual CPI-based percentage. If any of the terms for raising base rent are found to be "invalid, unenforceable or contrary to law," IPG may increase the base rent up to 35 percent of the current amount. In addition, transferees or buyers are subject to an increase in base rent of 25 percent (or current fair market rent) and are required to sign the lease.
"It's far more than a rent increase," Wolfe says, noting, "They can add any additional cost to our rent."
Though current tenants are under no obligation to sign the new leases, passing up on the lease means gambling on the uncertainty of their current month-to-month agreements.
IPG's Monte says that the company is considering a shorter-term lease option.
"We are also actively working with a group of homeowners to make changes to the lease to address their concerns and ensure it is a mutually beneficial agreement," she says in the email.
Laws around mobile home tenants
ORS Chapter 90 lays out the rules for tenants and landlords. For manufactured dwelling communities, tenants have the right to form a park committee that is entitled to meet with the owner to discuss concerns; however, discussions are for "nonrent concerns.” Whereas tenants are entitled to a $5,000-$9,000 compensation for a park's closure, there is little recourse if tenants move out simply because they can’t afford the rent.
Landlords of mobile home parks cannot unilaterally change the provisions of a lease agreement except for changes such as utility billing methods and rent increases. For month-to-month tenancy, landlords are not required to justify a rent increase but must give 90 days' notice.
Alternatives not an option for many
If the rent becomes prohibitively high for homeowners like Wall, the options are less than ideal: sell the home, move the home to another location, or keep paying the bills. A home across the street from Wall's recently sold for a reported $69,000. A home in Butte Crest Park for sale on IPG's website is listed at $94,900.
"I would just as soon move back to Jacksonville, but I'm 82 and I dread moving," Wall says. Moving a mobile home is no simple task, and it's not cheap, either. Many homes are old and physically unmovable, and it can cost thousands of dollars to move them.
"We can't really see ourselves being able to afford to move the unit,” DeChant says. “That expense is holding us back."
For those on a fixed income, many end up just toughing it out, Rohde says.
“That sense of independence and being in a community is one of the attractions of living in a park. That’s what they lose with the rent hikes,” Rohde says. “They try to give up something else in their lives to be able to afford it.
"It's not easy to find [space] anymore," says Rohde. "People are really under the gun."
Groups like MH/OSTA and legal advocates are working to assist tenants with these issues. Rohde, who has assisted mobile home communities in similar cases, recommends a three-part solution: increased state funding for residents to purchase mobile home parks, tenant committees to dialogue about their concerns, and putting the rent hike issue on local government agendas.
In response to the new lease, residents of Bear Lake are in the process of reactivating their park's homeowners' association, granting them further rights under Oregon law.
"Our first step is to officially recognize the association," Wolfe says. After that, "We hope to be working with other IPG park associations throughout the state."
Though the statutes limit tenants' options for recourse regarding rent increases, Wolfe says the association might be able to negotiate with the owner if there is enough collective pushback from the community. In the meantime, Wolfe and Wall, like many of their neighbors, haven't made up their minds about the new lease. Wall, for her part, will be talking to her attorney.
Reach reporting intern Hannah Golden at firstname.lastname@example.org.