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Losing It All: Mobile Home Owners Evicted Over Small Debts During Pandemic

Apr 16, 2021
Originally published on April 16, 2021 10:45 am

It was a pretty brutal holiday season for Barbara Gaught in Billings, Montana. Back in December, just a week before Christmas, she got an eviction notice.

"It was at like six thirty at night that a sheriff came and taped a notice on the door," she says. "On a Friday night."

Gaught hadn't responded to a court summons the month before. She didn't think she could be evicted so soon. After all, she owned her home outright. But she'd fallen behind on the relatively small amount of money she pays in rent for the patch of grass and driveway her home sat on. And because of that, she now had just a couple of days, till Monday, to be out of her home.

Gaught didn't realize she could lose her mobile home so quickly. Legal aid attorneys in the state say it can take a year to foreclose on a regular homeowner who falls behind on their mortgage. But if you fall behind on "lot rent" for the land under your home in a mobile home park, they say you can be evicted and lose your home in just a couple of months.
Louise Johns for NPR

So she brought her 5-year-old son to a relative's house. And she and her older children started throwing things into bags.

"We packed our stuff," she says. "It was horrible. There was a lot of tears involved."

Like about 20 million Americans, Gaught lived in what's called a manufactured home. In other words a mobile home that gets brought in by a truck but then sits on a patch of land — often in a mobile home park.

For a lot of people, this makes homeownership affordable. Even brand new mobile homes on average cost less than half of a single family house or a condo. And 80% of manufactured housing residents own their homes. Gaught had owned hers for 16 years.

"I was a really young mom," she says. "One thing I was so proud of was the fact that my kids weren't moving from place to place to place."

Gaught and her son, Izaah, check on their old home for notices left on the door. Gaught and her family were evicted from the home in a mobile home park in Billings, Mont., owned by Havenpark Communities. The company filed an eviction case against her in November after she fell one month behind on the rent and owed just $621.
Louise Johns for NPR

Gaught says for a time she was getting out of a bad marriage, and even when other things in her kids lives weren't going well, they had the house. "There was always that place for them to come home to. It was the safe place."

But the pandemic is laying bare that mobile home owners are often very vulnerable. On average they make half as much income as regular single-family homeowners, and during the pandemic have been twice as likely to be behind on their housing payments.

The loans they get often don't have the same protections as regular mortgages. Then there's the biggest vulnerability for those that live in mobile home parks.

"They don't own the land under their home," says Elisabeth Voigt. She's a director at Manufactured Housing Action, a nonprofit that advocates for better legal protections for mobile home owners.

While manufactured homes are often called mobile homes or trailer homes, most are not very mobile. Moving them is a major undertaking. It often means installing wheels and welding on tow hitches.

Gaught (right) holds her 9-month-old grandson, Adonis, while her daughter Trinity, 16, holds her newborn baby at the home they now rent in Billings, Mont. Gaught's 5-year-old son, Blazen, plays in the background. She says out of all of them, Blazen has been most upset about losing the house. "It's hard to explain to him why his home's not his home anymore," Gaught says.
Louise Johns for NPR

"It costs five to ten thousand dollars to hire a company to move your home off the lot that you rent," Voigt says. "Older homes structurally can't handle a move, and it's very difficult to find a new lot."

So she says families can end up being prisoners to the mobile home park. And if people fall behind on that 'lot rent' for the land under the home, she says some companies that own mobile home parks quickly move to evict them.

"The landlord turns around, rents the home or sells it again, adding to their profit margins," says Voigt. "The resident has lost not only their home but their life savings."

Often the courts allow this — since the homeowner can't move the home.

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During the pandemic, many people like Barbara Gaught have been having trouble paying because they've lost work. Gaught and her fiancé both work in construction and had to stop for a time after COVID hit. That's when they fell behind on the lot rent.

Nobody's tracking this nationally. But one group, the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, looking at just a handful of counties in a few states, has found upwards of 1200 eviction filings against people in mobile home parks. "That just scratches the surface," says Jim Baker the group's executive director.

Lesli Gooch is the CEO of the Manufactured Housing Institute, which represents mobile home parks and the factory-built housing industry more broadly. She says many mobile home parks have been doing all they can to be flexible with struggling residents.

"They did rent payment arrangements, we just had somebody do a vaccination clinic," she says. "Across the board, the owners and operators were really trying to keep their residents safely housed."

Barbara Gaught wasn't so lucky.

The company that owns the land under her mobile home is called Havenpark. It filed an eviction case after she fell just one month behind on the lot rent and owed $621 in rent and fees. And pretty soon, she says she had a notice on her door that she had to get out in just two days.

"I believe, when they put the notice on our door, we were two-and-a-half months behind," Gaught says. "And they weren't taking any partial payments, so it was one of those things where I either had to have all of the money or none of the money. They really were, like, we're just going to screw you big time."

Havenpark says it tried to avoid evicting Barbara Gaught.

The company declined an interview with NPR but said in a statement that she received all the required notices during the eviction process. And that it tried to call her twice. If she'd responded the company says it would have worked with her and referred her to government rental assistance programs. But since she didn't respond, the company said it was left, "with no choice but to proceed with eviction."

Gaught sits outside the house she now rents in Billings with her three children. The family had to leave suddenly when they were evicted, and still haven't been able to find a cat they had at the mobile home park. "We looked and called around forever and we just could never find her," Gaught says. It was her 5-year-old son Blazen's (left) cat. "And that was slightly devastating to him."
Louise Johns for NPR

"No, that's not true they had a choice," says Amy Hall, an attorney with Montana Legal Services Association who helps families try to avoid eviction. "They could have worked with her longer to try to give her time to get caught up."

Havenpark points out that Gaught failed to respond to a court summons. And says that if she had, she likely could have gotten a repayment plan through the court and kept her home.

Hall says that's true, especially if she'd managed to get a lawyer. There's also an order from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that could have protected her if she knew about it.

But Hall says a lot of people don't know their rights. And the process moves very quickly.

Mike Eakin is a lawyer in Billings who does pro-bono work. He says just in his area mobile home evictions are keeping him busy.

"Quite a bit," Eakin says. "Since last fall, at least twenty to twenty five cases at mobile home lots that Haven Park has purchased here in Billings." He adds that he's got more cases involving other mobile home park companies too.

In Barbara Gaught's case, court documents show that she owed less than $1,200 when she got evicted. And so for that relatively small amount of money, she lost a home she owned outright, and lived in for 16 years.

Meanwhile, she says all this has probably been hardest on her 5-year-old son. "Out of everybody, I think he was the most upset about losing the house."

Gaught says her dad helped her work out an agreement with Havenpark where she wouldn't owe the $1,200 and the company could keep the mobile home. She, her dad, and their lawyer say the company wouldn't even let them take a storage shed off the property. They say Havenpark insisted on keeping that too.

Gaught was able to go back, so her 5-year-old could see the house one more time. She says she'll remember that forever.

Gaught's previous home in a mobile home park in Billings, Mont., owned by Havenpark Communities. It sits empty after she was evicted in December 2020 for falling behind on rent for the land under her home.
Louise Johns for NPR

"Just him saying, 'goodbye house,' " she says.

"It's all he's known in his short little life, and it's, it really sucked." Gaught says it's hard not to feel like she failed her kid not being able to protect him from that. "It's hard to explain to him why his home's not his home anymore."

Gaught says after staying at motels and with friends for months, the family finally found a house to rent. It costs more than twice what she was paying to the mobile home park in lot rent and fees. But she says she can afford that now because she's working again.

So she says if she'd just had a little more time catch up, she she wouldn't have had to lose her home.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Americans who own mobile homes have been especially vulnerable during the economic disruptions of the pandemic. Here's their special problem. They own the mobile homes, but they're not really very mobile. And they typically rent the land on which their homes sit. If they face a rent increase or have lost their jobs during the pandemic, they can quickly lose everything. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: It was a pretty brutal holiday season for Barbara Gott in Billings, Mont. Back in December, just a week before Christmas, she got an eviction notice.

BARBARA GOTT: It was at, like, 6:30 at night that a sheriff came and taped a notice on the door on a Friday night.

ARNOLD: Gott hadn't responded to a court summons the month before. She didn't think she could be evicted so soon. But now she had just a couple of days until Monday to be out of her house. So she brought her 5-year-old son to a relative's place. And she and her older children started throwing things into bags.

GOTT: We packed our stuff. It was horrible. There was a lot of tears involved.

ARNOLD: Like about 20 million Americans, Gott lived in what's called a manufactured home - in other words, a mobile home that gets brought in by a truck but then sits on a patch of land and often in a mobile home park. For a lot of people, this makes homeownership affordable. Even brand-new manufactured homes on average cost less than half of a single family house or a condo. Gott had owned hers for 16 years.

GOTT: I was a really young mom, and that's one thing I was so proud of - was the fact that my kids weren't moving from place to place to place. Even when anything else in their lives was messed up or things were going bad, there was always that place for them to come home to. It was the safe place.

ARNOLD: But the pandemic is laying bare that mobile home owners are often very vulnerable. On average, they make half as much as other homeowners. And they've been twice as likely to be behind on their housing payments during the pandemic. Also, the loans that they get often don't have the same protections as regular mortgages. And for those that live in mobile home parks...

ELISABETH VOIGT: The primary piece is that they don't own the land under their home.

ARNOLD: Elisabeth Voigt is with Manufactured Housing Action, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of mobile homeowners. She says even though they own their homes, they have to pay lot rent for the little patch of grass and driveway that the home sits on. And Voigt says while they're often called mobile homes, moving them is a major undertaking. You often have to install wheels, weld on tow hitches.

VOIGT: So it costs $5,000 to $10,000 to hire a company to move your home off the lot that you rent. Many homes, older homes, structurally can handle a move. And it's very difficult to find a new lot.

ARNOLD: So she says you can end up being a prisoner to the mobile home park. And if people fall behind on the rent, she says some companies that own mobile home parks quickly move to evict them, and they lose their home even though they own it, over a couple of months of lot rent.

VOIGT: The landlord turns around, rents the home or sells it again, adding to their profit margins while the resident has lost not only their home but their life savings.

ARNOLD: Often, the courts allow this, since the homeowner can't afford to move the home. During the pandemic, many people have been having trouble paying because they've lost work. Lesli Gooch is the CEO of the Manufactured Housing Institute, which represents mobile home parks. She says many have been doing all they can to be flexible.

LESLI GOOCH: They did rent payment arrangements. We just had somebody do a vaccination clinic. So across the board, the owners and operators were really trying to keep their residents safely housed.

ARNOLD: Barbara Gott wasn't so lucky. The company that owns the land under her home is called Havenpark. It filed an eviction case after she fell just one month behind on the lot rents. At that point, she owed around 600 bucks. And pretty soon, she had an order on her door saying she had to get out.

GOTT: I believe when they put the notice on our door, we were 2 1/2 months behind.

ARNOLD: Gott and her fiance both lost work at their construction jobs for a time after COVID hit. That's when they fell behind.

GOTT: And they weren't taking any partial payments. So it was one of those things where I either had to have all of the money or none of the money. Like, they really were like, we're just going to screw you big time.

ARNOLD: Havenpark says it tried to avoid evicting Barbara Gott. The company declined an interview but said in a statement that she received all the required notices during the eviction process and that it tried to call her twice. If she'd responded, the company says it would have worked with her and referred her to government rental assistance programs. But since she didn't respond, the company says it was left with, quote, "no choice but to proceed with eviction."

AMY HALL: No, that's not true. They had a choice.

ARNOLD: Amy Hall is an attorney with Montana Legal Services Association who helps people try to avoid eviction.

HALL: They could have worked with her longer to try to give her more time to get caught

ARNOLD: Havenpark points out that Gott failed to respond to a court summons and says that if she had, she likely could have gotten a repayment plan and kept her home. Amy Hall says that's true, especially if she'd managed to get a lawyer. There's also a CDC order that could've protected her if she knew about it. But Hall says a lot of people don't know their rights, and the process moves very quickly. Mike Eakin is a lawyer in Billings who does pro-bono work. He says just in his area, mobile home evictions are keeping him busy.

MIKE EATON: Quite a bit. Since last fall, at least 20 to 25 cases at mobile home lots that Havenpark have purchased here in Billings.

ARNOLD: Eakin says he's got more cases involving other companies, too. In Barbara Gott's case, court documents show that she owed less than $1,200 when she got evicted. And so for that, she lost the home that she owned and lived in for 16 years. Meanwhile, she says all this has probably been hardest on her 5-year-old son.

GOTT: Out of everybody, I think he was the most upset about losing the house.

ARNOLD: The family worked out an agreement with Havenpark, where Gott wouldn't owe the 1,200 bucks, and the company could just keep the mobile home. Gott was able to go back so that her 5-year-old son could see the house one more time.

GOTT: You know, it just - him saying, goodbye, house - I mean, that's just - you know, that's all he's known in his short, little life. And it really sucked. You know, and it's hard to explain to him why his home's not his home anymore.

ARNOLD: Gott says after staying at motels and with friends for months, the family found a house to rent. It costs a lot more than the mobile home park, but she says she can afford that now because she's working again. And so she says if she'd just had a little more time to catch up, she wouldn't have had to lose her home.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISATO NAKAGAWA'S "WIND VALLEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.