Mobile Home Park Owners Can Spoil An Affordable American Dream

Dec 26, 2016
Originally published on December 28, 2016 1:53 pm

This story is the first in a two-part report on conditions at mobile home parks in the U.S. Today's piece focuses on what happens when corporate park owners fail to take care of their communities. The second story looks at what happens when residents are able to take ownership over their community. Read part two here.

Since she was a teenager, Dawn Tachell has yearned for her own tiny piece of America. She's had a tough life: She ran away from home when she was 16; she squatted for a while in a boxcar; she joined the Navy and did repair work on submarines. And finally, she thought she had made it when she bought a small home in the community of Syringa, Idaho, with spectacular views of the wheat fields and mountains.

"My dream was to own my own home," says Tachell, who runs a greenhouse for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Wind chimes hanging from her front porch serenade us as she shows off her rose bushes and lilac and pear trees.

Syringa is barely a five- to 10-minute drive from the college town of Moscow, Idaho, with its supermarkets, shopping malls, football stadium and hospital. Still, deer, moose and flocks of Canada geese parade past Tachell's kitchen windows.

When she bought the home 13 years ago, it cost $11,000.

One of her neighbors, Robert Bonsall, also thought he was living his dream after he purchased a house in Syringa about 30 years ago.

"I could afford to buy it, even though I was a graduate student," he says.

From the outside, Bonsall's home looks much like the others in the neighborhood. But inside, he has a meditation room, complete with a miniature Zen rock garden and tea ceremony set. Since he paid off his mortgage decades ago, Bonsall, now a research administrator at Washington State University, says he has invested money and bought a boat on a lake.

Tachell and Bonsall say living in Syringa has been a blessing — but over the years, it has also become a curse. Since the 1980s, this community of roughly 100 houses has been plagued repeatedly by drinking water problems — including periods with contaminated water or no water at all. Rivers of raw sewage have occasionally gushed out of the ground and formed stinky ponds around homes. One resident has filled a cardboard box with videocassettes that he shot to document some of the incidents. Conditions in the neighborhood have become so bad that some people have abandoned their houses and moved out.

Absentee "lord of the manor"

Residents say there's one main reason why they have had problems for so many years: Syringa is a mobile home park.

The federal government estimates there are more than 8 million "manufactured houses" (which is what the government has called mobile homes built since 1976). Housing specialists say they play an important role in "boosting affordable home ownership opportunities," according to a Ford Foundation report.

But the decades-old saga of Syringa Mobile Home Park and other evidence suggest that the legal and financial ways in which manufactured housing communities are set up often turn the residents into victims.

Carolyn Carter, an attorney and deputy director of the National Consumer Law Center based in Boston, says the heart of the problem with manufactured home communities "is that the residents don't own or control the land beneath their homes."

When you buy a home in a manufactured housing community, you own only the home's structure — the walls, roof and floor. But a private company or investor owns all the land.

Homeowners pay rent to hook up the house there. Typically, the community owner, not the local government, is also responsible for its roads and utilities. The less money the community owner spends maintaining them, the more profit their business can make.

The owner is the "lord of the manor," Carter says, "and basically doesn't have to pay much attention to the folks who are living there."

Of course, there can be water and sewage problems in traditional neighborhoods, too. "But you elect the public officials who oversee them, and so you can hold those officials accountable," Carter says.

The chronic problems at Syringa echo what has been happening at manufactured housing communities across the country.

The director of Ohio's Environmental Protection Agency, Craig Butler, told NPR that the agency is currently fighting the owners of more than 20 manufactured housing parks over drinking water problems in that state alone.

Those owners "are very happy to be able, on a monthly basis, to receive rent checks from all of the folks that live in a manufactured home park, but not continue to think that they have a long-term [obligation] to maintain those assets," Butler says.

The Manufactured Housing Institute, the industry group that represents owners of manufactured housing parks, declined to give NPR an interview, but sent a written statement:

"The overwhelming majority of manufactured housing communities across the country are well maintained and continue to offer many benefits to residents, including affordable home ownership," it states.

"Without water for 90 days"

People who grew up in Syringa talk about the "good old days."

"Thirty years ago, it was a nice place to be," says Latah County Commissioner Dave McGraw, sitting in his office in the county courthouse in Moscow, Idaho. "We'd go out for parties and family gatherings, and we used to go swimming at their indoor swimming pool out there. People wouldn't be ashamed to live out there."

In 1984, attorney Magar Magar bought the park, and McGraw and longtime Syringa residents say the community began falling apart. The streets started crumbling, and now there are potholes everywhere. The swimming pool filled with scum and was shut down. Sewage would gush occasionally from pipes or out of the ground. And one morning, just before Christmas 2013, residents went to their toilets and taps and discovered they had no water.

"We were without water for 90 days," Tachell says. Local officials brought unheated outhouses for residents to use. The temperature dropped one day to minus 10 degrees.

Residents like James Ware, who has filmed some of the sewage leaks, say they had been warning government officials for years that there were chronic problems in Syringa. Ware says he pleaded with them to "get after this." But little changed.

"I cannot tell you how mad I've been at these people," he says.

NPR obtained documents from state agencies and courts that suggest Ware has reason to be mad. During the past 30 years, state inspectors have repeatedly found that Syringa's owner was breaking drinking water laws. For instance, inspectors sometimes found that he wasn't testing the water like he was supposed to. Other times the water was actually contaminated with illegal levels of coliform bacteria, the bacteria that come from fecal matter. State officials told residents to boil their water, to make sure they wouldn't get sick.

Syringa's owner lives in Vancouver, Wash., hundreds of miles from his business. We tried to talk with him, but he didn't answer our registered letter or phone calls.

McGraw says when water taps at the mobile home park went dry three years ago he called a key official at the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and asked what state officials were doing about Syringa's owner.

"And the guy from DEQ said, 'Well, I sent him a very strongly worded letter about a year ago,' " McGraw recounts. "And I said, 'Well, what response did you get?' He said, 'Well, he never responded.' And I said, 'So what are you going to do now?' And he says, 'Well, I guess I'll send him a more strongly worded letter,' " McGraw says, laughing.

Barry Burnell, administrator of DEQ's water quality division in Boise, says it's important to understand the state's strategy: Officials want to persuade business owners like Magar to comply with the law voluntarily. Burnell says it costs a lot of money to take owners to court. And, he says, most owners end up cooperating with state officials and fixing their problems. He says Magar is an exception.

"I think that our expectation is that [Magar] is going to comply with the drinking water rules," Burnell says.

But state officials lost their patience almost three years ago and took Magar to court. The Idaho Conservation League also sued Magar for allegedly letting Syringa's sewage system pollute a nearby river. And a legal aid clinic at the University of Idaho law school filed a class action lawsuit against Magar, on behalf of Syringa's residents. That suit asks the court to order Magar not only to fix the problems at Syringa, but to award financial damages to its residents.

Just four days before the class action lawsuit was scheduled to go to trial, Magar declared bankruptcy. Court documents show he's worth millions of dollars. But under federal bankruptcy laws, Magar's tactic has managed to put the lawsuits against him temporarily on hold.

And now there's a surprising development: Magar's 26-year-old daughter says she wants to fix up Syringa and make it nice again — with her father's begrudging approval.

"I've definitely felt kind of responsible for my dad's past actions," says Shelley Magar, who was living with her boyfriend in the Cayman Islands when they learned her father was facing legal trouble.

She says they moved back to the U.S. and are now living with him. She says residents of Syringa and government officials misunderstand her father's motives.

"My dad is definitely a businessman and I think that his intentions have always been good, but that he's always been supercheap," she says. "Growing up, we didn't do family vacations; we didn't have a really nice house. Like, it was a struggle to get him to pay for back-to-school shopping. The level of that ... cheapness was just crazy."

Some residents believe Shelley Magar is genuinely trying to revive their community. They note that she and her boyfriend have called an engineer and met with state officials to discuss ways to fix the sewage and water problems. But others, like Ware, say she's just doing the minimum possible to get the courts off her family's back. "She's in this for herself," says Ware. "She's just interested in whatever she can salvage out of her inheritance."

Whatever happens, it spotlights the biggest problem with manufactured housing communities: The residents are at the owner's mercy when it comes to their daily quality of life.

Residents of Syringa say it would be tough to move anywhere else. As the park has deteriorated, they say, unsavory characters have moved in — local law enforcement officials say they have made frequent visits to Syringa to deal with fights, theft and other alleged crimes. As a result of those cascading problems, home values have plunged and residents can't sell their houses for more than a fraction of what they paid. And despite the nickname, mobile home, it costs thousands of dollars to move one. So residents say they feel trapped.

"If I were to abandon my trailer, there's no place for me to go," Tachell says. "Except into the homeless shelter. I'm not going back there again."

Just days before Christmas, Syringa received notice of another broken water line. The community's management taped a flyer to residents' front doors: "Do not drink the water without boiling it first."

NPR's Jani Actman, Riley Beggin and Madison Shipler contributed reporting and research to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

You know the saying, a homeowner is the king of his castle or the queen. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling takes us now to a community where the homeowners are nearly as powerless as, well, serfs.

DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: This is a story about people who yearned for years to get their own tiny piece of America, and they thought they'd bought it in western Idaho. Talk to Dawn Tachell.

DAWN TACHELL: I bought this because I had a dream, and my dream was to own my own home.

ZWERDLING: She managed to buy her own house in a small community called Syringa. She couldn't believe how lucky she was to find it. She ran away from home when she was 16. She joined the Navy and did repair work on submarines. She married a gold miner named Trapper Tachell.

D. TACHELL: Here, I'll show you around the house real quick.

ZWERDLING: Do you have 3,000 different wind chimes, or am I exaggerating?

TRAPPER TACHELL: Like 200.

ZWERDLING: And don't forget the little gnome you have down there.

D. TACHELL: I also have a little boy peeing, which is some fun. And I have...

ZWERDLING: Syringa's just a couple of miles from the University of Idaho. That's near supermarkets and great shopping.

Oh, my word, look at that view.

T. TACHELL: I get up every morning at 4 o'clock and come out here and have coffee and stare at the mountain.

D. TACHELL: I have deer and moose.

ZWERDLING: Moose right out here?

D. TACHELL: Yeah, just...

ZWERDLING: And she bought this house for $11,000. She says living in this community has been a blessing, but it's also become a curse.

D. TACHELL: OK, it's a trailer park.

ZWERDLING: Wait a minute. Did you hear what Dawn Tachell just said?

D. TACHELL: It's a trailer park.

ZWERDLING: The official name is Syringa Mobile Home Park. You can picture Syringa - right? - around a hundred brown or white rectangles. They're covered in aluminum siding. Some have metal awnings and wooden decks tacked on. Actually, the term mobile home is old fashioned. These days, it's manufactured housing. I kept asking everybody I met in Syringa, what do people in the outside world call you?

KELLI CHANDLER: Trailer trash.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Trailer trash, white trash, you know?

ROBERT BONSALL: But talk to a resident named Robert Bonsall. Bonsall runs a biochemistry research lab at Washington State University. From the outside, his house looks like the others. Inside, I didn't expect the meditation room. That's like a Zen rock garden there. The tea is Zen tea ceremony.

ZWERDLING: Bonsall also had a dream when he bought this house 30 years ago.

BONSALL: Get financially independent, and then all that money that I'd be wasting on mortgage payments and interest - start investing in the market.

ZWERDLING: But over the years, everybody's dreams in this community have been falling apart, literally. Another resident started taking videos to prove it. His name is James Ware.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES WARE: You can see all the toilet paper. Here we are next to it.

ZWERDLING: Ware narrates while we watch on his projection TV.

WARE: This is a view from outside my kitchen window, and that is a river of raw sewage coming up out of the ground. Now, here you see actual fecal matter.

ZWERDLING: And that's just one of the problems these residents have been fighting for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZWERDLING: Things got so bad in 2014 that Syringa made local CBS News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: About 150 people have been living with unsafe water since December, and now the Idaho Legal Aid Clinic is moving...

ZWERDLING: The government estimates there are more than 8 million manufactured houses in America. They're a major source of low-income housing. But Syringa shows that the legal and financial ways that mobile home communities are set up often turn the residents into victims.

CAROLYN CARTER: The primary problem with manufactured home communities is that the residents don't own or control the land underneath their homes. That's a huge deal.

ZWERDLING: Carolyn Carter is deputy director of the National Consumer Law Center. Typically when you buy a home in a manufactured housing community, you own your walls and the roof, yes. But a private company or investor owns all the land. You have to pay them rent to hook up your house there. Plus, that same company or investor owns the roads and utilities, not the local government. The less money they spend keeping them up, the more profit the business can make.

CARTER: There's a lord of the manor who basically doesn't have to pay much attention to the folks who are living there.

ZWERDLING: And that's what happened back at Syringa.

DAVE MCGRAW: Thirty years ago, the place was a nice place. We used to go swimming at their indoor swimming pool out there.

ZWERDLING: Dave McGraw grew up in the area. Today he's a county commissioner. He remembers the good old days at Syringa.

MCGRAW: We'd go out for parties and family gatherings, and people wouldn't be ashamed to live out there. I mean it was a good place to live.

ZWERDLING: But in 1984, the owner who'd made Syringa a good place sold it to another businessman, and soon the streets started crumbling. There are potholes everywhere, the pool filled with scum and shut down. And one morning just before Christmas 2013, residents like Dawn Tachell and her husband went to their toilets and sinks.

D. TACHELL: We had no water. We were without water for 90 days.

ZWERDLING: Ninety days.

T. TACHELL: But they did bring outhouses out here for the park.

ZWERDLING: Wait a minute. So you'd have to go to an outhouse when it's zero-degree weather.

T. TACHELL: Yes.

ZWERDLING: James Ware and other residents say government officials are partly to blame.

WARE: When we try to complain, when I try to complain to Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Quality - get up here, and get after this. I cannot tell you how mad I've been at these people.

ZWERDLING: We got documents from state agencies and courts, and they suggest Ware has reason to be mad. Over the last 30 years, state inspectors have repeatedly found that Syringa's owner was breaking drinking water laws. They found violations in 1986, 1992, 1996, 2004, 2011, 2013.

For instance, inspectors sometimes found that the owner was not testing the water like he was supposed to. Other times, the water was contaminated with illegal levels of coliform bacteria which come from fecal matter. State officials told residents to boil their water to make sure they wouldn't get sick.

Syringa's owner is a lawyer named Magar Magar, and we tried to talk with him. He did not answer our phone calls or registered letter.

What word would you use to describe this owner?

MCGRAW: I guess slumlord. I guess slumlord. I don't know what else you'd call him.

ZWERDLING: McGraw says officials still don't know exactly what's wrong with the drinking water and sewage systems at Syringa. McGraw says when the taps at Syringa went dry three years ago, he called a key official at the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. They called it DEQ. McGraw asked, what are state officials doing about Syringa's owner?

MCGRAW: And the guy from DEQ said, well, I sent him a very strongly worded letter about a year ago. And I said, well, what response did you get (laughter)? He said, well, he never responded. And I said, so what are you going to do now? He says, well, I guess I'll send him a more strongly worded letter.

ZWERDLING: So I called one of the top officials at DEQ, Barry Burnell. He says they want to persuade business owners like Magar to comply with the law voluntarily. It costs a lot of money to take them to court.

BARRY BURNELL: I think that our expectation is that the owner and operator of the park is going to comply with the drinking water rules.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: KLEW News starts right now.

ZWERDLING: State officials lost their patience two years ago, and they hauled Magar into court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Well, the owner of the troubled Syringa Mobile Home Park in Moscow is being slapped with a $1,500 fine.

ZWERDLING: Meanwhile, the University of Idaho Law School filed its own lawsuit against him, a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Syringa's residents. Then, four days before the trial was supposed to begin, Magar declared bankruptcy. Court documents show he's worth millions of dollars, but under federal bankruptcy laws, Magar's tactic put all the legal cases against him on hold.

We've been focusing this story on one community, but you can find Syringas across the country. Studies have found that manufactured housing communities are far more likely to have problems like this than people in other neighborhoods. Here's WDTN in Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Ongoing water issue, one that's left the residents of Pineview Estates without water many times in the past year.

ZWERDLING: And here's NBC 4 at a mobile home park in Manassas, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: It's so damaged that sometimes it spews raw sewage into yards and on the street. But the property owner says they can't...

ZWERDLING: I called the industry group that represents the owners of manufactured housing parks. It's called the Manufactured Housing Institute. They declined to talk and sent a written statement instead. Here's an excerpt quote. "The overwhelming majority of manufactured housing communities across the country are well-maintained and continue to offer many benefits to residents, including affordable home ownership," unquote.

Meanwhile, there's a surprising development back at Syringa in western Idaho. It turns out that the owner has a 26-year-old daughter, and she says she wants to fix things up.

SHELLEY MAGAR: I've definitely felt kind of responsible for my dad's past actions.

ZWERDLING: That's Shelley Magar. She says she was living with her boyfriend in the Cayman Islands when they heard her father was in trouble. And they moved to the U.S. to help out.

I joined them one morning as they inspected the drinking water system at Syringa in a small concrete shed. They were meeting with an engineer about how to improve it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, did you lower the flow of the pump so that it pumps less water?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It's not a flow issue. It's a pressure issue. I believe that's...

ZWERDLING: Shelley Magar says her father is letting them take charge.

MAGAR: My dad is definitely a businessman, and I think that his intentions have always been good but that he's always been super cheap. Growing up, we didn't do family vacations. We didn't have a really nice house. Like, it was a struggle to get him to pay for back-to-school shopping. The level of that, like, cheapness was just crazy.

ZWERDLING: But she says now, we're going to make Syringa nice again. Some residents believe her. Others say, don't be fooled. Whatever happens, it spotlights the biggest problem with manufactured housing communities. The residents are at the owners' mercy when it comes to their daily quality of life.

D. TACHELL: Ok, Kiddos, now, who wanted the Ho Ho?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Me.

ZWERDLING: I was visiting Dawn Tachell one evening, and a group of neighborhood kids trooped up to her door. A lot of residents here are demoralized. They've let weeds grow around their houses. There are piles of old plastic lawn chairs and broken toys. But Tachell wants children to know they can find a little light here.

D. TACHELL: Now, are you going to be nice today?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yes.

D. TACHELL: And are you going to respect the other kids around in the park?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yes, yes.

D. TACHELL: Your favorite peanut butter and chocolate cookie as always.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yes.

D. TACHELL: And you play nice today, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: OK.

D. TACHELL: No fighting.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: OK.

D. TACHELL: OK?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: OK.

D. TACHELL: All right, love you.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Unintelligible).

ZWERDLING: Just before I left, Syringa, I asked Tachell and other residents one more question. Why don't you move someplace else? And here's their answer. The park is so rundown that they can't sell their houses for more than a fraction of what they paid. And despite the nickname mobile home, it costs thousands of dollars to move one. Residents like Tachell say they can't afford it.

In some ways, it sounds like you're trapped.

D. TACHELL: You could say that. If I were to abandon my trailer, there's no place for me to go except into a homeless shelter. I'm not going back there again.

ZWERDLING: Tomorrow, residents of a mobile home park in Minnesota climb out of their trap. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: This is part one of our two-part series on living in mobile home parks. Tune in tomorrow for part two. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.