How Mobile Home Park Owners Can Spoil An Affordable American Dream Water and sewage problems at an Idaho mobile home park illustrate how manufactured housing communities owned by outsiders are often kept in a state of disrepair.
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Mobile Home Park Owners Can Spoil An Affordable American Dream

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Mobile Home Park Owners Can Spoil An Affordable American Dream

Mobile Home Park Owners Can Spoil An Affordable American Dream

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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