Mobile Home Park Residents Sue Their Corporate Landlord : Consider This from NPR A lot of mobile homes aren't actually that mobile. They're brought in trucks in big pieces, then screwed together and put up on foundations.

At that point they're basically just houses, with one major exception: the people who own those houses, if they live in a mobile home park, often don't own the land underneath them.

That can leave them at the mercy of the big companies that own and manage the mobile home parks.

NPR's Chris Arnold and Robert Benincasa have the story of a group of residents who are suing their corporate landlord, and what it might say about the mobile home industry in America.

You can read an in-depth version of the story here.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

How Owning A Mobile Home Can Leave You On Shaky Ground

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

So the thing about mobile homes is they're often not really that mobile. Usually, they're brought in trucks and big pieces. And then they're screwed together and put up on foundations. And at that point, they're basically just houses. Except the people who own those houses, if they live in a mobile home park, then they don't own the land underneath them. And that can leave them in a pinch if things go wrong. Just ask Mike Noel.

MIKE NOEL: I thought I was moving to paradise and, you know, beautiful weather. And I could fish 12 months of the year instead of three or four months, like in Rhode Island.

SHAPIRO: Noel retired five years ago, and he moved from Rhode Island to a mobile home community in Vero Beach, Fla. It's called Heritage Plantation. He spent most of his modest retirement savings buying the home. It's smaller than his old place, and it needed some repairs. But it's just 20 minutes from the ocean, and it felt like a fresh start. Then it started to rain.

NOEL: The first time it flooded here, it was like, holy crap, this is not good.

SHAPIRO: Noel says whenever a hard rain came through, the roads and driveways flooded, and it wouldn't drain away for hours or sometimes days.

NOEL: When the 10th time that it flooded, well, I had started reaching my limits. Because now it wasn't just two, three, four or five inches, it was two feet or a foot.

SHAPIRO: Residents say the water has damaged their homes and is often deep enough that people get trapped in their houses. Some are elderly. They say emergency vehicles have refused to respond to calls due to the flooding.

NOEL: The people across the street are in their 90s. I know people that couldn't get to their chemotherapy appointments.

SHAPIRO: Mike Noel and some of his neighbors say the stormwater drainage system in their mobile home park has been broken for years. And they say the company that owns the park and owns the land that their houses sit on has ignored complaints and failed to fix it. Some of these residents are suing, alleging these and other problems in their lawsuit. The company called Equity Lifestyle Partners is defending itself against that lawsuit and denies wrongdoing.

CONSIDER THIS - millions of Americans live in mobile home parks, sometimes because it's the only option they can afford. That can leave them at the mercy of the big companies that own the land underneath their houses. A group of residents in Heritage Plantation is going to court to try to tip the balance.

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SHAPIRO: From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Monday, September 12.

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SHAPIRO: It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. Two NPR reporters, Chris Arnold and Robert Benincasa, have done a lot of reporting on the mobile home park industry over the past couple years. And this lawsuit brought by Mike Noel and his neighbors against their corporate landlord Equity Lifestyle Partners, or ELS, well, it caught their eye because the allegations from the residents, they sound like the same sort of problems that critics say are systemic in the industry. Chris and Robert pick it up from here.

CHIRS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Millions of Americans live in mobile home parks and many desperately need this affordable housing option. But in recent years, big companies have been buying up mobile home parks around the country.

ROBERT BENINCASA, BYLINE: And critics say some are making enormous profits, collecting and raising rents on their often lower income residents without spending enough money even on basic upkeep.

ARNOLD: Complaints about mobile home park companies range from sewage backups, water and power outages and, in some cases, aggressive eviction policies and unfair business practices.

BETH FEGAN: They're taking advantage of a group of people that really don't have the resources to fight against it.

BENINCASA: That's Beth Fegan, an attorney whose law firm sued Harvey Weinstein as part of the #MeToo movement. Mike Noel and some other residents managed to track her down.

ARNOLD: And she took the case. She's filed a lawsuit in federal court against ELS.

FEGAN: It's a nationwide company that knows it's wrong and won't do anything about it.

BENINCASA: ELS is a multibillion-dollar publicly traded company that lists about 200 mobile home parks in its portfolio. It also owns RV parks and marinas. Its net income was about $263 million last year.

ARNOLD: Fegan says the problems with mobile home parks go way beyond this one individual case.

FEGAN: We're trying to right a wrong that we see that is systemic in an industry and really use it as an example to let the industry know that we're going to come after them, right? If they don't put the money in to maintain the infrastructure in these parks, that we're willing to take on that fight.

BENINCASA: She says in the case of the residents at the Vero Beach park...

FEGAN: The park knows that they cannot pick up their home and leave. And so these complaints have really just gone ignored.

BENINCASA: The manager at the ELS park wouldn't talk to us when we visited. ELS said in a statement that homeowners are free to sell their homes and often do. ELS says that the lawsuit misrepresents conditions at the park and that the company invests in it to ensure it remains a desirable neighborhood.

ARNOLD: ELS also says that the suit only involves three residents out of the hundreds who live there. But that's not really true. Technically, there are three plaintiffs, but 27 residents signed court papers in support of the lawsuit getting class-action status. And Beth Fegan says more than 75 answered questionnaires to help her with the case. We did meet with some residents, though, who don't support the lawsuit.

BENINCASA: I'm Robert.

ARNOLD: Hi, I am Chris.

JEAN BRUCE: I'm Jean.

ARNOLD: Nice to meet you.

J BRUCE: You're Chris?

ARNOLD: Yeah.

J BRUCE: Hi.

ARNOLD: Hi. Richard?

DICK BRUCE: Dick.

ARNOLD: Nice to meet you.

J BRUCE: Yeah, he prefers Dick.

ARNOLD: Dick and Jean Bruce welcome us into their really nice manufactured home here. They've got an antique banjo clock on the wall - it was her grandfather's - and other keepsakes.

BENINCASA: Dick is a former head of the park's homeowner's association, and he's not a big fan of this lawsuit.

D BRUCE: I'm not an advocate, per se, for ELS. I'm just going to say that they're not as bad as what some folks will make it sound like.

ARNOLD: The couple's retired, and they worry that forcing the company to spend more money will result in the company charging them higher rent for the land underneath their home.

J BRUCE: I'm not saying I don't want the flooding fixed, but we need to be aware of what we are asking for and what we may get. We're on a fixed income, but we've seen our rent go up every year.

BENINCASA: The Bruces tell NPR they recently moved out of Heritage Plantation because of differences with their neighbors about the lawsuit. They also say the flooding isn't as bad as it used to be. In its statement, ELS says it has already spent more than $300,000 improving the storm drain system over the last three years and that it is, quote, "fully operational and compliant."

ARNOLD: Some residents say it seemed to them, though, that major repairs only started happening after the homeowners here began organizing and meeting with lawyers. And they say there is still a flooding problem.

BENINCASA: ELS wouldn't do an interview, but a former ELS board member and current shareholder, Michael Torres, agreed to talk. He says collecting rents without having a lot of expenses is exactly what makes mobile home parks a good investment.

MICHAEL TORRES: It's just basically resurfacing roads and having a shared community center. You don't own walls and roofs.

ARNOLD: The residents have to fix their own roofs.

BENINCASA: Torres now manages more than $2 billion through his company, Adelante Capital Management. It invests in publicly traded real estate investment trusts, like ELS.

TORRES: I consider it kind of the gold standard of investing in property.

ARNOLD: And Torres doesn't seem to have too much sympathy for the homeowners at the park in Florida.

TORRES: Streets flood. You know, you chose that community, buyer beware. It's like people that move next to a school and complain about the noise. I mean, there's always basically somebody that has, you know, some complaint.

BENINCASA: Torres says nobody forces residents to buy homes in a particular park. He was not speaking on behalf of the company but adds...

TORRES: I mean, unfortunately, it's called the landlord for a reason.

ARNOLD: Meaning, the landlord controls the universe there and their tenants are at their mercy, basically.

TORRES: Pretty much. Pretty much.

BENINCASA: As for the lawsuit, Torres says he doesn't know all the facts, but he's not particularly worried about it as an investor in ELS.

TORRES: It's a nuisance. It's just part of the cost of doing business.

ARNOLD: OK, maybe. But the lawsuit says that ELS is responsible for providing an adequate stormwater drainage system. This case involves the residents at this one ELS park. But NPR spoke to a former manager, Ann (ph), at a different ELS park in Florida. She described very similar problems.

ANN: We would have constant flooding, and we would have, like, catfish swimming in the roads.

BENINCASA: Ann says she worked there for several years until 2017 and doesn't want to use her whole name for fear of hurting her ability to get another job. She says sometimes people would get stuck in their homes at that park, too, because the water was too deep to drive through.

ANN: They wouldn't be able to leave because if they did try, the water would then get into their engine.

BENINCASA: How often did this happen?

ANN: Any time it rained heavily.

ARNOLD: Ann says, as the park manager, she repeatedly asked ELS to fix the flooding problems.

ANN: Oh, at least three times a year. But we never received any kind of response, basically saying that there was, like, nothing that they can really do.

ARNOLD: This is not the first time that residents have banded together to sue ELS.

BENINCASA: Jim Allen is a lawyer in California who brought a case involving an ELS park there in 2009. He remembers there were kids in that park, and his suit alleged the playground was dangerous.

JIM ALLEN: It had sharp edges. It had a slide you couldn't use. They had a lake, and the lake basically stunk. It was just - it was putrid.

ARNOLD: Allen says there are so many mobile home parks neglecting residents that representing residents is now the heart of his law practice. In the case of the California ELS park, he alleged that the electrical system in the park was shot, power would go out to the homes regularly, sewage backed up in some houses.

BENINCASA: And there's something else. Allen argued in the trial that ELS had a bonus structure that incentivized managers to squeeze out more profits by forgoing maintenance.

ALLEN: So what happens then is, you know, you want to get your bonus so you don't authorize repairs. And that's why it was such a rundown condition.

ARNOLD: ELS says that it encourages park managers to act in the best interests of the property and the residents and that the manager at the Heritage Plantation Park in Florida received her full bonus last year, despite the property being overbudget.

BENINCASA: In addition to the lawsuit at that park, the local government has gotten involved. Indian River County has been fining ELS $100 a day because the broken stormwater system appears to be dumping water into county sewers. When we visited the park, we met with Joe Earman, a county commissioner.

JOE EARMAN: I think as of today, they're up to owing the county $146,700 because basically their stormwater is going in our sewer system.

ARNOLD: ELS says it's repaired the problem and is now working to resolve the issue with the county. But Earman says it shouldn't take 20 years for the flooding problems residents have been struggling with here to get fixed.

EARMAN: It's frustrating to me as a county commissioner because how about you just do the right thing? This company needs to fix the stormwater issue here, and I think they can afford it.

BENINCASA: In the California case, the residents eventually got a $10 million settlement, though ELS did not admit liability. But that took more than seven years. Beth Fegan expects the current case will go to trial in January.

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SHAPIRO: NPR's Robert Benincasa and Chris Arnold.

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SHAPIRO: It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.

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