There are no Rs and Ds in my community

Matt Chapman has been helping to organize neighbors since residents of his mobile home park recently received notice that rent will go up by some 69 percent in June. -promoted by Laura Belin

The evictions have started where I live at Midwest Country Estates in Waukee. The new owners, Havenpark Capital, have a business model devoid of any compassion or even a passing concern for the elderly and vulnerable in the mobile home park they purchased. They made a promise to the shareholders, and apparently there is no room for empathy when dividends are being maximized.

THE COMMUNITY

Midwest Country Estates is a community of 300 households. It is one of the last areas of Waukee where you can own your own home if you are low-income. Most of these folks have worked and lived in this community for many years. Arletta Swain has been here since 1969.

Some bad actors live here. I imagine you have a few in your neighborhood, no matter how gentrified it is.

But most folks on the older side of the park are low-income, seniors, and/or disabled. Some attach a stigma to living here, but the president of Waukee’s Parks and Rec committee is a proud resident. I am an activist and lobbyist. I live here.

Many widows live in the community. My good friend Tom who is in his eighties just lost his wife of 50-plus years. I stop by when I can and watch some basketball with him. In addition to losing his wife, he explained to me the other day, he lost a lot of income. Then he learned his rent will go up by almost 70 percent.

The most heart-wrenching parts of our conversations are when he tells me how lonely he is. His deck needs a roof, and Havenpark will probably tell him to fix it or be in noncompliance.

There are folks suffering from cancer here. There are folks with heart disease, struggling for breath. There are retired folks on fixed incomes, who moved here because it was affordable. Now some must choose between rent, food, medicine, and utilities. Summer is coming.

THE PLAN

Havenpark’s plan appears to be to remove every home possible, including those in good shape. They don’t want the residents owning their own homes. They want to use investors’ money to buy manufactured homes in bulk. Then they can rent the home and land out, to double the income.

They will sell on contract. Whether they will be the exclusive seller hasn’t been established yet. If they can legally be exclusive, they will. If they can slip an adjustable-rate mortgage in there, they probably will do that too. When the house payment balloons and it becomes impossible to keep up, tenants may just walk away.

Then Havenpark could step in and start the cycle all over again.

It’s a simple plan, with many paths to implement it. Some are on the edge of legal.

THE STRATEGY

The previous management was kind to residents. For years, many community members who got their Social Security or other income at odd times could post-date checks. People would get behind as life happens, and the management would cut them some slack and let them get caught up.

But the new management claims they “never received” the post-dated checks. When the checks weren’t cashed, residents called the office. They were told to pay the $30 cancellation fee, and they would be billed the total amount owed the next billing cycle. That will teach them. The hope is that they won’t have the funds and will just give up.

Those who were behind got notices on their doors on April 9, saying they had three days to pay. This notice could easily confuse stressed-out residents. After three days, they will have 60 days to vacate. I am no lawyer, but that is my understanding so far. In a few weeks I will be able to answer any question on this section of the Iowa Code, but as far as I know, the three days are to address the violation.

A single mother called me in despair after Havenpark told her she would get an eviction notice. I gave her the number for Iowa Legal Aid and told her to call first thing in the morning. I stopped by her home the following day. Through tears, she showed me the notice left on her door. I got her to dial legal aid, and then went to meetings with three faith-based groups.

I have been doing a lot of that lately. I stopped by the state capitol on April 9 to network and lobby. As I wrote this post, I was listening to Democratic State Representative Mary Wolfe debate a workers’ compensation bill with GOP Representative Dave Deyoe who sponsored the bill. It is yet another attack on workers in Iowa. I urge you to watch that debate on the archived video footage. But I digress. [Editor’s note: Bleeding Heartland discussed that bill here.]

Residents were told they would have to have the VIN number to sign their new lease. The scheme was that older residents wouldn’t be able to find their VIN. I immediately raised the point that the county auditor or recorder would have that data. When I mentioned that to the regional manager, he got irritated. He knows I get the word out on these things to the community.

I was updating him on the work we were doing with the elderly and vulnerable. When I mentioned specific hardships like choosing between food and medicine, he stopped me and said, “That doesn’t concern us.”

We were told all leases and contracts were not turned over, which frightened residents, especially those buying on contracts, claiming they didn’t have them. With minimal digging, I discovered that they had been turned over to Dan Brick of Brick Gentry Law Firm, which handled the sale of this land to these jackals. Yesterday I informed the park manager Todd where he could find them.

The next assault will be on older homes that aren’t up to snuff in their eyes. It is illegal in Iowa to simply tell folks to move so they can place new manufactured housing there. For that reason, they must think of a reason to evict. They will search for every trick in the book to kick the elderly out of homes they thought they would finish their days in.

Shady handymen have been giving me the stink eye as they try to charge widows $3,000 to replace the skirting on their homes. They know I am looking to line up charitable groups to do that work instead. You get the idea: it’s all about greed.

HOW WE ARE FIGHTING BACK

When I learned about the rent hike nearly three weeks ago, I created a Facebook group and set up an email list. But the real contact was my phone.

I made fliers and on the day after the rent hike was announced, I hit around 50 doors in the oldest part of the park. I picked up a couple of volunteers who hit most of the other 300 homes.

That was the start to organizing, and I reached out to every group I knew from lobbying and reporting at the capitol. From United Way to faith-based groups, labor unions, Habitat for Humanity, and at least a dozen more.

I went with my new best friend, 91-year-old Arletta Swain, to the Waukee City Council meeting on April 1. She drove, since an organizer’s car is no place for a classy woman like Arletta.

At the meeting, Midwest Country Estates residents talked about the cruelty and realities of our situation. Council members decided to draft a stern letter to Havenpark (enclosed below). I invited all council members and the mayor, along with groups providing assistance, to attend our forum at the Hope Lutheran Waukee Church on April 4.

Two days before our forum, I caught the Havenpark regional manager in the office and asked if he or a representative could come. He was willing to send someone and asked for an agenda. I asked for contact information. The regional manager he said he would give it to me when Todd, the manager at our park, forwarded the agenda to him.

I explained that Havenpark had an hour, after which Legal Aid would take questions. His eyes got big for a second, then he nodded. They didn’t show, and I got no response.

Our Republican State Senator Charles Schneider and Democratic State Representative Kenan Judge showed up. So did Waukee Mayor Bill Peard. City council members Courtney Clarke and Charlie Bottenberg not only came to the forum, but stayed for the entire event. They were quiet and listened to their constituents, a sign of a politician truly concerned for the well-being of their constituents.

We hope this incident will bring affordable housing in Waukee up from the back burner. My neighbors have worked here for years and have every right to a secure and happy place to lay their heads at night. I have had many sleepless ones, and I can’t imagine what others are going through.

We signed many residents up for legal aid at the forum and have been canvassing to make sure everyone over age 60 is pre-approved before violation notices start flying. We need to at least slow down this process so we can help transition those who will be priced out into dignified housing.

It is a hard conversation to have with folks who thought they would live here for the rest of their lives. But they deserve truth and need to know what’s coming. We will protect them to the best of our ability and hold off the wolves at their door. Maybe we can lay some traps along the way.

FINAL THOUGHTS

On April 3, Democratic State Representative Amy Nielsen offered an amendment to a manufactured housing bill being debated on the Iowa House floor. Havenpark has purchased the Golfview Mobile Home Park in North Liberty, part of Nielsen’s district in Johnson County. Residents recently formed an association to fight the company’s planned 60 percent rent hike.

Nielsen’s amendment would have:

Clause 1
1. Required 180-day notice for any rent hike
2. Force landlords to hold a forum for residents when rent hikes are going to occur
3. Require the landlord to explain the rational for the raise in rent to either the city council or the county board of supervisors
Clause 2
1. If any rent was raised more than 5 percent, the tenant could break the lease at no fault

House Speaker Linda Upmeyer ruled the amendment not germane to the bill, a common tactic for the majority party to avoid voting on proposals offered the minority. Nielsen moved to suspect the rules to allow consideration of her amendment, but her motion failed along party lines. At least some members of the Iowa House acknowledged the need for a legal response to Havenpark’s predatory tactics.

I spoke to Upmeyer briefly in the rotunda on April 9. I told her what we are facing. She responded that no one had reached out to her. I told her Waukee’s Iowa House representative (Kenan Judge) had been trying to work across the aisle, but she indicated Democrats need to understand they are in the minority. We didn’t discuss the hardship these Iowans are going through.

The majority in my neighborhood right now isn’t Republican or Democrat. It is folks who are suffering a hardship, not pawns in a political game. If Upmeyer came and listened to us, she would not hear politics. She would hear folks coming together to address a crisis.

It is shameful to fall back on petty partisan politics and dismiss what is happening while 300 Iowa households are being exploited.

Elderly people are having to decide between food, rent, and medicine. Hard-working families are one check away from disaster. Veterans are despairing, more grief and misery piling on to the burden they already bear. This is their reward for putting their lives on the line to keep our country safe.

But at Midwest Country Estates, we are starting to get it. Political games (like falsely claiming Democrats want to outlaw cows) wear thin when you must go to a food pantry to feed you kids for the first time in your life. That is the fault of the power brokers, the lobbyists, and the politicians they own. They have pushed the workers in our communities to the verge of bankruptcy, even as they bust their butts.

There was no attack aimed at one side of the political spectrum in my community. Greed doesn’t see red or blue. Just green.

But we aren’t seeing blue or red here either. We are seeing the light, and we are catching on about who the problem is in my community. We will work hard to spread that message all over Iowa.

Top image: Photo by Matt Chapman of his home, used with permission.

Letter from Waukee Mayor Bill Peard:

  • John Oliver has something to say

    John Oliver’s This Week Tonight HBO program recently did a expose on the nefarious actions of predatory capitalism on taking advantage of those with few resources and fewer choices that are too often victims of the “free Market”. Worth a watch

    Seems that we should be enacting legislation recommended in the video (‘Right of 1st refusal’, etc) to give needed options for those 80% who only find bitter irony in the fact that their homes are not mobile.

    Warren Buffet is one of the biggest purveyors of deceitful contracts and false advertising via his Clayton Homes ownership. He likes to think he is not complicit but there is a reoccurring theme of him owning less than reputable companies like Clayton, Wells Fargo and Mid American Energy.

  • I read about one case...

    …of a sixty-year-old rural Iowa mobile home park that has a very old grossly-inadequate septic system that is polluting nearby water. It also has more mobile homes than its permit legally allows or that its waste system can handle. It’s also a place where low-income people live, and obviously those people are not to blame.

    I’ll bet there are other old mobile home parks with infrastructure/permit problems in rural areas across Iowa. As pointed out in the good post above, this is fundamentally about affordable housing and how we deal with the need for it as a society.

    The easiest thing for local governments to do is turn a blind eye to mobile home court problems and violations. But at some point, as has happened in this case, the situation may end up in court.

    In another Iowa case where the situation was so bad that the mobile home park did not even have potable water, the county made numerous attempts over a few years to work with the owner. But most residents were eventually forced to move out, and the park may have gone out of business, not sure. It had been locally known as a last-ditch housing option for people who had no other options.

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