Unjustified rent increases could be appealed

By MEG HECKMAN Monitor staff Article published Feb 3, 2005

When a spat erupts at a mobile home park over utility bills, noise complaints or even lawn ornaments, tenants and park owners can ask the state to step in. But when it comes to rent increases, park residents have two options: pay up or move out.

A bill introduced yesterday aims to change that, giving tenants the right to appeal unjustified rent increases to a special state board and, if necessary, superior court. Supporters say it’s the only way to keep mobile homes     affordable for elderly and low-income residents, especially as traditional housing costs continue to rise.

But park owners disagree. Dozens turned out to decry the bill, saying it could ruin their relationship with their tenants, cost thousands in legal fees and drive up rents even more. The crowd of about 100 overflowed into the State House hallway.      Most folks were against the bill, but a handful of frustrated mobile home residents championed the idea, some pleading tearfully with lawmakers. Donna McLennan said another increase in her lot rent will drive her out of the only home she can afford.

Two days ago, her monthly lot rent at Pembroke’s Silver Fox Estates went from $150 to $450, something she can’t afford on her retail worker’s salary.   Her husband’s medication is worth two weeks of pay, and bills take another two weeks of work to cover. The increase in lot price is an additional week and a half of pay. “In case you’re counting, that’s five and a half weeks, and I haven’t found a month that’s got that, and I still haven’t eaten or paid my oil,” she said. Moving out of the park would cost thousands, money she doesn’t have. “We’re so stuck, it isn’t funny.”

About 25,000 people live in New Hampshire’s 460 mobile home parks. They own their homes but pay rent on the land beneath them. When disagreements come up, tenants and park owners can ask the state’s Board of Manufactured Housing to intervene. For $25, board members will sort out the park’s rules and help reach a compromise.

Right now, state law forbids the board from getting involved with rent increases or evictions. But that would change if this bill passes. If a tenant felt a rent increase were unjustified, the board could intervene.    Increases to cover legitimate expenses like taxes or repairs would be exempt.

Most park owners said they increase rents just enough to cover property taxes and maintenance.     But Paul Bradley, a representative of the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund, said a growing number of out-of-state investors are buying parks and increasing rents to turn larger profits.

“Times have changed,” he said. “Parks are no longer owned by mom and pop. . . .  Our challenge is with the coming waves of investors.” Local park owners bristled, saying the bill would just make it harder for them to hold on to their businesses. Property taxes, zoning laws and liability insurance are already spurring many longtime park owners to sell their land to developers or out-of-state companies.

“It’s the most regulated and controlled housing in the state of New Hampshire,” said James Bianco, a representative of the New Hampshire Manufactured Housing Association. Appeals mean legal fees, and park owners would have to pass that cost to their tenants, he said.    “This is going to make people raise the rents higher than they normally would.” But some lawmakers stressed that honest park owners wouldn’t have to worry about the law.

“It does not hurt the park owners who behave themselves. They’ve got nothing to be afraid of, “said Sen. Robert Flanders, an Antrim Republican and the bill’s sponsor. He called comparisons between his bill and rent control “baloney,” saying he only wanted to protect people from losing their homes. “People have their life savings in these things.”


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