Landlord Running a Slum

Residents of mobile home park accuse landlord of running a slum

Friday, October 31, 2014 10:13 PM

Edgar Cepeda has grown weary of driving over potholes and trenches in the community where he lives, not to mention the septic system backups that plague his home.
His neighbor, Carmen Gomez-Sotelo, is even more uneasy about the sewage that rises in the grass around her trailer and its effect on the health of her three young sons.
“It’s just sad,” she said through translator Byron Martinez. “Very sad.”
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Hispanic residents of Fair Oaks Mobile Home Park in Gastonia’s Smyre community say they are fed up with living in what amounts to squalor. The vast majority of the 34 families — including more than 40 children — do not speak English and are undocumented residents. They say their landlord has taken advantage of that by ignoring concerns about conditions in their neighborhood.
Many say relocating isn’t an option because they are scraping by on so little.
After the residents sought the help of a local Hispanic rights advocate this month, the park owner began attending to some of the problems. But tenants say other complaints have yet to be addressed, such as why they are being charged hundreds of dollars monthly for water and why their rent was recently raised.
“This is one of the worst parks I’ve ever visited,” said Martinez, who is representing the residents through Unidos We Stand, a nonprofit he operates with his two brothers. “These people haven’t known what resources they have or where to cry out for help.”
Fair Oaks Mobile Home Park LLC lists addresses in Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties.
An official who answered questions via email would identify himself only as “Terry.” He said the park’s owners are working to address all of the valid concerns expressed by residents.
He also said owners are only passing their own costs for water along to the residents and emphasized his belief that the lot rental rates are fair.
“The rental rates are set based upon factors including market conditions, vacancy rates and operations costs,” he said.
Trouble getting titles
Fair Oaks Mobile Home Park sits on the northern fringe of Gastonia. Fair Oaks Mobile Home Park LLC bought the land last year after a bank foreclosed on the property.
Most of the residents have lived there several years. They rent their lots for $260 a month — an amount that was raised from $240 a month in September without explanation. Many of them purchased their trailers that sit on those lots and pay annual property taxes but have yet to receive titles from the park owner.
Unidos We Stand came to the aid of Hispanic residents in a Dallas trailer park earlier this year after they were denied water service by the town. Residents of Fair Oaks heard about that and reached out to Martinez and his brothers, Carlos and Jose, for help.
Since they intervened, Fair Oaks has provided titles to about 10 of the residents. Others say they are still seeing roadblocks.
In an email, a Fair Oaks Mobile Home Park spokesman said the company owners have been working to obtain proper signatures that will hasten the process, as well as obtaining lien releases from banks that were involved dating back to the 1970s.
“We have gone far and beyond what is required of us to try and assist the residents in getting titles to their trailers transferred to them from the previous owners,” the emailed statement said.
Martinez said it shouldn’t have taken this long, and the owner demonstrated no urgency until recently.
“I think if they own the trailers and paid for them in full, (Fair Oaks) should release these titles to them,” he said.
City, county cite problems
The Martinez brothers have cataloged a number of issues at the park over recent weeks and contacted proper authorities in an effort to compel the owner to make improvements.
As a result, the city of Gastonia has issued violation notices for high grass, unkempt lots and debris, including old appliances, auto parts and junk vehicles. The city also instructed the owner to repair three connecting roads in the park that had become riddled with trenches and in some cases overgrown.
Bad road conditions could prevent police, fire or rescue vehicles from reaching homes there in an emergency, Gastonia Building Codes Administrator Brian Pruett said.
Pruett said the owner has agreed to make certain improvements. Most of the deeper road trenches have been filled in with gravel, and if ruts reappear, that will have to be done again, he said.
Unidos We Stand also asked the Gaston County Health Department to check septic systems on the property, since residents have complained of sewage seeping up through their yards for years. An inspector documented this week that three of the septic systems have failed.
“If (the owner) doesn’t address it in a timely manner and fix it, we’ll issue a violation notice,” said Samantha Dye, a county environmental health supervisor.
Byron Martinez believes the septic problems are more extensive. He filed a complaint with the N.C. Utilities Commission this month over the septic issues at the site, as well as the exorbitant water rates the residents say they are being charged.
After the park owner recently installed new water meters on each trailer, many residents have seen their bills double or even triple, stretching into the hundreds of dollars, Martinez said.
The Utilities Commission is currently investigating.
Investigation ongoing
Asked about the problems, the Fair Oaks official who responded by email said owners are charging for water adequately, using individual water meters they installed on each trailer. That water is fed into the park from two Ranlo-owned water taps at the park’s two entrances.
“We are confident the N.C. Utilities Commission will find nothing improper because we pass the exact same rate we are charged by the town of Ranlo on to the residents for every gallon of water they use, plus an allowable administrative fee of $4.14 per month,” the company said in an email. “Passing the cost of water on to the tenants encourages them to be mindful of water conservation. Prior to this, there was no incentive to not waste water, and some of the septic systems were overcome by the abuse.”
The health department confirmed the park owner has repaired a number of septic system fields since purchasing the property.
“And we regularly inspect the property with the county to ensure the systems are working properly and make repairs as needed,” the park official said in an email. “The conditions of the septic systems are greatly improved since we took over the property.”
Despite the improvements being made now, Martinez said there was no reason for residents to be ignored for so long.
“It’s inexcusable,” he said. “He should have known the moment he bought that park what conditions he should maintain to keep it clean.”
You can reach Michael Barrett at 704-869-1826 or on Twitter @GazetteMike.

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