It had been 54 days as of Friday that residents of Lightner Creek Mobile Home Park have been unable to take a shower in their own homes, use their own washing machines or clean dishes without first boiling water.
About 85 people occupy about 40 mobile homes in the park, and none have had running water since Feb. 13.
La Plata County will host a forum Tuesday evening for residents of the park to provide information regarding the tenants’ rights and resources available to them. Representatives from Colorado Legal Services, Housing Solutions of the Southwest and 9to5 Colorado will present at the event.
In the weeks that have passed since the water system failed, the park’s owner, Darlene Mann, has been summoned to court and ordered to explain her violation of a state cease-and-desist order. A judge also ordered that Mann provide bottled water, portable toilets and reimbursement for expenses incurred by tenants as a result of the outage.
The ability of the county to intervene is limited, given that mobile home parks fall under the jurisdiction of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs’ Division of Housing.
“Our board is very concerned with housing, especially workforce and affordable housing. And there’s only so much that you can do, but this is something we think we can do,” said county spokesman Ted Holteen. “We provide the opportunity to connect the residents with these folks and hopefully they get the information that they need.”
But, from the muck and the mud in which the park’s impotent water lines lie, a reluctant champion has emerged.
Chris Hamilton took control of the park on April 1 per the terms of a lease agreement with Mann. Hamilton is under contract to buy the park pending a decision from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on a proposal to fix the inadequate wastewater treatment system.
Hamilton, a nonpracticing attorney, owns a liquor store in Durango with his wife and is involved in various other real estate enterprises.
The lease gives Hamilton the opportunity to take an active hand in the park’s management, including the repairs to the water system. Although the terms dictate that Mann remains financially responsible for the repairs, Hamilton has little faith that she will repay him for the work, the cost of which has reached well into five figures.
Although just a week has passed since he took control, the park has been nothing short of a nightmare for Hamilton. He traded his suit and tie for rubber boots and jeans last week and spent every day at the park with his brother Eric Hamilton, an engineer from Washington.
On Thursday, Eric Hamilton manned the controls of an excavator as Chris gently scooped rock and mud with a shovel as the two tried to uncover a freshly laid water line.
After weeks of work, the contractor that Mann originally hired to fix the water system, DAK Well Service and Drilling, was unable to do so. Hamilton said the contractors had found multiple leaks in the water line, but were confident on March 31 they had all been repaired.
A pressurization test failed that day, indicating other leaks are likely to be found farther down the pipe.
In the meantime, a brand-new section of water pipe runs directly behind several units but cannot service the homes because of the odd configuration of the system.
“It runs in a spiral,” Chris Hamilton said with confused exasperation.
Hamilton recruited a handful of handy friends to help with the project.
“If anybody wants to help, we’d sure appreciate it,” he said.
Although the well pump is located behind unit 7, units 2 to 7 do not receive water until the pipe has snaked its way through most of the park.
There was a miscommunication between the Hamiltons and DAK’s project foreman, Fermin Telamante, regarding whether the contractors would fully bury the line before pressure testing the system; when the system would not pressurize, it was too late to do anything because the pipe had already been fully buried under several feet of material.
And so, the two brothers were excavating on Thursday with as much speed as they could, hindered by the imperative that they not crack the fresh pipe, in an attempt to restore water to at least some residents.
On top of the excavation, the Hamiltons also had to contend with warming temperatures, which sent a deluge of snowmelt toward the creek. The pipe laid just weeks ago is now submerged in over a foot of groundwater, which had to be actively pumped out while welders work.
By Friday, the Hamiltons had excavated portions of the new line, pressurized it and made significant progress toward restoring water service to some units.
Eric Hamilton said he was hopeful he could restore water service to units 2 to 7 on Saturday, but this would be dependent on his ability to clear a blockage in the sewer lines, which have also been a continuous source of problems.
When asked if he regrets taking over the park, Chris Hamilton is quick respond: “Oh, yeah.”
“If we run out of money, we’re done,” he said.
And although the lease is month-to-month, the weary business owner said he is sticking with it to try to keep the park running.
“We just think we can save it,” Eric Hamilton said from the driver’s seat of the excavator. “No one has paid attention that knew what they were doing for a long time.”
Although their taps are still dry, residents of the park are pleased to see their new would-be landlord at work and say his oversight has ushered in a new era of transparency.
Mobile home park speculation can raise red flags for tenants, who can end up on the losing side of things if developers move in. Many residents own their mobile homes, but not the land underneath them. The costs associated with moving a mobile home can be prohibitively high, and so developers can effectively force homeowners to forfeit their largest asset.
Hamilton has been clear with tenants since the beginning that he and his family have no interest in razing the property. Rather, they hope to make a return on their investment while maintaining the park’s units as affordable housing.
“Chris and (his wife) Molly are good people,” said resident Joey Haas from the porch of his mobile home.
Haas’ wife Amy Haas is working for Hamilton as the park’s new manager.
Despite the Hamiltons’ best efforts, the residents are still weary of living without water. When residents want a shower, they must make a 6.4-mile drive to the Durango Community Recreation Center.
“At least they’re still letting us shower for free there,” Haas said. “But I would still like to take a shower in my own house.”
He and his wife are still boiling water to wash dishes.
“It’s not ideal, but it’s what we’ve got for now,” he said.
Haas said his family has incurred upward of $1,500 in expenses from the water outage, some of which will be credited to them in the form of a rent abatement.
Tuesday’s event hosted by La Plata County will connect tenants to resources that may assist them in recovering some expenses from Mann.
Lindsay Marshall, the managing attorney at the Durango office of Colorado Legal Services, said she is not sure what exactly tenants might need or what legal assistance CLS would provide.
The Colorado Mobile Home Park Act has enshrined into law certain rights regarding habitability. The director of the Mobile Home Park Oversight Program at DOLA has already sought to enforce the law in court, but tenants also have standing.
“I want to give kind of an outline of what I think some of the claims could be and then really encourage people to apply with us or to other knowledgeable attorneys to really assess their individual situations,” she said.
The forum will occur at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the La Plata County Administration building located at 1101 East Second Ave.