When about 85 residents lost water for two months in the Lightner Creek Mobile Home Park earlier this year west of Durango, there was little anyone could do.
Two days after the Feb. 13 outage, the park’s owner, Darlene Mann, received a cease-and-desist order from Christina Postolowski, manager of the Mobile Home Park Oversight Program. The order compelled Mann to comply with the various sections of the Mobile Home Park Act by repairing the water system, providing water to residents until service was restored, repairing a blocked sewer line and fully cleaning up a spill of raw sewage on park property.
When Mann did not comply with the order, an assistant attorney general acting on behalf of the Oversight Program filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against her on Feb. 22. The order, which was granted Feb. 28, effectively asked the court to order Mann’s compliance under threat of contempt charges.
The hasty response of the program, which sits within the Colorado Department of Local Affairs’ Division of Housing, was enabled by a 2022 amendment to the Mobile Home Park Act. The act, passed in 2019, enshrined into law a host of new rights for residents of mobile home parks and created the Oversight Program as an enforcement mechanism.
However, the situation at the Lightner Creek Mobile Home Park tested the state’s capabilities to enforce the law over an unruly and inattentive owner.
With the passage of the Mobile Home Park Act in 2019, the Legislature created the Oversight Program. Postolowski was selected to manage the new program, and has seen its staff grow from two people, at its inception, to 10.
The program oversees 730 mobile home parks in Colorado, in which approximately 100,000 people live.
The Oversight Program is funded through registration fees. According to the act, park owners must register and pay an annual fee of $24 per pad upon which a privately owned mobile home sits. Landlords may pass up to half that fee on to the homeowner.
Of the nine staff members working under Postolowski, four make up a complaint team responsible for responding to and resolving resident complaints. Two staff members are devoted to facilitating park registration, another two are compliance investigators and one person monitors and facilitates mobile home park sales.
Postolowski said most of the complaints the program receives are due to either maintenance issues or improper attempted evictions.
“Last fiscal year we received a larger number of complaints around notices that homeowners were given where the landlord was saying they were going to terminate the homeowners’ tenancy,” Postolowski said. “... Unlike other rental situations where a landlord can terminate a renters’ tenancy basically for any lease violation or when the lease is up, state law in Colorado has stronger protections for when you own your home and rent the land under it because it’s a lot harder to own your home.”
Those protections, and creation of a body to help enforce them, are a lifeline for mobile homeowners. The cost of moving a mobile home can be in the ballpark of $10,000, and many parks will not accept older homes, leaving evicted homeowners with nowhere to go.
Lindsay Marshall, managing attorney at Colorado Legal Services’ Durango office, said the law has clarified the procedures a landlord must follow when pursuing an eviction as well as the rights tenants have in such circumstances.
“We’ve seen a huge positive outcome from it for tenants,” Marshall said. “The specific language that has to go in the notice from park owners to mobile homeowners in parks which alerts people of added protections and rights that they have, that didn’t exist before the act, (is) really important.”
Although CLS helps those facing eviction, its staff is not equipped to address maintenance issues in mobile home parks.
“People will call us and say, ‘I’m in a mobile home park and the landlord isn’t taking care of the tree issues and it’s causing damage on my home,’ and we’ll just say, ‘Call the Mobile Home (Park) Oversight Program,’” Marshall said. “(We used to) say, ‘That’s not something we would necessarily get involved in, I don’t have a resource to send you to, talk to the landlord.’”
Despite ample staffing and new enforcement mechanisms, Lightner Creek tested the limits of the Mobile Home Park Oversight Program’s reach.
During the hearings that took place in late February and early March over Mann’s lack of compliance with the Mobile Home Park Act, Postolowski testified that she spent over 20 hours per week for a month working on the Lightner Creek situation alone.
“This was one of the bigger cases that we’ve had to work on,” Postolowski said. “I also think it’s a bit unique for me to be personally involved as much in a case, but this was a high priority given that folks were without drinking water.”
Despite having devoted resources to oversee the park, state officials still hit a wall – they were demanding that Mann provide resources that she could not afford.
During hearings about the park’s lack of compliance with the Mobile Home Park Act, 6th Judicial District Judge Kim Shropshire, who spent close to two decades as an attorney at Colorado Legal Services, made comments that spoke to the statute’s limitations.
Although state officials testified that each resident needed to receive 20 gallons of potable water per day – a finding that Shropshire supported – Mann’s attorney told the judge that Mann simply had no way to pay for that amount of water, which was likely to cost $5,000 per day.
The issue of reimbursement presented an even more formidable challenge, from a legal perspective.
Under the Mobile Home Park Act, residents are entitled to reimbursement for expenses incurred as a result of the outage.
Lightner Creek residents, many of whom live paycheck-to-paycheck, requested that they receive a rent abatement rather than reimbursement, absolving them of the need to find cash for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars worth of additional expenses.
But in comments made before her ruling, Shropshire indicated that although she would like to find a way to mandate a rent abatement, the statute was “too unclear” on the matter.
A rent abatement could have left tenants vulnerable to eviction, Shropshire warned.
“There’s not much to go on,” she said of the statute.
Ultimately, it was a private third-party with the money and will to effectively takeover the park that led to the restoration of water services, two months after sinks stopped running.
Chris Hamilton, a Durango property owner and nonpracticing attorney, leased the park from Mann and proceeded to invest thousands of dollars as well as his own time and energy into fixing the water system.
“This seems like a unique situation to me,” Postolowski said of Hamilton’s intervention. “But the program is still so new I don’t have very much to compare it to.”
Although Postolowski said there are some funding opportunities for nonprofit or government-owned parks, few options exist for for-profit owners. There is, she said, a low-interest loan program that typically comes with some rent-restriction provisions.
In an email to The Durango Herald, Mann’s attorney, John Seibert, said that Mann inquired about these opportunities and was referred to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which informed her “she could not get an emergency loan or grant to complete the repairs.”
Even with the laws as they stand, Postolowski said the program has a backlog of over 300 unresolved complaints.
“We have been working really hard to increase staffing for the program to ensure we have adequate staff to address the complaints that have been coming in,” Postolowski said. “But we do have an outstanding case backlog, and that is challenging.”
A previous version of this article misstated the number of people estimated to live in mobile homes in Colorado. There are approximately 100,000 people living in 50,000 mobile homes.