Across the Northwest, some families will spend Christmas in rented mobile homes where the living conditions are marginal at best and dangerous at worst.
So who’s inspecting these manufactured homes? It turns out that they fall into a regulatory gray area.
The word “estate” conjures images of manicured lawns and sweeping terraces. Evergreen Mobile Estates near Shelton, Washington has a very different feel. The moss-streaked single-and-double wides stand cheek-by-jowl, along with the occasional broken window and a general look of dilapidation.
'The only place we could really afford'
Aretta Darling and her fiancé Dennis McCallum have been living at Evergreen Mobile Estates since May. McCallum said, “It’s the only place we could really afford at the time.”
McCallum is a recovering addict who was previously evicted from an apartment and for a time was homeless. The rent here is $675 a month. To McCallum it feels like a lot for not much.
McCallum showed how the front wall was detaching from the floor. He then shut the front door and pointed out light coming in through gaps between the door and the wall.
“You can see the light all the way through the doors,” he said. “It’s hard to keep it warm in here because of all this.”
To keep warm, McCallum and his fiancé sometimes light a fire in the wood stove that occupies a corner of the cramped living room. But they worry about burning the place down. The stove sits just a few inches from the wall and there’s no fireproof backing.
McCallum believes this trailer is borderline habitable. But he’s been reluctant to call the county and say, ‘hey come inspect this place.’
“I’ve thought about it,” he said. “But if I do that then we probably wouldn’t have a place to live because they’d end up condemning this place, but we’d have no place to go then.”
Who has jurisdiction?
At least that’s what he’s afraid of. But even if McCallum did call to report the condition of his rental, he might not get very far.
Debbie Riley, the environmental health manager at Mason County Public Health, said her department deals with outdoor health issues. But she said when it comes to the interior condition of rental properties, “At this point in time Mason County Public Health hasn’t stepped into that arena.”
At the county building department, the lone code enforcement officer there said she has a backlog of 1,500 complaints from across the county and said the Washington Department of Labor and Industries has some jurisdiction over mobile homes.
Agency spokesman Matthew Erlich said, “There’s no doubt that there are substandard mobile home parks out there”
But Erlich said his agency doesn’t have jurisdiction over the condition of the homes.
“We don’t condemn or determine if something is habitable,” he explained. “That would be the local authority.”
Options for recourse are complicated
Labor and Industries has conducted safety inspections when requested to by local officials. That happened in 2011 at a trailer park in Yakima County. The Yakima Herald reported at the time that L&I found 75-pages worth of problems “including leaky roofs, rotted floors, plumbing and electrical hazards.” But those sorts of sweeps are rare.
Leslie Owen, a senior attorney with the Northwest Justice Project in Olympia, said Washington’s Landlord-Tenant Act does give renters some avenues of recourse.
“But,” she added, “they’re so complicated that very few tenants can make use of them.”
So Owen said renters often just put up with the conditions. Or they start withholding rent and get evicted.
“And in court these people are trying to tell judges all about the horrible conditions that exist,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter because a judge is basically saying ‘you didn’t pay your rent and I don’t have any choice.’”
'They’re affordable and we take care of them'
There is another side to this story.
“We’re filling a need for affordable housing in Mason County, Washington,” said Darlene Pennock, the co-owner of Evergreen Mobile Estates. Pennock said it’s a constant battle to keep mobile homes that are 30, 40, even 50 years old inhabitable. Especially because of the wear and tear tenants put on them.
But she rejected the suggestion that her rentals are sub-standard.
“They might be old, they might not be pretty, but they’re affordable and we take care of them,” Pennock said. “We want our properties safe.”
Washington law requires that landlords keep their rentals “fit for human habitation” and “in reasonably good repair.” Pennock insisted her mobile homes pass this test. But she knows not everyone agrees.
“I’ve been called a slumlord,” she admitted. “Yes, more than once.”
She added, “I can’t let it get to me because I know I am not doing that.”
As for the problems her current tenants pointed out, Pennock said she was unaware of those issues and promised to have her maintenance person “get right on it.”
Since then the issues with the wall and stove have been addressed.