Legal Aid clients threatened with eviction after appearing in exposé about skyrocketing rents in mobile home parks owned by Time Out Communities
|IN THE NEWS|
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Update, Sept. 16, 2019: The Associated Press quoted Legal Aid NC attorney Nicole Mueller in a September 15 article about investors buying up mobile home parks around the country. Read the article.
Update, Aug. 1, 2019: One of our clients featured in the Associated Press articles discussed below appeared on The Weather Channel’s Weather Underground program July 31 to describe her struggle with Time Out Communities. Watch the segment.
LUMBERTON • July 18, 2019—Minutes before the Robeson County Courthouse closed on July 9, a representative from Time Out Communities, a Florida company that owns more than 20 mobile home parks in Robeson County, filed eviction proceedings against two of its tenants.
While evictions of tenants living in Time Out parks are nothing new—in fact, they are increasingly common—the timing of these two evictions is notable.
Only hours earlier, the Associated Press had published an article about skyrocketing rents in Time Out parks—an article in which both tenants were prominently featured.
“I interpret it as just way too coincidental that they would be doing that,” Nicole Mueller, our attorney who represents the two tenants, told the Associated Press for its follow-up article on July 11. “To me it seems retaliatory that they were giving these clients more time to pay or to figure out other situations … until they saw this news story.”
Our two clients, James Lesane and Shirley Pittman, are longtime residents of parks owned by Time Out Communities. Both are elderly and survive entirely on disability benefits. Neither can afford the $465 a month that Time Out is now charging for lot rent, which covers only the plots of land on which their mobile homes sit.
For Lesane, the new lot rent is more than triple the $150 a month he used to pay. The increase is only slightly less steep for Pittman, who previously paid $210 a month. After the new rents took effect, both continued to pay their old rents—all they could afford—while looking for new places to live.
The arrangement seemed to be working—Time Out allowed both tenants to remain in their homes—until the Associated Press article came out.
The company claims that the eyebrow-raising timing of the eviction filings was indeed a coincidence. Time Out told the Associated Press that it had “begun working on the paperwork for both eviction notices prior to the article’s publication” and that “many other eviction notices were filed on the same day.”
Whatever the company’s motivations, the end result for Lesane and Pittman is the same grim reality: the real possibility of impending homelessness. For now, the tenants are in an anxious holding pattern while they await their July 24 eviction hearings in small claims court.
Thankfully, they will not be alone. By their side that day will be Nicole Mueller, their Legal Aid lawyer. Mueller is an attorney with our Disaster Relief Project. She and two of her fellow disaster-relief lawyers, Katashia Cooper and Emma Smiley, joined by colleagues in our Pembroke office, have handled about 100 Time Out cases since last spring. The NC Justice Center is also representing Time Out tenants.
There are plenty of cases to go around. Mass evictions of Time Out tenants have become routine, as the company has bought up nearly two dozen parks in the county over the last few years, subjecting an increasing number of tenants to its remorseless business model.
According to its website, Time Out now owns 21 mobile home parks in Robeson County, 19 of which are in Lumberton and one each of which are in Fairmont and Shannon. Relying on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Associated Press reports that Time Out’s properties contain 1,200 mobile home lots.
Attracted by the lowered property values caused by Hurricane Matthew, the company swooped into the area in 2017 and began buying up properties by the bushel, only to jack up the lot rents to an unaffordable level for the existing tenants, resulting in an eviction crisis.
Possibly due to the breakneck pace at which Time Out is filing them, not all of the company’s evictions are legal.
“That’s where we come in,” wrote Candace Harke, managing attorney of our Pembroke office, in an op-ed in The Robesonian from March.
“Companies have the right to profit, but they absolutely do not have the right to break the law,” she wrote.
From Harke’s op-ed:
In several cases, a court has ruled that tenants did not receive proper notice of lease termination — a step that landlords must take before initiating eviction proceedings — and did not receive that notice within the timeframe required by state law.
Tenants are also facing habitability issues — paying inflated rents for homes that are run-down and in need of repair, dangerously so in some cases — and are being offered complex rent-to-own contracts with unclear terms that many residents do not understand.