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Redford trailer park tenants sue owner over 'neglect,' 'blighted conditions'

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Redford Township — Mary Eahrow says she's eating just once a day and pinching her pennies after the cost of rent nearly doubled for her trailer home.

The 81-year-old, who suffers from a heart condition, has lived in this township mobile home community for more than 40 years. For much of that time, Eahrow said she paid a modest rate agreed to with the property's former longtime owner.

Mary Eahrow, foreground, talks about the deteriorating conditions at the mobile homes park. In the background is Eahrow's caregiver, Kim Blackstone.

But the situation changed when an out-of-state company took over Long's Mobile Home Court — without obtaining a state-required license — jacked up the rent, allowed trash to pile up and let rodents take over, she said.

"The rent here is ridiculous. If they continue to go higher, I'll have to get out," said Eahrow, a retired factory worker. She had been paying $275 per month until the new owners in the summer of 2018 raised monthly rent for all tenants to $425.

"If I've got to live in the street, I'll kill myself in a heartbeat," she said.

More than a dozen of the Plymouth Road trailer park's low-income, elderly and disabled residents filed a civil lawsuit in September, asking a judge to force the owners to make repairs to the park and stop them from collecting rent until they obtain a license to operate. 

The filing alleges "neglect" and "unlivable, blighted conditions that have led to infestations of rodents and cockroaches, overflowing trash and debris, and increased criminal activity."

Calls and emails to the landlord over the worrisome conditions and the fate of their lease agreements have gone unanswered, tenants contend.

The two Wyoming-based limited liability companies — Plymouth Court MHC and Idyllwild Group — that own and operate the park have "breached their statutory obligations," the lawsuit argues, by failing to provide basic maintenance or carry out repairs promised in letters to residents following the acquisition.

And because they are operating without a state license or written leases, they do not have a legal basis to be collecting rent, attorneys for the residents say.

Aaron Cox, a Taylor-based attorney for Plymouth Court, declined to comment on the pending litigation. Messages left for the park's co-managers, Melissa Potocki and Christopher Reeves, were not returned. 

In a court filing this month, Cox rejected claims made in the lawsuit and asked the court to dismiss the case. In a counterclaim, the company said apart from rental modifications for the park, it has maintained previous month-to-month leases for the residents. Those leases, he wrote, also require tenants to maintain their lots.

The counterclaim alleges the residents have breached their contracts by failing to keep their lots clean and orderly and that some have refused to make rent payments. 

The individual units in the park "speak for themselves," said Nura Lutfi of Lakeshore Legal Aid, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. The conditions of the common areas and unoccupied mobile homes, she added, are “the landlord’s responsibility and completely unacceptable.”

"If the condition of the individual mobile home units were an issue, the landlord would have conceivably contacted the tenants to address the issue," Lutfi countered. "However, there has been no communication at all indicating that there are problems with any of the units before."

The park owners, the lawsuit contends, in some cases have gone months without cashing rent checks. For tenants who receive asset-based public benefits, it has resulted in money building up in their accounts, threatening eligibility for benefits.

“Many residents have asserted their legal right to withhold payments," Lutfi said. But not all residents are withholding. Some continue to pay, she said.  

“As to the leases, Michigan law clearly requires this landlord to offer written leases, and the landlord has not done that," she said. "And even if they haven’t, it doesn’t change the obligation of the landlord to keep the mobile home park in good repair/habitable condition."

More than a dozen of the Plymouth Road trailer park's low-income, elderly and disabled residents filed a civil lawsuit in September, asking a judge to force the owners to make repairs to the park and stop them from collecting rent until they obtain a license to operate.

Prior to the acquisition, the park had been a long-standing family business owned by Long Real Estate Holdings, which had a valid mobile home license with the state and entered into initial lease agreements with the tenants, according to the lawsuit. 

The park was deeded to Plymouth Court in July 2018 for $975,000, according to records contained in the filing. 

The state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs confirmed the park is unlicensed. 

The state Bureau of Construction Codes has not received an application to license the park, which would indicate who the potential license holder would be, LARA spokesman Kevin Ray said in an email.

The lack of licensing opens the park operator up to criminal proceedings, he said. Under statute, the bureau itself isn't able to take action on a criminal matter. 

Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the Wayne County prosecutor, told The News that the office has not yet received any warrant request connected with the situation. 

In May, the Redford trailer park residents awoke to notices from the township warning that water would be shut off after the owners failed to pay the bills for several months. Later, with intervention from local elected officials, the owner paid the bill, the lawsuit says.

Around the same time, a Wisconsin trailer park community owned by the same company faced a similar shutoff risk. Last spring, residents in the Four Seasons Mobile Home Park in Stevens Point found water shutoff notices on their doors.

Reeves later posted a midyear video update on the Four Seasons Facebook page, addressing "the water fiasco" and vowing new procedures were in place.

"I apologize for it. It was a screw-up," the video message says. "There was never any danger of water loss. My company has plenty of money."

In Redford, Plymouth Court has received multiple warnings from the township for allowing debris and litter to accumulate on the private property and fines for failing to remove it, according to copies of the violations contained in the lawsuit filing. The township inspector handling the case was not available for comment, The Detroit News was told.

Joe Mazzone's family has lived in trailers for decades. He moved in a few years ago and, since then, has endured the park's decline.

Vacant trailers with kicked-in doors, broken windows and strewn trash surround him, he said, and his closest neighbor is a raccoon that's taken residency in the abandoned trailer next door. 

"It's almost like their goal is to just neglect us," said Mazzone, who lives right behind the management office, which he said has been empty for months.  

Mazzone said the tires were stolen off his bicycle, tenant mailboxes have been pried open, and vermin roam the grounds.

"It's wild around here," said Mazzone, who pointed to a large dead rat and leftover tubing on the grass near where an air conditioning unit had been ripped off of the management building. "Look around, everything is torn apart."

Licensed mobile home parks undergo a yearly inspection. The most recent inspection was completed at the park in 2018. No violations were found at that time and the park was in compliance, LARA confirmed. 

Inspections are only performed for licensed parks and parks seeking to become licensed. The Bureau of Construction Codes told The News it had not received a license application for the Redford park.

Residents, meanwhile, said they had no warning prior to the 2018 sale. Shortly after acquiring the park, Idyllwild sent out letters to tenants, informing them of the takeover and rent changes. That fall, a second notice to tenants acknowledged that the increases were tough but "the park needs work and we are putting that money in."

"We do not run slums," the Sept. 14, 2018, letter from Idyllwild Group reads. "If we do not keep the rents competitive we can't reinvest and run clean properties that residents are proud to call home."

Resident Lori Gauthier, 50, talks about the deteriorating conditions at the mobile park and her inability to move to a new home.

Lori Gauthier suffered from a closed head injury accident in 1995 and was forced to quit her job and school. She had been paying $300 per month prior to the rate increase and has a looming student loan debt of up to $50,000, she said.

Despite her hardships, Gauthier said she's kept up and invested in her home. The conditions now, she said, are unsettling, and it's as if the owners are trying to push her out.

"You get that whole stereotype: trailer park trash. You hear that all the time from people, and when it looks like this, you really feel that's what you are," said Gauthier, 50, who is Mazzone's mother but lives in a separate trailer in the park. "I'm ashamed of my own home. That's sad."

Lori Gauthier's parents, Judith and Lawrence Gauthier, spent about 20 years living in the family's mobile home there until they relocated to a Redford Township condominium in 2016. They, too, have been troubled by the state of disrepair.

Judith Gauthier said she'd always maintained her property and even was given an award by the township for her landscaping.

"The trailers were all kept nice," she said. "Everything looked great in here."

Lawrence Gauthier, who handles payment of their grandson's bills, said tenants received an unofficial letter without a company letterhead telling them the rent was changing and where to send it after the park was bought out. 

"We can't pay it," he said. "We don't even have any idea who these people are."

cferretti@detroitnews.com