The Austin Chronicle

Casar Calls Out Landlords

By Amy Kamp, May 5, 2015, 9:00am, Newsdesk

As the city continues to gentrify, many Austinites may more readily think of food trucks than homes when they hear “trailer park.”

Yet off of the Northeast corner of Research Boulevard and Anderson Square, the North Lamar Community Mobile Home Park is host to a vibrant, longstanding neighborhood of Latino families, most of them immigrants. This past Sunday, residents gathered for their annual celebration of Día de los Niños. There were clowns, music, paletas, free pizza, chicharrones, and chili-spiced fruit, and, of course, plenty of children playing. However, this year the festivities had a serious side. Moving through the crowd were members of the neighborhood association, collecting testimonials about notices to vacate that had recently been posted on some residents’ doors.

In January, the park was purchased by RV Horizons, Inc. Residents of the park own their homes, but lease the land. The new owners quickly began to demand higher rents, in violation of existing leases (most residents signed leases last November agreeing to pay about $390 in rent, including utilities), and declared that they would be charging separately for utilities. When people refused to pay, they were given notices to vacate saying they had 72 hours to pay, leave, or face eviction proceedings. Some of the notices listed past-due charges of more than $1,000.

Council Member Greg Casar, in whose district the park lies, told the Chronicle that the park’s homes are, in actuality, far from mobile. Many owners have lived in them for 10 years or more. They’ve put thousands of dollars into those homes, and can’t afford to leave them behind. Nor is it feasible for them to find new plots of land and the means to transport entire houses. This leaves them seemingly at the mercy of their landlords. Casar quoted, disgustedly, RV Horizons co-owner Frank Rolfe, who told Bloomberg last year that owning a trailer park is like owning “a Waffle House where everyone is chained to the booths.”

Unfortunately for Rolfe and his partner David Reynolds, owning the North Lamar park is turning out to be like owning a Waffle House where people know their rights, have experience organizing, and are not giving up without a fight.

Residents came to Casar after they heard that his office had helped residents of the Stonegate Mobile Home Park, also in D4, organize a neighborhood association. (The Stonegate Residents Association has complaints about the way their park is managed.) Casar connected the North Lamar residents with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, and they formed their own neighborhood association, Asociación de Residentes de North Lamar.

TRLA General Counsel Robert Doggett told the Chronicle that notices to vacate aren’t filed formally, which means there’s no initial check on their lawfulness. And indeed, he says in this case, the notices should have given the mobile home owners at least 10 days to vacate the property, according to Texas law. But it’s only once the eviction process begins that the validity of a landlord’s grievances begin to be assessed. A person unfamiliar with property law may be so intimidated by the threat of eviction that they give in to a notice to vacate’s demands unquestioningly, especially since eviction proceedings, regardless of their outcome, are recorded on rental histories, and are considered by many property owners as a valid reason to deny a rental application.

With all that in mind, TRLA has filed a lawsuit on behalf of ARNL, asking for a temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction preventing RV Horizons from filing eviction proceedings. At a press conference on Monday afternoon, May 4, Doggett announced that after the suit was filed that morning, the property owners agreed to take no further legal action for 14 days, and to instead try to work with ARNL to resolve the dispute.

At Monday’s event, AISD District 3 Trustee Ann Teich and her husband Randy Teich, who is the president of the North Austin Civic Association, both spoke in support of ARNL. Ann Teich said that as a member of the Restore Rundberg Revitalization Team, “we’re looking for projects like this to promote.”

ARNL President Roberto Sanchez, a former member of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition and a Mexican immigrant, told the Chronicle that he’s lived in the park for 21 years. He and his wife Margarita raised four children here - their three teenagers still live with them at home. Their oldest, who is 21, is a firefighter with Lake Travis Fire Department. Sanchez said that he had not wanted to get involved, but he could not ignore the landlords’ actions. Despite that initial reluctance, on Sunday, he was busily helping to gather documentation for the upcoming lawsuit, and he gave a rousing speech in Spanish on Monday. Standing in front of a crowd of ARNL members, he recounted evidence of his new landlords’ unscrupulousness before crowing, “¡Sí, se puede!” As the crowd applauded, a chihuahua let out a single, jubilant bark, much to everyone’s amusement.

Casar also gave a strongly worded speech, saying, “We’re united, we know our rights, and we’re not going to let you break our laws, break our families, break our communities.” Casar’s vociferous support of the North Lamar and Stonegate residents is very much in keeping with his campaign, which emphasized his community organizer bona fides and his desire to represent all D4 residents, including those, such as undocumented immigrants, who could not vote for him. Encouraging neighborhood associations and civic engagement is undoubtedly a benefit to his constituents, and it’s nice to see a politician unequivocally take a side. However, Casar and the rest of Council have plenty more work ahead of them when it comes to assuaging Austin’s lack of affordable housing.

Because the venture capitalists aren’t going anywhere: A May 5 article in the Austin Monitor portrays Rolfe as less than conciliatory. According to the Monitor, Rolfe claimed RV Horizons only raised rents on tenants with month-to-month leases, a claim that is contradicted by documents filed along with ARNL's petition, including copies of previous 12-month leases expiring November of this year, notices to vacate, and affidavits. (It’s also not clear whether RV Horizons gave the required 60-day notice of termination on the leases, if some were in fact month-to-month.) Rolfe, who is clearly a student of the Jordan French school of P.R. told the Monitor, “Nobody out there is going to have a gigantic financial hardship over an extra $100 per month,” and “It’s a free country. If residents feel they can find something at that price that’s superior, then please do. There are many other uses for this property. It doesn’t have to be a trailer park.”

Rolfe’s comments raise an unanswered question: Once the tenants’ current leases expire, a landlord-friendly state like Texas doesn’t give them a lot of options under the law other than paying or leaving. ARNL’s lawsuit may keep tenants in their homes until November, but what then?

This story has been updated to reflect that documents filed with ARNL's petition contradict Frank Rolfe's claim that the only leases terminated were month-to-month.

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