BEACON FALLS —Tenants from the River’s Edge Mobile Home Community in Beacon Falls are petitioning the town to create a Fair Rent Commission after the community’s owner, Athena, raised tenants’ rents by $50 a month, an increase of about 10 percent.
At a Board of Selectmen meeting on Monday, about 30 residents packed into the town hall’s meeting room, where they told the local political leaders about the increases in rent and the maintenance problems that the residents were contending with.
Colleen Dana, one of the group’s leaders in creating the petition, told CT Examiner that their rent used to go up about $10 per month each year. In the last three years since Athena purchased the park in 2019, she said, the rents had increased by $125 a month.
River’s Edge’s experience has become part of a national pattern of large investment firms buying up mobile home parks, raising rents and sometimes cutting services. Residents of the parks — many of whom are elderly and on fixed incomes — struggle to afford the rent increases.
Last week in Killingworth, residents of the Beechwood Mobile Home Park, which houses seniors ages 55 and older, held a meeting where they called on Senator Richard Blumenthal, and local and state politicians to address the rent hikes and maintenance problems at the park. Like in Beacon Falls, the meeting was spurred by what residents viewed as an outsized increase in rents.
On August 4, Blumenthal and a group of 16 other U.S. Senators and members of the House of Representatives wrote a letter to the Federal Housing Finance Agency calling for more protections for tenants in mobile home communities. The letter noted that many of the investment firms that bought up these communities financed the purchase through Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae — enterprises sponsored by the federal government.
The letter urged the agency to consider measures like requiring public disclosure of which companies were using public financing to purchase parks, strengthening penalties for corporations that violated tenant protections, requiring stronger eviction protections and giving tenants the right to buy their mobile home park before an outside corporation.
In the meantime, residents of Beechwood and now River’s Edge are asking for the establishment of a fair rent commission in Killingworth and Beacon Falls. The commission is a group of volunteers that have the power to hear complaints and decide whether a rent increase is egregiously high. It also takes into account whether the landlord has kept the property in good condition.
A law passed earlier this year requires towns in Connecticut with over 25,000 residents to establish fair rent commissions. Killingworth and Beacon Falls, however, are too small to fall under that law — meaning residents need to convince town officials to write an ordinance to establish a commission.
First Selectman Nancy Gorski of Killingworth said she is already planning to establish a commission in the town, which she said could be approved by the other selectmen as early as September.
At the meeting on Monday, First Selectman Gerard Smith told residents that he planned to have the town’s legal department look into what it would take to create a Fair Rent Commission in the town, and that he would put it on the agenda for the board’s September meeting.
“How much further can we get pushed?”
On Saturday morning, residents of the park gathered in the grass at the edge of the stream that gives the park its name. They brought folding chairs or sat at the single picnic table beside the stream. Boxes of donuts were spread on a table nearby.
Dave Delohery, president of the Connecticut Manufactured Homeowners’ Alliance and a resident of the Cedar Springs mobile home community in Southington, spoke to residents about options they had for addressing rent increases and how they could file complaints with the Department of Consumer Protection if they had problems with maintenance in the park.
Delohery, who is petitioning for a fair rent commission in Southington, encouraged the tenants to sign their own petition to establish a fair rent commission and to attend the meeting in Beacon Falls on Monday night. Raphael Podolsky, an attorney with Connecticut Legal Services, Inc, explained to the group the value of having a commission.
“Fair rent commissions are not magical. They do not roll everybody’s rent back. But they have the power to look at a rent increase and say, is this so large or so unfair that it’s harsh and unconscionable,” said Podolsky.
John Dwyer, a resident of the park who lives with his mother, 80-year-old Kathy Dwyer, told CT Examiner that the rents had been increased $50 each year for the past two years.
“$5 or $10, that’s fine. But how could I afford $50? I don’t get that much raise from Social Security,” Kathy Dwyer told CT Examiner.
John said the rising rents were making them feel the pinch of their budget, especially along with the gas prices, since he has to drive to work. He works part-time at Stop and Shop and lives with his mother to care for her.
“How much further can we get pushed?” he asked.
Colleen Dana, who helped organize the meeting on Saturday, said she has been working with Delohery ever since she received notice in June that the rent was being increased $50 that year. Dana bought the trailer she currently lives in in 2017. She has a bad back, she said, and knew she would need to go on disability — even with a mortgage, the trailer still cost her less than a one-bedroom apartment.
Dana said that between rent and the mortgage, she currently pays $875 a month. She said that if the rent was increased any further, it could mean she would need to cut back on other expenses, like food or internet. She said she’s already started washing her laundry at her sister’s house.
“It is a little nerve-wracking,” she said. “If I knew this was going to happen, I would have bought somewhere else.”
Kathy Johnson, former first selectwoman of the nearby town of Oxford, said her son, who suffers from a brain injury, lives in the park, where she and her husband own a trailer. She said at the meeting on Monday that her son pays out of pocket so she and her husband can afford for him to stay there.
“That kid cannot afford [to pay] any more money,” she told CT Examiner.
In a statement to CT Examiner, Richard O’Brien, CEO of Athena Real Estate, said the company’s real estate increases were “In line with the inflationary cpi increase for the last year.”
“Demand at River’s Edge MHC remains high as occupancy is at 100% and there are no homes for sale. We strive to offer clean, safe and reasonably priced lot rents. We have made improvements to River’s Edge since our ownership and resolved maintenance items timely,” O’Brien said.
“This was our affordable housing”
Residents at the meeting also complained about multiple maintenance issues, including roads that had potholes, poor water pressure in the park and the company’s rules against having a washer or dryer hooked up.
Brittany, who is 34 and lives in the park with her partner, said that the cost of running eight loads of laundry at the laundromat has gone up from $8.25 to $10. She said she has to limit how often she washes her clothes.
“I go every two weeks because I can’t afford [it],” she said.
Brittany said that she and her partner moved into the park seven years ago, viewing it as a way that she and her partner could economize.
“This was our affordable housing. We couldn’t get a mortgage at that time and we were trying to be smart young adults,” she said. “It’s not worth it. I have regrets.”
Up until that point, Brittany said, she’d been able to be a “homemaker,” but was now at the point where she might have to look for a job. She said she’d had to ask her parents and her partners’ parents for help.
Still, Brittany said, it wasn’t so bad for her — she could work if she needed to. It was the elderly residents who weren’t able-bodied who concerned her the most.
“It’s not fair to them,” she said.
Theresa Linnartz, a mom with a 13-year-old and a 3-year-old, lives with her father in his trailer in the park. She told CT Examiner that when she tried to put a ramp up so that her father, who uses a walker, could get from the ground to the entrance of the trailer, but the park management told her it had to be a specific type of ramp. She said the ramp the management told her to put in damaged the floor, which now has a large hole in the floorboards near the door, and that water leaks into the trailer when it rains.
Mark Kudasik, manager of the park, who was in attendance at the Saturday meeting, proposed drafting a complaint form that tenants could fill out and return to him, that he would then file with the office.
Kudasik said that, contrary to what some residents claimed, the park did not have septic issues. He said that one resident had a pipe that needed to be replaced, but that there was no septic “leaching out of the ground.” He said the company was scheduled to pump every year in September.
When asked to list improvements that have been made to the park since Athena took over, Kudasik said the company had installed an office, put a deck on the building and installed siding. He admitted that these improvements did not directly affect the residents.
Athena did not return a request for comment from CT Examiner about whether it had made improvements to the park. The company also did not respond to questions about specific resident complaints by the time the story was published.
At the Monday night meeting, residents brought up similar issues, including the poor water pressure in the park and electrical meters that resident Randy Karpenkls said were mounted on rotted boards and had the potential to “go up in flames.”
“You have to time your showers,” said another resident, referencing the water pressure, “and the best time is, like, two o’clock in the morning.”
Smith said he wasn’t sure how much the town would be able to do about maintenance problems at the park, since the land is privately owned. But he said if there was a way to address some of the problems, he was open to it.
“Give us the 30 days to go through it, figure it out, get it so we do it right the first time,” he said. “I understand it’s a sensitive issue that needs to be done right away.”
This story has been edited to clarify rent increases