FARGO — Larry McKillaps nervously cracked open the front door to his 40-year-old trailer. He thought debt collectors or trailer park management were there to evict him into the cold a week before Christmas.
In a good month, McKillaps makes about $800 working as a part-time repairman. But with rising rent, utility and garbage removal costs adding up to $560, plus an electricity bill that can reach $200 a month in the winter, he tries to make extra money selling items salvaged from dumpsters.
Oil paintings, chairs, old clocks, bicycles, a hospital standing scale fill the Countryside Trailer Court mobile home he bought from a friend for about $800. He didn’t find out about the $3,512 in back rent he inherited from the previous owner until it was too late, he said.
Standing tall amidst McKillaps’ dumpster treasures is a discarded ATM he found. Empty of cash, it offers no financial assistance.
Other residents at the three mobile home parks — Countryside and Riviera Heights in Fargo and Brookwood in West Fargo — bought by Havenpark Capital Partners, a Utah-based real estate investment firm, shared similar stories with The Forum in the lead-up to the holidays.
Many residents own their mobile homes, but rent the land beneath them. As of Oct. 1, Havenpark raised rents in the three mobile home parks by $45, and required residents to pay utility costs separately. Since the change in ownership, several residents have been taken to court for eviction cases.
From Oct. 1 to Dec. 19, there were 31 eviction cases filed against residents in Havenpark's properties: 15 in Countryside Trailer Court, 14 in Brookwood and two in Riviera Heights, according to court records. Compared with the same time period during the previous four years, eviction cases have more than doubled.
One of those eviction cases is against Richard Dagostino.
He and his wife Margaret MacVicar sold their refrigerator for survival money. Now, their front porch doubles as a deep freezer. Bags of bagels and other goods sit out in the open in cardboard boxes.
“We have nowhere to go, and it’s almost Christmas," MacVicar said. "I know it’s our own fault that we got behind. ... It seems to me they want to get rid of the people here, especially the ones in the older trailers.”
Many of the trailers were built in the 1970s. Windows are boarded up with plywood or burlap sacks. Hastily built tin and particle board barriers surround front doors, offering flimsy protection against the wind and snow.
In a statement to The Forum, Havenpark said it sympathizes with the mobile home park residents and is working with them to accept partial rent and utility payments.
“Of the 30 cases that were sent to court only two residents appeared in court,” Havenpark's statement said. “We found the majority of the homes that were involved in these cases were already abandoned (from the previous community owner). We have held off sending any notices in December to give residents additional time to make payment arrangements with the office and because of the holidays.”
Court records show that not all eviction cases at local Havenpark properties since Oct. 1 have resulted in evictions, and it's unclear how many residents may have lost their homes.
Representatives of area homeless shelters say they have not taken in any former residents of Havenpark properties. If there was a surge in the number of homeless people this winter, the shelters say they have little to no room available.
At 62 years old and a disabled Vietnam War veteran, McKillaps said he would have no place to go if he was evicted. If it came to that, he said his first choice would be to move under Veterans Memorial Bridge.
“But I’m not giving up,” he said.
'They just buffaloed us'
Last month, a judicial referee ruled against Richard Dagostino and Margaret MacVicar in their eviction case, ordering them to pay $3,504 in damages to Countryside. They have not yet been evicted, but they know their luck won’t last forever.
Dagostino, who paints houses, refinishes furniture and sells products on Ebay to make a living, described Havenpark as "swooping down and taking us all out one by one."
"All I want is a few more weeks, and then get the hell out of here," he said. "I know with these new people it’s a business, and they don’t care, but they just buffaloed us."
As the couple awaits a sheriff deputy’s knock at their door, one more night is all they are hoping for.
“There will be no Christmas this year,” MacVicar said, her eyes pooling with tears as she spoke.
“Emotionally, being that this is Christmas adds to the stress. It affects everything, the people you know, the people you might go and see, and you don’t know anything when everything is up in the air. Now it may be ‘Merry Christmas. There is the sidewalk.’”
Complaints of overcharging
Havenpark has a history of taking over mobile home communities and raising rents, and has received overcharging complaints from residents in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Iowa, according to news reports. The North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights told The Forum it has not received any complaints against Havenpark.
Private equity giants have been investing in mobile home communities in recent years, according to a 2019 report by the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, MHAction, and Americans for Financial Reform Education Fund.
"For most residents, it is nearly impossible to move their homes — the structures cannot withstand the move, the costs of moving them are unaffordable, and finding a new spot is untenable,” the report stated.
The High Plains Fair Housing Center, a group that advocates for equal housing in North Dakota, said it has not received complaints about Havenpark.
If mobile home residents "could come to us and we knew their story, we might be able to help them,” said Michelle Rydz, the center's executive director. “It’s important that there is some sort of looking into this by the legislators. The rights for tenants are not as strong as we wish in this state, so contacting legislators is very important.”
Havenpark has promised new roads, new signage, new sidewalks, a playground, landscaping and a large-scale cleanup. The company previously said it planned to invest $2.4 million into its three area mobile home parks, but has upped that figure to $2.6 million. Cold weather, however, has delayed these plans, Havenpark said.
Not all residents see the change in ownership as bad. Neva Contreras, a 13-year resident of Brookwood mobile home park in West Fargo, said it's helped the community.
“The rent went up, but that’s expected with new ownership,” Contreras said. “They’ve come in and cut down all the old trees — bad trees that needed to be taken out. And they’ve taken out a lot of old trailers. For me, I think it’s good.”
Down the street from Contreras, Vikki Hutchinson, a seamstress, told a different story. She paid back rent that she owed, but now there’s an automatic $75 fee if she’s late. And if she can’t pay within three days, she fears an eviction notice.
“They have trimmed trees, filled in a couple of potholes. But I live in that fear because you know you’re late — it’s all this stress upon stress,” Hutchinson said.
In north Fargo’s Riviera Heights mobile home park, Darrell King had to give away his pit bull named Tank after Havenpark banned certain types of dogs in the community. “It hasn’t gotten any better, but it hasn’t gotten any worse either,” King said.
Rick Mason, a 17-year resident, had to take out an insurance policy on his hound Gunner, an Australian Bluetick. “We’ll move away before we get rid of Gunner,” Mason said, noting that he has few complaints other than to say he’s waiting to see if Havenpark will live up to its promises.
Barb Braaten wonders why utility bills and lot rents have been separated. For 32 years the water bill was included with her lot rent, she said. She's waiting to see how much her water bill will be once she begins receiving bills.
Braaten likes the area, it’s quiet, away from the city center, but her family might move if costs continue to increase.
“If we could sell it, we would. But who would buy it now?” she said.
Eviction cases on the rise
Since Havenpark Capital Partners bought three mobile home parks in the Fargo area and raised the rent, the number of eviction cases in those communities from Oct. 1 through Dec. 19 has more than doubled compared with the same time period in previous years under different ownership.
2019 ... 31
2018 ... 12
2017 ... 14
2016 ... 11
2015 ... 12