Cheryl and Ken Lickar thought owning a manufactured home would be easy. Now, they worry rising rent for their space will leave them homeless and impoverished.
Two years ago, the couple sold their home near Hearthwood Elementary School in Vancouver and moved to Cascade Park Estates. The 55-and-older community off Southeast First Street, also known as Cascade Park Village, was clean, gated and low-maintenance.
“We were hoping this would be our last home,” said Ken Lickar, 65.
Although they own their 1,300-square-foot manufactured home, they rent the land it sits on. And monthly rent is going up from $725 to $850 on Jan. 1 — a 17% increase. With that increase, rent will have gone up 70% since the 170-unit park came under new ownership in 2015. Five years ago, rent was $500.
To keep up with their bills, the Lickars said they sold valuables and looked into moving, which would likely require leaving the Vancouver area to find cheaper housing.
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“It’s just got to change, but I don’t think it’s going to. I don’t think there’s any hope,” said Cheryl Lickar, 64.
The Lickars are among hundreds of mobile home tenants across Southwest Washington — including Cowlitz County — who are facing sharp increases demanded by their landlords, a Vancouver family that owns about a dozen parks in Southwest Washington and Northwest Oregon. Tenants say Denise and Michael Werner and their daughter Brooke Torres are pricing them out of what was once a refuge of affordable housing.
Multiple attempts were made to contact the Werners, but they declined to comment.
Manufactured home park tenants across the state are as powerless as the Lickars. There is no legal limit on how much a park owner can raise rent each year, said Anne Sadler, president of the Washington Association of Manufactured Home Owners. The parks turn into a “feudal system,” she said, made up of “landowners and peasants.”
Sadler, a manufactured home owner from Mount Vernon, Wash., said senior citizens who get priced out of parks across the state often have nowhere else to go. Some end up homeless.
“Typically, seniors last out on the streets two years, if that long,” she said. “To me, this is the richest country in the world. This is egregious that these people are living in tents on the sidewalk.”
Tenants at Cascade Park Estates said people have already sold their homes or moved in with family or into subsidized housing. They worry that more people will leave or be evicted after the rent increase goes into effect.
Over the years, the Werners have acquired more than a dozen manufactured, mobile home and RV parks in Oregon and Southwest Washington. Their daughter, Torres, owns at least two parks in Cowlitz County.
Tenants in three Cowlitz County parks told The Daily News last year that the Werners and Torres were driving up rents, issuing unjustified eviction notices and bullying and profiteering off the low-income senior citizen residents. Now, a year later, tenants say the intimidation has declined but rents continue to climb sharply.
In 2017, the Werners purchased Woodland East Mobile Home Park for $8.9 million. They tried raising rent by 50% shortly after purchasing the park but were halted by the state Attorney General’s office because it hadn’t been a year since the last increase.
Torres purchased Del Ray II Mobile Home Park in Longview at the end of 2017. Since January 2018, rent has increased nearly 60%, from $420 to $650, beginning in January 2019.
In 2013, the Werners purchased Hidden Village Mobile Home Park on Highway 99 in Vancouver for $1.15 million. According to Clark County court records, the Werners have recently moved to evict a handful of tenants there.
Last year, the Werners purchased Vancouver RV Park (also known as Hazel Dell RV Park) for $11.9 million. They also built an RV park near the Clark County Fairgrounds where monthly pad rent is $700.
Complaints to the Washington State Office of the Attorney General have skyrocketed since the Werners purchased Cascade Park Estates in 2015 for $11.5 million. In 2015, one complaint was filed. So far in 2019, 41 complaints have been filed.
Recent complaints point to the rent increase — one saying rent is much higher than any park in the area — and to what they perceive as a lack of maintenance on park grounds, according to records obtained by The Columbian.
Steve Breshears, tenant and president of the homeowners association in Woodland East Mobile Home Park, said he hasn’t seen any benefit to his park from the rent and utility increases over the past two years. Rent was $458 a month before the Werners purchased the park in June 2017. Now rent is $685 plus additional surcharges for water, sewer and garbage, which Breshears estimates at $110 a month. That’s a 73.5% rent increase in three years.
At least one tenant in Woodland East has received notice that his rent will increase another $125 in January, to $810 a month, Breshears said.
The owners have made some minor upgrades to the park such as “a feeble attempt” to crack seal the streets, which did little more than paint over the pavement, Breshears said. And they plan to put a new carpet in the activity center. But the improvements are not proportional to the dramatic rent increases, he said.
“When I look at the amount of money coming in and the amount of money they’re putting into this place, it makes it look like it’s a cash cow for them,” Breshears said.
In theory, the free market limits rent increases based on how much people are willing to pay, but Washington’s housing crunch means there’s always going to be someone willing to pay the higher rent, said Sadler, with the Association of Manufactured Home Owners.
“I think that’s what the park owners are banking on: ‘If that person can’t afford rent, they just have to leave, and we’ll get somebody in here that can afford it.’ It’s a very uncaring, greedy attitude,” she said.
Longview tenants in Del Ray II said their neighbors are selling their homes after learning rent would increase another $150 in January. About 20 of the 110 units have turned over since Torres took over the park, Del Ray II tenant Rick Montarbo said.
“Houses are up for sale and people are moving,” said Del Ray II resident Randall Beck. “People can’t afford that. They couldn’t afford it last time.”
Echoes of the past
Kerry Greenwald, president and broker at Creekside Mortgage in Vancouver, has seen this type of upheaval before. When he started working in the mortgage industry in the late 90s, he saw people who were priced out of manufactured homes in California moving north to where rent was more affordable. In California, park rent rose until homeowners were forced to hand over their keys. Once everyone left, the owner could sell or develop the land, Greenwald said.
There are about 1,250 manufactured housing communities in Washington, according to Sadler’s organization. More than 60 closed between 2007 and 2018, displacing about 1,800 households.
“I’ve just seen so many sad cases where this has happened to people,” said Greenwald. “It always ends bad.”
Picking up and moving a manufactured home is prohibitively expensive. Greenwald said it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to move a home to another park, and few banks will fund a loan to pay for it.
Selling isn’t much easier. If tenants are forced to sell or abandon their homes, it drives down the property values, Sadler said. And stories of rising rents may scare away potential buyers.
Tenants say mobile homes in Woodland East used to sell for about $125,000 only a couple of years ago. There are three currently for sale in the park ranging in price from $80,000 to $110,000, according to Zillow.com. A fourth home listed for $125,000 was posted about a week ago.
Ten of the 170 homes in Cascade Park Estates are for sale, according to Zillow. Prices range from $119,000 to $164,900.
Cascade Park Estates had rent control for 10 years, but the deal expired before the Werners purchased the park in 2015.
For now, their homeowners association is gathering resident signatures for a letter they plan to send to legislators.
“We are held captive by high rental increases, and we fervently need help in finding a way to keep our vulnerable residents in their own homes,” the letter says. It notes that the rent increase will burden many residents and the possibility of homelessness is real for some seniors.
It asks legislators for help with the current rent spike and asks them to consider passing rent control or other protections.
“In the past, senior manufactured home pas provided an affordable housing alternative for low income seniors; however, this is changing with rapidly escalating lot lease fees,” the letter says. “Southwest Washington has a vital need for affordable housing, and at this time there are no protections in place for our citizens.”