(First published in the May 17, 2018 issue of City Pages)
Schofield revoked the license for Northern Mobile Home Park. If it closes this summer, around 30 households will be displaced, including families with children. But Kelly Kostka says the community already is stepping in to help.
Kelly Kostka stands outside her home at Northern Mobile Home Park. Kostka is currently looking for a new place to live after the park lost its license last month.
Kelly Kostka is happy where she’s living right now. She enjoys sitting in her spacious, wooded backyard with her two Dachshunds next to her. But all that probably will come to an end soon. Kostka resides in the embattled Northern Mobile Home Park on Grand Avenue, which is currently tangled in a lawsuit with the city of Schofield to remain open. Kostka has owned her trailer there for the past two years, and now finds herself trying to find a new place to live.
If you take a walk around the trailer park — tucked off Grand Avenue in a wooded lot between the hubbub of the street and a pretty river setting — it’s evident some homes are in dire need of repair, updating or even possibly demolition given their state of disrepair. Taped onto a few of them are paper signs stating they’re vacant and not for rental. Other homes, like one quaint light-blue trailer, are well maintained and in seemingly good shape.
On April 9, the Schofield City Council, in a proceeding that resembles a court hearing more than a city meeting, voted unanimously to revoke Northern’s license to operate as a mobile home park. Under the city order, the California-based owners of the property must cease operating by Aug. 1, meaning all the residents in the 70-lot park must move out by then.
Schofield cited Northern Mobile Home Park for 350 zoning code violations in fall 2016, and gave the property owner an ultimatum to fix the problems by July 2017 of face license revocation. The violations ranged from minor offenses such as dog feces in yards and brush piles, to more serious concerns such as illegal wiring and entrance steps missing hand railings. The revocation was postponed when the park manager asked for more time. A follow up inspection in January 2018 found 362 code violations.
This sparked the revocation hearing in April. Schofield’s attorney says the city never heard from the trailer park’s owners, CCI Real Estate Group based in Oakdale, Calif.,but worked with the manager. It wasn’t until after the revocation that Schofield officials heard from the owners at all.
Complicating matters further and adding to the uncertainty is a lawsuit filed April 27 by Northern Mobile Home Park owners, challenging the city’s license revocation.
According to documents in Marathon County Circuit Court, the park owners allege that Schofield city officials improperly handled the revocation, discussing it beforehand with each other and with owners of other mobile home parks in the area; the complaint alleges council members made up their minds before the hearing even happened. The park’s owners are asking a court to delay the revocation while it can review the case.
The city of Schofield will file its response within a few days.
The trailer park has been around for decades, according to Lisa Quinn, Schofield’s city clerk/treasurer. The current owners purchased it for $1 million in 2013, according to Marathon County land records; the property was assessed at the same value in 2015. All bills and taxes are up to date.
Schofield Mayor Kregg Hoehn says the decision to revoke the mobile home park license was difficult to make, and wasn’t taken lightly.
“The people that are stuck in the middle, who live there, none of this is their fault. We feel badly for them,” Hoehn says. “But to me, it’s the fault of the owner that it was run down tremendously… We are very upset the citizens are having to move around. If the owners would had done what they were supposed to do, what they agreed to do when they applied for their permit, this wouldn’t be happening.
“It’s the residents’ right to live in a clean and safe community and area and the owners weren’t adhering to that,” continues Hoehn. “We gave the owners time to clean the area up and they didn’t follow through… People in the trailer park are Schofield citizens and have they have the same rights as any other citizen to live in a safe and clean environment in the city.”
Hoehn says the city mailed letters to residents of the park informing them of the revocation. City officials also researched what other housing options are available for them.
Community offers help
It’s an understatement to say Kostka is disheartened by the possible closing and uncertainty of the trailer park. She found out about it only when friends texted her to turn on the TV news and see the report.
“Now I just want to move,” says Kostka, who has been looking at other trailer parks in the area where she could rent a spot for her mobile home. “It’s tough. It’s very emotional and I just want to move on.”
She says most other residents of the park are “shocked, angry and mostly confused” by what’s happening and not knowing where else they could go. Some have families; and others have lived at the park for a very long time, says Kostka. “I feel bad,” she says. “Some people have nowhere to go.”
One elderly woman, who did not want to be named, says she and her now-deceased husband had lived in the trailer park for decades. Her home and lot are neatly maintained; she expressed trepidation and sadness about being forced to move.
She and Kostka, and others in the park, are looking at the all logistics and cost of moving and finding an apartment or another mobile home that’s affordable. In Kostka’s case, she needs a place that will allow her to keep her two dogs.
Kostka pays roughly $275 a month for the lot rental that her trailer sits on, plus utilities. That cost is affordable in her current financial situation. “I’ve looked at apartments and that’s about $625 a month with dogs allowed and you need a security deposit.” She knows that would put a really tight squeeze on her family budget.
Julie Stoltz has lived in Northern Mobile Home Park for more than 20 years, and has a unique perspective. For many years she helped manage the now-defunct Alpine mobile home park down the road in Weston. Her longtime boyfriend owned it before selling the property last fall.
Stoltz has some sympathy for Northern’s owners: Some code violations pertain to the homeowners, and it’s probably difficult to rely on managers from halfway across the country, she says. Even though she believes the California owners’ “heart is in the right place,” their long-distance relationship to the property is probably part of the problem, she adds. And while some code violations to the park owners “can seem like nit-picky things, they are things that honestly need to be fixed, even if you don’t want to.”
Unlike most of the other residents, Stoltz isn’t worried about her living situation. She owns her mobile home, and has another in Florida where she lives in winter, and will likely live full time if Northern closes.
She worries a great deal about her neighbors, though. If the park owners prevail in their appeal, Stoltz says she’s afraid they’ll relax and not take the city’s concerns seriously, and the whole process of uncertainty will continue. If the park does shut down this summer, that will be an especially hard blow to three renter tenants who moved in just two months ago, she explains. They were former residents of Alpine, but displaced in March when Alpine’s new owners closed that long-standing mobile home park shortly after purchasing it, Stoltz says. “I feel so bad for them. I’m very concerned.” She describes one person as having a very low income and “a little bit” of a disability.
For many people, Stoltz explains, a mobile home park is the only affordable housing option.
While Kostka is resigned to the fact she has to move, she’s not as bitter as you might expect. She’s trying to keep a positive spin on the situation. “I am not sure what everybody else from here will be doing, but I look at it, when one door closes, another one opens. We just have to take our losses and deal with what we’ve got.”
What likely affects her frame of mind is the show of concern from the community. Kostka has been impressed and touched by the outreach from people offering to help, especially from the D.C. Everest School District, where Kostka’s son attends high school. “I got a call one day by a school social worker who reached out asking me ‘How can we help?’” she says.
The DCE District has reached out to all families at the trailer park with children enrolled in their schools. They’ve identified five families and six children total, says Erin Jacobson, social worker for the district. Those students range in age from elementary through high school, she says.
As soon as the district was made aware of the trailer park’s possible closing, they began to connect with the families to pass along any useful information about resources they may require during this transition—from housing options to basic needs such as food or clothing.
“We want them, whether they need our help or not, to feel supported though the schools, knowing they would have support through us so they wouldn’t have to do it alone,” says Jacobson. “We work to reduce barriers for the students, so it’s not stressful for them to come to school, but to maintain their stability.”
Homeless coalition also stepping in
Another organization offering help: the Marathon County Housing & Homelessness Coalition. This group of volunteers and professionals is working on an outreach plan for the potentially displaced residents of the mobile home park. Their first step is to communicate with all the residents there and help them navigate what’s going on, says Pam Anderson, co-chair of the coalition.
By the coalitions’ count, of the 70 sites at the park, 29 currently are occupied — 15 of the mobile homes are owned by the resident, 14 are rented units. “We are looking at getting contact information of the park’s residents and helping them obtain resources on the relocation process,” says Anderson. “And, if we can’t get their mailing address, we will go in person to the park and get distribute information.”
One major plan in the works is finding a location near the park where the coalition can hold a resource fair of various community organizations that can help identify specific needs, says Anderson. For example, several homeowners might need information about moving their trailer home to another location. “There are certain code requirements to move a mobile home,” she says.
Coalition members also are willing to help mobile home owners look at the quality of their trailer, if it needs repairs, and identify resources available to assist them. “The event will also include information on moving and rental assistance,” Anderson says.
This isn’t the first time the coalition has been involved in a mobile home park closing, Anderson says. “Two other mobile parks closed in recent years and members of the coalition participated in providing assistance to both renters and homeowners.”
The coalition is concerned about the residents and would like to assist them in understanding their options and making choices given their situation. “One of the things people may want to do is sit down and evaluate their budget to determine what they can afford,” she says. “We just want to be there for people… We know emotions are high and we want to try and help them go through this in a calming way.”
Former resident says problems were not fixed
Kimberly Manteuffel, a former resident of Northern Mobile Home Park, took photos and posted on Facebook some of the problems that she says went unrepaired.
Kimberly Manteuffel, who now lives in Wausau, has a lot of sympathy for the families still living at Northern Mobile Home Park. She and her family lived there for about a year, and moved out when they could about two years ago. She’s glad they decided to leave then, and not have to face the immense pressure residents now are feeling.
“I feel really bad for the people that have to move and have nowhere to go,” Manteuffel says. She says the trailer home she and her family rented there was unsafe to live in from the get go. She even had been in contact with the city of Schofield and the Marathon County Health Department to get those issues resolved when park management did nothing to fix them, she says.
Manteuffel says she was in a constant battle over maintenance needs in her trailer: black mold in the ceilings, a gaping hole in the floor, and other hazards. “In the winter we stuffed towels in the hole to keep cold out,” she says.
Manteuffel claims that when she first looked at the trailer before renting, she was told the repairs would be done before she and her family moved in. “The day we were actually moving in, I went to pick up the keys, and the repairs weren’t done. They said they didn’t have time,” she says. “Three weeks after we moved in, we couldn’t even flush the toilet… We have a two year old, we didn’t want him in those conditions. We were all constantly coughing.”
She wonders what would have happened to her family had they been in the same situation the residents are in now, adding that trying to find a place to live in a pinch isn’t easy. “I know those people are going to have a hard time finding something and they shouldn’t have to live like that.”
Marathon County Health Department Environmental Health and Safety Director Dale Grosskurth says he had been to the park once a few years ago after complaints were made, but the health department can only enforce general park areas and the maintenance of the sites on which the mobile home rests, not the mobile home itself, he says.
“We also have our own human health hazard regulation that may be used in the event of tenant complaints,” he says. “If a mobile home doesn’t have heat or water, just as any other rental property, we would get involved.”
For complaints or violations that do fall under the health department’s jurisdiction, staff will visit the site to assess the issues and work with owner to resolve it, he says.