Rent-To-Own Scams Run By Some Mobile Home Park Landlords Offering Illusory Chance At Home Ownership To Financially Unsophisticated Low-Income Would-Be Buyers w/ Crappy Credit Are Alive & Well In Tucson
- From her father’s beige-stuccoed mobile home, Genesis Hollman has watched two families move into the trailer next door on a rent-to-own contract.
And she has watched both of them leave the small south-side mobile home park in frustration after learning the landlord didn’t have proper title to the trailer.
“They sell them and sell them and sell them,” says Hollman, 26.
Housing advocates say it’s a familiar story in Tucson, where widespread poverty and a lack of affordable housing creates an environment ripe for victimization: Too many mobile home park owners are dealing trailers without proper paperwork.
“They’re selling these things and half the time, they don’t have the title because it’s been abandoned by the original owners,” says Joe Scelza, vice president of the Arizona Association of Manufactured Home and RV Owners. The group advocates for mobile home park residents who own their trailers and rent the land underneath.
For prospective homebuyers who can’t afford a site-built home or who don’t have the credit for a mortgage, rent-to-own contracts on mobile homes — in which part of the monthly rent goes toward buying the trailer — offer a rare chance at homeownership.
But rent-to-own contracts are often full of loopholes, legal advocates say. Unscrupulous sellers collect on a trailer for months, then find a pretext to evict the buyer and resell the trailer. Other times the buyer finishes paying, only to find that the seller never actually owned the trailer.
“It’s selling the American dream to poor people,” says Beverly Parker, managing attorney with Southern Arizona Legal Aid(1) in Tucson, who has seen this scenario play out repeatedly. Sellers “don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. It’s just business.”
***[I]n the justice courts, where evictions are heard, the burden of proof often falls on tenants, who rarely bring legal representation, says Stan Silas, senior staff attorney with Community Legal Services, Inc.,(2) in Phoenix.
“There aren’t enough attorneys out there willing to help them do this,” he says.
***Justice courts are presided over by justices of the peace, elected officials who do not have to be attorneys. Sometimes filling in are judges pro tempore — part-time, appointed justice officers who also do not have to be attorneys.
Many judges are diligent, Legal Aid’s Parker says, but “if your judge is not a lawyer, it’s hard to argue the law.”
***No one tracks how often would-be buyers get snared in rent-to-own deals gone wrong, but based on the number of victims seeking help at Southwest Fair Housing Council, “I’m gonna say it happens on a daily basis,” says Evelia Martinez, project manager at the Tucson nonprofit.
Unscrupulous landlords and property managers have incentives to get tenants to abandon their homes: Abandoned trailers can be revenue streams.
Tenants who own their trailer on rented land can find themselves in an impossible position if they want to leave: Relocating a trailer typically costs $3,000 to $5,000, assuming it’s is in good enough condition to be moved.
The state offers mobile home relocation assistance, but many owners have no place to move their trailer even with that help. That’s because newer mobile home parks often have rules against accepting trailers of a certain age or condition, so costly rehabilitation may be required to secure a new space.
Often, just abandoning their trailer is the best option, especially if they can’t find a buyer approved by their landlord, can’t continue to pay their space rent or utilities, or can’t afford repairs to make the place livable.
(2) Community Legal Services is a non-profit 501(c)(3) public interest law firm, with offices in Phoenix, Arizona and neighboring counties, providing legal assistance, advice or representation; self-help materials and legal education to low-income Arizonans in connection with housing, domestic violence, unlawful/unfair practices by landlords, foreclosures, among other issues.