For many residents in outstate Minnesota, manufactured home -- or trailer -- parks are affordable housing. Area officials and some residents in the central Minnesota township of Avon say their only mobile home park is an unfit place to live.
About 180,000 people live in more than 900 licensed mobile home parks scattered across the state, with the vast majority in rural Minnesota. While many of the parks are in fair condition, some residents live in parks with problems ranging from rundown trailers to crime.
A winding, tree-lined road dotted with upscale houses in Avon Township leads to Evergreen Hills, a 36-lot mobile home park that has been controversial for about 20 years.
One early afternoon, John Tracy, an environmental health specialist with Stearns County, stood in front of the leftovers of a trailer that was demolished by a county order.
"Had a situation where there were 20-plus dogs in an old manufactured home. No electricity," said Tracy. "And the carpeting was full of feces and urine."
This is one example of a host of problems documented by public inspection records for the last nine years. The records show poor maintenance, improper trash disposal, unauthorized additions to trailers, and inadequate fire protection.
The owners of Evergreen Hills, Dan and Linda Pitzer, have long been criticized for poorly managing this park, with many trailers in substandard conditions. They used to own the trailers, but now they just rent the land to residents.
Dan Pitzer said it's been difficult to enforce rules because many of his lot renters won't cooperate. He said it's not his problem to maintain the lots and the trailers his family no longer owns.
"No, I'm not responsible," said Pitzer. "I have to tell people to do it [to clean up], but I'm not responsible, no."
Worrisome living conditions
Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner disagrees.
According to state law and local county ordinances, the owners of manufactured home parks must maintain the land and all facilities in a clean, orderly and sanitary condition. Sanner said the owners must make sure residents follow park rules.
So far this year, Sanner's department has responded to more than 100 calls about Evergreen Hills. The calls range from domestic assaults to drug crimes. Sanner said he, township leaders, and county officials are most concerned about the children who live at the park.
"Children turn into the truest victims of all, as this whole thing plays out because the parents, who are the people living in the mobile homes, choose to live that way and the children have no choice," he said.
One resident estimates that roughly three dozen children live at the park.
When asked to respond to concerns about the living conditions and welfare of children at Evergreen Hills, the Stearns County Human Services Department said it "takes reports of maltreatment of children very seriously," and that, "if a report of suspected maltreatment is received, our department determines the best approach to use in responding to the report."
The department said it doesn't keep data on the number of child maltreatment reports that come in from a particular location, and can't provide specific information on questions about Evergreen Hills.
Whether or not the lifestyle is a matter of choice, one of the residents' top concerns at the park is clean water.
One resident, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of eviction, said it took two months this summer for the owners to fix a problem with sand in the water. The screen in a well rusted and pumped sand throughout the water pipes.
In addition, this resident said hardly anyone at the park drinks the water because it's high in iron.
“When you're stuck, you're stuck.”Resident Gene Lehrer
He recently installed a new toilet and said it turned a dark orange in only three days.
"That's ridiculous," said the resident. "Can you imagine drinking that, and what it's going to do to you?"
Water inspections from the Minnesota Department of Health show the park's water passes safety standards, but that doesn't comfort residents. The Health Department said iron affects only the color, taste, and smell of water, but not its safety.
Avon Fire Chief Eric Linn said living conditions at the park are worrisome. Linn said he often responds to calls about grass fires, illegal burning of materials, and gas leaks. He said many of the trailers don't have working smoke detectors.
"I don't want to have to go out there and remove a family out of a burnt trailer, when today we can do something about it," Linn said. "After that's done, you know, we have to live with that forever."
If one trailer caught fire, Linn said the others could easily go up in flames too, because they sit close together.
Problems worsened a decade ago
Township and county officials say problems at the park worsened nearly 10 years ago, when the owner expanded the park with 11 trailers, which had been banned from the city of St. Cloud because they were deemed "unlivable." Park owner Dan Pitzer said he wasn't aware the city condemned the trailers.
Evergreen Hills resident Gene Lehrer, who has lived at the park for 12 years, said he knows several people, including his sister, who bought shoddy trailers from the park owners.
"The ceiling was caving in. The floors were rotted out and gone," Lehrer said. "The toilet didn't work, the water heater was falling through the floor in the bedroom, and they didn't help her fix nothing. Not even the furnace worked."
Lehrer said no one at the park wants to see the place shut down, but people are disappointed the county can't do more to help. He is one of several residents who said they simply can't afford to move away.
"When you're stuck, you're stuck, you gotta do what you gotta do," Lehrer said. "If you ain't got the money to live somewhere else, and all you can do is a rundown shack with no floor and running water, well, you gotta do it and hope that you can fix it."
Almost all of the people living at the park own their trailers. Housing and Urban Development reported that 80 percent of people living in mobile home parks earn low to very low incomes. At Evergreen Hills, residents pay around $250 a month to rent their lots.
Stearns County Housing and Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Robert Swanberg said while there are private and public affordable housing options throughout the county, "it's virtually impossible to find rents in the $250 a month neighborhood."
Swanberg said it would also be difficult to find rental housing at that price for big families.
Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall said one reason the county hasn't shut down the park boils down to private property rights.
"Sometimes the person who owns the property next to you is a bad neighbor, and is not someone who is doing what you would hope they would do with the property," said Kendall. "But ultimately, if they own it, they own it."
Kendall said the county doesn't want to be responsible for making people homeless. She said if the county shuts down the park, relocation would be expensive and temporary housing difficult to find. Rather than revoking Dan and Linda Pitzer's license, she said the best the county can do is to increase its enforcement efforts.
Advocates for residents of mobile home parks say conditions at Evergreen Hills are worse than those of a typical park in Minnesota. But across the nation, issues of poor management and aging trailers are common, according to people who study manufactured housing.
Kate MacTavish, an Oregon State University professor who's done research on mobile home parks, said the perception that it's better to live in rundown conditions than to be homeless shows the low standards society has for affordable housing.
"We saw post-Katrina that as a nation, we are not concerned about whether or not people have access to what we think of as 'decent housing,'" said MacTavish. "They are worried about the image of their community, or the fact that it might attract lower-income residents speaks to that concern, too."
MacTavish, who is not familiar with Evergreen Hills, said poor situations at parks can change if tenants mobilize. In other states, mobile home park residents have formed co-ops to purchase and self-manage their parks.
The Minnesota Housing Finance Agency has set aside $12 million over the next two years to help mobile home residents who are interested in buying and managing their own parks.
In the short term, this won't help people at Evergreen Hills. For now, some residents say they have to stay there until they can save money to move away.