It was a pretty brutal holiday season for Barbara Gaught in Billings, Mont. Back in December, just a week before Christmas, she got an eviction notice.
"It was at like 6:30 at night that a sheriff came and taped a notice on the door," she says. "On a Friday night."
Gaught hadn't responded to a court summons the month before. She didn't think she could be evicted so soon. After all, she owned her home outright. But she'd fallen behind on the relatively small amount of money she pays in rent for the patch of grass and driveway her home sat on. And because of that, she now had just a couple of days, until Monday, to be out of her home.
So she brought her 5-year-old son to a relative's house. And she and her older children started throwing things into bags.
"We packed our stuff," she says. "It was horrible. There was a lot of tears involved."
Like about 20 million Americans, Gaught lived in what's called a manufactured home. In other words, a mobile home that gets brought in by a truck but then sits on a patch of land — often in a mobile home park.
For a lot of people, this makes homeownership affordable. Even brand new mobile homes on average cost less than half of a single family house or a condo. And 80 percent of manufactured housing residents own their homes. Gaught had owned hers for 16 years.
"I was a really young mom," she says. "One thing I was so proud of was the fact that my kids weren't moving from place to place to place."
Gaught says for a time she was getting out of a bad marriage, and even when other things in her kids lives weren't going well, they had the house. "There was always that place for them to come home to. It was the safe place."
But the pandemic is laying bare that mobile home owners are often very vulnerable. On average they make half as much income as regular single-family homeowners, and during the pandemic have been twice as likely to be behind on their housing payments.
The loans they get often don't have the same protections as regular mortgages. Then there's the biggest vulnerability for those that live in mobile home parks.
"They don't own the land under their home," says Elisabeth Voigt. She's a director at Manufactured Housing Action, a nonprofit that advocates for better legal protections for mobile home owners.
While manufactured homes are often called mobile homes, most are not very mobile. Moving them is a major undertaking. It often means installing wheels and welding on tow hitches.
"It costs [$5,000) to $10,000 to hire a company to move your home off the lot that you rent," Voigt says. "Older homes structurally can't handle a move, and it's very difficult to find a new lot."
So she says families can end up being prisoners to the mobile home park. And if people fall behind on that “lot rent” for the land under the home, she says some companies that own mobile home parks quickly move to evict them.
"The landlord turns around, rents the home or sells it again, adding to their profit margins," says Voigt. "The resident has lost not only their home but their life savings."
Often the courts allow this — since the homeowner can't move the home.
During the pandemic, many people like Barbara Gaught have been having trouble paying because they've lost work. Gaught and her fiancé both work in construction and had to stop for a time after COVID-19 hit. That's when they fell behind on the lot rent.
Nobody's tracking this nationally. But one group, the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, looking at just a handful of counties in a few states, has found upwards of 1,200 eviction filings against people in mobile home parks. "That just scratches the surface," says Jim Baker the group's executive director.
Lesli Gooch is the CEO of the Manufactured Housing Institute, which represents mobile home parks. She says many have been doing all they can to be flexible with struggling residents.
"They did rent payment arrangements, we just had somebody do a vaccination clinic," she says. "Across the board, the owners and operators were really trying to keep their residents safely housed."
Barbara Gaught wasn't so lucky.
The company that owns the land under her mobile home is called Havenpark. It filed an eviction case after she fell just one month behind on the lot rent and owed $621 in rent and fees. And pretty soon, she says she had a notice on her door that she had to get out in just two days.
"I believe, when they put the notice on our door, we were two-and-a-half months behind," Gaught says. "And they weren't taking any partial payments, so it was one of those things where I either had to have all of the money or none of the money. They really were, like, we're just going to screw you big time."
Havenpark says it tried to avoid evicting Gaught.
The company declined an interview with NPR but said in a statement that she received all the required notices during the eviction process. And that it tried to call her twice. If she'd responded the company says it would have worked with her and referred her to government rental assistance programs. But since she didn't respond, the company said it was left "with no choice but to proceed with eviction."
"No, that's not true they had a choice," says Amy Hall, an attorney with Montana Legal Services Association who helps families try to avoid eviction. "They could have worked with her longer to try to give her time to get caught up."
Havenpark points out that Gaught failed to respond to a court summons. And says that if she had, she likely could have gotten a repayment plan through the court and kept her home.
Hall says that's true, especially if she'd managed to get a lawyer. There's also an order from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that could have protected her if she knew about it.
But Hall says a lot of people don't know their rights. And the process moves very quickly.
Mike Eakin is a lawyer in Billings who does pro-bono work. He says just in his area mobile home evictions are keeping him busy.
"Quite a bit," Eakin says. "Since last fall, at least 20 to 25 cases at mobile home lots that Haven Park has purchased here in Billings." He adds that he's got more cases involving other mobile home park companies, too.
In Gaught's case, court documents show that she owed less than $1,200 when she got evicted. And so for that relatively small amount of money, she lost a home she owned outright, and lived in for 16 years.
Meanwhile, she says all this has probably been hardest on her 5-year-old son. "Out of everybody, I think he was the most upset about losing the house."
Gaught says her dad helped her work out an agreement with Havenpark where she wouldn't owe the $1,200 and the company could keep the mobile home. She, her dad and their lawyer say the company wouldn't even let them take a storage shed off the property. They say Havenpark insisted on keeping that, too.
Gaught was able to go back, so her 5-year-old could see the house one more time. She says she'll remember that forever.
"Just him saying, 'goodbye house,' " she says.
"It's all he's known in his short little life, and it's, it really sucked." Gaught says it's hard not to feel like she failed her kid not being able to protect him from that. "It's hard to explain to him why his home's not his home anymore."
Gaught says after staying at motels and with friends for months, the family finally found a house to rent. It costs more than twice what she was paying to the mobile home park in lot rent and fees. But she says she can afford that now because she's working again.
So she says if she'd just had a little more time catch up, she she wouldn't have had to lose her home.
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