About this report
After municipal officials condemned homes in two central Wisconsin mobile home communities in late 2010, Gannett Wisconsin Media requested hundreds of complaints submitted to two state agencies under the state’s Public Records Law to gauge the effectiveness of the state’s regulatory system. The Department of Safety and Professional Services provided its database of complaints, dating back to 2002. The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection provided copies of the past three years of residents’ complaints, the only records readily available. GWM also interviewed current and former state officials, local authorities, inspectors, industry representatives and residents around the state.
By Kathleen Foody
Gannett Wisconsin Media
Shortly after Larry Harding was elected president of the town of Plymouth in 2009, he toured a mobile home park on the community’s west side with a camera in hand.
Kountry Kourts had been cited for an assortment of local ordinance and public health violations between 1992 and 2009. A female resident also filed a complaint with the state in 2004, telling inspectors she was concerned about residents’ safety at the park in the small Rock County municipality.
Five years later, Harding and other town officials were fed up. Problems with the park’s plumbing and septic system and frequent police calls pushed them to revoke the operating license for Kountry Kourts.
“You had ceilings falling in, floors falling in, rodents everywhere,” Harding said. “I said, ‘This cannot go on.'”
Wisconsin’s patchwork system of regulating mobile home communities often forces communities such as Plymouth to act alone when a park owner won’t make repairs to houses with malfunctioning plumbing, broken heating systems and mold-covered walls, a Gannett Wisconsin Media investigation has found.
Even though the state has the authority to respond to residents’ complaints and revoke park owners’ licenses, responsibility for oversight is spread between two agencies. The results can be long delays in responding, frustration for residents whose complaints bounce around in state bureaucracy and unchecked health risks for tenants, many of whom are elderly and poor.
About 250,000 Wisconsin residents live in more than 1,000 mobile home communities. The latest national housing survey found nearly 45 percent of mobile home residents are older than 65 or living below the poverty line.
Industry officials worry that the combination of a vulnerable population and the 1970s construction date on many of these homes will increase the likelihood of dangerous living conditions for residents if owners can’t or won’t make improvements.
“(The homes’) life cycle is coming to an end without a good maintenance and inspection program,” said Ross Kinzler, executive director of the Wisconsin Housing Alliance, which represents about 700 owners of mobile home communities.
Slow to respond
Only one of the two state agencies that oversee mobile home communities — the Department of Safety and Professional Services — has the power to pull an owner’s state license. The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection is charged with collecting landlord/tenant complaints but has no authority to do its own license review.
Counties or other local government agencies can apply for permission to act as state inspectors, but only 24 entities have been approved, and the state is responsible for every other community.
In March 2010, Rock County’s health department condemned six houses at Kountry Kourts. The town also filed a complaint with the state that month, alleging that owner E. James Skarda didn’t have leases for most residents of the park, a violation of state law.
More than a month later, a state inspector was assigned to investigate the allegation. An administrator with DATCP asked the town for patience because “we currently have a number of position vacancies and it takes more time than we would like to respond to complaints,” according to town records.
In June, Skarda and an attorney met with state officials. The park continued to operate, and the town’s complaint was closed.
But the quality of housing at the park continued to deteriorate, and local officials said they received none of the cooperation Skarda showed state regulators. When a county inspector returned to Kountry Kourts in June, he found someone living in one of the condemned units. Three more hadn’t been touched.
A month later, Plymouth’s board voted to revoke the park’s town license, and about 15 residents had to find new housing.
Tim Banwell, environmental health director for the Rock County Health Department, worked on the Kountry Kourts problems and isn’t certain what should be done to prevent similar situations elsewhere. But having one state agency for mobile home complaints could have sped the process of closing the park, he said.
“I wish I knew the answer,” Banwell said. “In our situation, Commerce could probably just pass off some of their responsibility to Agriculture or (the other way around).”
State records provide little detail about how inspectors follow up on complaints beyond calling or writing to an owner.
» In 2004, a Maple Grove Trailer Home Park resident reported sewage spewing from pipes in the backyard of her home in Beaver Dam. When a state employee contacted the park owner, he claimed the leak was fixed.
State records don’t show whether an inspector visited the site, and a spokeswoman for DSPS said there was no further information available about the resident’s complaint. Maple Grove still is licensed by the state for 50 homes.
» In 2008, a Calumet County Planning Department employee reported raw sewage and poor conditions overall at Lake View Estates Mobile Home Court in Chilton, asking state regulators to step in and force improvements to the park’s sewage system. According to state records, the county was moving to close the park that year.
The park never was closed, but the county filed a court complaint and forced the owner to make repairs, Calumet County Director of Resource Management Julie Schmelzer said. County staffers watch the plumbing system at Lake View Estates closely for problems, but the facility still holds a state license and the county has no power to change that.
“(The county) tried twice to become a regulator of mobile homes,” Schmelzer said. “(The state) rejected it. My guess is the state would prefer to do it, but in my opinion, that’s not the best practice. People with hands on the ground are at the local level (and) see the problems.”
When officials in Langlade County and the city of Antigo received a complaint about frozen pipes and other plumbing issues, rotting floors and mold-covered walls at Forest Ave Mobile Home Court in late October, they inspected and condemned nine houses.
Fewer than 50 miles away, residents of another park owned by Randy Bouche were living with nearly identical problems. Inspectors with the Marathon County Health Department and the village of Kronenwetter received complaints from residents at Bouche’s Kronenwetter Park in December and were horrified by what they saw in rental units.
Delegating inspections to local agencies with no way to share information could create similar situations. At least 70 owners in Wisconsin operate multiple properties, according to state licenses issued by DATCP.
It’s rare for county or city officials to share inspection information. And local records don’t have to be forwarded to the state.
According to inspection reports from the Marathon County case:
» Four adults, a 7-year-old and a 2-year-old were living in a unit with no running water or heat. The family showered at a neighbor’s and borrowed buckets of water to flush the toilet.
» At another home, raw sewage from a broken sewer line had pooled under the trailer and frozen solid.
» Other residents showed inspectors holes in their homes’ floors and roofs.
Sean Zyduck, a former manager at the park, said he wasn’t surprised by media reports of conditions at the park. Zyduck lived there during the two years he worked as manager and said problems “came fast and furious.”
Even an initially small problem — a broken sewer line, for example — grew into a major one when residents didn’t tell him about it, Zyduck said. He also said Bouche held back money for major and minor repairs, including renovation of abandoned trailers that continued to deteriorate.
“About a year and a half in (to my time working at the park), we had three sewer lines break,” Zyduck said. “I found out one had been going for six months, and no one had notified me.”
Attempts to reach Bouche by phone were unsuccessful.
What regulations likely won’t change is the park culture that residents and owners described, especially a tendency to discourage complaints. Higher costs for a landlord can mean higher costs for residents, many on a fixed income.
In the most extreme situations, complaining about conditions can result in an entire park being shut down.
Things didn’t go quite that far in Kronenwetter, but nearly half of the park’s former residents moved out when a bank foreclosed on Bouche and delivered notices to each home.
Zyduck said he understands the inclination for residents to keep quiet but urged people to speak up if a landlord or manager isn’t helpful.
“If nobody steps forth, the problems don’t get known,” he said.
TIPS FOR TENANTS
Where to go for help in resolving mobile home issues:
» If you have questions or complaints about a lease, contract or other landlord/tenant issues, contact the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection by phone at 800-422-7128, from 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. Or go online to http://datcp.wi.gov/Consumer/Consumer_Complaints/index.aspx to download a complaint form.
» If you have questions or want to file a complaint about other issues, including electrical and other safety matters, contact the state Department of Safety and Professional Services by phone at 608-264-9596, from 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. Or go online to http://dsps.wi.gov/sb/SB-DivOnlineServices.html.
MOBILE HOME LICENSING
Wisconsin’s Department of Safety and Professional Services requires prospective mobile home park owners to:
» Submit a plan showing home locations, streets, lights and septic system.
» Submit plans for plumbing, waste collection and water systems.
» Have the park’s water tested and submit a sample.
» File a license application.
» Have an inspection done.
Local communities might have additional requirements.