On the last day of November in 2023, Stephanie Pestkowski received an unsigned letter enclosed in a Ziploc bag on the snowy doorstep of her three-bedroom, 1970s era trailer in Evergreen, notifying her that there would be new rules and regulations at Spring Creek Mobile Home Park under new ownership.
The letter said that her lot rent would increase to $585, her water and sewer utilities would now have a base rate of $30 per month plus $125 for sewer and there would be an additional $25 fee for every additional resident. There would no longer be a grace period for rent payments, which impacts tenants who receive Social Security and disability payments.
“They’ll have a late fee every month, which is grounds for termination,” Pestkowski said.
The rules also said only two pets are permitted per household and while her three cats are grandfathered in, she doesn’t have the option to have more in the future. Additionally, she was told she had to paint her trailer, install different fencing and that she needed approval to build extra structures like a shed.
Since the new owners took over, tenants say that surveyors have frequented the property and have shut off the water multiple times without notice.
Additionally, tenants were required to fill out a conditions report and were given until Dec. 31 to sign a new lease agreement with Next Level Property Management. She received the new month-to-month lease on Dec. 20, along with a $25 Super 1 gift card.
Until this year, Pestkowski was paying $425 per month in rent and her water rate was meter-based. With each added cost, her bills have increased to $740, and she worries that she, her husband and three kids – one of whom is disabled – won’t be able to afford to stay there.
Pestkowski first moved to the park with her family 12 years ago. She said rent has been affordable and the previous owners, who recently died, were courteous about price increases.
But since the new owners purchased the manufactured home park in December, Pestkowski said she has had limited exchanges with the employees at the property management company who now oversee the park, and claims they don’t always respond to her complaints.
Spring Creek has historically been home to low-income residents and Pestkowski estimates about 60% of her neighbors are elderly and on fixed incomes. She said many of them are also worried they will be priced out of the park. Even if they could find a new location to move their trailers, which costs about $10,000, nearly all of the homes are too old to relocate.
“They’re all freaking out,” Pestkowski said. “Nobody can take your trailer if it’s older than 10 years old.”
After chatting with her neighbors, Pestkowski learned that the sister park across Cedar Drive, Mountain View Mobile Home Park, was also sold, and tenant Amber Blankenship shared similar complaints about the rate hikes and new rules and regulations. Her rent went from $345 to $575 per month, not including utilities.
Former Performance Real Estate owner and local investor Brett Kelly purchased the 33-unit Spring Creek property in December while Dennis Burton, a businessman and church leader, bought the 24-unit Mountain View property in November and both men defend the rent increases as necessary to clean up the parks and upgrade utility infrastructure.
As the new owners hear the volley of complaints from tenants in response to the rate hikes, they feel they are being unfairly characterized as prioritizing profits over tenants’ rights, and say their primary objective in raising rent is to offset the cost of upgrading the water system and creating a safer, healthier environment.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” Kelly said. “We’re going to try and fix these things and get them set up to where they should have been years ago. I don’t want to be grouped in with the people who bought the park on Shady Lane. I’m not that guy. Yes – I did increase their rents, but I have to get this up to snuff.”
In 2020, Havenpark Capital Partners, a Utah-based real estate investment firm with properties in almost a dozen states and has a history of complaints and rate hikes, purchased Meadow Manor on Shady Lane, a mobile home park in Evergreen.
As of 2023, Meadow Manor was charging $845 per lot for new residents while existing tenants pay a grandfathered rate that starts at $535, according to a public affairs contractor who works for Havenpark.
Since 2018, Havenpark has also purchased parks in Great Falls and Billings. In May, the company announced it would expand one of its recently purchased parks in Billings to add 276 lots with company-owned homes.
While many large private equity firms like Havenpark are taking over mobile home parks, similar tactics are playing out on a smaller scale in the Flathead Valley.
After a local accountant took over Greenwood Village RV Park in Evergreen in 2021, residents saw rents go up from $312 to $700 per month within two years. The park, which has roughly 85 manufactured homes, also began requiring multiple surcharges like an additional $1 per square foot fee for any structure on a tenant’s lot.
With few regulations in Montana, the new owners are operating within their rights and, according to the 2007 Montana Residential Mobile Home Act, the tenant must pay rent “as determined by the landlord.”
While some states have measures like rent control to protect tenants from rate hikes, landlords in Montana can raise rent as often as desired.
Montana’s lack of regulations has attracted private equity investors in recent years who have purchased parks across the state and raised prices.
In recent years, lawmakers have pushed to advance mobile home tenants’ rights, but none of them have made it past the governor’s desk.
In the 2023 Montana Legislature, House Bill 429 sponsored by Rep. George Nikolakakos, R-Great Falls, would have required the owners of mobile home parks with more than 50 units to give residents 60 days notice if they sell the property. It would also require owners to review counteroffers from tenants.
House Bill 428, sponsored by Rep. Mike Yakawich, R-Billings, would have required a two-year term for lot rental renewals, limited utility fees to actual utility costs and extended the timelines for eviction proceedings and the disposal of abandoned homes.
But park owners and landlords lobbied against the bills, saying they had a right to evict tenants.
“What happens when you’ve got drug dealers or any other bad actors in a mobile-home park?” Montana Landlords Association President John Sinrud said during a 2023 House Judiciary Committee hearing. “How do you get rid of them?”
Neither bill made it to the House floor.
House Bill 889, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Karlen, D-Missoula, and Rep. Pat Flowers, D-Missoula, would have required landlords to give 60 days notice to evict a resident instead of 30 days. The measure passed the Senate but was vetoed by Gov. Greg Gianforte.
“I felt like it wasn’t even worth the two trips to Helena to testify,” said Cindy Newman, a mobile home park tenant rights advocate.
As a mobile home park resident in Great Falls, Newman faced similar challenges as Pestkowski when outside investors purchased the park she lives in, which prompted her to advocate for tenants after her rent increased.
In the 2021 and 2023 Montana Legislatures, Newman drove back and forth to Helena throughout the sessions to testify for tenant rights bills.
As Newman continues to champion tenant rights, she said passing a bill that would allow residents first right to purchase would be a milestone for housing advocates and tenants alike. If the right to purchase were codified, residents could work with local nonprofits like NeighborWorks Montana, for example, which helps homeowners finance manufactured home-parks through a Resident Owned Community (ROC).
With ROCs, residents approve a budget every year, identify capital improvements and plan their park’s future so they can keep lot fees affordable.
In 2022, residents at a mobile home park known as the Hideaway Community in Columbia Falls worked with NeighborWorks to form a ROC where members pay about $470 per month in lot fees. Other ROCs, such as Morning Star and Green Acres Cooperative, Inc. in Kalispell, have also been established in the last 15 years.
“Resident ownerships running cooperatives is going to be our future,” Newman said.
Like the owner of Greenwood Village and RV Park in Evergreen, the new owners of Spring Creek and Mountain View are local, too, telling the Beacon they were both born and raised in the Flathead Valley and are “not investors from another state.”
But despite the local ownership, Newman said the rate hikes and management style resemble the tactics favored by large private equity companies.
“What I’m seeing is very similar to the playbook that Havenpark uses,” Newman said. “They hike up the rent, make volumes of unreasonable rules and regulations and based on what the residents say, they are looking to run off the existing residents and bring in their own.”
Kelly and Burton say the recent rent hikes were necessary as they work to replace outdated water utility infrastructure, which they said was leaking and hadn’t been updated since the 1970s. The project is costing Kelly about $350,000 at the Spring Creek property, giving him no choice but to increase rates, he said.
In response to tenant complaints about the new flat rate water fee, Kelly and Burton say they were forced to stop using the meter-based rate charge because the meters were broken. They also defended the $25 charge per person, arguing additional tenants use more water. In response to the pet limit, they said the regulation was already in place with the previous owner, but was not enforced, and that additional pets create an insurance liability.
Burton said that, while he has received a few complaints, he’s also gotten praise from a tenant who was grateful they were fixing up the park.
“The rate hikes – or what appears to be rate hikes – should have happened a long time ago,” Burton said.
Kelly said his main goal is to make the mobile home park a nicer place to live, and while he knew the water upgrades would be an expensive endeavor, it was a challenge he accepted.
“I’ve got this weird thing – I love to find properties with problems, and I love to fix them,” Kelly said. “I’ve worked on and fixed up multiple houses in my life and I’ve done multiple projects like this, so, in a weird way – it’s fun to me.”
In addition to the upgraded infrastructure, Kelly said his long-term goals for Spring Creek is to tidy up the park and continue renting to the current tenants.
At Mountain View, Burton plans to add more mobile home lots on the property, upgrade utilities and build another road for more vehicle access.
But for tenants like Pestkowski and Blankenship, they fear their rent will continue to increase on their month-to-month leases, knowing that their landlords are within their rights to do so.
Blankenship, who works part time at Joann Fabric and Crafts while her boyfriend has been working long days of overtime at Target through the holidays to support their teenage kids and pets, says she’s worried they will be priced out of Mountain View. Even if they could find a different park, their 1979 trailer is too old to be moved and she would likely be forced to abandon it.
“Everything in the paperwork is geared around people getting evicted,” Blankenship said. “I’m getting hit with all these extra bills. It was already hard enough with everything getting inflated and it’s going to be harder. I’m constantly living in fear.”
Pestkowski said she, too, doesn’t have other options for her family if they are priced out of Spring View and she hopes there will be changes on the legislative level in future sessions.
“I just wish there were more laws,” Pestkowski said.
This story has been updated to clarify that new residents at Meadow Manor pay $825 per month while existing residents pay a grandfathered rate.
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