Business Monthly

Agencies Establish Emergency Fund for Displaced Mobile Home Residents

NeighborWorks Montana has partnered with the Whitefish Community Foundation to set up a relocation fund for Spring Creek Mobile Home Park tenants who were recently evicted after new owners took over the property

By Maggie Dresser
Entrance sign to the Spring Creek Park mobile home community in Evergreen on Dec. 11, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For the last 14 years, 61-year-old Debbie Wallace has lived in her 1978 trailer with her husband at Spring Creek Mobile Home Park on South Cedar Drive in Evergreen where, until recently, they have paid a few hundred dollars per month in lot fees.

But when new owners took over the park last year and abruptly started raising the rent, charging a base rate for utilities and tacking on additional costs like late fees while removing grace periods, Debbie — along with her neighbors — started to get nervous.

As surveyors frequented the park and repeatedly shut off the water without notice, park residents became suspicious that the new owners were intentionally trying to price them out.

After park officials assured them there was nothing to worry about, tenants received an eviction notice from Next Level Property Management a few months later. The letter stated they must vacate the premises and remove all personal property — including their mobile homes — within six months.

“It’s going to have such a devastating impact — not just on the people in the park, but for the county and the state,” Debbie said. “There are going to be homeless people.”

But when Danielle Maiden of NeighborWorks Montana, a local nonprofit that provides resources for tenants of manufactured-home parks, heard about the eviction, she came up with a solution to help ease the financial burden for residents, many of whom are low-income and senior citizens.

After reaching out to the Whitefish Community Foundation, the tax-deductible emergency Spring Creek Resident Relocation Fund was quickly established for residents to provide financial assistance to help them move.

“We really started brainstorming to think of how we could help the families being impacted by this,” Maiden said. “We made some calls, and the Whitefish Community Foundation was really fantastic and wanted to find a way to be responsive. We thought about the best way to help them stay housed.”

To further support residents, Whitefish Community Foundation President and CEO Alan Davis chose to waive administration fees and direct all the funding toward the relocation effort.

“NeighborWorks is doing all the work and we want to help them be more efficient at their work — we want to help, and we are happy to do the administration free of charge,” Davis said.

Maiden hopes to raise at least $145,000 for the 32 households at Spring Creek to help cover the cost of relocating trailers, which averages around $10,000. Other funding options could be rental deposits, or the money could go toward a down payment on a new property. All donations will be routed directly from the foundation to vendors or landlords.

“Our hope is to be able to provide that funding directly to the vendors and also be responsive to what their hopes and desires are,” Maiden said. “We want to be flexible if they want to buy land, or if they are able to buy a lot in another community … We really want to overcome the barriers to let them stay housed.”

The emergency relocation effort comes after residents at Spring Creek received a 180-day notice of eviction dated on April 29, four months after former Performance Real Estate owner and local investor Brett Kelly purchased the property.

Across the street, the 24-unit Mountain View Mobile Home Park was purchased around the same time by local businessman and church leader Dennis Burton. Both landlords began hiking up rent prices once they took over, telling the Beacon in January that the increases were necessary to offset the expensive cost of upgrading the water system.

But the tenants, many who are elderly and live on fixed incomes, were outraged at the rent hikes. They worried that Spring Creek would end up like other parks in the Flathead, such as Havenpark, which was purchased in recent years by a private equity firm, or Greenwood Village RV Park, where lot fees more than doubled within a few years.

Stephanie Pestkowski pictured in front of her trailer at the Spring Creek Park mobile home community in Evergreen on Dec. 11, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Stephanie Pestkowski, who lives in a 1979 trailer with her husband and two kids in Spring Creek, said the rent and utility hikes increased her bills from $425 to $740.

After residents received the eviction notice, Pestkowski began making calls to find housing that she and her family could afford. None of the mobile home parks in the area would accept a trailer older than 20 years, and a lender informed her that she didn’t qualify for the Flathead’s housing prices, which have hovered around a median of $500,000 in Kalispell in recent months. Additionally, a rental would not accommodate the needs of her 7-year-old son who has multiple developmental disabilities.

“We have no plans because everything we have tried has hit a dead end,” Pestkowski said.

John Wallace, who is the son of Debbie Wallace and lives with his wife, kids and Great Dane in Spring Creek, hopes to buy a lot to put his trailer on, along with his parents’ trailer. But he’s running into similar issues as Pestkowski, like steep land prices, and he doesn’t meet other aspects of loan criteria.

“I’m 38 years old and I’ve never had a credit card,” John Wallace said. “I don’t have a credit score — there are many of us that don’t have credit.”

Shortly after Kelly purchased the Spring Creek property, he told the Beacon that his plans involved fixing up the park, which lies on a floodplain, as well as upgrading the water system and continuing to rent to the current tenants.

“I’ve got this weird thing — I love to find properties with problems, and I love to fix them,” Kelly told the Beacon in January. “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.”

Kelly did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Beacon following the eviction notice, but he posted to his personal Facebook page on May 21, addressing it to his “Dearest Family, Friends, and Community” as a way of articulating his intentions.

“I had to make a decision on the park’s future. Considering extensive repairs needed, as well as the floodplain issue, it became evident that terminating existing lease agreements and removing the homes was the only viable solution. This decision was not taken lightly but was made with the long-term well-being of the residents and the park in mind,” he stated in the post.

A trailer at the Spring Creek Park mobile home community in Evergreen on Dec. 11, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In two additional eviction notices that residents received on May 25, the property management company stated the owners were “changing the use of the property from a mobile home park with tenant-owned homes to a mobile home park with landlord-owned homes.”

The other eviction notice was identified as a “legitimate business reason,” which requires at least a 90-day notice.

While Kelly is within his rights to evict the current tenants under the current state law, and even granted them 90 additional days than what is required, residents still worry it’s not enough, and the displacement will lead to homelessness.

Pestkowski said the needs of her disabled son limit their options, explaining that it’s important they remain in the Evergreen School District where resources are available. But she’s also worried about her elderly neighbors, and she’s trying to educate them about services like the Agency on Aging, with the hope that they can get on a waitlist for assisted living.

As the Wallaces brainstorm ways to buy a chunk of property to move their trailers, Debbie is busy working her final year at Walmart as she tries to set up her retirement, currently planned for June 2025. She, too, is worried about her neighbors who are on fixed incomes, as well as those who might have to leave their families behind.

“So much for the golden years,” Debbie said.

To donate to the Spring Creek Resident Relocation Fund, visit www.whitefishcommunityfoundation.org, call (406) 863-1781 or mail a check to Whitefish Community Foundation, P.O. Box 1060, Whitefish MT 59937.

Click here to make a direct credit card donation.