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Casar helps trailer park residents sue new owners

Tuesday, May 5, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

City Council Member Greg Casar has added his political support to a legal fight between a low-income mobile home community and the corporation that recently took control of the property.

On Monday evening, dozens of North Lamar Community Mobile Home Park residents flanked Casar outside of their homes as he and Austin Independent School District Board Member Ann TeicheTeich of District 3 held a news conference to announce a lawsuit filed against RV Horizons, Inc., the management company run by investors who purchased the land in January.

Since that acquisition, according to Casar, some residents in the working-class, mostly Hispanic community in District 4 have seen their rents and water utility bills nearly double in violation of existing lease agreements.

“When I heard from my constituents that their rents and utilities were being exorbitantly raised seemingly overnight and that their leases were not being respected, my office and I went into action,” Casar said Monday.

He explained that he helped organize a residents’ association — the Asociación de los Residentes de North Lamar, or ARNL — and then put the group in contact with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, which filed the lawsuit on the community’s behalf.

Robert GarrettDoggett, general counsel for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, also spoke briefly. He announced that he has already reached an agreement with RV Horizons to give the residents some temporary protection.

“They agreed in open court, under sworn testimony, that they would not take any action to evict, issue a notice to vacate, file an eviction, tow, terminate any utilities or take any adverse actions against anyone in this park for the next 14 days while we try to resolve these issues,” Garrett said. “Of course, if we can’t, then we’ll be back in court if we need to.”

When reached by phone before the news conference, Frank Rolfe, one of the owners of RV Horizons, told the Austin Monitor that Casar’s office did not try to contact him before announcing the lawsuit.

Rolfe also categorically denied any wrongdoing on his company’s part. He said that of the 69 units at the park, 47 were on month-to-month leases when RV Horizons took over. Monthly rents under those contracts ranged from $345 to $390, but now they have increased to $450 under newly signed agreements. The 22 units that were under longer-term leases have not seen a rent hike, but will when those terms expire, Rolfe said.

“Nobody out there is going to have gigantic financial hardship over an extra $100 per month,” Rolfe told the Monitor. He also asserted in unvarnished terms his belief in the free market.

“It’s a free country,” Rolfe said. “If the residents feel they can find something at that price that’s superior, then please do. There are many other uses for this property. It doesn’t have to be a mobile home park.”

Rolfe went on to explain that prior property owners who did not make market-standard adjustments each year had kept the previous rents artificially low. He said his company is bringing the mobile home park “up to modern times.”

Rolfe is no stranger to mobile home communities. He and his partner in RV Horizons, Dave Reynolds, conduct a seminar called Mobile Home Park Boot Camp that teaches potential investors how to get wealthy rapidly by buying and managing trailer parks. In one article summarizing the bulk of their lessons, the duo advises owners to raise rents “relentlessly.”

“There is no better way to make money in the mobile home park business than to increase rents,” the article says. “Every dollar that you increase rents falls directly to the bottom line.”

Rolfe and Reynolds go on to point out one key factor that makes it easier to raise rents on mobile home residents: “At $3,000 or so to move a mobile home, there is a huge barrier to moving out, so tenants will accept pretty much whatever you raise the rents to … within reason!”

In his remarks Monday, Casar slammed Rolfe and Reynolds for business practices that he deemed “ruthless.”

“These investors have compared their business model to ‘Waffle Houses where you have the customers chained to the booths,’” Casar said. He also disagreed with Rolfe’s claim that existing lease agreements had not seen any rent hikes.

“A large number of residents here have testified and signed affidavits saying that they had 12-month-long contracts, and that those contracts guaranteed specifics around utilities and rent,” Casar told the Monitor. “Many of these folks have signed sworn affidavits saying that what Mr. Rolfe has said was not true in their eyes.”

Roberto Sanchez, the president of ARNL, greeted the news of the 14-day halt to any evictions with enthusiastic celebration. Addressing the crowd in Spanish, he called it “our first victory.”

“We want something more, we want something bigger. We want something more for ourselves and for our kids,” Sanchez said. “We want liberty, justice and peace.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of two names: Ann Teich and Robert Doggett

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