When Judy Dole moved into a mobile home in September 2000, she didn't realize her search for affordable housing would lead her into a two-and-a-half year court battle.
Dole purchased a home in the Quail Hill Mobile Home Park only to be told by park managers that her split-rail deck was prohibited by park rules. When she refused to take down the structure, she was handed an eviction notice.
Challenging the park management under the Colorado Mobile Home Park Act, Dole hired an attorney, took her case to civil court and won. The park was ordered to pay Dole's attorney fees, which it refused to do. Ultimately, Dole went to court again, this time for approval to garnish the park's bank account for the $2,200 owed her.
Dole's story is just one of dozens of tales of woe that mobile-home owners across the state have reported. The problem, they and some lawmakers say, is that the Colorado Mobile Home Park Act -- which is a set of civil statutes designed to give rights to mobile-home owners -- has no teeth.
"Colorado's Mobile Homeowners Act, in comparison to other states, is basically useless," said state Rep. Bill Sinclair, a Colorado Springs Republican. "It doesn't do anything to punish the violators. Some kind of punishment clause is necessary for it to be effective."
Frustrated mobile-home owners across Colorado Springs complain of abuses by park managers -- ranging from denying tenants the use of the park clubhouse to forcing them to make repairs on their own individual units -- which are prohibited by the Mobile Home Park Act. Derek Krehbiel, co-director of the Housing Advocacy Coalition in Colorado Springs, said his organization has received over 300 complaints in the past year alone. The Mobile Homeowners Coalition, an offshoot of the Housing Advocacy Coalition, was formed a year ago to voice mobile-home owners concerns and to work for greater legal rights.
"We just dealt with a woman who lost her homeowner's insurance because the ground beneath her home is shifting and hurting the structure," said Krehbiel. "She was told she had to pay for the repairs, but really it's the park that's responsible."
Weak enforcement mechanisms and growing park disputes have led homeowners to take action. Last Saturday, Dole and her husband, Mike Heffron of the Mobile Homeowners Coalition, held a public forum that attracted nearly 100 people. Sinclair, fellow state Rep. Bill Cadman and City Councilwoman Margaret Radford were also on hand.
On tap for discussion was a potential Mobile Homeowners Bill of Rights that would strengthen the existing act. The legislation would make the existing civil laws criminal violations -- which would enable district attorneys to pursue real punishment against lawbreakers and allow plaintiffs to seek the assistance of public attorneys in such cases.
During the meeting, coalition members presented Sinclair and Cadman with a draft of 14 pressing issues on which they would like some relief. Among the issues are lease guarantees, the right to sell one's home in place without the park owner's consent, and protection from nonconsensual changes to park rules.
The lawmakers expressed guarded optimism that the homeowners could get much of what they looking for, likely within the next legislative session, though they cautioned that more research would be needed and concessions would have to be made.
"I'll tell you up front: Some of this stuff won't fly," Sinclair said. "I wouldn't support it, and neither would the legislature. But ... a reasonable bill would stand a reasonable chance of passing."
Sensitive issues include the licensing of park managers and proposals that would infringe on a park owner's right to sell his or her property. Both Sinclair and Cadman stressed that park owners' concerns need to be addressed as well.
"Like anything, there's going to have to be some kind of balance," said Cadman. "There are things [that homeowners] want and things the landowners want as well. Both are legitimate, and I'm the guy caught in the middle."
Sinclair also warned that park owners, many of which are small corporations that own several parks, would likely be hostile toward legislation that would strengthen homeowners' rights.
"You're going to face strong opposition," warned Sinclair. "They'll hire powerful lobbyists to try to defeat this."
The Mobile Homeowners Coalition now plans to form a small yet representative committee to work with lawmakers on a realistic piece of legislation. The organization is low on funds but plans to utilize grassroots approaches such as phone calls and personal testimony.
"They've got the money, but we've got voice," said an optimistic Dole. "Every now and then, the little guy wins. Frankly, we've got nothing to lose."