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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 6, 2011

One single mother is forced out of trailer park as another struggles to join co-op

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

KNOX — Rebecca Michael was busy this week, packing her worldly goods and those of her two young children, into boxes. Her home at Knox Estates trailer park was strewn with cartons.

“We’re not fighting it anymore,” said her mother, Cathy Whiteley.

Meanwhile, Nancy Carr, another single mother living in the trailer park, continues to fight eviction and strives to become a member of the park’s cooperative.

Michael, whose children have disabilities and who herself has an IQ of 69, was facing an eviction the week before Christmas. The Knox town judge, Jean Gagnon, stayed her eviction until Dec. 29.

On that date, Michael appeared in court again, this time with a letter from a pro bono lawyer asking for a month’s delay. The lawyer, Irwin Popkin, had been secured by an Enterprise reader who was moved by a front-page story about Michaels’s plight.

Gagnon said that a week would be enough time for Popkin to familiarize himself with the case and that otherwise Michael could represent herself.

The judge stressed that Michael in May had signed a document agreeing she would vacate the trailer park by Dec. 1. At issue was nearly $3,000 in back rent that Michael owed. The Albany County Department of Social Services offered in March to pay her back rent but the mobile home tenants’ association denied the payment. Michael said she has paid her lot rent for the last eight months.

Her parents, Cathy and Clifford Whiteley, who live in Berne, own the 1969 trailer and maintain that Michael’s 8-year-old son’s severe abdominal problems — he may have to have parts of his intestine and colon removed — are due to the park’s faulty septic system. Cathy Whiteley said the sewage backs up on the Michaels’ property and the children have played in the raw sewage. Michael said that a doctor at Albany Medical Center concluded her son’s condition was caused by bad drinking water; the trailer park frequently sends out warnings for residents to boil their water.

In November, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation gave the park a notice of violation to which it has not yet responded, according to spokesman Rick Georgeson. Discharge wasn’t being properly monitored, he said, and record keeping was sloppy.

Soggy ground at the park indicates its two septic systems — one installed in the 1980s and the other in the 1990s — aren’t working properly, according to Thomas Brady at the Albany County Department of Health. There are plans to install a new system, which would cost well over $100,000, Brady said. There is currently no timeline for the project, he said, as obtaining funding has been an issue.

Michael said on Monday that her parents were given papers to pay the back rent on the lot even though the park had refused the funds from the county. “My worker tried again to give it to them,” she said of a worker from Catholic Charities who helps Michael with organizational, parenting, and cooking skills.

Michael also said, “This place is falling apart little by little. We have no hot water right now and my kids can’t go without hot water. These people have been giving me the dirtiest and most obnoxious looks. They even took my trashcan away….They had no right coming on my property, but they took it anyway.”

Michael is looking for another place to live and said she will stay temporarily with her parents. Her father, a trucker, has been out of work for two years and recently lost his unemployment payments, Mrs. Whiteley said. Her mother uses a wheelchair and the Whiteleys care for another disabled daughter at home.

“My mom has problems and can’t take stress with the kids,” Michael said earlier.

She said on Monday that she believed she would lose her Section 8 funding — federal funding to pay housing costs for the poor, elderly and disabled. — if she didn’t leave. “Because the rule is, if I was evicted and had it taped on my door, I would be losing it forever, and I’m trying to avoid all that,” she said.

Michael suspended her Section 8 payments on Monday, leaving her a set period of time to find a new place to rent.

In Knox Town Court on Wednesday night, the two parties agreed the Michaels have until next Wednesday to vacate the premises with whatever belongings they care to take, pending a walk-through today.

“They got what they wanted,” Michael said on Wednesday night of the trailer park board members.

“Living paycheck to paycheck”

Nancy Carr bought a trailer last February and moved in to Knox Estates in March. “It’s been a complete nightmare,” she said last week after reading in the Dec. 30 Enterprise about Rebecca Michael’s dilemma. “I got completely screwed over. They never gave me the rules or regulations.”

Stacey Delligan, as vice president of the board, on Feb. 12 signed the paperwork for the bank that allowed Carr to purchase the trailer from Lucas Oliver. “They told me I could join the co-op,” said Carr.

The rent for co-op members is less, and that is what the bank and she had counted on, said Carr.

She is a single mother who works for the Veterans Affairs Hospital in the billing department. “Then they told me I was not allowed to live here,” she said. “They told me I cannot join the co-op…I’m living paycheck to paycheck.”

Lillian Relyea, president of the board, said there are 24 lots in the trailer park and one is currently empty. The park co-op has 18 members, she said, and five trailer owners who aren’t members.

“They can make their own decision,” she said on joining the co-op. “If you have good standards and you’re not back on rent,” she said of qualifications for membership.

“You have to get papers and fill them out to live in the park,” said Relyea. “You tell us where you work and we do a credit check, like you do when you rent an apartment.”

The lot rent for co-op members is $325; non-members pay $385.

The co-op board has a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, and overseer who are elected by the co-op members, said Relyea. Meetings are held monthly, although not in the last few, she said, “because it’s been cold.”

Relyea, who describes herself as a homemaker, is 67 and has lived in the trailer park for 24 years. She has been president for a little over a year. Her children have grown and gone, she said, and she has remarried. “I love my park,” said Relyea. “It’s one of the nicest in the area.”

She added, “Every park has issues. Housing projects have issues.”

In answer to questions about sewer violations, she said that money from rent is being set aside to do sewer work in the spring; she declined to say how much it would cost or what the repairs would be. Relyea also declined to answer questions about individual park residents and their complaints.

“The day I moved in, they called the Albany County Sheriff’s to evict me,” said Carr. “I showed the deputy the paperwork. The lady was very nice. She told Lillian there was nothing they could do….Then they shut off my water.”

This forced Carr and her 11-year-old daughter to move back to their former apartment, she said. “I had to take food, clothing, mattresses and move out just after I moved in,” Carr said, grateful that her old landlord would allow her to return. That was on a Saturday.

“She had to uproot her daughter; it’s reckless disregard for a family and endangering the welfare of a child,” said Carr’s lawyer, Courtnie Kirker.

Carr called the health department on Monday and on Tuesday, her water at the trailer park was back on and she could move back in, she said.

Carr and Kirker say that Carr was never informed of park rules or regulations before she moved in although, since the board’s vice president signed the paperwork for Carr’s mortgage, the board was aware she was buying the trailer.

“A park owner cannot enforce rules and regulations which are either not posted conspicuously or given to park tenants at the time they move in,” according to the state’s Real Property Law.

“They acknowledged sale and purchase of the trailer but did not provide her with reasonable information,” said Kirker.

Since then, said Carr, she and several other tenants in the park, including Michael, have been harassed by board members. Kirker likened the behavior to a clique of seventh-grade girls bullying others.

Carr has two small dogs — a pug and a Boston terrier — which she said she considers to be like children, and, after she moved in, she said, she was told that the park rules had stated only one dog was allowed. The rules, according to board minutes provided by Carr’s lawyer, were changed last March so that two dogs would be allowed.

Kirker said that Carr’s two dogs “go to dog day care” and aren’t even at her trailer during the times of the alleged complaints.

The board of directors wrote to Carr in October that, if she didn’t get rid of one of her dogs, her lot rent would double.

Kirker, a family friend, said she had researched the deeds, and she found that the trailer that Carr bought had formerly been charged for just a single monthly lot fee.

Additionally, both Carr and Kirker say, Carr paid her rent on time each month but her checks were held for months. “They wouldn’t cash them. They said I wasn’t paying my rent,” said Carr. “My lawyer told them to cash the checks and they did.”

“They were so nasty to me; they had my daughter in tears,” she said. “They called me and my kid a liar. They called me a scumbag.”

“You do not take the law in your own hands,” said Kirker. “There are rules against this.”

She cited sections of the “Manufactured Home Tenants’ Rights,” including one on the “warranty of habitability,” which states that trailer park tenants are “entitled to a livable, safe, and sanitary park, including all common areas, roads, the lot and home, if rented.” It goes on, “Lease provisions inconsistent with this right are illegal and unenforceable. Failure to provide water or other essential utility service or to repair sewer problems are examples of a violation of this warranty. Park owners may not willfully or intentionally fail to provide any service or facility once they have agreed to do so,” it says, citing the state’s Real Property Law.

“My ultimate goal,” said Kirker, “is for Nancy to be able to live there in peace and harmony.” Kirker said Carr should be allowed to be a member of the co-op. “I hope animosity is not the result,” she said.

After being interviewed by The Enterprise last Wednesday, Dec. 29, Kirker sent the newspaper an e-mail, stating that she had talked on the phone with Aline Galgay, the lawyer representing the trailer park. Kirker’s e-mail concluded, “Thankfully, the two of us are going to discuss a couple of things with our respective clients and come to a harmonious agreement everyone can live with….This way, you can have both sides and portray an even story. And, it is always lovely when both attorneys have opportunity to share so that there is no lopsided complaints later w/ regard to who got what out.”

Galgay did not return repeated calls from The Enterprise last week or this week. On Tuesday afternoon, a woman identifying herself as Kelly from Galgay’s office (she declined to give her last name) called to say that, since there was a potential for litigation, Galgay could not comment on Carr’s or Michael’s situation.

Zach Simeone conducted Monday’s interview with Rebecca Michael and covered the Jan. 5 Knox Town Court session, and Anne Hayden reported on the Dec. 29 session at Knox Town Court.

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