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St. Croix Meadows residents search for answers

Donna Fjelstad stands outside of her home in St. Croix Meadows. John R. Russett / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 6
The expired facility license, still posted in late July. John R. Russett / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 6
The septic holding pond with a failed lining and low water level. John R. Russett / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 6
One of the vacant mobile homes at St. Croix Meadows in late July. John R. Russett / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 6
The closed sign "always' in the office window, according to resident Donna Fjelstad. John R. Russett / RiverTown Multimedia5 / 6
The third pond, with weeds growing through the pump and stagnant water. John R. Russett / RiverTown Multimedia6 / 6

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series that looks at some of the issues facing residents of manufactured home communities.

Houlton, Wis. — When Ronda Moline moved to St. Croix Meadows in November 1997, she planned to stay for one year.

In April 2016, after nearly two decades in the front row of the 50-lot mobile home community off Main Street in Houlton — and 12 straight months without running water — she stopped paying rent.

One month later, she was served with an eviction notice and taken to court.

Moline's story is indicative of a nationwide trend. In a number of manufactured home communities, residents feel relegated to the fringes.

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Houlton MHP, LLC — a subsidiary created when Colorado-based RV Horizons purchased St. Croix Meadows in the fall of 2015 — first appeared on the Town of St. Joseph Town Board agenda in August 2016 seeking approval for a license to operate St. Croix Meadows.

In the two years since, Houlton MHP was discussed on at least 18 different occasions at Town Board meetings due largely to the company's inability to meet a number of obligations — primarily financial — that in June 2018 led the board to deny the park's license renewal, according to St. Joseph Town Board meeting minutes. Residents said little changed after the license was revoked, they were still required to pay rent and few answers were given as to the status of the park.

Ailments

To escape a house full of mold and avoid another 30-year mortgage, Donna Fjelstad and her family purchased a manufactured home and moved into St. Croix Meadows in July 2017.

Within the first month, according to Fjelstad, her family experienced a variety of ailments ranging from bumps on their skin to diarrhea and vomiting.

"Especially after it rains, you get sick really easily," she said. "I had grandkids here. I had them drinking the water. I don't know what's in here. I had a granddaughter next door drinking the water and bathing in it. She had bumps all the time."

In August 2017, Fjelstad began to ask questions about the water at St. Croix Meadows. She sent emails and made phone calls to local, county and state government officials, old park managers, current park managers, the Environmental Protection Agency and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

A year of back-and-forth on multiple fronts has left her with fewer answers than questions.

In an email to Fjelstad in late July, Lacey Hillman, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources NR basin supervisor based in Eau Claire, confirmed the lining in one of three wastewater holding ponds on the property "has been compromised." The pond is approximately 400 yards behind the Fjelstad home.

The middle of three septic holding ponds, the only one with a working aerator pump. John R. Russett / RiverTown Multimedia

"A maintenance project to repair and or replace existing equipment in one or more ponds has been proposed by the Mobil (sic) Home Park," Hillman told RiverTown Multimedia in an email.

According Anna Mares, Wisconsin DNR drinking water specialist for the region, as of Aug. 27, St. Croix Meadows had no current violations.

Today, Fjelstad heads a push for legal action against RV Horizons, which owns properties in 29 states, according to its website.

"They're greedy, they're slumlords," Fjelstad said.

Shift in ownership

Since the mid-1990s, manufactured home communities have shifted largely from locally owned entities to ownership by multi-state corporations, according to Shandra BP-Weeks, one of three organizing directors for MHAction, a national movement of manufactured homeowners pushing back against the consequences of corporate ownership.

"There's not a clear process at most of these companies for residents to make their concerns heard," BP-Weeks said, adding many corporate models are geared toward a return for investors as opposed to improvements or maintenance to the properties.

RV Horizons did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The water pressure in Moline's home dropped to almost nothing in April 2015. And it stayed that way.

When RV Horizons took over six months later, she informed management of the issue.

Still, nothing was done, she said.

In April 2016, one year after she effectively lost all water to her home, Moline decided to withhold rent payment. One month later, RV Horizons evicted Moline and she ended up in court.

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A RiverTown Multimedia search of Moline's court eviction proceedings file turned up a Dec. 2, 2016, letter from her attorney Andrew Nelson addressed to the St. Croix County Court Commissioner that details the conditions under which Moline was living.

At the time, Moline had been without running water for 18 months.

She showered and did laundry at the marina across the St. Croix River in Stillwater, Minn.

Raising rent

Aside from water issues, according to the letter, roughly 38 residents including Moline received new leases from RV Horizons, which "arbitrarily" raised rents in December 2015, two months after RV Horizons purchased the park and four months after many of the residents had signed a new 12-month lease in August.

The court dismissed the case Jan. 31, 2017, and upheld her counterclaim. Water was restored and she didn't pay the nine months of rent she withheld.

Beau Freese, current resident and last on-site manager at St. Croix Meadows, said he was made aware of RV Horizons' payment delinquencies with the Town of St. Joseph in late November 2017, his first month on the job.

Despite repeated attempts to get the issue resolved, Freese said, nothing changed.

Freese ended his employment with RV Horizons roughly five months later in April, motivated by what he said was a general lack of support from the corporate office.

"I don't know if it's just the district manager or the company as a whole, but it's a lot of 'Yeah, we should do that, we should do that, we should do that, we should do that,' but when it comes time to doing it — huh-uh," he said. "I mean, I couldn't do anything."

One specific example of nonpayment was addressed at the Sept. 26, 2017, Town Board meeting, where meeting minutes indicate RV Horizon representatives admitted to board members that trash had not been picked up at the park for a month "due to the Colorado office neglecting to pay the bill on time."

According to Freese, RV Horizons was not paying their taxes in full to the township and minutes from a May 2017 have references to "timely payment of invoices."

Payment problems persisted throughout the entirety of Freese's tenure as manager, despite the fact he said he informed his superiors of the discrepancies when he first learned of the issue. He continued to do so until he quit.

Freese said RV Horizons appeared unfazed until the Town Board's most recent denial of Houlton MHP's license renewal request.

"That's what it took for them," Freese said. "That's what it feels like it takes RV, is a kick in the rear to start doing something. They don't seem like a proactive company."

Township meeting

Although St. Joseph Town Board members declined to comment, Town of St. Joseph records offer some insight into RV Horizons' time in the township.

Town Board meeting minutes show a stretch of six months from April through September 2017 where the board had nine meetings that involved Houlton MHP leading up to and following the June 20, 2017, decision to deny Houlton MHP's license renewal for the first time, citing formally requested documents that were not submitted.

Nine days later, at a special meeting the day before its expiration, the St. Joseph Town Board voted to approve the park license for another 12 months, only to be faced with the same dilemma a year later.

The shift from local ownership began in the mid-90s, but an already fractured housing market in the shadow of the 2008 financial crisis saw an influx of corporate real estate investors who identified manufactured housing communities as the next big profit area.

Another vacant home, in late July, overgrown and unmaintained. John R. Russett / RiverTown Multimedia

While some corporate owners make a point to have managers in each of their communities, according to BP-Weeks, a growing trend is to consolidate parks under one manager by purchasing multiple parks in the same area.

"I think that the management style is something that seems to be sort of led by RV Horizons, so we've seen recently that a couple other companies are starting to do that," she said. "So this is definitely a pattern we've seen with them in that they've mentioned on their mobile home university website as a good strategy with buying mobile homes to buy them in regions so they can share managers between the communities."

In the case of St. Croix Meadows, the managers live about an hour away in Eau Claire, where they manage other RV Horizons properties.

"Now that I'm not here, nobody is ever in the office," Freese said.

John R. Russett

John Russett is a regional reporter for RiverTown Multimedia, covering a variety of issues facing RiverTown communities. Previously, he worked at the Red Wing Republican Eagle, where he reported on education as well as crime and courts. 

You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnRyanRussett

 

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