Trailer Park Troubles

Mobile home tenants struggle with landlord and unfriendly state laws

On a freezing January morning, Desiree Alegria heard a loud pop. She jumped, and found water rushing out of her trailer's bathroom into her living room. Within seconds, water filled the kitchen. Alegria threw down towels and clothes to try to stop the deluge. She couldn't. She ran to a neighbor's house for help, tears freezing on her cheeks.

When her fiance, Jeremy Greene, returned from work that evening, Alegria told him she thought some of the pipes had burst. He immediately notified their landlord of the problem.

Days later, the pipes hadn't been fixed and the couple was still without water, according to a lawsuit filed in Cobb County Superior Court. On Jan. 25, three days after the fiasco, Greene crawled under the trailer to see if he could fix the problem. Next to a metal plug dripping with water Greene found a sawed-off piece of pipe preventing him from turning the water back on - a criminal act under Georgia law, the suit claims.

This was the last straw for Alegria and Greene.

According to two lawsuits filed in Cobb County Superior and Cobb County State courts, the couple already encountered 3-inch gaps at the base of their walls that allowed them to see straight through to the ground, as well as a roof leak directly above a light fixture that made the trailer's wooden walls peel. The lawsuit also claims a live, exposed electrical current ran down the hallway next to the bathroom. (Alegria says she was shocked by it when she walked too close.) The couple, the suit continues, even had to hold the side of the toilet when using the bathroom because the toilet wasn't secured to the floor.

Alegria and Greene's trailer sits in Mobile Home Junction, off Atlanta Road in Marietta. All the trailer park's units are rentals, meaning they're subject to the same regulations as, say, an apartment complex. But Alegria and Greene's attorney claims that because many of the tenants are low-income and some of them illegal immigrants, the regulations are often disregarded.

The incidents at Mobile Home Junction aren't limited to Alegria and Greene's complaints, which total more than 30. According to inspection reports by the Cobb County Community Development Agency, which enforces county building codes, Mobile Home Junction is in "deplorable condition." In January, a supervisor wrote to the park's landlord: "A visual inspection has revealed that the structures do not currently meet building code." Lee McClead, manager of the community development agency's inspection division, says the agency plans to put a lien on the property for failure to make repairs. Matthew Daily, a spokesman for the Cobb County Board of Health, says his organization received three formal complaints within a few months regarding Mobile Home Junction. And in November, a Board of Health inspection reported an "uncovered manhole," "garbage and trash all over" and "several reported sewage leaks under trailers."

Though inspections have been done, little progress has been made to improve living conditions for the 40 tenants of Mobile Home Junction. The slow-paced investigation and numerous complaints point to deficiencies in Georgia's tenant protection laws, which are notorious for siding with landlords in disputes between property owners and tenants.

Luke Lantta, Alegria and Greene's attorney, says Georgia law is unforgiving toward tenants who, like Greene, decide to withhold rent when egregious conditions go unfixed. Most other states typically side with tenants.

Under Georgia law, landlords are required to keep their property in good condition, and the onus is on the owners to schedule mandatory yearly inspections with the county. But CL found most of the homes in Mobile Home Junction hadn't been inspected since 2002, according to county stickers posted on the park's trailers.

What's more, state law requires landlords to complete repairs within a "reasonable time" when a tenant notifies them of a problem. But "reasonable time" leaves quite a bit of room for interpretation. Former Mobile Home Junction resident Cathy Venegas says it took five months for the property manager to remove a tree that fell on her roof during an August thunderstorm. Alegria and Greene say they spent approximately $6,000 to make their trailer safe and inhabitable; they still haven't been reimbursed for the repairs, which they claim should be refunded under state law.

Former Gov. Roy Barnes, a consumer attorney, says the courts contribute to landlord favoritism by being lax on inspection schedules.

"Georgia, the General Assembly, and the courts are primarily anti-consumer," Barnes says. "Until there's a change in attitude dealing with consumers, I'm not sure [the landlord-tenant relationship] will ever change."

But in April of last year, the city of Marietta - where almost two-thirds of properties are rentals - passed an ordinance requiring landlords to obtain a business license and produce a building code and safety inspection report before obtaining license for a rental property. Proponents of the ordinance, which is currently under appeal, claim it will help clean up Marietta's blighted properties.

There is no similar ordinance in Atlanta.

On Jan. 27, Alegria and Greene succeeded in getting a court order to require their landlord, Jayne Travis, and property manager, Floyd Walker, to fix the busted pipes. Though Travis and Walker made the repairs, Cobb County State Court documents show Travis twice tried to evict Alegria and Greene, claiming the couple kept pets and withheld rent. But the couple's lease does not prohibit pets, and Greene contends he only threatened to withhold rent - and only then to ensure repairs were made.

Greene also says that after his threats, his landlord began refusing the rent checks. Greene provided bank statements showing he instead deposited rent checks into an escrow account in an attempt to document that they did have the money and tried to make the rent payments.

Travis did not return CL's calls. Property manager Walker denies the allegations and says Alegria and Greene are just after money.

"People just want something for nothing," Walker says.

When pushed to explain his statement, Walker wouldn't comment further.

Alegria and Greene say they moved to Mobile Home Junction in April 2004, in part because they'd recently become foster parents to three children in state care. The state Department of Family and Children Services requires proper housing for guardianship. At $475 per month, the two-bedroom trailer seemed like a decent enough deal.

They say they now regret their decision.

The couple's lawsuit is seeking at least $50,000 for the "willful, wanton, malicious and flagrant disregard" of their rights." It states that the defendants, Walker and Travis, unlawfully interfered "with their peaceful possession of the property."

Three weeks ago, Alegria and Greene moved out of Mobile Home Junction into a small duplex that costs $550 a month. It's freshly painted. There aren't holes in the ceiling. The walls aren't weathered from leaks. The foster children have since been placed in a permanent home, and Alegria is trying to save money to go to physical therapy school.

But first, Alegria and Greene want to make sure no one else has to live in what their attorney calls "a place not fit to be a kennel."

"I don't want [Travis and Walker] to be able to do this to anyone else," Alegria says. "People shouldn't have to live like that."