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Second tenant fights Oxford Pines rent hike
OXFORD — A steep rent hike for seniors at the Oxford Pines Regency mobile home park has pitted a downtrodden park resident against a recently-imprisoned Hollywood millionaire.
When park resident Richard Landsperg, who subsists on his social security payments, received a notice that his rent was going to be increased from $300 to $345, effective January 1, he was worried.
"Everyone's saying we have no rights, we're just gonna have to suffer through the economy" said Landsperg, "but the real world situation is, it's affecting me buying oil. It's affecting me having my dental work done."
With the rent increase threatening to stretch his budget to the breaking point, Landsperg decided to make a principled stand.
First, he tried to call the company to plead his case.
"They won't answer their phones at the Regency Corporation," said Landsperg. "The corporation is big. It's got trailer parks all over the country [in] different states."
Landsperg then wrote a letter to the company, which is a subsidiary of the Churchill Group, which is owned by millionaire ex-con George Gradow.
"It's more or less just trying to say stick up for the little guy," said Landsperg. "We're in a bad economy. The president says I can't have any increase in my social security, so I say I can't have any increase to pay your lot rent."
Landsperg was the first resident in the park to turn in his January rent check, and he turned it in for $300, essentially ignoring the $45 increase.
"I told them I'm only going to pay $300 this month, and they accepted the check," said Landsperg. "I wrote on it 'paid in full for the month of January,' and [Park Manager Cindy Hodgdon] accepted it and stamped the check and put it in her little bag."
Landsperg says that he wasn't expecting what happened next.
Citing the expression, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease," Landsperg reported that he got a "grease phone call" from Hodgdon.
According to Landsperg, Hodgdon called him up and offered to negotiate a settlement, under which Landsperg would receive a free month's rent in February, after which he would pay the $345.
Faced with an option to take the money, Landsperg instead made a principled stand.
"I asked her 'is everybody going to get this, or are you just singling me out?'" said Landsperg. "I says, 'I don't really like that, because it sounds like you're just singling me out. I'm sure there are other people in the park who are in a worse situation than I am.'"
According to Landsperg, Hodgdon then offered to reword the offer, so that the free month's rent would be given to Landsperg as a "special promotion," given as a reward for having been the first to turn in his rent check.
Hodgdon refused to comment for this story.
"She can offer it to me, and I'm going to turn it flat down," said Landsperg. "I'm honest. I'm not going to do it. If I was to do that, that would be just like saying I wrote that letter for fun and games, and I'm the only one that wants to gain by it. That's how I feel. It's my principles against whatever they're thinking."
Ironically, the increase is hitting the park's 23 seniors harder than other residents. Non-seniors have been paying $335, so the increase to $345 represents only about a 3-percent hike.
Seniors like Landsperg and 68-year-old resident Mona Hill have been enjoying a senior discount, and their rent has been $300 for the past year. With the elimination of the discount, their rent is undergoing a $45, or 15-percent, hike.
Hill and Landsperg both reported that they have been told that Maine State law prevents the park from continuing to offer the senior discount.
Landsperg says that he doesn't know of any law that would prevent the park from continuing to offer a senior discount.
"There are senior discounts all over the place," said Landsperg. "I'm a Vietnam Vet. State law says at 62 I can have my taxes lowered, and that's a senior discount."
Karen Brown-Mohr, the executive director for the Manufactured Housing Association of Maine (MHAM), said that she was unaware of any law that would prevent seniors from being offered discounts in this way.
Bill Penfold, who owns Oxford Auto Salvage, says that the prices are out of line with other mobile home parks in the area.
Even without the increase, said Penfold, the rent is a lot of money "for trailers that sit on quarter an acre of land ... It's not like it's a fancy trailer park in there at all."
Landsperg and Hill, who is also concerned about the rent increase, say that the notice of the rent increase was given to residents in the form of a flyer on December 3, just 28 days before January 1.
The flyer is dated November 30, but Landsperg and Hill say that they did not receive it until December 3.
Under Maine state law, 30 days notice must be given in advance of a rent increase, which might give Landsperg, Hill, and other residents legal grounds to oppose the increase, at least temporarily.
Brown-Mohr says that 30 days notice must be given.
"Park owner or operator must give at least 30 days written notice to all tenants before changing any rules or increasing any fees, charges, or assessments," said Brown-Mohr, quoting from state law Title 10, Chapter 953.
If that notice is not given, the same law reads that "those fees, charges or assessments may not be collected. The owner or operator may not use the mobile home dweller's refusal to pay any undisclosed charge as a cause for eviction in any court."
The park is also prohibited from retaliating against a tenant for asserting their rights in this manner.
On January 4, Landsperg reported that he had another conversation with Hodgdon, in which he says Hodgdon said that the park might be able to help seniors in other ways. He says that additional park services, such as lawn-mowing, plowing, and trash removal might be offered to seniors for free, while those services would be offered at a cost to non-senior residents.
Landsperg said that he had been told that the effort was being led by real estate developer George Gradow, who owns the Oxford Pines Regency along with 32 other mobile home parks around the country.
"He's going to be attempting to try to see if he can give the senior citizens some kind of a discount," said Landsperg. "He's gonna try. He's looking for a loophole, supposedly."
Colleen McCarthy Reid, a legislative analyst who staffs the state legislative committee that oversees mobile homes in Maine, says that she is unaware of any recent changes that would affect the rent of the seniors in the park.
“I'm not aware of anything that we did last session,” said McCarthy Reed.
She did speculate that the park's owners might be pointing to a law that has “been in place for quite some time.” There is a clause in the applicable statute that reads “Any rule or change in rent that does not apply uniformly to all park tenants creates a rebuttable presumption that the rule or change in rent is unfair ... Any park rule that does not comply with this section is void.”
McCarthy Reed did not offer an opinion as to whether this clause would mean that a long-standing senior discount would be illegal, or whether it could actually be used to dispute a rent hike that disproportionately affects seniors in the park.
“It's hard to say,” said McCarthy Reid. “Would a judge use this to say a traditional senior discount is illegal? I don't know.”
Bob LeClair, the executive director for the Manufactured Housing Board of Maine, says that the park has had no complaints registered against it this year.
LeClair says that the park was most recently in trouble in 2008, when the park's well system failed.
"It was so bad that the wells that they were using actually were deemed to be not salvageable," said LeClair, "so they ended up hooking up to the Oxford public water system."
The $10 increase represents a boon of approximately $16,000 per year in added rent revenues for the park. The elimination of the senior discount represents an additional $10,000. In all, the park is expected to collect an estimated $560,000 in rent revenues in 2011.
Multiple calls to the Regency Corporation were not answered.