Willie May Mckellar has lived at Turner Park mobile home community for 22 years. Out in front of her home she points out water that has been standing in large potholes for days. She points to the tree in front of her home. The roots have grown up under the building and crumpled the skirting around the bottom of her single-wide trailer. She owns her home, but not the land underneath it. These are issues she think the new owners of the park should address because she pays rent for the land.
“And it’ll never be mine,” said Mckellar. “This will never be anyone’s land but the owner’s.”
Until this past March, she paid $210 a month. Then, the new owners of the park started charging $465 a month, more than double what she was previously paying for roughly one-tenth of an acre of grass. And she can’t pay that much for much longer.
“I have a part-time job and if I didn’t get Social Security, I’d be in bad shape,” said 68-year-old Mckellar.
This has become a common story in Robeson County where Florida-based Time Out Communities has purchased 21 mobile home parks over the past two years. Residents have complained of hikes – double and triple what was previously being charged – and evictions. And many learned about these changes in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence’s devastation, a storm that severely damaged and even destroyed much of the affordable housing in the area.
Map of Time Out Communities’ Mobile Home Parks in North Carolina
“That's … price gouging,” said Mckellar. “We don't make money like that here in Robeson County, unless you're a doctor or a lawyer, maybe somebody like that. But [not an] ordinary worker.”
Time Out Communities now owns mobile home parks containing roughly one thousand homes in North Carolina. And hundreds of residents are struggling to adapt to the changes implemented by the company, according to the newly formed Robeson County Affordable Housing Coalition.
“People just fled because they knew that there was very little safe, affordable housing available,” said Angela Allen, project director of the coalition. “So, some of them just left their mobile homes behind because it was not worth moving, [or] they didn't have anywhere to move it to, [or their mobile home] was too old to move.”
Allen says for the prices Time Out is charging residents to rent just the lot under a trailer, you could previously have rented the trailer and land. At one point, locals say, you could rent a whole house in the area, though any rental is pretty scarce these days. A look at real estate marketplace Zillow showed just five rentals in Lumberton, with another four listed on Craigslist.
The housing stock is depleted and as for affordable housing, “there is none,” says Allen.
“It's pretty much gone between Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence,” said Allen. “And now this company has pretty much taken up all of the affordable housing that was left because mobile home parks were the affordable housing.”
Some former residents of Time Out Communities’ parks have moved in with family or friends, others have moved out of the area entirely.
Challenges faced by residents of mobile homes are nothing new, but they’ve come to recent national attention after John Oliver did a segment about the mobile home industry on his late-night show "Last Week Tonight." From Des Moines to Clearwater and Miami, mobile home owners are vulnerable to price changes and park closures.
At a recent meeting of the Lumberton City Council, two affordable housing projects got initial support from elected officials. These are attempts to plug the gap in available housing, but those projects are still a few years out.
At the same meeting, Willie May Mckellar asked local officials to get involved with the problem that’s unfolding in the Time Out mobile home parks.
“We want you all to try and get involved with us to help us with this stuff … two Hurricanes in less than two years and we had to pay all this money,” said Mckellar. “We’re looking to you all to help us.”
Rev. Mac Legerton, an administrator with the Robeson County Affordable Housing Coalition, submitted recommendations for action to both city and county officials. Those recommendations include facilitating the collection of resident complaints to share with the state Human Relations Commission and the Better Business Bureau of Eastern N.C. The coalition also suggests setting up a fund to help pay for the relocation of trailers, which can cost thousands of dollars.
“So much of what they've done in a disaster community to limit affordable housing, we feel should be considered as price gouging,” said Legerton.
North Carolina is one of many states that has a law penalizing retailers who jack up prices around the time of a natural disaster. But those protections only last 45 days after the disaster.
“More importantly, [Time Out] needs to be reviewed in terms of predatory leasing,” he concluded.
Time Out Communities did not agree to an interview, but sent a statement in response to a list of questions.
The statement says the prices Time Out charges are “consistent with current market rates in the Robeson County [and] Lumberton markets” and that it has spent $10 million to improve the parks and their safety. Time Out states they “firmly deny” any allegations of predatory leasing or post-disaster price gouging.
The North Carolina Attorney General’s office says it is aware of the situation in Robeson County and has been looking into the issue of whether there were violations of North Carolina's consumer protection laws. So far, the office has not made any determinations.
The challenge housing advocates, Willie May Mckellar, and all the Time Out residents face is that Time Out Communities is a private company making pricing choices on land it owns.
“It's a business like any other business,” said Jerry Stephens, chairman of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners. “They’ve invested in our county and by improving these mobile home parks it's gonna increase the value. We want them to make money. We want them to pay taxes. But you've got to consider the human factor, because those are the people we represent.”
Stephens says he’s asked to sit down with someone from Time Out to see if they could figure out some solution, but he hasn’t heard from anyone yet.
However, Stephens is not sure what the county or city could do to provide relief for the residents who are being displaced.
“The issue is with the courts,” he said.
And that’s where lawyers for Legal Aid of North Carolina and the North Carolina Justice Center come in. They’ve taken dozens of cases. In some, a court ruled that the evictions Time Out initiated were illegal.
“We're seeing a gamut of legal issues,” said Candace Harke, managing attorney of Legal Aid of North Carolina based in Pembroke.
Issues like improper notice, incomplete contracts and problems with the condition of some mobile homes.
“Representing people case by case in small claims court or anything like that is just a Band-Aid on a larger problem,” said Harke.
Attorneys with Legal Aid are interested in figuring out what federal issues may be in play here. But for now, the attorneys have been successful in keeping some people in their homes despite Time Out’s eviction notices.
Willie May Mckellar says she doesn’t have access even to that Band-Aid. Her part-time job as a nursing assistant means she makes too much money to get free legal aid. In a perfect world, she says she would move her trailer, and has actively been looking for new sites. But even if she can find a place to put it, the move alone would cost thousands of dollars. And that’s if her home is in a condition to be moved. Mobile homes are often not as mobile as the name might suggest.
“Hopefully my floors and stuff are some good enough to move,” said Mckellar. “It's just a mess right here... We’re the poorest county. It shouldn't be this way.”