Landlord Tastes Own Medicine
Newark landlord George Williams recently suffered a fate similar to that of Joe Pesci’s character in the movie The Super, in which a judge orders Pesci to serve time in the same decrepit building his tenants must endure daily. On November 22, Municipal Judge Paul R. Daniele ordered Williams to serve part of a 100-day sentence under house arrest in his run-down apartment building at 39 Lincoln Park in Newark.
Williams may find the move a difficult adjustment from his upscale home “nestled in the mountains of western New Jersey.” According to The Star-Ledger in Newark, while Williams’ Newark property deteriorated, he and his wife enjoyed such amenities as central air conditioning, spacious rooms, and an outdoor deck overlooking the Watchung Mountains.
Newark’s inspection manager, Pablo Fonsca, said Williams’ sentence “sends a message that the city is serious about providing its residents with decent affordable housing.” But excessive overdue taxes and fees also have something to do with Williams’ arrest. Williams owes Newark a total of $150,000 in back taxes, water charges, and fines, The Star Ledger reported.
In his defense, Williams cited over-extended credit, biases in the banking system, and liens placed against his property by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. “I have tried to keep my property up,” Williams appealed to the judge. “If you own property and you pay the fines, the tenants tear your place up. I’m trying to keep the building going, but it’s impossible.”
But Williams’ plea apparently failed to sway the judge. “The tenants are required to be protected,” Judge Daniele said. “It is my opinion that he should go to jail.”
Housing Journalism of Note
Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal on November 15, 1995, featured an exceptional article by staff reporter Joseph Pereira on trailer park residents hit by a trend of park closings. “Far from the mainstream of an expanding economy, the lot of many trailer people is worsening,” Pereira writes. “Many parks where low-income residents have lived since World War II are closing. New trailer parks are rare, and many that are being built cater to seniors and vacationers. Increasingly, too, they accept only new manufactured homes – costing up to $50,000, and unaffordable to those towing the poverty line. Those with old trailers often find they have to ditch them.”
The article cites poor image, aging infrastructure, and displacement by discount stores, such as Wal-Mart and Office Max, as reasons for the surge in park closings. While estimates of the number of displaced trailer dwellers are rare, Pereira reports, anecdotal evidence puts the numbers in the tens of thousands. In Washington state, 22 mobile parks have closed since 1989; in Vermont, 18 have closed since 1988, and another 51 are for sale; California has lost 49 since 1991.
These figures are important to quantify the problem, but the heart of Pereira’s article lies in the interviews with residents of Olivia Mobile Home Park, some of whom failed to find housing after the park closed last June. Some residents with nowhere to go continued squatting at the park. The park’s owner left the water on as a “humane act” toward one remaining family whose mother was sick with cancer. The day after she died in August, the family was served a second eviction notice.
“‘Some folks have it good, some don’t,'” Pereira quotes one former Olivia resident who was packing up his things. “Trailer folk fall in the latter category.”
Legislation to Create Tenants’ Rights Ombudsman
Illinois Statewide Housing Action Coalition (SHAC) has launched an effort to establish a Tenants Rights Ombudsman. The Ombudsman would be responsible for: preparing a summary of all applicable state and federal laws to be attached to every lease; responding to general inquiries and making referrals to appropriate local officials and organizations; and enforcing state and federal laws, including: the Illinois Human Rights Act, National Fair Housing Act, and Illinois Mobile Home Landlord and Tenants Rights Act.
SHAC reports that many tenants throughout the state are unaware of their basic rights and do not know where to turn for help in protecting themselves against violations. A Tenants Rights Ombudsman would provide a toll free information and complaint line for tenants.
Attempts to set up this position within the Illinois Attorney General’s office have, so far, been unfruitful. SHAC would like to hear from anyone with experience relevant to this matter. Contact: Tracey Accomy, 202 S. State St., Suite 1414, Chicago, IL 60604; phone: (312) 939-6074; fax: (312) 939-6822; email: HN0341@handsnet.org.