When Larry and Linda Hintz were faced with the prospect of continuing the legal battle against their landlady over an eviction notice that they say was unjustified, retaliatory and illegal, their options came down to this: Continue their fight, and risk hemorrhaging thousands of dollars in the process, or cut their losses and move on.
Already, Larry had sold his vehicle and cashed in the couple’s life insurance policy to pay their attorney’s fees. Worse, the couple’s young grandson was suffering health problems that required what little financial resources they had left. Their choice, albeit an undesirable one, was clear. The time had come to give up the fight—and their home of 21 years—and start over elsewhere.
The dispute, first reported in September by the Independent, arose last April after tenants of the Circle J Mobile Home Court, a 25-unit trailer park just north of Highway 200 in West Riverside, took issue with a host of new water use restrictions imposed by the trailer court’s owner, Lois Tillotson. At the time, Tillotson had told her tenants that the water use restrictions were necessary to protect the court’s wells from running dry.
The Hintzes, who had managed the trailer court for Tillotson for the last six years, were well-aware of the investment of time, money and sweat equity that they and their neighbors had put into debunking the stereotypes of trailer parks: These mobile homes are attractive and well-maintained, skirted with green, neatly tended lawns, trees, shrubs and flower beds. One resident, when faced with the new watering restrictions, hauled 55-gallon drums of water in his pickup truck every day to keep his garden alive.
But Linda Hintz, a certified water operator who maintained the wells on the property, knew that they were in excellent condition and in no danger of running dry. That conclusion was supported by an inspection from the Missoula Health Department, which confirmed that the wells were fine. In addition, during last summer’s dry spell, the Missoula Fire Department was advising homeowners to keep their lawns and shrubs sufficiently watered in order to reduce the danger of fires.
So when the Hintzes refused to impose the new watering restrictions and then resigned from their position as property managers, Tillotson served them with a 90-day eviction notice.
In the wake of the legal battle that ensued, the other residents of Circle J united to form a new chapter of Montana People’s Action (MPA) in an effort to protect themselves against the problems they were experiencing.
Last week, a mediated settlement was reached between Tillotson and the Hintzes. The Hintzes, who purchased a small house in Missoula two weeks ago, agreed to move out of Circle J by the end of the month and pay Tillotson $500. In addition, they must remove their mobile home from the property by the end of February, a move that almost guarantees they lose whatever equity they had accumulated over the last 21 years.
“We can’t afford to keeping fighting this forever,” says Linda Hintz. “It’s terrible to say, but we’re just going to cut our losses and get on with our lives.”
Organizers from MPA, a statewide grassroots organization, say that the Hintz case underscores some of the arbitrary housing practices often experienced by low- and moderate-income Montana families. They point to the city’s recent housing report, “Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing,” which outlines many of the obstacles faced by low-income families when seeking affordable housing in Missoula, not the least of which is the dearth of affordable land in Missoula County.
In fact, that report barely mentions mobile homes at all, which are often the only affordable housing option for low- and moderate-income families. Nevertheless, roughly 12 percent of the 33,300 housing units in the Missoula Urban Area (loosely defined as the city limits plus 4.5 miles) are mobile homes, according to the report. Montana Fair Housing reports there are about 175 mobile home parks in Missoula County.
As housing experts point out, mobile homes are notoriously difficult to sell without land to put them on, as banks can be reluctant to grant mortgages on units that are more than 10 years old. Additionally, many trailer parks will not rent a site for models that old.
“Our homes have no value if there is no place to set them up,” says D.K. Mitchell, co-chair of the Circle J MPA. “The Hintzes’ home is older, but it’s been well cared for and looks good. If a court owner can get away with this type of retaliatory eviction, they can wipe out our entire investment.”
Problems like these are why MPA worked for the passage of the 1993 “Good Cause” law, which says that mobile home court owners may not evict tenants from their lots without showing good cause. However, enforcement of that law can be spotty, and many mobile home owners cannot afford the costly and time-consuming legal battles with their landlords when they arise.
Tillotson refused to comment on the settlement except to say, “This doesn’t concern anybody but me. It’s my business and I consider it personal.”