Tracking a mobile home park's decades-long decline 

Devin Khoury, the Missoula broker whose family owns and operates the Hollywood Mobile Home Park, directs inquiries about the derelict Westside property to his attorney, Tom Orr. Orr won't offer his opinion on whether the park, which has been scrutinized by neighbors and city officials in recent months, is safe for its estimated 220 residents, more than a quarter of whom he is in the process of evicting. He only acknowledges that it's a "tough place," as much of the surrounding neighborhood has been for years—until the gentrifiers started arriving.

"We're hearing more about [Hollywood] because 'nice' people are moving to the Northside," he says. "So I think any discussion we have here, we need to think about class and wealth and privilege in our community."

Orr has a point. Trailer courts may offend middle-class sensibilities, but they also offer affordable housing for low-income Missoulians. Old trailers are cheap, and for a few hundred dollars in monthly lot rent, residents can have their own house and yard.

But one problem with Orr's argument, some neighbors and city officials say, is that almost none of Missoula county's other 170 trailer courts have such poor sanitation or are linked to as much crime. Across the street, another large trailer court, Travois Village, features green lawns, a communal playground and an on-site office. At Hollywood, health inspectors find sewage pooled beneath trailers, broken windows, overgrown alleys and trash heaped in yards.

Hollywood wasn't always like this. Kari Briggs remembers playing as a 10-year-old in those alleys, in neighbors' yards, and in the park's since-removed playground. Her mother, Sharon, bought a trailer in 1989, in what then seemed like a pleasant and affordable community of 88 trailers. By 2015, when she finally was able to leave, she says, "living there was a nightmare every day."

"When we moved in, they threw a block party, everyone knew each other, the kids could run around," Sharon says, "and when we left, it was way, way different."

The court's long descent into squalor can be traced through decades of city-county health department records, news stories, legal filings and property records. Together, they show that Hollywood's problems existed well before Khoury and his brother, David, purchased the property in 2013. Property owners and managers seeking to turn a profit allowed the court's problems to worsen even as they raised rents, without ever incurring a penalty from city-county regulators for repeated health code violations. And while neighborhood concern seems to be spurring action now, trailer court residents have been complaining about living conditions at Hollywood for nearly 30 years.

Trailer courts are big business, and they typically yield high profit margins. Unlike the owners of apartment buildings, trailer court landlords aren't responsible for their tenants' living quarters. Mobile home residents are also a captive market: Used trailers are expensive to move, and renting a lot is almost always cheaper than renting a room, so landlords can increase rent without fear of losing tenants. (Sharon Briggs says her monthly rent at Hollywood increased from $125 in 1989 to $310 in 2015). But courts also require diligent management, says Westside Neighborhood Association president Michaela Schager, who owns a trailer court in the Bitterroot Valley.

Travois Village, across Russell Street from Hollywood, employs up to three full-time maintenance staffers to care for the 44-acre grounds. Property manager Derie Kain works out of a small, air-conditioned office in the center of the park, where she handles the accounting and makes sure tenants uphold park rules regarding the exterior appearance of trailers, upkeep of lots and disposal of trash. The keys to managing the mobile home community, she says, include enforcing rules with problem tenants and being willing to "spend some money" to keep the park in good condition.

Hollywood opened in 1966. When Briggs moved there in 1989, the court employed a resident manager in addition to a professional management company. Around that time, one resident complaint filed with the health department identified loud music, "disorderly persons" and "tenants and visitors hot-rodding loud vehicles within the court" as problems, and in 1990, the same complainant attempted to organize a resident's association to pressure management. Even so, Sharon Briggs recalls that the park's owners at the time, the Caplis family, and Lambros Property Management generally ran a tight ship.

Behind the scenes, though, trouble was brewing. Lambros stopped managing the property in 1995, and in 1996 the Caplises let the trailer court's state license lapse for several months. The owners were apparently having a family feud. Stephen Caplis later won a $327,000 judgment in Missoula County District Court against James and John Caplis, after accusing them of using trailer court funds for personal expenses from 1996 to 1999. Stephen accused his family members of draining the company's bank account, taking laundry room coinage and overpaying themselves. The Indy was unable to reach James or John Caplis for comment.

click to enlarge Facing public scrutiny, the managers of Hollywood Mobile Home Park have begun eviction proceedings against as many as 28 of the trailer court’s 88 tenants. - PHOTO BY PARKER SEIBOLD
  • photo by Parker Seibold
  • Facing public scrutiny, the managers of Hollywood Mobile Home Park have begun eviction proceedings against as many as 28 of the trailer court’s 88 tenants.

Kari Briggs, then a teenager, recalls that it was around that time the community began to change. Hollywood continued to decline after it was sold to Fred Haruda, an Oregon man, in 1999. Health department files from that era include photos of a trash-ridden trailer and an anonymous complaint from a resident who said conditions were "deteriorating daily" even as lot rents increased. Inspectors documented abandoned trailers, broken windows, trash piles and overgrown weeds.

In 2006, longtime resident Lynette Johnson approached Mayor John Engen, the Missoulian, and health officials about her concerns. She attributed some of the problems to subletting, noting that nearly a dozen of the trailers, including those on either side of hers, were owned by a man named Ray Bean, who sublet them to "anyone off the street." One of Bean's subletters apparently invited transients to stay in her trailer or in tents pitched outside, "presumably for a cash fee or in exchange for something else of value," Johnson wrote. The health department issued a notice of violation for various sanitation issues, and Haruda traveled to Missoula to tell tenants to "clean up," the Missoulian reported at the time. Neither Bean nor Haruda could be reached for comment on this story.

Sometime after that, Hollywood ceased to have a resident manager. The park's playground was removed to make space for another trailer, and the laundry room/community building was shut down. The health department issued another notice of violation to Caras Property Management in 2008 after someone was bitten by a feral cat. That violation elicited a strongly worded response from Orr, the same attorney representing the current property manager, who wrote that his client objected to the health department's "heavy handed" approach and challenged officials to prove the cat was feral.

City-county environmental health specialist Daniel Fultz saw some encouraging improvements after the Khourys bought Hollywood in 2013, writing in 2014 and 2015 inspection reports that Devin Khoury's management company, KEI Property Management, was proactive in clearing the court of debris and overgrowth. The improvements didn't last. This past June, even after neighbors took their concerns to Missoula City Council, the court received its worst inspection report in 30 years, failing in almost every area. Fultz found sewage pooled under one trailer, on the same lot that had received a notice of violation in 2016 after a tenant reportedly went months with sewage issues that prevented the use of her bathroom. Two dozen health complaints have been filed against Hollywood since the Khourys began managing it.

"It got to the point with KEI that all they wanted was the money," Sharon Briggs says.

Hollywood residents currently pay $320 in monthly lot rent, according to Orr. Across the street at Travois Village, lot rents run from $335 to $350.

Despite decades of violations, Hollywood owners have never been fined or had their trailer court license revoked, Environmental Health Director Shannon Therriault says. Therriault compares the state regulatory scheme for trailer courts to the ones for commercial businesses such as restaurants. But while the health department can shut down an unsanitary restaurant, it has fewer ways to deal with offending trailer courts without displacing residents. Fultz, the health inspector, says he finds the situation "frustrating," because many of the health code problems at Hollywood are preventable.

As public outcry has renewed, the health department is now seeking county approval to levy reinspection fees against trailer court owners whose properties fail two inspections in a row—not technically a penalty, but a way to hit negligent landlords in the pocketbook.

Whether the situation at Hollywood can be rectified, though, depends on whom you ask.

Facing public scrutiny, Khoury hired Orr in May to try to straighten things out. KEI is in the process of hiring an additional manager to help oversee the property, and an abandoned trailer was finally removed after being charred by fire in February. This month, Orr initiated eviction proceedings against 28 non-rent-paying tenants. After the evictions play out, KEI expects it could be left with as many as two dozen abandoned trailers to remove from the court, at a cost of $3,000-$5,000 each.

That doesn't bode well for delinquent tenants or, perhaps, the future of the park. Already, Hollywood isn't producing enough of the one thing that makes difficult trailer parks worth the trouble to their owners: cash. At one point during a recent interview, Orr estimated that Hollywood is producing about $5,000-$6,000 in monthly profit, but adds that Khoury considers the revenues "about a wash" with expenses. The owners have no current plans to address the aging sewer pipes that Fultz believes are causing sewage to back up into residents' homes. And if the Khourys can't make Hollywood profitable, Orr says, they'll look to redevelop the site as multi-family housing.

That's exactly what happened to another Missoula trailer court on South Third Street, which was derided as "felony flats" until it was redeveloped in 2014. Some of its fixed-income residents, whose trailers were too old to move, sought refuge in unplumbed campers parked on the edge of town. Others moved into empty trailers at Hollywood.

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