Homes of America operates ‘eviction mill’
This is part one in a two-part series about evictions at local mobile home parks.
Before the eviction freezes enacted during the COVID-19 lockdowns, evictions in North Dakota had been increasing at a steady rate of 15% every year from 2016-2019 according to N.D. Supreme Court data. As the safety nets and guardrails of the COVID era have been taken down, this return to normality brought waves of eviction proceedings around the country.
This unfortunate reality of renting was one of the appeals of purchasing a mobile or manufactured home, a middle ground between a landlord and a mortgage. However, starting in December, residents of three manufactured home communities in Minot and elsewhere around the country received a “Notice to Quit” in the mail or taped to their front doors, accusing them of being thousands of dollars behind in rent payments during the last year.
These notices were the first step in the eviction process, one that the New Jersey-based Homes of America LLC would initiate 30 times against residents in Parkview, Western Village and Holiday Park. Based on public court records, over the same period they were only exceeded by the 39 filed by Investors, Management and Marketing (IMM), one of the larger property management firms in Minot. Court records indicate that Homes of America had not evicted any residents prior to December of 2022, a period during which residents raised complaints about management’s communication and presence in the communities.
According to a case study of evictions in North Dakota published in 2017 by the North Dakota Law Review and written by current Ward County assistant State’s Attorney Breezy Schmidt, nonpayment of rent is the most common claim in the state against tenants for eviction. This was the case in all 30 of the proceedings of Homes of America, which has won favorable judgements and evictions in 19 of the 27 closed files.
What is unclear is how many of the defendants in the average eviction case even show up for their court hearings, which proceed rather formally in the favor of the plaintiff, who more often than not arrives with an attorney representing them. In her case study, Schmidt points out that this disparity in representation is essentially the norm, with current summary eviction laws depriving tenants of time to seek and obtain an attorney. Schmidt goes on to say that few private attorneys represent tenants in such matters, which is compounded by diminishing federal funding of legal aid organizations.
According to Schmidt, the end result is a one-sided process in which tenants are funneled through eviction court like a factory mill. The dockets for eviction court tend to be tightly packed, but with hearings often completed in minutes without the defendant even present. One judge who studied housing courts around the country was quoted in the study saying if “fairness, effectiveness and sensitivity are equated with justice, then injustice is the norm.”
Seven of the HOA cases were closed by motions to dismiss, which indicates that the tenant was able to account for their payments or had negotiated a resolution before the hearing. One of these closed cases had been filed against current Holiday Park resident Rondolyn Baker, a single mother of three who had been enrolled in the North Dakota Rent Help Program.
“I was delayed on my move up here yet continued to keep up on my bills. They jacked the rent up as the holidays got here. I wasn’t able to buy any gifts because of this. I’m a single mom of three teens just trying to make it,” Baker said.
It was eventually discovered that her rent help payments were still being sent to the park’s prior management company instead of HOA. According to a representative from NDRH, all renters who utilize rent help are expected to recertify with the agency every three months and update any income or living situation that has changed, including changes in ownership of the rental property since their original application.
Baker says she believed the matter had been resolved after providing a payment in January, but on Friday, Feb. 17, HOA’s attorney Remington Kostenko filed six new forcible detainer proceedings, one of which was against Baker. Baker had not yet been served notice of her court date when contacted by The Minot Daily News and was shocked to discover that HOA had moved forward with evicting her.
Baker was eventually able to set the matter straight with management during a meeting in the Parkview office with Property Manager Stephanie Munos and a North Dakota Rent Help representative taking part over the phone. Baker is no longer enrolled with NDRH, which provided funds to make up the shortfall created by the error. A motion to dismiss the forcible detainer proceeding was filed five days before Baker’s hearing.
Baker’s experience, however, would seem to be representative of a minority in these Homes of America cases: a tenant who was able to account for their rent payments while also being able to communicate with management.
Of the 23 forcible detainers filed by Homes of America against its residents that have made it to a Ward County Court room, only one renter has shown up in court to contest the company’s claims. Further reporting on this hearing and other related issues will appear in Thursday’s edition of The Minot Daily News.
Munos declined to comment on the record for this story.