Mobile Home Park Mastery: Episode 107

Why City Governments Behave Like They Do

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It is not uncommon for mobile home park owners to have to deal with harassment from city hall. But why does this happen and how can this behavior be corrected? In this second of a four-part series on “Park Psychology” we’re going to review the very predictable behavior patterns of city officials, the cause of this behavior, and how to get city hall to back off and be a partner and not an adversary.

Episode Transcript

Luther Strange once said, "The federal, state and local governments are involved in virtually every aspect of business. Important that we understand why they behave like they do and how to insulate ourselves from their sometimes whimsical behavior."

This is Frank Rolfe. In our second of our four part series on park psychology, we're going to be talking about city government, how to work with them, what they desire, how to have a successful relationship. For the first thing you have to know about city governments are they hate mobile home parks. They hate them with a passion they always have. Why? Because they hate to lose money. And mobile home parks typically cost cities big amounts of money. Let me give you an example. If you have a hundred space mobile home park, and let's say that every home in there has an average of one child. So you've got a hundred kids living in this a hundred space mobile home park.

That takes into account that some households have two or three kids and some have none at all. Those 100 kids are going to cost you $7,000 per year each, roughly, in tuition to go to the public school. So right off the bat you have a $700,000 of tuition costs. And meanwhile on the flip side of that, you've got a tax, property tax and let's assume each of those lots is a valued at $40,000. and just assume the state's at 1%. so those $40,000 valuations bring in tax to the city of only $400 a year. And then, the mobile home on the lot is valued at $5,000, so that brings in 50. So you're bringing in $450 times 100. So you're bringing in about $45,000 of tax revenue, but you're spending about $750,000 in tuition. So you can see the problem. Cities lose massive amounts of money on mobile home parks and that doesn't even include other city services, fire, medical.

So the bottom line is in cities, across America today, are all financially challenged. Most are basically broke. They look at that mobile home park with deep resentment because a mobile home park is costing them a whole lot of money. They also hate the mobile home parks and their opinion also deter new development. They always blame the fact they didn't get that brand new luxury Hilton Hotel on the fact that there's a mobile home park up the street. And they tell themselves that when Hilton came out and looked at that one nice piece of land that they had, they saw the mobile home park and they said, "Nah, I don't want to build my fancy hotel nearing that mobile home park." So they went over and built it in the city right next door. So, I think it's safe to say that I've never met a city government that actually liked mobile home parks.

They might tolerate them. They might pretend that they're okay with them, but behind the scenes they're really not. And then, this hostility manifests itself in many different ways. First, some cities refuse to abide by the law known as grandfathering. Now what the heck is grandfathering? Well, there's three kinds of zoning status for a mobile home park. What's called legal conforming, which means the park meets all current ordinances. Legal nonconforming, which means it was legal when it was built, but is no longer legal and that is called grandfathered. And then, the finally is illegal, which means it should have never been built. Well if it's illegal, there's no protections at all. But if it's grandfathered, then you do have protections. Basically every ordinance, every law passed since the date the mobile home park was built, does not apply. The only thing that does apply after the park was built would be anything having to do with health and safety.

So the fire Marshall, those kinds of issues. But those are never gonna shut your park down. Might cause a few minor alterations of a shed being too near a home, something like that. But what cities will sometime do is despite the fact that you have that grandfathered right to be there, they all say, "Well, I don't really like the park and therefore I am going to not abide by the law of grandfathering. When your home pulls out, you can't put another one back on that lot." Issues such as that. I know the thing cities will do is they will have the inspector go wild. The inspector will start requiring all kinds of inspections, things they should've never been allowed to do. Out in Little Rock, Arkansas, for awhile, they were having huge problems with inspectors randomly walking through mobile home parks, knocking on doors, demanding the right to come in and immediately inspect the mobile home.

Not even between tenants, not even in conjunction with any other ordinance anyone had ever seen. They just wanted to basically harass park owners. So they felt that if they would walk through mobile home parks, knock on doors and say, "Hi, I'm with the city, you must let me in to inspect your home." Even though they really had no legal right to do it. That's what they were going to do. Finally, they'll start issuing lots of citations for insanely minor items. I've received citations before for such items as light bulb, not working in coach light. Certainly, that's not something the city even has a right to write me a citation on. But nevertheless, the inspector's been sent on a mission and had a mission is to harass the mobile home park owner. To drive them so crazy, they ultimately close up shop and leave town.

So when you have cities behaving poorly, what do you do? How do you overcome the fact that sometimes the city hall, effectively, becomes a bully? Well, the first thing you do is you hire what's called a municipal lawyer. Now this is a very specialized person in the world of law. I think most municipal lawyers began and are supported by real estate developers. People that all the time have to seek out licenses and permits from cities which often are hostile to their development. So they developed a special brand of lawyer and this is the kind of lawyer that basically just sues cities. That's all they do.

So when you hire a municipal lawyer, you're hiring somebody who's a professional in suing cities. And this is extremely important when you're dealing with city hall, because most of the halls will ignore you as the property owner. But they will not ignore the lawyer and they certainly will not ignore the municipal lawyer because he's probably sued them before. Your case will be escalated, kicked up almost immediately to the city attorney and the city attorney will take it very seriously because he knows the simple fact you brought in a municipal lawyer is that you mean business. And they could potentially face judgements in suits for money and all kinds of issues.

So typically they'll take you very seriously when you use that municipal lawyer. And most importantly that municipal lawyer has a few tricks up his sleeve, because this is not his first rodeo. He knows how to sue cities and he knows what the points of pain are. It's like bringing in some kind of Kung Fu expert. He knows exactly what they could do to a city to make the city very, very uncomfortable. The first thing this municipal lawyer's probably going to do, if you have any issue with the city, is he is going to demand a jury trial. Now this mere mention puts a lot of fear in many cities' hearts. Because cities, and part of being a bully is you feel kind of indestructible. As long as you use the local judge, the city is almost always going to win because the judge and the city, let's all be honest, you're pretty much in cahoots.

The judge is officing, typically, in city hall or next to city hall and you know that they have deep ties. I find it very hard to believe that that judge, at some point, has not been having lunch or doing something with people over at the city. So the judge sees their real loyalty to the city first and to everybody else second.

So when you have a jury trial, it throws a city off. Because a jury trial means the judge is nothing more than the referee, but he's not the decision maker. Now you have independent people who live in the city as the decision maker. And now here's the big problem, most people hate city hall. So the average person on the jury, their loyalty will be to anyone but city hall because they don't like city hall. And the fact that the city is now going to be facing not their little incumbent person that they had control over and were able to manipulate to some degree, which was the judge, but a jury that they have no control over at all. And to begin with or started off behind the eight ball because the jury typically doesn't like them.

Another thing that you can do as a park owner to have a good relationship with city hall, is simply don't give them any ammunition. Run your park well. Keep the entry nice. Do all those things the city wants you to do to be a good resident. I'm shocked all the time at mobile home parks I see just driving down the road. And they're in really, really nice areas and you know they're costing the city a lot of money. And you know that they drive the city crazy, because they're deterring development and they probably really are. Yet, the owner does nothing. Nothing to even pretend that they want to be a good neighbor. The sign is on an old four by eight sheet of plywood. It's all worn off. Some of the letters are missing. Its half falling down. Weeds everywhere, two and three feet tall. Right there at the frottage giant potholes, ugliest home in the entire park, right there on the ride or on the left, non-running car, highly visible from the streets, sitting there rusting in someone's yard, and the park owner does nothing. You know they see these things. What kind of message are they sending there? They're basically putting a giant neon sign to the city saying, I'm doing a terrible job. Please harass me. Not a very good way to conduct your business.

So, one thing you need to do with city hall to get along, simply don't give them any ammunition. Make sure your park looks nice. And particularly, make sure your park looks nice from the street. Also, do your best. Try and become a part of the community. Join the chamber of commerce. Sponsor a sports team. We do that all the time. We'll pay money to sponsor little league baseball team or the firefighter's softball team. We've sponsored high school football teams. It doesn't matter. Do whatever you can do to integrate yourself into the community to be seen as an active member who is in good faith, trying do the best they can do.

Particularly in a smaller market, a smaller town it's absolutely essential that your mobile home park has the appearance of being just like all the other businesses. You want to be in there, shoulder to shoulder with Dairy Queen, the pizza shop, all the businesses that people know and love in the small town, all of which participate in all kinds of activities. You want to be doing that too. You don't want to be odd man out. Where basically your ignoring your duties to be part of the community. You want to be part of it all.

Finally, join your state mobile home association. These are the people on the front line trying to protect you against all the issues with local and even state government. These are the folks that fight laws detrimental to you and they support laws that are positive for you. Why the heck would you not be a part of your state mobile home association? I have no idea. You get all kinds of great information from them, but most importantly, your dues and their dues are not very much. The little bit of dues you pay, collectively, have a huge impact as that state mobile home association endeavors to make things better for everyone. So again, this is Frank Rolfe, The Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast series on the second of our four part series on park psychology. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.