Residents challenge rate hike in neglected West Stockbridge trailer parkMore Info
West Stockbridge — Bad roads and mega potholes, overgrown and dead trees, numerous water issues and waftings of septic scents.
For residents of Mill Pond Trailer Park, located off Route 41 north of the village’s downtown, this is just the way it has always been. There are occasional quick and cheap fixes, but over the decades, these have been rare, and according to a 2015 engineer’s report, the park has deteriorated to the point of system failures.
But now the owners, Gennari’s Mill Pond Trailer Park Inc., want to raise rent here for each of the park’s 35 mobile home lots, saying they need to make a profit. The tenants say they’re willing to pay more, but only after the deferred maintenance is all caught up.
So when Gennari’s went to the town’s Rent Control Board (RCB) last summer to ask for a monthly rate hike — from $241 to $325 per month –– the tenants’ association put up a fight.
“We should not be paying up front,” says Evie Kerswell, the tenant who is spearheading this battle on behalf of the park’s residents, people who she says feel habitually downtrodden and are “afraid to speak up” in a small town where the Gennari family goes way back, owns a number of businesses and knows everyone at Town Hall. Kerswell said ownership of the park has spanned three Gennari generations since it opened in the 1950s to accommodate MassPike workers.
“No one complained because it was reasonable rent and things were fixed as things came up,” Kerswell said, pointing out that the park is the only affordable housing in town. “But now they want all this money for no work.”
Kerswell hops in my car and we drive around the park, home to 72 people including babies, toddlers and elderly on fixed incomes. “We’re on the good road,” she says, as I dodge potholes and even run over the edge of someone’s lawn to make it through. Kerswell shows me how that particular lawn is eroding because everyone keeps driving on it. It’s raining, making everything worse.
She explains that the tenants here do not own any land, just their mobile homes, and that these deteriorating conditions not only pose dangers, but have also harmed the resale value of their homes.
Kerswell, 53, is a mother of two who works full time for an accounting and payroll firm in Great Barrington and takes extra classes in the evening to get certified as a tax preparer. She’s lived in the park for about 12 years. She spends her spare bits of free time analyzing the Gennari company bank statements and other documents so she can continue to crusade against what she says is “predatory” behavior by the owners, and make the tenants’ case to the RCB, established in 2013 to keep rents fair for both owner and tenant.
The RCB bylaws were set up by the Attorney General’s Office, and stipulate that the park owners can only make a profit of 5.25 percent of the assessed value of the land, which in this case is 14 acres at $170,500. The trailers, however, sit on one-quarter of that land, a $43,000 slice of it, and the tenant’s association says that costs passed on to them through rent should reflect that.
That goes for property taxes, too, Kerswell says. The tenants say $8,000 per year for 14 acres should also be reduced to one-quarter of the amount.
Park manager Liza Gennari says this isn’t how things work. “If I walk into a supermarket and I only shop in the fruits and veggies section should I only be paying the margin on those?”
Kerswell says the two are not comparable. And there are a few other expenses that she says should not be passed on to tenants. The first two RCB hearings did result in some of those being pulled from what Gennari’s says are operating expenses.
“It’s like a poker game,” said RCB chair Curt Wilton. “We’re having to ask our attorney what is an allowable expense.”
Wilton says the RCB is a negotiator. “The owners come in high, the tenants low…we try to get the parties to agree.” He adds that this is no easy task. “Then they sleep on it for a few days and all bets are off.”
Kerswell says the RCB, composed of the same three members on the Board of Selectmen, are not only friendly with the Gennari family, but hold other town offices that, in at least one case, may pose a conflict of interest. Board member Earl Moffat, for instance, is also on the Board of Health and the Water and Sewer Commission. Voicemail messages left for Moffat at Town Hall were not returned. Moffat only has office hours on Fridays.
Kerswell says one indication that the RCB is favoring Gennari’s is that they won’t acknowledge an engineer’s report by Hogan Associates that shows bad original construction and decades of neglect at the park. It also says the sewer collection and water distribution systems are in failure.
Wilton told The Edge, however, that the RCB members have read the report, made in 2015 after the tenants association tried to buy the park from Gennari’s. Their $200,000 offer was refused.
And naturally, the owners don’t think that report amounts to a hill of beans. Gennari’s got their own analysis by two different water specialists and found a water leak that was fixed in May, according to Liza Gennari. She said, for instance, Prowler Water Conservation Systems came and found leaks in some trailers and “one big leak that was the park’s.”
Gennari went on to say that a number of trailers have their own leaks that owners aren’t fixing. “We could evict them for not fixing them but that would be extreme,” she said.
Here’s what Kerswell said led to the request for the rate hike. Gennari’s sold the park to Eric LeVesque in 2011 and held the note for him. He turned around and sued them over the condition of the park and won, which sent the park back into Gennari ownership in 2015. Now LeVesque holds the note for Gennari’s and the company pays him $2,000 per month.
But while LeVesque owned the place, he raised the rent to $325, and did a bunch of things Kerswell says were questionable while making a “massive profit.” It was this rent increase that caused six tenants to move and Kerswell to ask for a home rule petition to create the RCB. This lowered the rent to $241.
Gennari’s told the RCB they are in deficit of about $14,000, but that’s including operating expenses that the RCB has already pulled out — like that annual $24,000 to LeVesque, for instance, that tenants said they shouldn’t have to shoulder. Gennari’s has had the park back from LeVesque for about a year, and in their petition show an annual income from the trailers at $101,220. Other expenses have been pulled, and some are still being decided, like water usage, which is not easy to calculate there.
And Kerswell says the water calculation is even trickier with leaking pipes.
Town Administrator Mark Webber says the town is working to get the water usage numbers prepared for the third hearing, which hasn’t yet been scheduled. He said he hopes the entire matter will be resolved then.
Kerswell has taken Gennari’s expenses and done her own rough water usage estimate. She comes out with around $80,000 in total operating expenses that are still dependent on a number of other debatable expenses to be hashed out at the next hearing.
If Kerswell is right, and the Gennari’s are looking at a roughly $20,000 profit, which is more than the 5.25 percent of assessed value allowed by RCB bylaws, that will result in an adjustment that guarantees Gennari’s a profit while keeping the rent fair for the tenants.
“Her math is just incorrect to us,” Liza Gennari said. “She’s not including everything it takes to run this business.”
Gennari further said that the tenants are still a bit traumatized by LeVesque, who she said had “taken advantage” of them, “and didn’t maintain it though he was charging more. The first step for us is to financially maintain the business so that things can be maintained the way they should be.”
Gennari said Kerswell doesn’t know what goes into running this business. “There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that she doesn’t know about. The taxes are paid, and people [family] are doing things for free or getting paid in other ways.”
Kerswell says that Gennari’s blames LeVesque for the park’s problems, but reminds me that LeVesque beat them in court over accusations Gennari’s sold him a lemon.
And Kerswell agrees the owners should make a profit. But she says in this case the owners are inflating their expenses and not showing everything.
“It’s been the town joke that we’re the cash cow,” she said. “Just suck the money out and do no maintenance.”
“Do you smell that?” Kerswell asks me as we stand in the rain outside a trailer where a woman lives with her young children. In her yard are three large iron septic covers with raised hard edges that Kerswell says are dangerous. The septic is pumped once a year, but really should be pumped every three months, she told me, after having asked a local septic company about it. And the engineer’s report says that the septic requires “replacement soon” to avoid a host of problems, including “unsanitary conditions.”
Kerswell says she’s been to the Board of Health several times over the septic, but hasn’t gotten a response.
She points to dead trees, particularly one that lists over a yard with a small swing set. She says the lighting is poor at night. Gennari’s hired someone to drag a grader over the roads last spring, Kerswell said, but after some good rains, the roads were bad again. And the drainage is so poor here that in the winter, the whole place is a skating rink, she added.
Pamela Bartlett, one of the park’s five owners, told The Edge that the company had fixed leaks, graded the roads and took down some “really bad trees.” She said a “$25,000 bankroll” the company had when they got the property back from LeVesque “is depleted because we did [fix] things.”
She said having the business again hasn’t been easy. “All we want to do is be able to make a small profit and upgrade the park,” she said. “When we ran the park before [LeVesque] we had no trouble or complaints. I don’t know where Evie is getting her numbers.”
Kerswell says she got her numbers from Gennari’s very own bank statements and list of expenses on the rate hike petition to the RCB.
She further said she thinks the tenants are being “rolled” by Gennari’s and the town’s RCB. Kerswell also says the RCB is breaking its own bylaws for several reasons, one of which is that it isn’t looking at Gennari’s bank statements nor considering the tenant’s petition to stop the rate hike until work to the site is undertaken. Kerswell said Gennari’s hasn’t “submitted everything,” and says she plans to make an official complaint to the Attorney General’s Office.
Wilton says he thinks both parties are being treated fairly, but that one will come away from the hearings “very disappointed.” He contends that Gennari’s has “spent a lot of money” on fixing problems at the park.
Kerswell says people who can’t afford to live anywhere but a trailer park have so many obstacles constantly before them. One is that loans for mobile homes typically come with interest rates, through a “special broker,” of at least 9 percent, since they are classified as “luxury vehicles,” Kerswell said.
“There are nice, hard-working people that live here,” she added. “No police issues, it’s quiet.”
Kurzwell says she speaking for the other residents, and trying to help the community by using her accounting and bookkeeping skills.
“Many in the park say, ‘it’s just how things go for people like us.’ It’s the mentality of, ‘you can’t fight city hall’.”
“But I’ve been fighting them from the beginning.”