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52 days without reliable running water: Did Colorado's mobile home protections work for Summit County?

mobilehomeresidents SDN
Robert Tann/Summit Daily News
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Robert Tann/Summit Daily News
Jeff Rank stands on the deck of his mobile home at Farmers Korner Mobile Home Park on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. For 52 days, Rank said he faced unreliable running water to the point where he could not shower, clean dishes or do laundry.

Jeff Rank realized something concerning in the early hours of Nov. 27. His toilet would not flush.

Frustrated at what he said was the latest in a string of water issues for his Summit County mobile home, Rank filed a complaint the next day with the Colorado Department of Local Affairs’ (DOLA) Mobile Home Park Oversight Program — an agency still in its infancy.

Rank hoped for a quick response that could help put pressure on his landlord to find a solution. He never imagined it would take more than 50 days for him to regain reliable running water — and more than a month before the oversight program intervened.

“It was depressing,” Rank said.

Rank was one of several residents in the Farmers Korner Mobile Home Park on the northern outskirts of Breckenridge who faced weeks without running water after leaks and frozen pipes created an infrastructure crisis beneath the ground of the mobile homes, according to county records.

Thirty-seven days after Rank filed his complaint, DOLA’s oversight program issued a cease and desist order against the park’s owner, Lorie Cutunilli, on Jan. 3. In it, DOLA alleged Cutunilli violated state laws during the situation, which included not providing water within 24 hours and not providing a restroom within 12 hours of the outage. It demanded Cutunilli return water within 48 hours.

After that deadline passed, Attorney General Phil Weiser filed a motion in district court further enforcing the cease and desist order. Water was returned to residents on Jan. 18.

While local and state officials said the resolution shows DOLA’s oversight program met one of its key goals — to remedy possible illegal treatments of mobile home residents — they raised concerns with the time it took for action to happen and highlighted the potential need to further bolster its resources.

“I do think that both the county and the state used all of the regulatory power that’s been granted to try and get this situation resolved as soon as possible,” said Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue. “That said, it took way too long.”

‘We should have responded sooner’

DOLA’s oversight program — created in 2019 through the Mobile Home Park Act — was tasked by state lawmakers with educating mobile home tenants about their rights, registering mobile home parks annually and responding to and investigating complaints from tenants and property owners.

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Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News
A mobile shower trailer provided by the Summit County government sits on site at Farmers Korner Mobile Home Park on Jan. 17, 2023.

The 2019 legislation has since snowballed into subsequent bills and policy revisions aimed at bolstering protections for Colorado’s mobile homes, which state legislators have called one of the last bastions of affordable housing.

“We know mobile homes are an incredibly important solution to the housing crisis we are facing,” said Colorado House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Dillon representative who co-sponsored mobile home legislation in 2019 and 2020.

Under the 2019 law, the oversight program was relegated to resolving conflicts between residents and landlords through the Colorado Office of Administrative Courts — which could take anywhere from a month to a year to resolve cases depending on if an appeal was filed or not, said Christina Postolowski, who manages regulatory oversight for the program. Revisions to state law in 2022 granted the oversight program its cease and desist capabilities — providing officials with a tool for quicker enforcement that also opened landlords up to potentially thousands of dollars in fees if violations were not addressed.

But despite the added measure, scenarios like Farmers Korner show more work remains to be done, McCluskie said.

“I am disappointed in the amount of time it took to resolve this issue,” McCluskie said, adding she’s been “pleased with DOLA and the Division of Housing’s efforts to build capacity within their department to handle the number of complaints they’ve been receiving.”

A large volume of complaints coupled with staffing shortages led to the roughly month-long delay from DOLA’s oversight program to respond to the Farmers Korner issues, said Christina Postolowski, who manages regulatory oversight for the program.

The agency typically labels certain complaints — such as potential evictions or water problems — as high-priority, according to Postolowski, who added, “With this particular complaint, we should have responded sooner.”

Since it began accepting complaints on May 1, 2020, the agency has received 523 complaints — 40% of which have been closed, according to Postolowski. That doesn’t necessarily mean only 40% have seen resolutions, though. For example, even though water was restored, the Farmers Korner complaint is not closed because a DOLA investigation into the causes of the problem is still underway.

Postolowski said these investigations can be used to understand a site’s systemic issues — such as its infrastructure — that may have caused an initial problem. But she also said the program needs to address a “complaint backlog” brought on by tight resources amid significant demand.

According to a fall 2022 survey of more than 1,000 Coloradans who interacted with the program — including mobile home residents and landlords — 56% said they had a positive experience. A further breakdown of the results, published in a 2021-2022 DOLA report, show that the majority of those same respondents, more than 31%, said their experience was “okay.”

According to the survey, more than 31% found the program “okay,” nearly 29% found it “poor,” nearly 19% found it “good,” more than 14% found it “very poor,” 8% were “unsure” and 6% found it “excellent.”

Postolowski said some of the poorer responses could represent Coloradans who filed complaints but who weren’t eligible for assistance from the oversight program, which is still limited in who it can help. For example, it can not address complaints from residents of recreational vehicles (RVs), like trailers, or renters of mobile homes.

The latter is set to change, however, thanks to state legislation last year that mandated the oversight program begin addressing complaints from renters no later than July 1, 2024. Postolowski said that change highlights the ongoing need to educate local governments and communities about the evolving laws for mobile homeowners.

And as this year’s legislative session continues its kick off, McCluskie said it will be imperative to look for areas where policy can be improved.

If there is a “need for addressing staffing, especially on something as important as our dispute resolution process, then we need to do that,” McCluskie said.

State response ‘made things move along quicker’

“No water again,” Rank wrote in a 7:35 a.m. text message to Cutunilli on Nov. 27.

Rank, who provided screenshots of text messages with Cutunilli to the Summit Daily News, said he’d been dealing with on-and-off water issues since mid-October. He told Cutunilli he’d be filing a complaint with DOLA, which he did on Nov. 28.

Cutunilli said she called a contractor who identified leaks under several trailers which led to freezes and — eventually — broken pipes. Cutunilli said she believes the issue was caused by a lack of heat tape on the lines connecting to some homes, which she said is the responsibility of homeowners, and began working with contractors to build a temporary overground line.

Cutunilli said she worked quickly to resolve the situation and said she faced numerous delays waiting for supplies and labor during what she called an exceptionally busy time.

“There was no lack of action at any time, other than waiting on something,” Cutunilli said.

Meanwhile, Rank adjusted to his new life without reliable water. For about two weeks there was a steady stream, though he says it was barely a trickle from his faucet — too weak to even run a shower. He couldn’t clean dishes or do laundry, at least not in his home. As Rank put it, he was “camping” inside his trailer.

Rank said he’d rely on a spigot in the park for water which he would then boil at home so he could use it to cook and clean. He went to nearby stores for restrooms — a challenge for him when businesses were closed.

Sometimes he’d have to go a week without a shower, though Rank said he was able to occasionally clean himself, wash dishes and do laundry at a friend’s home in Silverthorne. Rank said he was told several times his water pressure might be restored, but it never was.

“I was doing Uber at the time and almost crying,” Rank said. “I do backpacking and camping, and I can tolerate a lot. But it was depressing — almost to the point of tears.”
Jeff Rank, Farmers Korner Mobile Home Park resident

On Dec. 13, Rank said his water ran out completely. A portable bathroom had not yet been made available to the affected residents — a violation of state law, according to DOLA. On mornings and nights that were especially cold, Rank said his lack of options left him desperate.

On the morning of Dec. 21, Rank’s bathtub filled with sewage due to the broken pipes. He said he put on rubber gloves, grabbed a cut-up plastic jug and went to work cleaning out his bathtub one scoop of water at a time.

That same day, Mateo Lozano, a regional organizing manager for the Latino advocacy group Voces Unidas, reached out to Dan Hendershott, the county’s environmental health manager. Lozano told Hendershott he had been contacted by several Spanish-speaking Farmers Korner residents who said they’d been without reliable water for weeks.

On Dec. 22, the county officially became involved and began documenting the crisis, according to records from Hendershott. Those records detail the constant back-and-forth between county health officials and Cutunilli as well as communication Hendershott had with plumbers and excavators who worked daily to resolve the problem.

According to Hendershott and commissioner Pogue, the county was waiting to see if a line repair on Jan. 6 would restore water. Previous efforts had restored water to nine trailers on Dec. 30 but at least another six homes were still without access, officials said.

When that attempt failed to return water on Jan. 6, Hendershott said county officials worked to lease a private trailer equipped with showers and restrooms which was made available to residents on Jan. 8. Previous to that, portable restrooms were brought on-site by Cutunilli on Dec. 30 — more than a month after water issues began.

“There were a couple of points through this process where we thought this issue was going to be solved, but it wasn’t,” Pogue said.

Summit County Public Health Director Amy Wineland said county officials began having daily meetings in early January with Cutunilli, advocacy groups and state officials, which included the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and DOLA.

“I do think having DOLA and the AG’s office on our meetings helped create a sense of seriousness,” Wineland said. “I absolutely feel that thier participation with us made things move along quicker.”

Having state officials involved also helped garner better compensations from Cutunilli for Farmers Korner residents, Wineland said, including reimbursements for passes to the Breckenridge Recreation Center — where some residents showered — as well as rent compensation for the affected residents.

‘You recognize you’ve missed something'

As they worked to restore running water for residents, county officials said they learned more than they knew about the state’s mobile home legislation. For some, it highlights the need for more policy awareness.

Before working with DOLA, confusion arose around what enforcement and regulatory powers the county itself had. Hendershott said he initially turned to the county’s mobile home regulations which he said have not been updated since the 1970s.

“They’re actually typed on a typewriter and then photocopied,” Hendershott said, adding that state health officials told him to rely on DOLA’s oversight program to remedy the water issues. “They really encouraged me not to take an enforcement role in that because the DOLA folks have a much stronger role.”

But county governments are also empowered to create local ordinances that essentially mirror the language of state laws with regard to mobile home protections, Postolowksi said. She pointed to the city of Boulder as a government that has “passed additional regulations and incorporated state laws into local laws.

“That could be something Summit County could consider or look at,” Postolowksi added.

Michael Peirce, project manager for the Colorado Coalition of Manufactured Homeowners, which was instrumental in the formation of the original 2019 protection law as well as its subsequent revisions, said he’s spoken with a handful of counties in mountain regions and across the Front Range. Through conversation, he’s found more awareness of the legislation is needed.

“The people I talk to seem to be very unaware of the state law and their own powers, if they were to develop them,” Peirce said. “An education and outreach program would be very, very helpful at this point.”

Peirce himself lives in a mobile home park in unincorporated Boulder County, which he says is resident owned. He’s spent years advocating for better treatment of mobile home residents around the state and said of DOLA’s response to Farmers Korner: “Besides that delay, I think the overall response was very impressive.”

Along with outreach and education, more legislative work may be needed to ensure the oversight program has defined standards to enforce in the realm of infrastructure, officials said.

According to Postolowski, a “landlord is not required to necessarily upgrade systems beyond what was required at the time of installation.”

Cutunilli, the Farmers Korner landlord, said the site’s water system has not been updated since at least the 1970s — when her family purchased the park. Cutunilli said she plans to replace the infrastructure this summer.

With more than 730 mobile home parks in Colorado, “our program doesn’t have the staffing to do those check-ins at each park and do that (infrastructure) testing, under current law,” Postolowski said.

Peirce, the coalition project manager, said balancing the interests of mobile home residents and their quality of life remains a complicated conundrum. Mandating infrastructure repairs, for example, can be expensive — with that cost potentially being incurred by homeowners.

“That’s got to be covered somehow. That’s going to go into people’s rent,” Pierce said. “We’re talking about a really difficult issue.”

McCluskie, the house speaker and Dillon representative, said infrastructure standards could be an area of target from state lawmakers this year.

“It happens that you find out once the policy rolls out, the program begins … that you recognize you’ve missed something,” McCluskie said. “We have to lift expectations for mobile home park owners around what their responsibilities are to their residents and that, certainly, situations like (Farmers Korner) don’t become more prevalent.”