MCJ secures $95,000 in Settlements for Residents of Gulfport Trailer Park

February 25, 2020

The Mississippi Center for Justice’s Housing Campaign successfully secured $95,000 in settlements for victims of housing discrimination at a Gulfport trailer park. The investigation, led by Staff Attorney William B. Bedwell, resulted in MCJ filing five separate Fair Housing Discrimination Complaints on behalf of the residents. The trailer park owner agreed through HUD’s conciliation process to award three families $25,000 each and two individuals $10,000 each.

The victims originally came to the trailer park hoping to own their own trailers, but quickly learned they were caught up in a vicious rent-to-own fraud scheme replete with an array of intimidation and discriminatory tactics. They signed lease-to-own agreements wherein they could own a trailer in one year after paying $5,000 and then would only have to pay for two additional years of lot-rent at $250 a month. Some believed at the end of the three years they would be able to move their trailers; others thought they would not face any further charges from the park after the three years. Neither reliance could be farther from the truth.

The trailers “for sale” had been attached to the land – physically and legally – since the 1990s, the effect of which was that they could not be bought or sold apart from the land. Peculiarly, the contracts offered specified the sale was “for trailer only” and “not for land.” Thus, what the residents at the trailer park were really bargaining for was merely a high rental rate for a year, a lower rate for two years, and then being trapped into paying lot rent indefinitely or face eviction. Residents could not have certificates of titles issued on the trailers, nor could they apply for permits to move the trailers, due to both the physical degradation of the conditions of the trailers and the trailers no longer being personal property under the law, but rather real estate inseparable from the land.

The residents learned these legal facts only after paying on their contracts for years and going to the tax assessor’s office in fruitless attempts to gain title to the trailers, in hopes of one day moving them out of the park. The trips to the tax assessor’s office were sparked after repeated refusal by the park managers to issue bills of sale or certificates of title. Finally, some managers relented and issued “purported” bills of sale, which the tax assessor’s office explained were worthless. The majority of residents simply decided to cut their losses and leave the park. Others would eventually leave the park when notices of eviction were posted on their trailers or they were intimidated by the managers.

Meanwhile the physical degradation of these forty and fifty year old trailers only became more and more apparent. When residents first moved in, they believed they were getting a bargain, but what they really got were dangerous, deteriorating, unsafe housing. Residents soon noticed water leaks leading to rampant mold. Walls and flooring began to cave in allowing both more rain and bugs to come inside. Then came rat infestations, which the residents fought by duct-taping shut cabinets and cracks in the trailers. Many had been promised upon moving in that certain repairs would be made to roofs, walls, windows, and more. Then were told because they were buying the trailers they had to make the repairs themselves.

Unsure and almost out of hope, aggrieved residents who had not left banded together to try and find a remedy. Many believed they should just quit paying lot rent and one day assert their case if the trailer park ever took them to court. Some began to realize the managers’ threats were a bluff and that no one was ever actually taken to court – but the intimidation and discrimination in violation of federal fair housing law continued.

Then they found the Mississippi Center for Justice. One family and one individual were referred to MCJ and then the Housing Campaign’s investigation began. The first clients spread the word around the park and two other families and another individual retained MCJ to investigate their claims. What MCJ found was shocking and disturbing. Not only was there a rent-to-own fraud scheme, but the managers would utilize any tactic of harassment and discrimination to further the scheme. MCJ filed five separate Fair Housing Discrimination Complaints with HUD alleging discrimination on the basis of race, color, family status, disability, and sex, and alleging retaliation in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

One family, consisting of a mother and son, both of whom were disabled, were repeatedly promised by the park that the maintenance man would build a ramp for them to enter their trailer. But once they asked why the ramp was never built and why they couldn’t get a bill of sale or certificate of title to their trailer, the manager would harass them, saying he “didn’t care that they were sick,” and chase them out of the park office while screaming all manner of threats against them.

Another family with small children was told, after they requested their bill of sale or certificate of title, that they “shouldn’t live in the park anyway” because it was dangerous for children. This claim by a manager came long after the family had moved in on the assertion from the park’s website that it was a great place for families. The family, like many others, had also been promised repairs to the trailer to ensure it was habitable, which were never followed through with by the park.

A third family would eventually inhabit two separate trailers. The first trailer had exposed wiring which appeared to be an extreme fire hazard. The family requested transfer to another trailer but were denied until a house fire broke out. The manager then, after visiting them in the second trailer and seeing pictures of their mixed-race grandchildren, informed them that he did not want any “N*****s” in his park. The manager even refused to repair a ramp to their trailer, telling them that he “didn’t give shit about what happens to them.”

Two women living in different trailers faced sex-based and sexual harassment from two separate managers. One woman, who is trans, was told repeatedly that she should “dress like a man.” She was later groped by a different manager and given an offer of quid-pro-quo sex for rent. The other woman was repeatedly told she could not have her boyfriend to spend the night with her and that she should “get a good man.” Her boyfriend would eventually stop coming to visit her for fear it would cause her to be evicted.

The money these conciliation agreements provided to these victims are allowing them to leave the park, move on with their lives, and secure stable and safe housing elsewhere. The agreements also contain provisions to prevent the park from discriminating against and harassing other residents. HUD will monitor the property for one year to certify compliance with the conciliation agreements, which require park staff to undergo Fair Housing training generally and specifically to sex and family based discrimination, to develop and keep a log to process reasonable accommodation and modification, and to develop a sexual harassment policy and grievance protocol for residents.

MCJ’s Housing Campaign is uncovering rent-to-own schemes furthered by harassment and discrimination throughout south Mississippi. This victory is but a small example of how MCJ can work to ensure justice for Mississippians who have fallen prey to insidious operators and become victims of housing discrimination. Thus far the Housing Campaign under a HUD Fair Housing Private Enforcement Initiative has secured over $100,000 in conciliation agreements and settlements for victims of housing discrimination. There still, however, remains so much work to do in order to ensure Mississippians can obtain safe, habitable housing free from discrimination and harassment, but MCJ will not stop this campaign until that ultimate victory is won.