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The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Trailer Parks Crumbling?; Downward Mobility, Community Feeling Gone, Residents Say

By Tina Traster

December 11, 1996 -- It was never paradise, not even close. But at one time, owning a home in Moonachie's mobile-home parks engendered a sense of pride and community.

Things have changed.

Residents of Metropolitan Mobile Home Park and Rogers Mobile Home Park say community spirit has dissipated and living conditions are abysmal.

Gone are the days when neighbors threw rent-raising parties for homeowners who could not pony up and the times when people kept their tiny lawns manicured and their mobile homes buffed. Parents say they are afraid to let their children play in the streets. Residents complain bitterly about pothole-ridden roads, flooding, inadequate electrical currents, and unsightly garbage dumps.

Metropolitan and Rogers residents say management is unresponsive to their complaints.

Managers at both trailer parks deny these allegations, saying they are making a conscientious effort to fix roads, replace abandoned trailers, and respond to maintenance problems.

But residents say the quality of life in the parks has declined.

"Things have really gone downhill here," said James McNeice, a 25-year-old Metropolitan Park resident and Moonachie police officer." I grew up here, and I can't remember a time when I saw people drinking in the streets and fighting.

"You used to know your neighbor, but now people stay to themselves," McNeice said. "This used to be a family-oriented place. Not anymore."

Theories abound to explain why life in the parks has deteriorated, but town officials, residents, and academics concur that the most significant catalyst was the bottoming out of the real estate market in the late 1980s.

The crash trapped home buyers of all stripes, but mobile-home buyers in North Jersey have become especially vulnerable because their property values have dwindled to near nothing, and their home-owning communities have become magnets for renters.

Many homeowners say the greater number of renters has brought a more unstable environment to the parks, but park management insists that tenants are screened and the quality of life at the parks has not become unsavory.

Lori Greenberg, attorney for Metropolitan Associates Ltd., said she has issued a handful of eviction notices to disruptive tenants.

Greenberg, who represents the owners of more than 17 mobile-home parks, said the number is not unusual.

"When we've sent notices, we have seen results," Greenberg said, adding that tenants should call police when they suspect illegal activity. "The landlord cannot make arrests. He does not have law enforcement powers." Of the 235 mobile homes in Metropolitan Park, about 65 percent are owned and the rest are rented. In Rogers Park, which has 198 dwellings, the ratio is nearly the same. Rents range from $250 to $700; the average is $450.

Mobile-home owners have the dual responsibility of homeownership and tenancy, which means some are paying off home loans and all are paying to rent the land. Renters are charged a flat rate for living accommodations.

Marge and Tom Brady bought a two-bedroom mobile home on Helen Drive in Metropolitan Park eight years ago for $36,000 as a financial stepping stone to a suburban house.

The couple, who have a small child, say the atmosphere of the park has been transformed into one that is violent and unnerving. They say youths act destructively, breaking windows and loitering in the streets, and they notice a more transient population. They say they desperately want to move.

The Bradys say they are disillusioned because they cannot find a buyer willing to offer more than a fraction of what they paid.

They say their troubles are compounded by rising rents. The Bradys pay nearly $ 1,000 a month to live in the park, nearly $500 in lot rent and the balance to pay off a home loan.

"They raise the rents every year, but the service has gone downhill in the last two years," said Marge Brady. "It's not fair."

Greenberg said Leonard Leeds, the park's owner, has installed a new trash compactor, which residents say is too tall to be functional. She said electrical currents are being upgraded. Plans are afoot to build a playground where there once was a swimming pool, she said, and potholes are filled once a year.

Greenberg and Tom O'Rourke, managing partner for Rogers owners, Vanguard Associates, concede that flooding is a problem because neither park has storm drainage. O'Rourke said owners would bear the financial brunt if a drainage system were installed, a cost he believes is too prohibitive.

In recent months, residents at both parks had hoped to thwart rent increases after they complained to Moonachie's rent-leveling board about service and maintenance.

The board ruled to prevent a cost-of-living increase in both communities, but in separate cases, judges overturned the decisions, and roughly 2 percent to 3 percent increases for 1995 and 1996 were implemented. A similar decision was recently rendered in favor of mobile-home parks in Lodi.

Judith Thornton, executive director of the New Jersey Manufactured Housing Association, said that about 120 of the state's 300 land-lease communities have rent control. Often, she said, rent control ends up costing homeowners who hire lawyers to fight increases.

Borough officials, even Councilman Ronald Burnett, who lives in Metropolitan Park, admit that conditions are below par in these anachronistic communities, staples of rural and sparsely populated suburban America smack in the middle of one of the most densely populated regions in the country.

Built in the 1940s for transients, the two parks, on Moonachie Avenue, are nestled in an industrial zone across from Teterboro Airport. Metropolitan Park is practically treeless and composed mostly of 12-by-52-foot 1970s aluminum trailers that sit less than 2 feet apart. The trailers in Rogers Park have a bit more space in between, and trees line the narrow rows of homes. The roads in Rogers Park are well paved compared with those in Metropolitan, which are pocked with potholes.

As in many communities, there are homes in both parks that are sorely neglected, with garbage-strewn yards, rickety fences, and faded exteriors. But many homeowners spruce up their trailers with awnings, trellises, yard decorations, and wind chimes.

"The park was created for transient people, and it has become something other than what it was envisioned for," said Moonachie Mayor Fred Dressel." The conditions there are not acceptable, but my frustration as mayor is that I lack the ability to forcefully elevate the quality of life."

In the 1970s and 1980s, mobile-home parks became a viable route to homeownership for those with lower incomes in North Jersey.

"Ten years ago, at the peak of the real estate boom, people at the lower end of the economic scale were priced out the market," said James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University." A trailer park really became the only option for home owning for some people."

There are about 20 mobile-home parks in Bergen, Passaic, and Morris counties. Since they have become more permanent communities, the return of more itinerant people living in the parks worries many.

Moonachie Police Chief Mike McGahn said that in the past year, four parolees have moved into the two parks.

"We've had more parolees move into the parks in the past year than in previous years, and that has to do with the fact that there are rentals," McGahn said. "It's easier for a person on parole to rent than buy, and since this is low-income housing, they can afford it." Greenberg said the park is not allowed to discriminate against a prospective tenant who has a criminal history. "We are only allowed to consider credit history," she said.

O'Rourke, who said prospective tenants are screened, is not aware of any parolees living in his park.

"We run a credit report; we get criminal history; we do a complete search just like any rental apartment," he said. "We're finding people are staying longer. They are good tenants. Occasionally you get a bad tenant, but you also get bad homeowners."

O'Rourke explained why 30 percent of his park's mobile homes have become rentals: "We've been buying up the decrepit 1960s trailers during the past three years for between $ 3,000 and $ 8,000, upgrading them, and selling or renting. "He said two trailers were sold at "break-even" prices, and upgraded trailers are renting for $ 600 to $ 700 a month.

George Young, president of the Mobile Home Owners Association of New Jersey, said landlords are buying units from distressed sellers and either turning them around for a profit or jacking up the rents.

"The park owners have become greedy," Young said.

Doris Chase, a former Metropolitan Park homeowner, believes she became a victim of unfortunate real estate forces and the park's motivation to buy her trailer cheaply.

"No one ever came to look at the trailer," said Chase, who with her late husband bought a mobile home for $25,000 in 1985.

When her husband died three years ago, medical bills mounted, and she no longer could afford to pay the $500 monthly rent. She secured a place in a senior home, but had trouble selling her trailer for the $20,000 asking price.

Metropolitan Park owner Leeds eventually bought Chase's unit for $5,000. "I wish I'd never seen the trailer park," Chase said.

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