Skunks. Potholes. Toilets that leak during heavy rains.
Elderly residents threatened with $50 lawn care charges, the cost of failing to maintain personally their tiny patches of grass.
In-park pet fees that approach four times the annual township dog license rates.
These are just a handful of the circumstances that some of the most financially vulnerable residents of West Deptford have lived with for years in the Willow Woods mobile home park.
Small wonder, then that they appeared in numbers to plead their case before the West Deptford Township Multiple Dwelling Regulation Board on Wednesday.
By the dozens, residents of the flood-prone property appealed to their neighbors on the governing body to reject a rent increase proposed by the Carlyle Group, the Washington D.C.-based owners of the park.
They spoke loudly, and often out of turn, but the details of their testimony were compelling as the men and women railed against the pass-through costs that attorney Christopher Hanlon insisted the Carlyle Group was entitled to collect for improvements made to the grounds.
Among them were:
- playground equipment, mulch and fencing (which none of the residents present could recollect requesting);
- some 208 feet of roadway meant to improve drainage (that reportedly guides rainwater into a drain to which pumps attached fail regularly);
- asphalt replacement at 13 different locations in the “W” section of the park (including speed bumps that one resident insisted had ruined by an errant snowplow).
“Not a snowplow, they used a Bobcat!” someone chimed in from the crowd.
At the outset, Hanlon’s argument was undermined somewhat by the fact that he did not have immediately available bills for the jobs that had been done at the facility.
“We asked for the invoices so we could submit them, and they were having trouble getting vendors to send them in because they misplaced them,” Hanlon said.
“It looks like, frankly, we all forgot to follow up, and we discovered that about two hours ago,” he said.
The meeting opened with a lengthy discussion about what kind of work constitutes repairs and what kind of work is capital improvement in the rent-controlled facility.
By statute, said Chairperson Samuel Myles, capital improvement “materially adds to the value of the property and appreciably prolongs its useful life.”
“I think the more expansive definition is in here to encourage the property owner to do the right thing for his infrastructure, which means make more long-term repairs as opposed to patchwork repairs,” Hanlon argued.
“The whole idea of rent control is never ‘no increases,’” Hanlon said, “it’s ‘don’t let them pay unreasonable increases.’ We have to keep pace with real inflation, actual operating expenses, like everyone at this table.”
If the body only approved the simple 1.1 percent rate hike to cover the cost of the federally stipulated rate of inflation, the monthly rent increases for Willow Woods residents would have ranged from $2.46 to $4.54, or $29.52 to $54.40 annually.
But if the body also approved the pass-through costs of capital improvements proposed by the Carlyle Group, rents could have risen some $11.14 to $13.22 per month, or $133.68 to $158.64 annually, for residents of the community, many of whom are on fixed incomes.
The alleged benefit to residents of the improvements made to the grounds at Willow Woods was also a matter of some contention throughout the evening, comments revealed.
“Nobody asked us if we wanted a basketball court or a playground; there aren’t that many kids in the park anymore,” said Willow Woods resident Ron Douglas.
Douglas, who circulated a petition among residents of the community to collect signatures opposing the rate hikes, testified to the board that residents are “scared to death” of the property managers levying fees and fines seemingly at whim.
“I feel like a criminal because I got a dog,” he said. “These people want $60 a year to have a dog in my own home.”
Resident Frank Cash said that his toilet leaks and the sewer bubbles up during periods of heavy rainfall.
Robert Longo testified that his property has flooded 11 times in the past year.
John Miller asked whether, if the rate hikes were approves, Willow Woods residents could put their money in escrow until the property managers made necessary repairs to the facility.
“We live here,” said Rick Schaffer, who was so angry that he couldn’t keep his seat during the meeting. “You have to respect us.”
Hanlon—who strangely kept requesting that residents be sworn in before speaking during the public comment portion of the meeting, even though no court had been convened and no document of faith was ascribed to the process—insisted that the Carlyle Group had spent around $150,000 since the 1990s to clean up flood-related damage in the park.
Those expenditures spoke to efforts by the community management group to address ongoing infrastructure problems there, he said.
But the board was largely unmoved by Hanlon’s arguments.
“I’ve been on the board too long to know that these people come in and complain every single year about the same thing,” said board member Carol Baker, who grilled Hanlon throughout the process.
“It’s nothing different.”
Baker moved that that board approve the 1.1 percent consumer price index (CPI) increase, effective September 1, but that it should deny all pass-through improvement costs “until everything is completed that the township housing code inspector has inspected.”
The motion was seconded, and passed unanimously.