The owner of a troubled mobile home park on Eau Claire’s north side said he is willing to make investments to improve the condition of those dilapidated units, but city officials question whether those expenditures will happen, and whether they will be enough to meet safe housing regulations.
Reed Woith, who owns the trailer park, said he is committed to helping pay for improvements to Maples, 1611 Western Ave., to keep the park open. Eau Claire city officials have discussed shutting the park down because living conditions there have become unsafe.
However, whether Woith, who lives in Ellenton, Fla., is willing to make the kinds of improvements city officials said are necessary to ensure residents living in the park’s 46 trailer homes are in housing that meets minimum health and safety standards remains uncertain. He has owned the Maples trailer park for 12 years and the condition of its units — already in rough shape when he bought the property — has deteriorated during that time and is now among the worst housing in Eau Claire.
City officials have sought upgrades to Maples and proposed a plan to replace the park’s run-down trailer homes with new or better ones during a five-year period. Woith balked at that plan, saying it is too ambitious and he can’t afford that many improvements on that timeline.
Instead, Woith said, he would pay for improvements the city wants only if the park maintains the remainder of its mobile homes and if all of its residents are up to date on their rent payments.
“It depends on what the city wants done,” Woith said when asked what financial commitments he is willing to make toward Maples, where trailers are at least a half-century old. “It’s a catch-22. I need more money so I can make more investments there.”
Paying for upgrades the city wants isn’t likely, Woith said, because currently only about half of Maples residents are making monthly lot rental payments as they fear the trailer park’s shutdown and are saving money in case they have to relocate. Some Maples residents acknowledged they have stopped paying rent because of concerns the park will be closed.
Woith said he is willing to make repairs to trailers at Maples and has had that work done in the past. But the city has denied the issuance of permits to do that work in recent months, he said.
City officials said keeping all homes at Maples Mobile Home Park likely isn’t practical, given the run-down nature of some and density concerns there that hinder firefighting efforts. Ensuring that all residents living there are up to date on rent payments at any given time seems unlikely, they said, noting the difficult financial situations many who live there face.
Officials question Woith’s claim he can’t afford to update Maples, saying rent totals he collects minus property taxes leave enough profit to do so.
City Manager Dale Peters expressed frustration at Woith’s contention he can’t make repairs at Maples’ trailer homes because the city doesn’t allow it. The city has denied permits for repairs only on units in such rough shape the city determined further investment in them wasn’t feasible.
“It is disappointing and troubling that the landowner is stating that the city is the reason he can’t make health and safety investments in the property,” Peters said.
City officials said they are willing to work with Woith to keep the Maples trailer park open, allowing its residents, including young children, to continue living in a location where the monthly rent is less than $400, less than half of the average Eau Claire rent of more than $800. Many have said they can’t afford other places to live and likely would wind up homeless or living with others if the trailer park is shut down.
Peters and other officials said they are sensitive to the tough situation Maples residents face. During last week’s cold snap, when the temperature dipped to -30 degrees and windchill readings reached 50 degrees below zero, outdated furnaces at some trailer homes stopped working and pipes froze and burst. Leaking sewage pipes are commonplace at the trailer park, as are leaky roofs, mold, damaged siding and other problems.
“The city is simply asking for a long-term viable plan with the owner making investments at this property to improve the health and safety of people living there,” Peters said. “We are willing to work with the owner and residents on long-term improvements. But there must be a commitment from the owner.”
Exactly what repairs at Maples Woith is responsible for and which ones trailer home residents are on the hook for remains ambiguous, those involved with the situation said.
Except for one unit, all trailers at Maples are owner occupied, Woith said. That would indicate the people living in them must make or pay for upgrades.
However, city officials said Woith has owned most or all of the trailers there at some point since buying Maples, meaning he is responsible for at least some repairs to those homes, deputy city attorney Doug Hoffer said. In some cases, when trailers become available for one reason or another, Woith resells them to new park occupants, he said.
“It looks like some kind of ownership shell game,” Hoffer said.
While individual property owners are accountable for repairs to individual units, state statute and city ordinances state the owner is responsible for the overall condition of trailer parks, Hoffer said. When conditions become as bad as they are at Maples, the owner has a legal obligation to improve the situation.
“The bottom line is conditions at many of the homes at Maples fail to meet minimum health and safety standards,” Hoffer said. “That needs to change.”
‘Want to stay’
The desire of many living at Maples to remain in their homes and keep the trailer park open has become evident in recent months since the city first announced the possibility of closing it.
Park residents have organized and have spoken publicly about their desire to fix their homes and remain in them. They met last month to question city officials about the park’s future and to express their displeasure about such issues as the city’s home inspection policy and the demolition of trailers without what they deemed proper notice.
On Monday they gathered at the Labor Temple Lounge on Eau Claire’s north side to continue discussions about the trailer park. Woith and his wife, Connie, were there, having flown from their Florida home to attend the meeting. Members of Joining Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope, a local organization that works on behalf of poverty and social justice issues, were there too. The group has partnered with mobile home park residents to address issues.
“The residents living at Maples need to be included in the decisions that are happening where they live,” said Susan Wolfgram, co-chair of the JONAH Affordable Housing Task Force. “Their voices need to be heard.”
Emily Shields has lived in Maples for the past two years. She has helped organize neighbors to work with the city and has led efforts on such issues as demanding more notice when bulldozers raze condemned homes at the trailer park and police monitoring of the park.
“We want to be treated like other neighborhoods, like we matter,” Shields said. “We want to stay in our homes.”
During the meeting several Maples residents questioned city policies regarding their homes. Some said they support Woith and expressed frustration at city officials. Woith reiterated that he intends to try to keep Maples open and has no intention of selling it.
Hoffer acknowledged tensions but said continued discussions have led to progress. He said he believes a workable solution for Maples is possible, but that ultimately will require a commitment from Woith.
“(Woith) seems willing to make a commitment,” Hoffer sad. “Promises are a positive step, but what we need at this point is action.”