When Kerri and John Wayte moved into a newly renovated mobile home off Baker Road in southeast Hall County in March, the couple hoped they had found the right place to raise their three children.
“We wanted to stay here,” Kerri said.
For low-income families struggling to find affordable housing in a tight rental market, mobile or manufactured homes are often the last best option because they tend to be cheaper and more available to rent.
But the conditions of some mobile homes are substandard, with the potential to cause health problems such as respiratory infections.
Joanne Capies, president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a social service arm of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Gainesville, said she has seen some horrendous conditions when helping low-income families move into mobile homes across the county.
“I’ve seen mobile homes that had holes in the walls stuffed with newspapers,” she said, adding that pest infestations, no refrigeration, doors and windows that won’t close properly and debris left behind by former tenants are some of the common substandard conditions she has witnessed.
Capies and her team have even fixed up places on their own, removing trash and re-carpeting floors, for example.
Landlords tell her, “There’s always someone willing to rent them,” she said.
The condition of the Waytes’ mobile home led them to contact the Gainesville-branch of Georgia Legal Services in June. According to the family there were issues with termite and mice infestations, a leaky roof and the distinct smell of mold emanating from between the walls where water had seeped in.
“I’ve never really experienced bad (living conditions) until now,” Kerri said.
Sherry DuBose, owner of the property, said the property had been remodeled before they moved in, including new carpeting and appliances.
"The problems that were encountered were encountered after they moved in," DuBose said. "And all the problems they had were addressed.”
For example, the roof was replaced when the leak was discovered, and mold remediation has been performed.
“I go above and beyond board with any repairs that are done,” DuBose said.
Anthony Davenport, a staff attorney with Georgia Legal Services, said that because mobile homes are taxed as personal property and not real property like single-family homes or apartment complexes, code enforcement can be difficult to exercise. Davenport is leading an eviction prevention aid program serving low-income tenants with private landlords.
That makes Georgia Legal Services’ role a matter of negotiation rather than litigation, even if there are grounds to sue, Davenport said.
“Typically, what we do is counsel the client about what the best options are under the law,” Davenport said, adding that in most cases he tries to work with a landlord to let tenants such as the Waytes break their lease with no penalty or fees.
But there are two sides to every story, and the tenant-landlord relationship places demands on both parties.
“My problem was I had already told them it would be repaired” prior to the Waytes contacting GLS, DuBose said. “If somebody calls me and has a problem, I repair that immediately because I want them to be happy. I want them to have a nice, enjoyable place to live.”
Tenants are required to notify landlords of problems in the home in a timely manner or else they can be held liable for damages. And this has been a point of contention.
For example, the moisture between the walls resulted from a leak not in the roof but from a pipe leaking hot water, Dubose said.
“There was confusion as to where the leak originated,” she said.
The Waytes said their calls for maintenance were not promptly returned.
Tearing out and replacing the drywall will cost thousands of dollars to repair, DuBose said, adding that the family is welcome to vacate and end their lease without penalty.
The hang-up, according to the Waytes, appears to be how quickly they might have their deposit returned if they do leave.
Moving and entering a new rental agreement comes with many upfront costs, from security and pet deposits to first and last month’s rent.
“We live paycheck to paycheck,” Kerri said. “We can’t do it without the deposit.”
DuBose said she has sought a compromise and is willing to return the amount of the deposit the Waytes need to move elsewhere.
Davenport said he hopes the full deposit will be returned immediately and that he would be sending DuBose a letter advising her on what he believes are deficiencies in the lease agreement.
“I’ve never had this level of a problem with a tenant,” DuBose said. “It takes communication between the property owner and the tenant to ultimately keep the property in good condition.”