Easton may soon join six other communities in Southeastern Massachusetts that regulate mobile-home parks with bylaws that place rents, tenant evictions, and minimum standards of operation under the authority of a town-appointed board.
Kingston, Lakeville, Middleborough, Raynham, Rockland, and West Bridgewater have long regulated their mobile-home parks, with some of their bylaws dating to the mid-1990s. Such local ordinances apparently are few and far between, however.
“I don’t think a town has been added to the rent control list in a very long time,’’ said Mary McBrady, executive director of the Massachusetts Manufactured Housing Association, an organization of owners and operators of mobile-home parks. “Only two other states in the country - New Jersey and California - have rent control’’ for mobile-home parks, she said.
In 1994, a referendum vote eliminated most forms of rent control in Massachusetts, but legislators made such regulations a local option when it comes to manufactured homes. Communities can institute rent control provisions for mobile home parks and establish boards to consider proposed increases from landlords. About 20 communities statewide have instituted rent control, McBrady said.
Park tenants generally own their mobile homes but lease their lots. Fees for services like rubbish removal are also levied. In towns with rent control, boards can oversee charges to residents, making certain they are warranted and accurately reflect the landlord’s investment in the operation.
In Easton, Town Meeting approval on Feb. 6 would mark the successful end of a battle begun in 2004 by residents of Easton Mobile Home Park on Route 138, the town’s sole property with manufactured homes.
“We had past petitions from the park,’’ said Town Administrator David Colton. “We even had a couple draft articles, but they never made it to the Town Meeting warrant,’’ he said, generally failing to pass legal muster when reviewed by the town’s attorney.
‘It was overwhelmingly supported at the annual Town Meeting.’David Colton Easton’s town administrator, on the article setting up next month’s vote
Last spring, Town Meeting voters took a first step by approving a citizens’ petition, initiated by park residents and tweaked by the town’s community housing specialist, seeking state authorization to develop a municipal rent-control bylaw.
“It was overwhelmingly supported at the annual Town Meeting,’’ Colton said. “A couple people tried to speak against it and they were shouted down. You saw people step up for their neighbors.’’
With the state’s approval secured, the article on next month’s warrant would establish the bylaw as well as a board to oversee the rent-control regulations.
The Easton park’s owners are not happy about the quest to control rents on their property. Robert Kraus, a Plymouth lawyer who represents the park’s New York-based owner and operator, Morgan Management LLC, said the state should have put an end to rent control on manufactured homes when it ended controlled rents for apartments.
“Our rents are market,’’ Kraus said. “Many towns don’t have rent control, and the rents are where they should be. With rent-control boards, it makes it more complicated. When someone who is not in your business is telling you how to run your business, there’s a problem.’’
In Raynham, Selectman Donald McKinnon said his community approved rent control in the early 1990s, when one of two local parks went up for sale and tenants feared eviction.
“The bylaw flew through Town Meeting,’’ said McKinnon, a strong supporter of the local option. “Every three to five years, the owners of the parks try to do away with rent control in the state, but it never gets very far. I’ve testified several times to keep rent control going. We’ve had a good experience with it.’’
Joseph Bettencourt, a member of Raynham’s Mobile Home Rent Control Board, said the relationship between the town and the owners of the Pine Hill Estates park was contentious initially.
“At first we were seen as advocates for the tenants,’’ Bettencourt said. “It took a while for the landlord to see we’re just looking for a fair shake for everybody.’’
In Middleborough, selectmen, who act as the town’s rent control board, have battled the owners of the Edgeway Mobile Home Park for several years, with conflicts over poor drainage and lack of lighting, as well as unauthorized increases in rent. The battle continues, and hearings on the park typically draw a crowd of tenants.
Meanwhile, in Rockland, hearings on a proposed rent increase at the Leisurewoods property are set for Feb. 6 and 7, according to the chairwoman of the town’s Rent Control Board, Judith Hartigan, who said her five-member panel meets regularly.
“Residents have been notified of the proposed increase, and people can give feedback during the hearings,’’ Hartigan said. “This is a fixed-income population. The owners will have to show what they’ve done in capital improvements. After two nights of hearings, we’ll make a decision.’’
McBrady, head of the statewide industry association, says that rent control doesn’t solve problems in mobile-home parks.
“Often the reverse is true,’’ she said in an e-mail. “Taxpayers and municipalities bear the legal expense of rent control boards. It’s been the case that applications for simple CPI,’’ or consumer price index, “increases turn out to be lengthy processes.’’
In Easton, Robert Martin, a past president of the Easton Mobile Home Park Association, led several efforts for rent control. He said tenants at one point took their landlord to court, where a judge ruled in their favor on a number of issues.
“That cost us about $50,000 to get it straightened out,’’ he said.
A court order that regulated park increases for five years recently ended, and Martin said he and other tenants promptly received notice of a rent increase that went into effect last August.
“My rent was $353.91, and it’s now $468.69,’’ Martin said. “Everybody was angry about the increases, and some people said they wouldn’t pay it.’’
He said the park’s residents hope rent control will help lower their costs.
“The people are happy with the fact that it’s gotten this far,’’ he said, citing last spring’s Town Meeting approval and the vote at next month’s session.
“I believe we’re going to dispute this past big increase once we have a rent control board in town.’’