Seniors, disabled told to cough up hundreds for landlord’s mistake
Trailer troubleWhen Cynthia Reed turned in her rent this month, she was expecting no more than a “thank you” and a receipt. She got a lot more than that—she got a utility bill from her landlord for over $600.
She was told that Sierra Management, the company that runs Emerald Meadows Mobile Home Park where Reed lives in North Highlands, had made an accounting error and undercharged most of the park’s residents for sewer and storm drain charges for over three years. But now the error is fixed, and the company wants residents to pay up.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I have no way of paying it,” said Reed, 48, breaking into sobs. “But if I don’t pay it they’re going to take me to court and take my mobile home away.”
Reed, who has lived in Emerald Meadows only since February, said she has no idea how she could have racked up that much in utility charges, but said she fears that the company is trying to get out of returning the deposit she put down on the space for her mobile home.
She is unable to work because she suffers from diabetes, heart problems and asthma. She gets only $686 in Supplemental Security Income (SSI). She pays $660 a month in rent, leaving almost nothing to buy food and pay bills.
Sierra Management has offered to let Reed pay off the new utility bill in monthly installments of $52. Do the math. It’s not hard to see why Reed’s predicament might drive her to tears.
“I was counting on that money to get some food in the house,” she added.
Reed is just one of the nearly 120 residents of Emerald Meadows who have received bills from Sierra Management for utilities that the company says should have been billed over the past three years.
In some cases, the bills run $400, $500 and $600. The company admits that the bills arise from their own mistake, but that they still have a legal right to collect.
“It was definitely our mistake. We make no bones about that,” said Sierra Management representative Abe Arrigotti. But he said the company has a legal right to pass the charges on to the residents.
“We feel it’s a fair charge. And it’s due,” said Arrigotti.
Residents aren’t so sure its legal, and they certainly don’t feel it is fair.
The park has offered to allow residents to pay the fees in monthly installments, usually about $30 a month. Arrigotti said many of the residents have begun to pay the bill. Only about 20 of the 120 who were back-billed have refused to pay.
But for many of those who live in Emerald Meadows—several are seniors with disabilities—even $30 a month can be a major setback.
“People just can’t afford it,” said Sharon Blasingame, president of the Emerald Meadows homeowners’ association. “The majority are seniors and disabled people living on a fixed income. That $30 a month will price them right out of here,” she added.
“For me, it makes the difference between whether I can eat or afford my medication,” said Charlene Scarborough, a resident of Emerald Meadows for 10 years. Scarborough takes an array of medications for severe arthritis that can cost up to $200 a month out of her own pocket. Her rent for her mobile home space is $397 a month. She just got a bill for $597 in back utilities. She wants to move, but she’ll have to pay the bill before she can sell her home, and she’s not sure where it will come from.
“You can’t believe how stressful this is. I’m afraid I’m going to wind up in the hospital,” she added.
Even if they could pay, some residents say it’s a matter of principle.
“They can’t just spring a $500 bill on people. It’s their mistake. It’s just ridiculous,” said Allen Dufloth, a five-year resident of Emerald Meadows.
“I can’t pay it. Therefore I am not paying. They’ll have to take me to court,” said resident Brenda Favors.
Richard Waugh, a volunteer attorney with the Senior Legal Hotline, said he thinks that the park had no legal right to bill residents for the mistake made by management. He sent a letter on the residents’ behalf, saying he had examined the rental agreements and rules of the park and found that “No authorization is granted in any of them to charge residents amounts which the park failed to bill through its own negligence.” Waugh went on to write that the billing had “no basis in law or logic.”
More important, Waugh told the SN&R that the bills were just plain unfair. The impact on many of the residents whose physical and emotional health are already fragile could be “devastating.”
“It just seems terribly unfair to go after these seniors who are mostly very low-income. Many of them are scared to death that they are going to be evicted,” said Waugh.
Arrigotti said the management has no plans to evict any of the residents, but they insist on collecting.
“We’re not out to evict people. We will attempt all legal measures short of eviction. We just want to resolve this,” said Arrigotti.
Blasingame said residents have been trying to find a lawyer to take their case but so far have been unsuccessful in finding someone they can afford.
“Basically, if you’re poor you don’t have rights,” she said.