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Lawsuit alleges mobile home park owner violated Bloomington tenants' rights

A sign for Hilltop Homes mobile park with a phone number. Mobile homes can be seen in the background.
Emily Bollinger
/
WGLT
Oak Wood Properties — a Texas-based mobile home park owner with five properties in the area — allegedly violated the rights of two tenants in Hilltop Mobil Home Park in Bloomington.

Two Bloomington mobile home residents are alleging the Texas-based company that bought the mobile home park they rent land from last year is violating their rights, according to legal documents filed in McLean County.

Oak Wood Properties — which lists itself as the owner of five mobile home parks in Bloomington-Normal — issued new lease agreements and rent increases mid-lease term at Hilltop Mobile Home Park where Stephen Evans lives with his partner Rose McWhorter.

Attorney Erin Duncan with Prairie State Legal Services [PSLS] filed the lawsuit June 13 on Evans and McWhorter’s behalf.

“The crux of our complaint is that this out-of-state company has come into our community and bought up a number of mobile home parks in the area, and thereafter tendered these rent increases and new proposed leases that are not compliant with Illinois law,” Duncan said, adding that Evans and McWhorter are not the only people who've come forward with complaints against Oak Wood. They're just the only ones who've filed a lawsuit in court.

Duncan said Oak Wood has been demanding all tenants sign new leases and addendums that include language that opposes the Illinois Mobile Home Landlord and Tenant Rights Act [MHLTRA]. This includes an alleged illegal conversion of long-term leases, and shortening the time lengths required for notices of eviction.

“There's an implication that they have to sign those or they may be evicted, and that's just not true,” Duncan said. “The [MHLRTA] says that mobile home tenants in particular have the right to stay on the leasing terms that they initially leased upon.”

That would include the lease Evans signed 10 years ago when he started renting at Hilltop.

Duncan contends Oak Wood also violated the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act in crafting leases that unjustly deny tenant rights and rely on a tenant's likely inability to understand the laws protecting them. For example, she said most people wouldn't know the terms Oak Wood created that violate state law are void.

“They're going to be relying on those leasing terms that their park owner put in front of them,” Duncan explained.

On top of the updated lease, Oak Wood started charging Evans and McWhorter $88 more in rent before their previous lease ended, according to court documents. Additional proposed fees have been added to the couple's bill as well, she said.

In Evans' affidavit, he said this is even though they did not agree to the new lease.

He added that some of the new rules, including an "inhabitant" policy, are "very distressing." In this case, because there's no clear language differentiating a guest from an inhabitant. Evans said McWhorter's daughter often stays with the couple because both are disabled. He can't afford to be charged $300 because Oak Wood decides she's considered an "inhabitant."

"(I)t would be devastating to my monthly finances," Evans wrote in his affidavit.

The primary goal of the lawsuit, Duncan said, is to make Oak Wood stop this practice. She added there are other provisions included in the complaint, including potential compensation for Evans and McWhorter.

In civil lawsuits, a judge would decide any award amounts.

Duncan said she hopes to get Oak Wood to change its lease language and make rent increases compliant with the law before it gets to that point, but PSLS is prepared to litigate if not.

Oak Wood did not respond to WGLT's request for comment.

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.