Captive Lifestyle

Those who live in Arizona RV parks have little legal protection from landlords

So you've sweated through decades as a working stiff, and now you're ready to kick back and enjoy retirement. Soon, a bit of scouting reveals the seemingly perfect fit: You'll settle into a low-stress life at some bucolic RV park.

But this doesn't necessarily mean you'll be hunkered in a Winnebago; these days, RV parks are filled with what are appropriately called "park models." Although slightly smaller than a mobile home, they are otherwise nearly identical to their larger kin—particularly in the fact that they're no easier to relocate from one park to the next. Technically, they are considered RVs, although many have built-on sun porches and other permanent accouterments. Not surprisingly, moving such a structure can be an extensive project costing thousands of dollars.

Nonetheless, you now have your home, and you settle into Leisure Acres, thinking you're good for the long haul. But think again: It turns out that RV parks—even those with long-term and "permanent" models—have remarkable leeway to yank their residents around, with little in the law to stop them. They can double or triple your rent in a single shot—some RV parks in Phoenix reportedly charge up to $7,000 annually for a space—without any encumbrance. For elderly, fixed-income folks who might have lived in a park for years, paying to move their park models isn't much of an option.

That makes them captive to exploitation, says Ron Feinstein, president of an advocacy group called the Arizona Association of Manufactured Home and RV Owners, or AAMHO. "If you're living on rented land in a park setting, you're living at the whim of your park owner. Your life could be turned upside down because of a rent increase, or because the park turns to a different use. There are myriad reasons.

"When it works, it's a great lifestyle," he says. "When it doesn't work, it can be horrendous."

Discovering exactly how many of these parks are in Tucson is next to impossible, says Craig Gross, deputy director of the city's Development Services Department. "I went through the records, and I found seven or eight that actively advertise as having recreational-vehicle spaces. And typically, the vast majority will rent a space if it's available to someone with an RV if they want to stay several months." From a city-permit perspective, "we really don't have any problem with that," he says.

Instead, the problem arises from a vacuum in state law. Jean Creagan is AAMHO's legislative director. She says that many mom-and-pop parks are being bought up by national corporations who then force new leases upon tenants—even when the old leases are still valid. And fighting these vast, well-heeled companies is a Herculean chore. "They have so much money that they can keep dragging things on and on and on. In the process, the little 85-year-old woman or man gets lost in the shuffle or dies out."

Among the biggest national chains is Equity LifeStyle Properties, which owns several Tucson parks, including Fairview Manor at 3115 N. Fairview Ave.

Ruben Montalvo is a former AAMHO representative who says he fielded numerous Fairview Manor complaints during his time with the group. When ELS purchased the park about a year ago, Montalvo says, he warned residents that a new lease was coming. He requested a copy from park managers, but they initially refused.

When he finally received a copy, park residents were shocked by what they read. "For one thing, ELS is trying to get rid of mobile homes (which enjoy nominally more rights under state law) by raising their rates, and then bringing in park models," he says. "The new lease also requires that residents pay any attorney fees if there's a dispute, and that they go through an arbitrator rather than filing in court."

Calls seeking comment from Ryan Coslett, Equity LifeStyle's regional operations manager in Phoenix, were not returned.

According to Feinstein, there is also widespread misunderstanding among RV-park dwellers of what few rights they do have. For instance, "most people who live in these parks do not even know that there are laws covering them," he says. "Or they don't know what the laws are and how to access them. Then all of a sudden, when something comes up, they're out in left field."

Creagen lives in a park model, which is just shy of 400 square feet. She says RV-park dwellers such as herself can be evicted "with a 90-day notice and at no cost" to landlords. That's in contrast to mobile-home parks, which must pay hefty relocation fees if tenants are forced to move because of rent increases topping 10 percent from one lease to the next.

This requirement is detailed in Arizona's Mobile Home Parks Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, which guarantees at least some rights to mobile- and manufactured-home dwellers. "But folks living in park models like Jean Creagen fall under a different law," says Feinstein. "And that law gives them practically no protection at all."

Feinstein's group is working to toughen that anemic statute, known as the Recreational Vehicle Long-Term Rental Space Act. "But owners have dug in their heels," he says, "and won't agree any changes." He says the fact that a law-strengthening bill hasn't moved forward is a sign of the considerable clout enjoyed by Equity LifeStyle and other corporate owners.

As it stands, park owners can simply order someone to move without citing any reason whatsoever. By contrast, Arizona mobile-home law requires landlords to specify "reasons for the termination or nonrenewal of any tenancy in the mobile home park."

Many of the RV parks also mandate that rent payments be taken directly from residents' bank accounts. And if a renter wants to sell their home, the lease requires that they must first offer it to the park. "So if an owner of a park model wants to sell it to their child for $2, they can't," Feinstein says. "There are so many senior citizens who are unaware of these pitfalls."