Montana landlords are fighting back against renter-friendly bills for RV sites

Two Republican-sponsored bills designed to help RV park residents weather Montana’s acute housing crisis met strong opposition from park owners, real estate agents and the Montana Landlords Association during their first hearings Monday morning.

House Bill 429, sponsored by Rep. George Nikolakakos, R-Great Falls, would require owners of mobile home parks with more than 50 units to give residents 60 days’ notice if they sell the property. It also requires owners to consider counter-offers if a residents’ association uses this time to organize the purchase of the park.

House Bill 428, sponsored by Rep. Mike Yakawich, R-Billings, would strengthen several renter protections for mobile home owners. It would require a two-year term for extending site leases, capping utility charges to actual utility charges, and extending deadlines for eviction procedures and disposal of abandoned mobile homes.

Nikolakakos and Yakawich told members of the House Judiciary Committee that mobile home renters deserve extra protection because they generally own the homes they live in but not the land below them, which means they are in a way clinging to their landlords , as other tenants are not. While mobile home units can theoretically be moved to a new location, in practice it’s costly — more than $10,000, Nikolakakos said — and in some cases impossible for older homes that aren’t in good condition to allow a move intact survive.

“In an apartment complex, you get angry with your landlord, you get a U-Haul, you load up your things and you go somewhere else,” Nikolakakos said. “Maybe it’s not that easy in our current rental market, but it’s an option. An RV park just isn’t like that.”

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Steve Skinner, who describes himself as a longtime mobile home owner, said the Legislature should look for other ways to address housing issues.

“I know there are times when it’s not fair. And that’s life,” he said.

Residents and affordable housing advocates across the state have raised alarms in recent years as trailer parks have been sold for redevelopment or to out-of-state owners who are charging residents with aggressive rent increases. Several residents who testified Monday said property rents at their parks increased by hundreds of dollars a month after the sale, causing some of their neighbors to lose their homes.

Carla Hill, who said she owns a home at Cherry Creek mobile home park in Billings, said she paid $285 a month to rent a lot before a company bought the park in 2020. After rent increases and additional water, sewer and garbage fees, she said her payout now averages $595 — more than double that.

“These big corporations are coming in, buying up RV parks and making what was once affordable unaffordable,” Hill said.

Nikolakakos said cooperative land ownership, often backed by nonprofit housing companies like NeighborWorks Montana, can provide an alternative that keeps mobile home ownership affordable over the long term. His bill, he said, is modeled after a law that has been on the books in New Hampshire for decades.

“If property taxpayers had faced the winds that RV dwellers have faced in recent years, people would be throwing tea in the ports now,” Nikolakakos said. “So it’s not right to just do nothing and look the other way.”

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Mobile home park owners responded that they believe the Notice of Sale Act interferes with their property rights by making it more difficult for them to sell their inventory. Some expressed concern that the bill would require them to share information with residents about a potential sale price, the name of the buyer and other contract terms.

“I don’t want tenants to understand my business,” said Sharon Lodge, who says she owns a small park near Belgrade.

Several park owners also scoffed at the notion that RV park tenants’ associations can successfully keep up with the maintenance and behavior of local police residents.

“These tenants are often unable to make the necessary repairs and clean up the parks with the bad tenants there,” said Dylan Osterhout, who said he runs real estate agents and manages RV parks in Helena.

According to NeighborWorks Montana, the state currently has 17 resident-owned cooperatives representing a total of 670 households. An existing law passed by the 2021 Legislature seeks to encourage sales to co-operatives by exempting park owners from paying state capital gains tax when selling to a resident association, non-profit, or local housing authority.

Park owners and landlords also pushed back on the Tenant Protection Act, saying its provisions would make it harder for them to evict problem tenants.

“What happens when you have drug dealers or other bad actors in a trailer park? How do you get rid of them?” said John Sinrud, President of the Montana Landlords Association.

Nathan Groven, who said he and his wife own three trailer parks in Great Falls, said under current law it already takes months for landlords to evict RV renters or get permission to dispose of an abandoned trailer.

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“Please remember that RV sites are private property. They’re not low-income government housing,” Groven said.

Opponents also argued longer lease terms would make it harder for them to pass property tax increases on to residents.

Noting that RV residents have often invested tens of thousands of dollars in their RVs, Nikolakakos countered that lawmakers should consider RV evictions a kind of “quasi-foreclosure.”

“A monthly rent? I ask the committee to ask themselves: Is it reasonable for someone to put a $50,000, $70,000, or $80,000 investment into something that cannot be moved without spending thousands of dollars on a 30-day contract? Is that reasonable? I don’t think that’s reasonable,” Nikolakakos said.

Both bills are now before the first votes in the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives. To become law, both must pass the House and Senate of Montana and then survive the governor’s veto.