Blue Ridge Tenant Union organizer SNR provides an update on the situation for working families at Massies Mobile Home Park since reporting from their previous article “Wall Street Becomes New Slumlord in Southwest Virginia”

When I last wrote about the eviction happening at Massie’s Mobile Home Park, it was October of 2022. The majority of the residents had been given notices to pay or quit that were left on their porch, sometimes to be blown away into their yards, sometimes to be caught under the wheels of a small bike.

Many residents left in the middle of the night to evade the high bill that they never even really owed, leaving behind mattresses and children’s toys. The effect that the change of ownership had on this park looked and felt apocalyptic.

I had canvassed the entire park twice— first to alert residents that their new owner was Thomas Del Bosco, an executive of Smith Management and of Alden Global Capital— information that was hidden from the public and only available on a private database of real estate sales.

The second time, I canvassed to bring all tenants into a meeting with Southwest Virginia Legal Aid (SWLA), so SWLA could intake as many qualifying residents as possible for free legal representation.

Then, on November 15th of 2022, on a snow day when all the schools were closed and the children were home, the water was suddenly shut off across the park over an unpaid bill totaling more than $14,000.

Fortunately, all notices to pay or quit and all potential evictions suddenly stopped.

Tenants were instead given a notice at the end of November saying that they were now responsible for paying the water bill themselves at a pro-rata amount that collectively would cover the entire park’s bill.

With the old owner, they would have their water meters read and be charged accordingly, but now they were responsible for the same amount equally.

Water notice originally sent to tenants at Massie’s the week after the water shutoff

But because of the October threats of evictions, and all the families who left out of fear, many trailers were sitting empty and unwinterized while our valley was hit with a historic cold snap that December, which burst the pipes of the unoccupied trailers.

The water flowed freely for at least five days, and the park manager, Rachel Muse, had stopped picking up the phone or opening her office to tenants. Residents watched the water they would be paying for gush in small streams under trailers, pooling by the roadside.

The water pressure dropped so much, their washing machines and toilets stopped working, and some of their kids started coming to school a little bit stinky. Eventually, the bill came. It was $100 higher than it used to be and included a new, extra-insulting $5 administrative fee.

Later, I walked the park again and watched a vulture gobble a turd that flowed up from the open lid of a backed-up sewage pipe next to the park’s picnic area and basketball court. The vulture fought other vultures over the turd and then flew away.

An older tenant with leukemia told me he had found it while he was mowing, which he was doing for free because the park managers are negligent. I called the Health Department, they threw some lime down, and then they said anything else would have to be done by the park managers, because it was the owner’s responsibility and not the county’s.

Open sewage– toilet paper and turds. Photo by James Glass.

There has been a profuse and continuous deterioration of the park and its homes since the park changed ownership to Tom Del Bosco and Homes of America, which is a shell corporation for Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund managed by the executives of a firm run by billionaire Randall Smith, called Smith Management LLC.

The wealth of the executives of these companies is in no way “trickling down” to their tenants in Southwest Virginia. In one home I entered, a mother with one leg showed me a hole in her kitchen floor. Her son lifted a fluffy kitten with a little bell collar to let me see. The mother told me, “It’s the first fluffy kitten we’ve gotten.” It has huge eyes, like a cartoon. “It came up through the hole in the floorboards,” she added.

Hole in the kitchen floor, and the mama cat.

The park is full of feral cats. They eat the trash and burrow into the insulation of the trailers to stay warm. I found cat feces in another child’s bedroom of a family that doesn’t have cats, but they too have holes in their floor.

Photo of cat poop in a child’s bedroom. Photo by James Glass.

I have learned that the holes are because trailers manufactured before new HUD regulations were introduced in 2000 were all made with composite board instead of wood for flooring. The ersatz, woodish material turns to mush when it gets wet, like cardboard.

As trailers age and weather, their walls expand and contract, and rainwater creeps in down the paneling and opens up the floor to the cold earth below. It’s dangerous, unsanitary, and makes these places impossible to heat. Families will oftentimes sleep together in one room for warmth, and their heating bills are high. Families often also use propane heat on top of their electric heaters just so they don’t freeze. I know it has been a long winter for them.

In January, Legal Aid brought a case with 13 tenants against the landlord, accusing them of de facto shutting the water off on people they were trying to evict, which is illegal in Virginia. Alden was represented by Grimes Creasy, a Roanoke lawyer whose son got out of serving any jail time after raping a woman at a fraternity party at Ole Miss.

In attendance on the Alden side was also Deondre Singleton, another Duke University football player who— like Byron Fields— had been hired to be the public face of Alden’s shell company, Homes of America.

Heath Freeman, Alden’s president, was on the Duke football team (though he never played in any games) and both Singleton and Fields had been interns at Alden during their undergraduate time at Duke.

Singleton was hired in 2022, and before that, he worked for McGraw Hill— the school online curriculum company that pumped out the expensive and controversial program, StudySync, that’s being used in our county for English classes. It’s a small world insofar as how a few of the same people have found new and horrible ways to profit off of the pandemic in this county.

Deondre Singleton on the left, Byron Fields on the right in 2016. Photo by Wayne Bumpass/Blue Devil Lair.

We learned at the hearing that the head of the Christiansburg Public Service Authority had gone out of his way to call Homes of America to try to get them to pay the water bill because he didn’t want the families at Massie’s to go without water, but the executives still didn’t pay the bill until a week later, four or five hours after the water had been shut off.

The bill was paid by Mikhail Greenberg of Smith Management. The court sided with Alden, but the Legal Aid lawyers appealed the case. The next court date is March 10th.

I visited West Virginia to meet with a tenant from another park Homes of America/Alden/Smith had bought in Mercer County. She was a single mom taking care of an autistic son.

At the trial, we watched hours of testimonies and footage of the problems at the five parks Alden has bought there, and they all had the same problems as Massie’s— water flowing under trailers, mold on the walls, open sewage, absentee managers, sudden eviction notices over inaccurate bills— except they had received a $200 rent hike right around Christmas. The landlord has issued at least 75 evictions since then. That day, the tenants’ pleas for justice fell on the deaf ears of the judge.

Tenants at their case against Homes of America in Princeton, West Virginia.

“You want this to become a class action lawsuit?” the judge asked the tenants’ lawyers, and then gestured over to the corner of his chamber, which was stacked high with dozens of thick, black and white binders. “That all is from the opioid class action I just dealt with. Do you really want to do all that?” the judge asked.

Later in the trial, he said, “I love capitalism… I love being able to go into the grocery store and select one can of shaving cream out of a choice of dozens.” Then he added, “But one day we are all going to have to dance with what we’ve done.”

Ultimately, he sided with Alden’s lawyers and granted Homes of America the right to apply for environmental permits they were supposed to have gotten a year ago, so they could continue collecting rent they never should have been able to collect in the first place, as they operated an unpermitted park in horrific conditions. I drove back to Virginia in disbelief.

The mother I had met that day recently told me she had finally gotten an eviction notice, too. I asked her if she had any place to go, and she said no. She owned her trailer and had thought she was set for life.

Home prices have risen by 40% since the start of the pandemic. This shuts many working families out of the home buying market, depriving them of one of the main ways working class Americans have historically been able to build wealth.

During this time, corporations made record profits and many took in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans they will never have to repay, including Alden’s parent company, Smith Management. Some of this wealth and loan money was invariably used by corporate landlords to buy more rental properties, including trailer parks across the US.

The vast majority of all rental properties are owned by individuals, but corporate landlords are increasingly getting a bigger part of this American pie. They saw the pandemic as an opportunity— like the crash in 2009– to go into working class neighborhoods, buy up properties, and raise the rents.

The effects of this practice on American families is the complete devastation I’ve described. More US households are renting than at any point in the last fifty years. Landlords have a captive market, who they can toy with as a floor-hole cat does a trapped mouse.

Hedge funds make large real estate investments to turn a profit during inflation. Meanwhile, if corporate landlords buy lower income housing, evict residents, and refuse to accept new tenants (like they’re doing at Massie’s), they artificially reduce the housing supply and drive up the price for the other housing options that they are also building and renting out.

All the while, they can show their shareholders a sudden increase in dividends by hiking rents, liquidating their management offices, and cutting amenities for tenants all at once– just as Homes of America has done.

Foisting the water bill onto tenants is just one example. After the water notice was sent to Massie’s, an identical water notice was then sent to all of Homes of America parks— to my friend in West Virginia, to families in Shreveport, Louisiana, and to tenants in Minot, North Dakota.

But the bill was first sent to Massie’s because the landlord was caught knowingly letting the water get shut off on tenants they were evicting– which is against the law. Homes of America is now unable to evict any of the tenants who were affected by the water shutoff, because it would make the case against them worse. There have been no evictions at Massie’s in seven months.

Homes of America does not want what happened at Massie’s to happen at their other parks– they want the freedom to continue mass evicting residents of the parks they control– so they are making all tenants directly responsible for the payment of the water bills.

At the court case in WV, Alden’s lawyers revealed that Homes of America operates in twenty states. It’s hard to find what parks they own because they don’t have a website and they incorporate all the parks as individual LLCs to dodge scrutiny. But I would hazard a guess that the issues at Massie’s are occurring across all the other parks operated by Homes of America. Tenants are at a loss of how to fight back against the unfair billing.

One tenant at Massie’s confronted the park manager, Rachel Muse, over the water bill only to be yelled at and told by the manager that she didn’t make the bills, Homes of America did. The Virginia Worker published the audio recording of that interaction here.

Managers like Muse have barely any involvement in maintaining the park, and they have very little power within Homes of America. At the WV court case, the WV park manager, Xenia Cunningham, could not accurately guess how many trailers were in her parks or where the park owner, Byron Fields, even lived. Cunningham lived in the park and had just found the job on LinkedIn. Her previous work experience was selling cookies. You have to wonder what the managers are doing all day while the park around them falls apart.

These women managing the parks are profiting off of what’s going on, but not nearly as much as the Duke football players who are being used as happy human shields to man the shell companies created by the real profiteers— the executives at Smith Management and Alden Global Capital, like Tom Del Bosco. One day, all of them are going to— as the judge said— have to dance with what they have done.

Mountain State Justice has now filed a class action lawsuit in West Virginia, which you can see here. The single mom I mentioned earlier is a plaintiff in it. If they win, there could be a legal rent strike against Homes of America in Princeton. 

In Virginia, rent strikes are illegal, Legal Aid isn’t allowed to handle class action lawsuits, and tenant assertions are handled on an individual level and can’t be issued jointly.

Our Attorney General will not even deal with landlord disputes, and all bills this season to help tenants have died before passing through our General Assembly with the help of the Virginia Apartment Management Association– the state landlord syndicate which lobbies for pro-landlord laws. Much like labor law in Virginia, the system here seems basically designed to prevent collective action against the atrocities each of these tenants face.

I think Rachel Muse called the cops on me once while I was in Massie’s. I had seen her finally, and she had seen me, and then fifteen minutes later I saw a police car rounding the corner. I ducked behind the tenant I was talking to.

“Is all this illegal?” the tenant asked me. She was holding the flier for the meeting I was trying to set up with Legal Aid.

I told her the whole park was private property, and I could be kicked off at any time. She never ended up coming to the meeting, and now her trailer is empty.

I stopped working at the elementary school near the trailer park because I got a teaching job at a high school. I’m reading Of Mice and Men with my students, and I’m asking them to also read Steinbeck’s nonfiction essays he wrote for a newspaper about the living conditions of migrant laborers.

In the 4th part of “Harvest Gypsies,” Steinbeck details how the Farm Security Administration set up a permanent camp for migrant workers so they wouldn’t have to be homeless anymore.

The workers had their own committees with elected leadership that handled maintenance and social events, and there was also a welcoming committee, which greeted new families and onboarded them into their community by getting them cleaned up and fed.

In these camps, the tenants built community gardens, public nurseries, a library, a community hall, a post office, a barber shop, toilets and showering facilities, a playground, and kitchens. They also built churches, because, after all, living on shared property, helping neighbors in need, and holding resources in common was the basis of early Christianity for the first few hundred years of the religion.

The creation of free community housing really turned the lives around for the financially destitute families who had lost their farms due to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Child of a migrant laborer at the Arvin Federal Government Campground, which was staffed by a WPA librarian. Photo by Dorothy Lange, in the Library of Congress

There is nothing barring our state or federal government from buying up these trailer parks and transforming them into real communities where families can grow and prosper. Lives would be transformed if we gave tenants democratic participation in the management of their housing.

Children would be healthier if we gave them homes that weren’t making them sick. And if we let families live for free in exchange for volunteering a couple hours of their labor on a committee, these families could save money and stop having to live with the enormous fear of financial precarity.

It’s a solution for working class families in Virginia that would help them through the hard times that the great wealth transfer and economic crisis that the pandemic created. It’s not a pie in the sky and it’s not communism— Steinbeck shows us that it’s a part of our history, as American as it gets.

In order to achieve this dream, we need a political force capable of forcing the state to make large concessions, like public housing for the working class. Back in the 1930s, the CPUSA and other socialist groups had unemployed councils, tenant councils, and labor unions taking mass action to force the state to address mass unemployment.

Today, the paltry housing bills introduced by the Democrats are swiftly overpowered by the landlord associations, and our working class remains dispossessed and fragmented without the necessary labor unions, tenant unions, and worker parties needed to push back against the unceasing class warfare of the ultrarich.

We need to build up powerful organizations of workers, so that we are capable of making demands that must be met: Give the working class safe housing. Give us walls that are dry and floors that don’t crumble. Give us libraries to learn in. Give our children playgrounds to grow strong in. Build kitchens so we can feed each other, and give us halls we can dance and sing in. Give us nurseries so our babies can learn and be loved.

Give us back our neighborhoods.

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