GRANITE FALLS — After purchasing the Chippewa Terrace Mobile Home Park in Granite Falls in March, new owner Scott Kramer of Pennsylvania sent residents a letter telling them of a rent increase three days before it was due, along with news of “good changes coming to the Park.”
The changes included plans for summer barbecues and a Christmastime visit by Santa Claus to give gifts to their children.
A couple of weeks before Christmas, residents in the park are hoping instead for a visit by attorneys with the Minnesota Attorney General’s office. At a session with an attorney from Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid on the evening of Dec. 5, nearly two dozen residents, including owners of 16 of the 35 manufactured homes in the park, outlined a litany of complaints against the new landlord of the park on U.S. Highway 212 East.
Attorney Adam Fleischman, with Mid-Minnesota’s Willmar office, said staff will be discussing whether to bring the concerns to the attention of the Attorney General’s office. He also offered to meet individually with residents to discuss their individual issues.
The tenants’ concerns start with their distrust of Scott Kramer. They have learned that he was disbarred as an attorney by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In a July 30 decision, the court cited him for “ethical misconduct” against six clients that spanned six years. Some of the conduct represented “outright theft,” stated the state Supreme Court, with the most serious occurring against a man accused of ties to a Mexican drug cartel.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that Kramer had charged his client a “clearly excessive” retainer totaling $420,000 and accessed over $746,647.96 from the client’s court-mandated account. Kramer repaid the man a portion after a complaint was filed, but the court stated he had not repaid $507,900 to the man. The other five clients, one a disabled veteran, reported lesser monetary losses.
Kramer told the West Central Tribune in a recent telephone interview that the disbarment was “political in nature” and blamed it on “political corruption” in Pennsylvania. “I believe my case was fixed,” he said.
Chippewa Terrace residents Shannon Larson and Katie Polman went door to door in the park Nov. 30 to urge residents to attend the Dec. 5 meeting with Granite Falls city officials and the legal aid attorney in hopes of seeing change.
“Our main goal is just to make this a better place to live, to get the community rallied to our side, and to have houses that are safe to live in that are up to code,” Polman told the West Central Tribune in an interview.
They and residents at the meeting hope to form a residents' association.
Their concerns are many. They object to a mandate from the new owner forcing those who were leasing their mobile homes from the park to purchase them from him. Polman said she specifically told the park manager she wanted to lease her trailer when she moved into the park in May. Now, she said her monthly lease includes a $100 fee toward the purchase of the trailer.
“The thing is, a lot of us are low-income or on disability,” Polman told the West Central Tribune. “We don’t have the income to fix our trailers or maintain our own properties.”
Shannon Larson and William McGraw were among the trailer owners at the meeting who said they purchased their trailers due to Kramer’s mandate. They paid $1,800 for a 1970s-vintage unit. All of them told the legal aid attorney that they have not seen titles from Kramer for their purchase.
Fleischman said he is not sure whether Kramer can force residents to purchase trailers. He is also attempting to determine whether Kramer has a license and is bonded to sell trailers as required under Minnesota law. The new trailer owners said they do not know if there may be liens against the units.
Kramer denies forcing residents to purchase their trailers, but his letter in March stated that with the exception of Section 8-subsidized home, residents with park-owned homes will “automatically be purchasing their homes from the park.”
In the telephone interview with the West Central Tribune, Kramer said the vast majority of residents have chosen to purchase their trailers, with the exception of two tenants who continue to pay rent. “In the long run, I am making people homeowners instead of renters,’’ Kramer said.
Attorney Fleischman told residents at the Dec. 5 meeting that state law requires that the residents receive titles when they purchase their residence.
Kramer said the titles are held by former park owner Gary Dalager as collateral while Kramer is in the process of refinancing the mortgage on the property. He said residents who purchased their trailers have received bills of sale, and will receive the titles when released by Dalager.
Residents said they had been told that Kramer purchased the park on a contract for deed from its previous owner. Cathy Anderson, economic development director for Granite Falls, said state records show that Kramer purchased the property in a cash transaction for $730,000 from Dalager.
Park residents at the meeting charged that they are being harassed by Kramer with what many called “fake” threats of eviction when they speak up for their rights. Most nodded in agreement when one woman said they fear retaliation for speaking up about concerns over unmet maintenance needs.
Kramer said he is seeking to evict two residents he described as “rabble rousers. They haven’t paid their rent since September and I am evicting them,” he said.
William McGraw said he purchased his trailer, and yet afterward, Kramer sent a police officer to his door with a trespass notice. Shannon Larson said Kramer has accused her of being suicidal and giving drugs to someone. She and McGraw recently filed a civil claim for their security deposit held by Kramer.
Fleischman said Kramer cannot evict residents unless they violate any of eight specific legal requirements, such as not paying their rent or violating the law. And, Kramer cannot evict someone unless he obtains a judge’s order.
At the meeting, Jason Abel said he moved out of the park after the ownership change due to his belief that Kramer was not treating people as required by law. He said he and his wife have left the park, but have not received their original security deposit from Kramer despite their demands for it. They have not received a requested written itemization from Kramer as to what repairs the landlord told them were performed on their trailer, as the law requires, they stated.
Residents at the meeting charged that since taking over, Kramer has told residents they must pay a $50 monthly fee for water. Fleischman said he does not believe such a substantial change to existing leases is legal.
Kramer said that since the Dec. 5 meeting, he has modified the leases to make the water fee part of the rent. The $310 monthly rent plus $50 water fee has been changed to a lease fee of $360 per month. He said each unit will have separate water meters installed in the spring and water fees will be paid directly by the unit owners to the city.
Despite promises by Kramer to “spruce up the park,” residents said conditions in the park are deteriorating. They said the previous park manager, who began serving a prison sentence this month, had not responded to many of their requests for maintenance.
The landlord said he blames many of the maintenance issues raised by residents on the former manager. He said he fired him when he learned that the former manager was paying to have things fixed, “but he never did them.”
He has appointed a new manager, who told residents on Dec. 5 that she intends to resolve their maintenance issues one by one. Manager Danielle Lund acknowledged that the park is not in the shape it once was. “I like the trailer park and want to get to where it was before,” she said.
A local plumbing contractor and electrical contractor attended the residents' meeting to state their concerns about not being paid for services provided the park. They said a number of contractors and vendors in the community are owed money by the new owner.
Electrician Troy Fiegen has answered a number of calls to restore electric power to homes. He said it puts him in a difficult position when people call to restore power needed to run their furnaces. “I can’t afford to go to them because I’m not getting paid. I want to know where this is all going to go.”
Kramer said he has heard the concerns and said he has now sent payments to the contractors. He said his largest bill with a local hardware store was made by the former manager for a $4,000 lawn mower without Kramer's knowledge. Nonetheless, he said he is honoring the purchase and making monthly payments on it.
Resident Shannon Larson told the West Central Tribune she is fearful that Kramer is trying hard to evict her because she has spoken up. “We can’t afford to move anywhere else. He tries really hard to evict us,” she said. “It is very intimidating. We know our legal rights (and it) makes him more mad.”
Granite Falls City Council members attended the residents' meeting and expressed their concerns. One termed it "a real mess.”
“It’s a horrible situation you guys are in,” EDA Director Anderson said after hearing the residents concerns.
“Look, I’m not a bad guy,” Kramer told the West Central Tribune by phone. “I’m trying to make the park better and transition to tenant-owned (units). People have more pride in their community.”