Miller’s Woods/River Bend owner: Most rents will drop

  • Miller’s Woods/River Bend manufactured home park in Athol. FILE PHOTO

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 4/16/2021 2:41:53 PM
Modified: 4/16/2021 2:41:49 PM

ATHOL — A top executive of Hometown America, the owner of Miller’s Woods/River Bend manufactured home park in Athol, said the company’s efforts to comply with a ruling from the state’s highest court will actually translate into a rent reduction for most homeowners in the development.

Residents of the park were notified in late February that they would be seeing rent increases and they, along with town officials and state lawmakers, have been working to craft a response to the development.

Company co-CEO Stephen Braun told the Athol Daily News, “These changes that we’re talking about were triggered by the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling in the Blake case. We took careful consideration of all parties and developed a new rent structure we believe is both fair and equitable, as well as complying with the law.”

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled last November in the case of Blake vs. Hometown America — a class action lawsuit — that owners of manufactured home parks in Massachusetts could not charge different rents to different tenants living in the same park. The suit was brought by residents of Oak Hill Park in Attleboro.

“We’re very sensitive to many of the residents that an increase could be problematic for them, said Braun, “so we capped increases to $50. We have no desire to terminate any residencies and we hope everyone chooses to remain in the community.”

Braun said of the 141 homeowners in Miller’s Wood/River Bend, 45 will see a rent increase, while 94 will see rents decrease, with the monthly rent set at $550.

“That was a number we determined by pretty much going with the average rent in the community at the time that we had to comply with Blake,” he said, “bringing some people down and some people up.”

One of the main complaints expressed by residents at a meeting in March had to do with the sudden notice of the increases. Park homeowners received a mailing just prior to March 1 stating they needed to decide by April 1 whether they would either sign new leases or vacate the park.

An attorney for Hometown said the SJC decision failed to provide any guidance on how and when the goal of rent uniformity should be met.

“Hometown was really left to figure out for itself how to do that,” said Boston attorney Lisa Goodheart. “Among the considerations that factor into the timing are, on the one hand, what the law provides — which is that all the residents are entitled to 30 days’ notice. That’s what the law considers to be protective for tenants at will.

“The other consideration, frankly, was that since the SJC wasn’t specific, naturally there’s some pressure to make the changes that are determined to be reasonably made within a reasonable time. You can’t just not move forward with all deliberate speed, where you’re in a position to make the change and you’ve determined to make the change, you kind of need to get along with it.”

She then added, “I guess there’s really no good time to raise somebody’s rent. But again, this was a decrease for twice as many people than it was an increase for.”

Braun stressed that while rent over the next five years will be set at $550 a month, for those seeing an increase the monthly rate will jump no more than $50 per month per year until the $550 level has been reached.

“In some cases,” he explained, “it’s not $50 for everybody every month; it all depends on what their rent was compared to the $550. There are people out there for whom year one is $50 and year two is $25, for example.”

At a recent meeting of Athol’s Selectboard, Chair Rebecca Bialecki said that, in response to park residents’ concerns, consideration was being given to creating a rent control board with oversight of rents at Miller’s Wood/River Bend.

Asked for a response, Braun said, “Well, it depends, frankly, on what the rent control board decides. We operate 23 communities nationwide that are under rent control and rent control can work just fine.”

“When we go into a community and we buy it, we underwrite it, and if that’s what the rent control is, that’s fine for us. When things change after the fact, like Miller’s Woods/River Bend — in light of Blake — then it gets a little inequitable for both Hometown and the residents.

“I do want to say I think it’s really important that everyone have the facts straight before any decisions are made about how to move forward with rent control.”

Braun also stressed Hometown’s willingness to keep an open dialogue with town officials, Athol’s representatives in the Legislature, and residents of the Miller’s Wood/River Bend.

Hometown America, based in Chicago, was founded in 1997 and operates 74 developments nationwide, including seven in Massachusetts. Their properties are located in California and Arizona, and along the East Coast from Florida to Maine, excepting the Carolinas. According to Dun & Bradstreet, the company generated nearly $33.8 million in revenue in 2018.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com


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