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Crime of the Month: Predatory Landlords

A street view at Princeton Village

The Crime of the Month is greed, the kind of greed perpetrated by Westwind Enterprises, a private-equity firm. Located in San Jose, California, Westwind Enterprises is a predatory private-equity firm that buys trailer parks and RV parks in order to inflate lot rents, extract exorbitant profits, and effectively extort and displace long-term trailer park and RV residents, many of whom are senior citizens, veterans, families with children, and people with disabilities. Westwind Enterprises currently owns nineteen trailer parks and apartment complexes in four states: Arizona, California, Oklahoma, and Texas. Their holdings include Princeton Village in Princeton, Texas, a bedroom community of Dallas, which makes this a personal issue for me.   

In 1997, my parents bought a trailer and parked it at Princeton Village, which was then privately owned. Their rent was $150 per month for a 2,000 square-foot lot and included water and basic cable. After my parents finished building their dream house and moved into it, the trailer was occupied by my sister and her daughters, then my niece and her family, and later my sons, one of whom still lives in the trailer with his partner and my grandson. Princeton Village occupies thirty-seven acres and has 193 lots. Its grounds used to include a row of storage units that were transformed into flea market booths on the weekends. Many residents had booths at the flea market, where you could buy anything from tamales to used books to new mattresses.   

Google view of Princeton Village

Westwind Enterprises purchased Princeton Village in the early 2000s. The private-equity firm soon demolished the storage units and shut down the flea market, eliminated the amenities included in lot rent, and began to raise the rent on a regular basis. By March 2020, the lot rent was $525 per month. Westwind Enterprises is not required by law to maintain regular leases with residents, which serves the firm’s usurious interests. During the pandemic, Westwind Enterprises raised the lot rent at Princeton Village TWICE with only thirty days’ notice each time. On August 1, 2020, the lot rent increased from $525 per month to $575 per month. Eight months later, on April 1, 2021, the lot rent increased from $575 per month to $625 per month for a single lot.

Westwind Enterprises increased lot rent by 19% without explanation and minimal notice during the pandemic with no regard for residents, some of whom are on fixed incomes. Other residents have experienced joblessness and unemployment during the pandemic due to shutdowns and closures in the Dallas metroplex area. Many people in northeast Texas have experienced extreme housing and food insecurity, exacerbated by predatory firms like Westwind Enterprises. The Dallas Morning News reported that thousands poured into Fair Park during Thanksgiving, 2020, for the North Texas Food Bank’s largest distribution of food during the pandemic. The event provided for approximately 8,500 families, which goes to show how many people are in need in the area.

While it might not technically be illegal for Westwind Enterprises to jack up rents sky high during a global pandemic, it should be. The owner behind Westwind Enterprises is greedy. At $625 per month per 193 lots, the private-equity firm collects $1,449,816.00 per year at Princeton Village alone, almost a million-and-a-half a year. Princeton Village might occupy the most profitable thirty-seven acre spread in Texas since it generates perpetual profit. Since you can’t buy a lot, the rents will always keep rolling in. Lot rent does not include the rent or mortgage for the actual trailer, or utilities or upkeep of mobile homes.

Whatever the tax and maintenance costs are for Princeton Village as a whole, it’s safe to say that Westwind Enterprises is making a bundle at the expense of low-income residents. Investigative journalist Sheelah Kolhatkar reports that approximately twenty million people live in mobile homes in America, and that trailer parks now compose one of the largest sources of “nonsubsidized low-income housing in the country.” When low-income residents are priced out of trailer parks, housing insecurity and homelessness go up in America.

In spite of its marketing to the contrary, Westwind Enterprises does not care about the health and well-being of Princeton Village residents. Westwind Enterprises not only raised lot rents 19% in the last eight months, but they did so during shelter in place orders in Texas that located secure housing as the front line in the fight against Covid-19. Housing is necessary for social distancing, and for something as simple as washing your hands frequently. In the aftermath of the pandemic, the housing situation could become even worse for trailer park residents and renters across America in general. Widespread evictions or utility cut-offs may occur in the coming months, which could lead to further economic and social devastation.     

Proactive policy measures are needed, and journalists like Kolhatkar and John Oliver call on trailer park residents to form coalitions to state their rights and make reasonable demands of owners like Westwind Enterprise, and also of Texas legislators. For example, the Texas Tenants’ Union out of Dallas proposes a provision in the Property Code that requires at least ninety days’ written notice if the rent goes up by more than 5%. Mandatory annual leases would prevent the rent from increasing more than once in a twelve-month period.

Currently at Princeton Village, it’s only possible to acquire an initial six-month lease, and then lot rent is “month-by-month,” which means Westwind Enterprises can raise the rent any time the private-equity firm damn well pleases. Another suggestion is for legislation that mandates rent increases are not allowed to exceed the local inflation rate unless there is a legitimate reason. The mandate is not rent control, but rather is considered “rent justification” and would protect trailer park residents. In Texas, residents have the right to organize, including the right to door knock, leaflet, and to hold independent tenant meetings with neighbors on the property outside the presence of ownership and management. Some rights the residents of Princeton Village might demand from Westwind Enterprises include:

Annual leases that prevent rent from being raised more than once year.

Ninety-day notification of rent increases of 5% or more per year.

Rent increases should not exceed the local inflation rate, and perhaps like salaries, should be capped.           

Some residents might have other concerns, which could be the first focus of a coalition called tentatively, Voice for Princeton Village. I invite the residents to join together and organize to demand fair housing practices from Westwind Enterprises. Let’s get this rodeo started.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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