Retiree turned activist shows you can make a difference
Like many others before her, Bobbie Hemmerich retired here to enjoy the Cape Region’s chief attraction.
“I came down here with the idea of being able to walk the beach,” said Hemmerich, a lifetime “Jersey girl” who moved to Lewes in 2000. “New millennium, new life, new state - high hopes.”
It didn’t turn out that way.
“Both my knees went bad. I had double knee replacement and then I had complications,” Hemmerich said. “So I still can’t walk the beach.”
In some ways, her retirement plans didn’t work out any better than her knees. Instead of peacefully enjoying life, Hemmerich became an activist, with her main issue being the rights of manufactured home owners.
That’s a particularly important cause in Sussex County. Statewide, Delaware’s housing stock is about 10 percent manufactured housing. In Sussex, according to a 2008 study by the Delaware State Housing Authority, that percentage rises to about 25 percent.
Here’s another factor. According to that same study, about 57 percent of those manufactured home owners don’t own the land beneath their houses. They lease it, which makes them vulnerable to rapidly rising rent increases.
Before we go further, let’s clear up a common misconception about what are sometimes called “mobile homes.” They aren’t mobile. Not most of them.
Historically, yes. “The older ones were brought in on wheels and put on cinder blocks,” said Hemmerich. “But the newer ones, most of them, are being put on foundations.”
And, effectively, many of the older ones can’t be moved either. “Mine is a prime example,” said Hemmerich, whose home was built in 1976. “It has a stick-built addition … It has a deck. And if you tried to pull it out, it would probably fall to pieces.”
It gets worse. Even if it could be moved, there’s no place to go. “Any community that has open spaces will not accept anything older than five years old,” Hemmerich said. “And some of them now are saying only new. So where are you going to take it?”
Hemmerich bought her home, as she recounted in a 2004 letter to the Cape Gazette, because the neighborhood was clean, quiet, private, east of Route 1, and “it was affordable.”
But, like many others, she bought without being fully aware of the risks.
Despite being represented by an attorney, she was unable to get a copy of the lease. There was always some excuse. The fax machine was down, the computer was down, it was in the mail, etc.
“We didn’t get to see our lease until an hour before closing,” she said. “It was 27 pages … You can’t even read it. You kind of look through it … You’re stuck.”
Still, things seemed OK at first. Once-a-year rent increases were limited to 5 percent, and the monthly fee included water, lawn maintenance, trash collection and snow removal.
In 2003, everything changed. The company that owns her park, which now goes by the name Equity LifeStyle Properties, went to court to end the rent caps and won. Later, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
Manufactured home parks could still raise rents only once a year, but the limits were removed. On Nov. 1, 2003, Hemmerich received a letter from the company: In two months, her rent would jump from $275 a month to $320 - 16 percent. For a woman surviving on Social Security checks, that was a life-changing amount. (There were also hidden rent increases. Water usage, once part of the package, was removed, she said, and now has to be paid separately.)
And that’s when mild-mannered-retiree-turned-activist Bobbie Hemmerich first started work on a rent justification bill. This past session, 10 years later, the General Assembly finally passed Senate Bill 33, which was signed by Gov. Jack Markell June 30.
It wasn’t just Hemmerich by herself, of course, but she played an important role. According to Mitch Crane, chair of the Delaware Manufactured Home Relocation Authority, “Bobbie is one of the unsung heroes. Her efforts and tenacity, along with that of so many manufactured home owners, resulted in the rent justification law being passed after many previous attempts failed.”
According to the bill, rent increases are tied to the three-year average of the Consumer Price Index for all Urban Consumers. Park owners who want to raise rents more than that average must go through mediation and non-binding arbitration, appealable to Superior Court.
The bill doesn’t accomplish everything Hemmerich wanted, but it’s a start. A future column will discuss the legislative priorities of the Land Lease Homeowners Coalition, of which Hemmerich is a board member.