The owner and operator of a Sicklerville, New Jersey 55-and-over manufactured housing community faces a proposed class action that alleges residents were unlawfully threatened with evictions and subject to unreasonable rent increases in mid-March amid the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the 21-page complaint, defendants Hometown America, LLC; Hometown America Management, LLC; CWS Communities, LP; and ABC Corps. threatened evictions and raised rent at the start of the public health crisis while they withheld or eliminated “virtually all amenities and services” paid for by Shenandoah Village’s roughly 700 residents, the majority of whom were quarantined and isolated.
At the same time, Hometown, which owns and manages eight age-restricted communities in New Jersey, “abandoned many of its responsibilities as owner of the community,” including, for instance, by failing to enforce age and pet restrictions within Shenandoah Village and allowing infrastructure maintenance to fall by the wayside, the lawsuit alleges.
The case charges Hometown America’s actions amount to violations of public policy, an executive order issued by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, state consumer protection laws and the Gloucester Township municipal code.
In addition to declaratory relief and monetary damages, the plaintiff aims to secure an injunction to compel Hometown America to restore and provide all amenities and services that have been withheld or cut and declare May 2020 rent increases, as well as all threats and notices of eviction served by the company in advance of the rent increases, as invalid and void.
Shenandoah Village residents rent parcels of land from Hometown America on which manufactured homes sit, the complaint says. Per the suit, the community is governed by Hometown’s “Guidelines for Living” and subject to the Township of Gloucester’sManufactured Home Park Rent Stabilization ordinance.
According to the complaint, however, Hometown America’s business model is “largely based on the paradoxical classification” of manufactured homes as chattel, or a personal possession, rather than property. To that end, the lawsuit says that while families living in manufactured housing at Shenandoah Village are technically residential tenants given they pay rent to reside on land owned by another party, Hometown America generally does not lease the structures to residents.
HomeTown America instead leases the land under each tenant’s home, the suit reiterates.
As a result of this arrangement, Shenandoah Village residents are left in “a particularly vulnerable position” in that they’re subject to eviction under the traditional landlord-tenant arrangement but lack the protections afforded to homeowners facing foreclosure, according to the lawsuit.
“Thus, if evicted, a resident’s home—which contrary to traditional belief, is not truly mobile at all—is considered abandoned personal property and is padlocked and seized by the landlord,” the case reads.
Given the forgoing, Hometown America has wielded its leverage to “take advantage” of Shenandoah Village residents—many of whom are elderly and survive on fixed incomes—by unreasonably hiking up rent and periodically threatening evictions, the lawsuit claims.
The complaint relays that the New Jersey Legislature on March 19 signed into law A-3859, which, in conjunction with Governor Murphy’s Executive Order 106, established a moratorium on tenant evictions and foreclosures as the financial, medical and political impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic began to ripple throughout the state. Per the suit,Executive Order 106was crafted to explicitly shield manufactured housing communities such as Shenandoah Village by defining “residential property” as “any property rented or owned for residential purposes, including, but not limited to any house, building, mobile home or land in a mobile home park, or tenement leased for residential purposes. . .”
Despite the clear guidance of Executive Order 106, Hometown America, however, began what the lawsuit describes as its “annual community-wide eviction process” by serving to Shenandoah Village residents a “Notice to Quit,” which purported to end leases and require recipients to “move out from the property by April 30, 2020,” the suit says.
Further, the case adds the defendants’ “Notice to Quit” relayed that if the recipient did not accept a proposed rent increase, they must vacate the property and deliver possession of such to Hometown America.
“[The plaintiff], like all other recipients of the Notice to Quit, understood the forgoing provision to mean precisely what it said—that effective April 30, 2020, he was evicted from his home,” the case relays.
The suit goes on to allege Hometown America refused to correct issues with a January 2020 rent increase application, which was deemed “deficient and violative” of Shenandoah Village residents’ rights, submitted to the Gloucester Township Housing Authority.
With regard to the removal of amenities and services for which residents paid, the lawsuit claims Hometown America’s prohibition on all outdoor activities and amenities—including use of the exercise room, pool, ping pong and shuffleboard tables, library, card room, barbecue, putting green and other perks—since March 2020 is unlawful in that the defendant has apparently refused to budge despite the recent loosening of restrictions by Governor Murphy and the amounts paid in rent for use of the privileges:
“Even as restrictions were loosened by Governor Murphy for the State of New Jersey, in late June 2020 Hometown refused to accommodate a request to use the Shenandoah Village clubhouse for an indoor meeting that was proposed consistent with the then-allowable restrictions on indoor gatherings, pursuant to Executive Order 152.
The cost of these services and amenities is included in the monthly rent paid by the residents of Shenandoah Village. The monthly value these services and amenities is $100.”
Under Gloucester Township’s Municipal Code, residents are entitled to a rent reduction retroactive to March 2020 until the time when all services and amenities have been restored.
Lastly, the plaintiff alleges Hometown America has violated its own age-restriction guidelines by, for instance, allowing two young adults, approximately 30 to 35 years old, to live within the 55-and-over community.
“These violations of the Guidelines for Living have been brought to the attention of Hometown on several occasions, most recently by letter dated June 29, 2020,” the lawsuit says. “The July 8, 2020 letter response from Hometown falsely denied that any homes were in violation of the age restriction policy and did not indicate whether Hometown would take any enforcement action in response to residents’ complaints.”
The lawsuit looks to cover a class comprising all natural persons who are residents of Shenandoah Village and who received a Notice to Quit in March 2020 that is “substantially the same in form and content” to the PDF displayed below the lawsuit found at the bottom of this page.
ClassAction.org’s coverage of COVID-19 litigation can be found here and over on our Newswire.