After his girlfriend left and he had a nervous breakdown, quit his teaching job and stopped taking his medication, John the Depressed Guy lived in "the hatchback hotel."
For six months he slept in the back of his 1985 Honda Accord, making a home in RV lots, city parks, roadsides, wherever. He drank himself into a whiskey-flavored oblivion, stayed up for days, drove from city to city and teetered at the edge of no return.
"The only consistent thing I had in my life at that time was my dog," he says. "She was with me through it all."
John the Depressed Guy, which is the name he sometimes uses, is a fairly typical middle-class, blond, blue-eyed man from Wheat Ridge. He graduated from college, got a good job in Southern California, made decent money, had friends.
But he also suffers from a severe form of manic depression. As long as he keeps his stress to a minimum and takes his pills, he can work, pay the bills and get around like everyone else. If he doesn't, he wanders through a haze of mood swings, delusions and hopelessness.
"It's hard to explain," he says. "It can really get weird."
Three years ago, with the help of family and friends, he moved into Sheridan trailer park in northwest Denver. There, in a twenty-year-old trailer with a Winnie the Pooh rug in the living room and an assortment of doggy chew toys on the couch, he has made something of a stable life.
Not that Sheridan is perfect, he says. There's constant noise, dust and pollution from a nearby boulevard, highway intersection and shopping center. But it is more comfortable than his old Honda. And to be completely honest, his homely little trailer, which he owns, and the patch of ground he rents each month are the only things keeping him from sliding back onto the streets.
That's something most people probably don't realize, John the Depressed Guy says. Mobile-home parks are among the last refuges for the poor. Without them, hundreds of people would tumble headlong into the dirty and dangerous world of street corners, homeless shelters and low-rent motels where he also lived off and on for ten years.
"This really is the cut-off point," he says. "Here you have a door you can open up and walk into, a dining room where you can eat dinner and a place where you can stretch out your legs and watch TV. You don't have to think about storing food and getting dirt in your socks. This really is the last bastion for a lot of people. If we lose this, we lose the simple, basic physical comforts a civilized person takes for granted."
And, in their own way, mobile-home parks have a certain charm. Sheridan is its own little village of free spirits, eccentrics, oddballs and outcasts, complete with tidy-lawn contests, potluck dinners and chocolate-pie recipes in the monthly newsletter. There's the World War II vet who was shot in the head. The Mexican family who snuck across the Rio Grande on the backs of smugglers. The talkaholic with Ronald Reagan hair. The Southern woman who bristles at the mention of her Dixie roots. "I ain't from no South," she says. "I'm from Missouri."
"The people who live here are mostly retired and disabled," John the Depressed Guy says. "Some are poor just because of stupidity. We realize society looks down on us, so we stick together and keep each other's spirits up by saying things like 'There, there. You're a good person.' When you're a kid, no one says, 'When I grow up, I want to live in a trailer park.' But there are people here with tremendous hearts who have just fallen through the cracks. Fine characters. The kind only John Steinbeck could appreciate."
Last November, a tremor rumbled through that quirky little world. Sheridan tenants got a letter from management. The park, and some twelve others in Colorado, had just been bought by a company called Affordable Residential Communities. ARC, which also owns parks in Texas, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Idaho, Missouri, Kansas, Florida and Illinois, had a simple mission: "To have the best-run community in town."
But as tenants would soon find out, ARC's way of doing that was hiking the rents by as much as 30 percent and charging for sewage service and trash collection, which had until then been provided free.
To John the Depressed Guy, who lives off $800 in federal housing assistance and a part-time job, that hike translates into $60 per month, or a total monthly rent of $375. Add in sewer and trash service and he'll probably pay more than $400.
"People drive by here in their new cars and don't have any idea about this place," he says. "I wonder how they would react if their rent was raised by 30 percent. They wouldn't tolerate it. Not only would they get angry, but they'd have the skills and the resources to fight it and push it down. Here, we can't. We can't hire an attorney. We have to spend our money buying food."
Now tenants worry about having to leave, paying moving expenses and even selling their mobile homes. But since money is already tight and many trailers are older and weathered, tenants fear they'll have to walk away from the only investment they have.
"A lot of people, if they lose it here, will go live in their cars," John the Depressed Guy says. "After that, it's over."
So he decided to fight back. He wrote letters to park management, made many angry phone calls, talked to other tenants. "Why do rents have to be raised so high?" he wondered. "What will that money be used for?" But the more questions he asked, the more frustrated he became.
"I got hung up on," he says. "They wouldn't tell me who owned the company or where they came from. All they said was 'they.' 'Well, who's they? Can I speak to they?' 'No. I can't give out that information.' All I got were these general comments and letters with stuff like, 'We want to be the best community in Denver.' What kind of crap is that?"
Now, John the Depressed Guy, who won't use his real name in this story for fear of being evicted, doesn't consider himself a troublemaker, despite the satirical cartoons he fires off to newspapers from time to time. In fact, he's fairly open-minded in matters of commerce and profit. But he and his neighbors have been stonewalled, patronized and flat-out ignored.
"It's the humiliation factor," he says. "If they put a note on my door and said, 'Get out. I want to put up a shopping center here,' I'd be bummed out, but I'd understand. That's America. Everyone here would love to be able to exploit people and make a lot of money. But they're treating us like we're stupid and helpless. They wouldn't walk up to people in south Denver and say they're raising their rent 30 percent without telling them why. They're assuming we're idiots and that we won't fight back. And their grammar isn't even good."
At ARC, the official explanation is this: supply and demand. "Basically, it was a business decision," says Leonard Herman, the district manager. "We looked at where we need to be to operate a business, and what we had to do was elevate the rents to the fair market price to make us competitive with surrounding communities. The previous owner had them under market price. We had to take it to the fair market value."
Bonnie Geiger, executive director of the Colorado Manufactured Housing Association, agrees. "Space availability is practically zero," she says. "There haven't been any new [manufactured housing] communities built. I've been involved with this association for twenty years, and I don't know of any new ones in the metro area. If there is a scarcity, then top dollar can be charged for the product that you have. All housing costs have increased."
That might be true, says Sherry Armstrong, executive director of the American Mobile Home Association, a tenants'-rights group based in Conifer. But ARC has raised rents to the level of Denver's four-star parks, which offer swimming pools, clubhouses and amenities rarely seen at places like Sheridan.
"There are very low, if any, amenities at these parks," Armstrong says. "And they are not located in areas that are highly desirable. These are not top-notch parks."
Not only that, Armstrong says, but ARC has also bought a mobile-home dealership across from one of its parks on Federal Boulevard. Add in the rent hikes, and she smells a conflict of interest.
"They're encouraging and forcing people out with these rent increases so they can free up spaces and sell new homes," Armstrong says. "They're delighted to see people move out, because they need to have space to move people in. There's far more profit there than just renting space. They're creating a market so they can sell new homes."
Not so, says Herman. The sales lot is perfectly legal, as are the rent hikes, which may or may not be used to upgrade the parks. Officials haven't decided.
"We have not asked anyone to leave," Herman says. "I know there have been some people who have said that, but I think this is just an unpleasant thing for them to go through. As long as they abide by the rules and regulations of the community, they won't be asked to leave."
Armstrong isn't buying it. She's seen this pattern before. Big companies all over the country have gobbled up small mobile-home parks, hiked the rents and counted the dividends.
"Obviously, in a business, there needs to be return," she says. "But they're sucking money out of these places. I realize they don't take an oath when they buy these parks to take care of these people, but dang, I'm afraid a few of these folks will be homeless now or go onto what little is left of the welfare system."
In Colorado, there's only one way to stop the trend, Armstrong says: "We need some kind of reasonable regulation of rent increases. Low-income people and seniors are just screaming their heads off. The cost of housing is going up and up and for folks on the bottom of the totem pole. There's very little they can do."
Unfortunately for park tenants, such regulations are not likely to happen anytime soon, Armstrong says. Although her group will continue to fight for tenants' rights, "rent control is a sacred cow here," she says. "We're never going to get it."
And so, this month, the rents will rise at Sheridan and the other parks, ARC stockholders will count their profits, and John the Depressed Guy and his neighbors will move one step closer to the streets.
"We've discussed our options," he says. "We've concluded that we have no options. We have to live on faith. The people who are doing this should be identified and held accountable. They're going around taking advantage of people on one of the lowest levels of society. Morally, they can't justify that. They're just 100 percent greedy bastards.
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