Mobile home park bill sees opposition; grant for autism facilities discussed in Senate committee

By: - April 12, 2023 5:03 pm

The Montana State Capitol photographed on March 13, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Rep. George Nikolakakos, R-Great Falls, said that a bill that would require mobile home park owners to give 60 days notice before taking action like increasing rent is “embarrassingly mild.”

Not everyone in the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee agreed with Nikolakakos’ assessment on Wednesday. A handful of mobile home park owners from across the state spoke in opposition to House Bill 889, saying it was imposing on the rights of private property owners.

“Bills that wage war on mobile home park owners discourage investors from building new parks, which is what we need,” said Nathan Grovom, the owner of three parks in Great Falls.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Karlen, D-Missoula, was one of several heard in committee on Wednesday, including a bill to provide $200,000 in grant funding for autism facilities in the state.

Nikolakakos, a proponent for the bill who said he is a mobile home park owner, said it was important to highlight the power imbalance between owners and tenants, who own their property but not the land underneath it. He said that a large investor likened it to owning a restaurant except all of your customers have a chain to the booth that they’re in.

“I found this to be true,” Nikolakakos said. “I realized I had a tremendous amount of power. I could charge rents that were aggressive. I can make changes that were quickly implemented. And really these folks had nowhere to go because they didn’t have five or ten thousand dollars to move a home — or maybe this home couldn’t move.”

Cindy Neuman, who said she lives in the Highwoods mobile home park in Great Falls, said lot rent went up drastically under new corporate owners, utilities were decoupled and maintenance worsened.

“They’ve built a highly profitable business model that relies on our limited mobility to squeeze large profits out of moderate-income residents,” Neuman said as a proponent. “We residents are suffering greatly and are reaching out in crisis.”

The property was purchased by Havenpark Communities, located in Utah, in 2019.

Opponent Kelly Grovom said that the Highwoods park was owned by someone who intentionally kept rates below market rate. She said that when new buyers take over, “if the rent rates are that low, they have to drastically raise the rent.”

Proponents included Sen. Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, Big Sky 55+ and Forward Montana. Opponents included the Montana Landlords Association, along with its Billings and Bozeman chapter presidents, and the Montana Association of Realtors.

John Sinrud with the Montana Landlords Association said the retaliatory action protections in the bill, which keep tenants from being targeted by landlords if they express intent to organize or are engaged politically on a retaliatory action, went too far.

He said under the bill, a landlord may not retaliate by increasing rent or decreasing services by altering or refusing to renew or alter the rental agreement.

“That is where your rent control is,” Sinrud said.

Karlen said in his closing that protection against retaliatory action is already in statute. He said landlords can charge market price or go “above and beyond.”

“We just ask that they give two months’ notice,” he said.

The committee did not immediately take action on the bill.

Grants for autism centers

Another bill heard in the same committee was House Bill 952, sponsored by Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell. The bill was the original brainchild of Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula.

The bill would provide $200,000 in one-time grant funds for autism facilities in the state. Morigeau proposed a similar bill in the Senate that was tabled in Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety before the deadline for non-fiscal bills.

During the hearing for that bill, Rich Janssen, father to a 28 year-old son with autism named Jake, testified that there were no group homes for his son in the state and he worried about what would happen to Jake when he passes away.

“We’ve replaced many doors, many toilets, fixed walls, spent thousands of dollars to keep our home safe and our life calm,” he said. “My wife has PTSD from past conflicts with our son because he can’t effectively communicate.”

Janssen was advocating to keep Jake in a home in Montana so he could be close to family, instead of sending him to an out-of-state facility. He testified he purchased land to build a facility in Montana and needed funds to help get it off the ground.

Morgieau said during the hearing for Sprunger’s bill on Wednesday that Janssen couldn’t make it to the hearing. He said Janssen’s son died last week.

“He’s not done with this effort,” Morigeau said, speaking from conversations he had with Janssen.

Morigeau said people with severe autism typically go to a facility in Mississippi, and that money from Montana will follow those living there.

He said the full $200,000 wouldn’t be going only to Janssen’s project; he also mentioned an autism facility in Great Falls.

Alluvion Health, a healthcare non-profit based in Great Falls, announced its mobile autism clinic last year and said it would likely be operational by 2024, as reported by ABC Montana.

Casey Schreiner, Vice President of Alluvion Health, as well as former legislator and lieutenant governor candidate, testified in support of Morigeau’s bill in February.

“Central Montana is a desert for these services,” he said.

He said Alluvion Heath bought the Roosevelt Elementary School building with the intent of making it an autism facility, but would need money for the remodel.

Schreiner said he spoke from personal experience, as he has two children on the autism spectrum. He said services for the region left.

A Great Falls Tribune investigation found there was a federal investigation into Alluvion Health’s Medicaid billing practices in 2021.

Schreiner recently announced he is running for mayor of Great Falls.

The committee did not immediately take action on Sprunger’s bill.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.