The Seattle owner of a Mattawa trailer park is accused of coercing tenants to sign sham purchase contracts so he would not have to fix doors that blew open if not tied shut and plumbing left unusable for days.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a complaint Tuesday against Gary Chavers, claiming he tried to evade city health and safety inspections so he would not have to pay for repairs. He announced the action during a visit to the Tri-Cities.
The staff of Chavers’ attorney, Christopher Ries of Moses Lake, said he had no comment on behalf of his client.
Chavers, a resident of Seattle’s Green Lake, has owned and operated the 54-unit Sun and Sand mobile home park as a rental property since 1991, according to the AG’s office. Most of the residents are low-income farmworkers who speak Spanish.
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“As landlord, Chavers took advantage of a vulnerable population and devised a scheme to evade legal and financial responsibilities on the backs of his tenants,” Ferguson said. “Mr. Chavers preyed upon them.”
The city of Mattawa passed an ordinance requiring all rental properties to pass health and safety inspections after a fire in a rental duplex not far from Sun and Sand killed a mother and her two children in 2009.
The ordinance requires plumbing and sanitation problems to be fixed, along with holes or structural issues that expose tenants to the elements. Wiring has to be in good condition, and heating and ventilation systems have to be working and not hazardous.
The Sun and Sand mobile homes were never given the health and safety inspections required by the city to protect the health and safety of tenants, the attorney general said.
Less than two months after Chavers was notified by the city of its new safety ordinance, his attorney told the city that Chavers had sold his mobile homes to his tenants and no longer was required to comply with rental ordinances, Ferguson said.
The manager of the park, under Chavers’ direction, told tenants they had to sign sales contracts for the mobile homes they were renting or leave, Ferguson said. But the manager also told them that they were not really buying the homes, just continuing to rent them.
The manager assured them the contracts were not a legal document and that they could move out anytime they wanted, as if they were renting, Ferguson said. The manager talked to residents in Spanish, but the contracts were written in English and residents had no time to review the documents, according to the allegations.
Almost all of the tenants signed the contracts. Housing is in short supply in Mattawa, the attorney general said.
Tenants continued to make the same monthly payment as they had before for rent but allegedly for a 30-year sales contract. When they moved out, they got their security deposits back and were not allowed to take the homes to new locations, Ferguson said.
Most residents did not know they were receiving a loan from Chavers, and the mobile homes were overvalued, said Patricio Marquez, an assistant attorney general. Some mobile homes Chavers bought for $3,000 to $4,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but were valued at $70,000 in the sham sales contracts, Marquez said.
“At the end of the day, these folks were still renting,” Ferguson said. “Everything about his behavior, about their behavior as tenants, once they moved out how he handled it, indicated these were still being rented ... for the sole purpose of evading the housing ordinance.”
The dilapidated trailer park has leaking window sills that cause rot, water damage on walls, holes in the floor and infestations of cockroaches and bedbugs, the attorney general said. In one unit, a roof caved in and a pile of debris and the hole in the roof were not repaired for over a month, according to court documents.
Ferguson filed the case in Grant County Superior Court, claiming violations of the state Consumer Protection Act.
He has asked the court to declare that the sales were a sham and to require Chavers to repair mobile homes and in the future comply with health and safety laws.
“One of my primary goals is getting those units into the condition the city expected — safe, habitable conditions that one would reasonably expect from a rental. They are not there right now,” Ferguson said.
The state is seeking civil penalties for up to $2,000 per violation of the Consumer Protection Act.
There were at least 70 contracts signed by original and new tenants, said Jennifer Steele, an assistant attorney general. Costs, fees and additional penalties also could be collected.
Columbia Legal Services received the complaints from tenants and notified the attorney general.