Cherry Hill mobile home owners continue rate fight

Pat DiGiacomo at her home in the Farrell Place mobile home park in Cherry Hill. She says she cut back on gas and food because of the higher rent on her lot space.
Pat DiGiacomo at her home in the Farrell Place mobile home park in Cherry Hill. She says she cut back on gas and food because of the higher rent on her lot space. (ANDREW RENNEISEN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 08, 2013

Sewage used to spew onto the road and back up into bathtubs at Farrell Place, a 30-lot mobile-home park tucked behind the Holiday Inn on Route 70 in Cherry Hill.

The property owner, Stuart Wainberg, fixed the pipes. The battle began when he asked tenants at the rent-controlled park to pay for them.

"I need a new heater. Do I submit the bill to him?" said tenant Dan McKenna. "Because everything he wants to do, he sends me the bill."

McKenna and other residents had declared victory last year when the township's rent review board denied Wainberg's request for an increase of $21.21 a month for 15 years - agreeing with tenants that utilities were the landlord's responsibility, not theirs.

But Wainberg went to court - a step tenants initially didn't know he had taken.

They were stunned when they received a letter with notice that their rent would go up as of June 1 - $16.79 a month for 25 years, per a judge's order.

In a brief order dated May 21, Superior Court Judge Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina did not explain his reasoning for the decision, saying only that the court had heard the arguments from Wainberg's lawyer and lawyers for the township, who had "acknowledged that the matter could be handled in a summary fashion."

"I didn't know you had to be a lawyer to live in a mobile-home park," said McKenna, 52, a bookkeeper for a fabric distributor.

Residents recently formed a tenant association and consulted a lawyer, but could not afford the help, said McKenna, the association's president.

McKenna said the lawyer suggested that tenants "let the township handle it" - adding to their surprise when a Camden County judge reversed the earlier township denial.

"We're just tired of being walked all over," McKenna said.

Residents own their homes but pay monthly lot rents ranging from $340 to $650 at the park, one of two mobile-home parks and 10 apartment buildings in Cherry Hill with rent control.

In 2010, they saw their rents go up by $24.66 a month - an increase granted by the township rent review board after Wainberg repaired water lines at the park, which he bought in 2006.

Like the sewer pipes, the water lines were leaking and needed repair, McKenna said.

But he and other tenants argue that Wainberg - a lawyer with a realty group in South Orange, N.J. - should bear the cost.

"The way I see it, he should have checked the water and sewer when he bought it," said Pat DiGiacomo, 71.

DiGiacomo, who lives with her husband and relies on Social Security for income, said she had cut back on gas and food because of the higher rents.

"It's not just us struggling to make ends meet," DiGiacomo said.

Wainberg said the rent review board had told him to make the water and sewer repairs, and he had only sought increases entitled to him by law.

After the board denied his application last year, Wainberg said, he was forced to go to court "because of the travesty that was done to me."

He said it was a "joke" that tenants were complaining about the rent increases.

"They don't even understand the gift that's been given to them by being where they are," Wainberg said.

"The reason why they live there is, they're not sophisticated, successful, type-A people," he said. "These people would love to live in the Taj Mahal for nothing, but that's not the way the world works."

Wainberg said he bought the park in 2006 "because a broker took me around and said, 'Would you be interested in this area?' "

The proximity to Garden State Park, then under redevelopment, appealed to him.

"It's a property in an area where people should live with pride," Wainberg said. He said he "tried my best" to upgrade the property, putting in new units and landscaping. The property is managed from South Orange.

A partner with Benderson Development, a national real estate company, Wainberg is involved with a $58 million project to develop a shopping center in Hamilton Township, Atlantic County.

"I'm known for trying to do things right," he said. "I've followed the rules."

Owners of rent-controlled properties in Cherry Hill are allowed to request a rent increase once a year tied to the Consumer Price Index.

They can also seek so-called hardship increases if they are losing money or make "major capital improvements," township spokeswoman Bridget Palmer said.

Under township ordinance, the rent review board can grant hardship increases to owners if they demonstrate that operating expenses for a property exceed 57.5 percent of the gross income from it.

Owners have to present financial records, which are reviewed by a third-party financial consultant, Palmer said. They can receive only one rent increase - hardship or CPI - per year.

The law allowing for increases at rent-controlled properties "recognizes the right and need for the landlords to invest money," Wainberg said. Otherwise, properties would become blighted, he said.

Farrell Place - next to the Cherry Hill Mobile Home Park, which has 94 homes - is "the cheapest place to live in Cherry Hill," Wainberg said. The township is phasing out rent control, last year enacting rules that allow for units in rent-controlled properties that become vacant to be permanently converted to market rate.

Since then, 374 units have been decontrolled, according to the township.

Those provisions don't apply to mobile-home parks, where lots that become vacant can be rented at market rates but then are controlled going forward.

Farrell Place isn't the only park facing increases. At the neighboring Cherry Hill Mobile Home Park, tenants are facing a possible 11.8 percent increase, said Ed Hans, president of the tenant association at the park.

"You're getting people in here with $1,200 a month to live off of, and you want to raise" rent to $500 or $600 a month? Hans said. "That just don't work." A call to the park's management office was directed to an attorney who did not return a message.

At Farrell Place, residents are worried they will face more rent increases in the future.

"He ain't going to stop here," said Carmen Pierce, 62, who lives at the park with her daughter and grandson.

"I'm not trash," Pierce said, sitting alongside DiGiacomo and McKenna in McKenna's home. "And these people aren't either."


Contact Maddie Hanna at 856- 779-3232 or mhanna@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @maddiehanna.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|