Rent hike stirs dismay in Mt. Laurel haven

Posted: January 06, 2014

For 30 years, Tricia Meadows has shown how well affordable housing can work.

The landscaped complex of 400 mobile homes in Mount Laurel is attractive, convenient, and congenial. Residents say they love their community.

But this sort of success apparently is no longer remunerative enough for Davis Enterprises, of Marlton, which built Tricia Meadows in 1983.

To the 10 percent or so of residents whose low incomes have qualified them to buy lower-cost trailers - and to lease their trailer sites at about half the market rate - the firm is essentially saying:

We are now permitted to double your rent. Your leases are being terminated as of Dec. 31, 2013. And if you don't like it, you can hit the bricks.

"We're good neighbors. We take care of our homes. We do volunteer work and go to church," says Pat Frasier, 71, whose monthly rent is rising from $224.50 to $457.

Frasier is among 18 low-income senior citizens on whose behalf Medford attorney Paul A. Leodori is challenging the rent hike. The suit is set to be heard Jan. 17 in Burlington County Superior Court.

Frasier, a retired grants writer who moved from Browns Mills to Tricia Meadows five years ago, says she was never told orally or in writing about the pending expiration of all affordable leases.

That is, until March 2013, when she and other affected residents - some of whom are frail and in their 90s - received a single-page notification in the mail.

For years prior, "there was an affirmative representation in their leases and in the addendum to their leases that as low-income people that they would pay at half the market rate" for as long as their incomes did not rise and render them ineligible, Leodori says.

Neither Davis president Miriam R. Nase nor Stephen M. Eisdorfer, the Princeton attorney representing the firm, returned voice-mail messages I left for them last week.

But in a Dec. 2 response to the residents' suit, the company asserted that "various documents, each of which was separately required, clearly and unambiguously communicate . . . that the units . . . were restricted for a specified period ending on December 31, 2013."

Davis got the township's approval to build Tricia Meadows only after agreeing to designate a certain number of mobile homes as lower-income for 30 years. The original agreement satisfied part of Mount Laurel's obligations under the state's affordable-housing doctrine of the same name.

The company now argues that ending the restriction but not raising the rents would constitute an "inequitable windfall" for the lower-income residents.

In the decades since building Tricia Meadows, which was named for the daughter of the company's founder, Davis appears to have thrived. In 2001 it opened the upscale Promenade at Sagemore retail complex on Route 73, where its offices are now located.

No wonder some Tricia Meadows residents find the rent increase so hard to fathom.

"I talk to everybody and try to keep them calm," says Mindy Grass, 75, who along with the other plaintiffs was subpoenaed by the company shortly before Christmas.

(Leodori has filed a motion to quash the subpoenas, the issuance of which he described as a "very, very heavy-handed" move on Davis' part.)

"I realize it's a business thing, and I don't expect hand-holding, but I do expect them to have a heart," Grass says. "Why can't they grandfather us all in, until we die?"

Good question. Perhaps it will be answered in court, although Frasier and her fellow plaintiffs may not like the answer - or the final ruling.

I have no idea how a judge will decide; the rent hikes could be found legal. But that would not make them right.

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

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