Mobile home park residents fight illegal fines and eviction

Residents file class action lawsuit in Second Judicial Court

ALBUQUERQUE—Residents of Aztec Village, a mobile home park in Albuquerque, came together for fairness and dignity in their community today and sued the corporate landlord and manager of the park where their homes are located. The residents charge that Nodel Parks LLC—which owns mobile home parks throughout the country, including six in Albuquerque—and park manager Magdalena Vila illegally and arbitrarily fined them for alleged infractions of community rules and threatened them with eviction when they couldn’t pay. 

The plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit Chavez v. Nodel Parks, LLC  are represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and Parnall and Adams Law. The lawsuit was filed in Second Judicial District Court in Albuquerque today.

“Really, the people who live here, we are like family,” said Marlena Martinez, a longtime Aztec Village resident who helped organize residents to fight the park’s unfair practices. “Over 100 families live here, and some of us have been here for over 40 years. It’s an understatement to say that we are invested in our community. Ever since management began unfairly fining us and forcing people out of the community, we have been fighting together for our homes, our financial stability, and to stay together.”

Nodel Parks changed management of Aztec Village in May of 2019 and soon began issuing fines for violations of what the manager said were community rules. However, many of the alleged violations residents were fined for, including disposing of leaves in community dumpsters and having child toys in the front yard, were not actual violations of Aztec Village’s rules. 

Rather, the rules and fines enforced by Nodel Parks are arbitrary decisions that the lawsuit claims are used to intimidate and coerce payment from residents in violation of state law. Residents informed Nodel Parks of the problems, but upper management refused to take any action. As a result, residents are forced to pay the illegal fines and are in danger of losing their homes when they cannot pay. 

The lawsuit comes at a time when New Mexico faces a severe housing crisis. The Housing and Urban Development Department found that the state topped the nation with a rise in homelessness with a 27% increase from 2018 to 2019. Homelessness in Albuquerque alone, rose by 15%.

Mobile homes are the single greatest source of affordable housing stock in the United States.

“Landlords must follow the law and treat residents with respect. There are hundreds of communities like Aztec Park across the state, and unfair policies and practices like these push hard working New Mexican families out of their communities and onto the streets,” said Maria Griego, supervising attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “When you own your home but rent the land it’s on, you are at particular risk of unfair and predatory practices by landlords. For this very reason, the New Mexico Legislature enacted the New Mexico Mobile Home Park Act to protect mobile home park residents.”

The state Mobile Home Park Act requires mobile home park owners to publish and enforce community rules only after soliciting comments from the community and posting responses. The law prohibits mobile home park owners from charging fines for violations of community rules and/or rental agreements. Instead, the law requires notice and an opportunity to rectify a violation. 

The families are asking the court to order defendants to stop:

  • Issuing fines for alleged or actual violations of rental agreements and/or the community rules and regulations;
  • Sending notices that threaten to evict or take further action against tenants if they don’t pay the fines; 
  • Rejecting rent from tenants if the total amount does not include any fines assessed against the tenant. 

The families are also asking the court to require the defendants to pay money damages for each instance in which the park management violated New Mexico law.

“I’m a homeowner just like any other and deserve to be treated fairly and with respect,” said Martinez.  “We are not going to let them get away with tearing our communities apart and cheating us out of our homes.”

Attorneys on the lawsuit Chavez v. Nodel Parks, LLC, include Maria Griego, Lindsay Cutler, and Sovereign Hager from the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and David Adams and Charles Parnall from Parnall and Adams Law.

The complaint can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/complaint-chavez-v-nodel-parks-llc-01-30-2020/

The exhibits can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/exhibits-chavez-v-nodel-parks-2020-01-30/

Proposed cuts to child care assistance will force parents to give up employment and educational opportunities

Eligible families sued department last year over arbitrary denials of assistance

SANTA FE—In a move that will prevent families from getting much needed child care, the State of New Mexico proposes to cut eligibility to child care assistance available to parents who are working or in school. A regulation released yesterday, would reduce families’ eligibility to incomes of 160% and lower of the federal poverty level. Currently, families with incomes up to 200% of the FPL qualify for assistance. The regulation also provides some information used to determine family copays, which continue to be unaffordable according to federal standards.

The proposed rule will reduce the number of families eligible for child care assistance and continue to burden parents with unaffordable copays that force them to go without child care and forego education or employment opportunities. Children, Youth and Families Department data from FY2017, shows a 66% drop in participation in the program once families are charged a copay, beginning with incomes as low as 25% to 50% of the FPL. According to CYFD data, just a third of eligible families participate in the program.

“We urge CYFD to change this proposed regulation so that more, not fewer, families have access to the child care they desperately need. We know that CYFD wants to increase opportunities for New Mexico’s families. One clear way to do that is to help hard-working parents keep their jobs and stay in school by providing help with the exorbitant costs of child care. Unfortunately, too few families qualify, and those who do must come up with copays that are so high that many are forced to leave the program and give up on careers and their education or resort to unreliable and unlicensed care,” said Maria Griego, supervising attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Griego added, “We are concerned that the state is cutting benefits when enrollment has decreased. We need safeguards that ensure child care copayments are actually affordable so families can benefit from the program. This means adequate funding at the legislature that is based on the economic reality facing New Mexico families. The state should seek supplemental funding to prevent cuts right now.”

CYFD agreed to issue regulations that detail eligibility requirements for the Child Care Assistance Program following a lawsuit filed by Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLÉ) and families represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. The lawsuit, Torres v. Jacobson, argued that the department illegally reduced eligibility and determined the amount of child care assistance without going through the public regulatory process required by law.

After the lawsuit was filed, CYFD immediately increased eligibility to 200% of the federal poverty level, which it now proposes to cut.

“When CYFD extended the eligibility requirements, it opened the doors for more parents out there struggling to find childcare and now they are looking to close that door again,” said Brian Gelepsie, OLÉ member. “The state is messing with families’ livelihoods when families have to decide between paying for childcare or having a roof over their heads. Our parents and children deserve better.”

The proposed Child Care Assistance Program regulation:

  • Cuts eligibility to 160% FPL—even though enrollment in the program is dropping.
  • Sets child care copayments at unaffordable levels and fails to explain the details of how copayments are calculated. For example, the department applies a 10% increase to base copayments for every case, but this is not in regulation.
  • Does not clearly articulate how CYFD calculates income to determine eligibility or how the application process works.
  • Does not require applications and eligibility documents to be in languages other than English.

A public hearing on the rule is scheduled to take place in Santa Fe on July 8, 2019.

Court orders CYFD to lawfully manage Child Care Assistance Program

Department increased eligibility levels after families sued last year

SANTA FE—Working families will have increased access to much needed child care assistance as a result of a court order approving an agreement between working families and the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department. The order, entered by the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe yesterday, mandates that CYFD will follow the law in managing New Mexico’s Childcare Assistance Program.

“Every family deserves access to quality child care while parents are at work or in school,” said Maria Griego, supervising attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “Only a third of eligible families in New Mexico currently access child care assistance because the application process and eligibility requirements are inconsistent and confusing. The settlement is a critical opportunity for CYFD to improve the well-being of children. We look forward to working with this administration to fix long standing barriers.”

Several families and OLÉ, represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, sued the department in September 2018, charging that CYFD illegally established a policy of denying child care assistance to families with incomes over 150% of the federal poverty level—a yearly income of $31,170 for a family of three—without publishing a regulation or going through the required public comment and hearing process. The lawsuit also argued that CYFD illegally failed to provide adequate notice to families about their child care benefits or establish a regulation that explains how CYFD determines the share of costs the family has to pay.

After the lawsuit, CYFD immediately increased eligibility for child care assistance to families with incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty level.

The court order requires CYFD to:

  • Maintain the current eligibility level until or unless CYFD lawfully passes regulations with public comment with a different eligibility level;
  • Put into regulation child care assistance eligibility requirements, including how CYFD calculates the amount of costs shared by parents;
  • Revise notices and forms that families receive or fill out in the application process;
  • Revise the manual CYFD workers use to determine eligibility for assistance;
  • Post eligibility information and application rights in all CYFD offices.

“We know that the earliest years in children’s lives are the most important in their development and lay the foundation for all that is to come,” said Traeshaun Buffin a community organizer at OLÉ. “The astronomical costs of child care prevent tens of thousands of New Mexican families with children from accessing meaningful work and educational opportunities. We’re so pleased that CYFD has agreed to stop denying eligible families the child care assistance they need and to adopt standards with public input to make the program affordable and predictable.”

The court order can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/9-order-torres_2019_05_06/

The Torres v. Jacobson complaint can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/torres-v-jacobson-first-amended-complaint-with-exhibits/

Senate farm bill protects New Mexico families’ access to SNAP  

ALBUQUERQUE— On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed its farm bill, which protects and strengthens the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 86-11. The Senate’s bill is in stark contrast to the partisan House farm bill narrowly passed last week, which if passed, would restrict food assistance to millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands New Mexicans through cuts and harmful changes to SNAP.

The House and Senate will now need to negotiate a final farm bill before sending it to the White House for President Trump’s signature.

“The Senate farm bill strengthens SNAP and protects millions of Americans’ access to healthy food. This is great news for New Mexico where SNAP is of particular importance. Over 450,000 New Mexicans rely on SNAP to put food on the table, including 40 percent of the state’s young children,” said Maria Griego, supervising attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “Congress should use the Senate farm bill as a basis for its final legislation. We urge our elected leaders to negotiate a final, bi-partisan bill that remains faithful to the Senate’s approach. We need a farm bill that grows income and employment opportunities for all Americans and bolsters, not weakens our country’s most effective anti-hunger program.”

The Senate bill would provide for modest improvements to SNAP’s operations and administration. It also would expand the 2014 farm bill’s pilot program to test new approaches to job training and other employment-related activities for SNAP participants.

Should a farm bill that is closer to the House’s version pass, up to 121,000 New Mexicans would face termination of SNAP, while tens of thousands of children and other family members would face reduced benefits for up to three years.

For more information on the House version of the 2018 farm bill and how the SNAP cuts would impact New Mexico, go to:  http://nmpovertylaw.org/2018/04/proposed-cuts-to-snap-in-house-farm-bill-would-take-food-off-the-table-for-new-mexico-families/

For more information on SNAP in New Mexico, go to: http://nmpovertylaw.org/proposed-budget-will-increase-hunger-and-inequality-in-nm-february-2018/

Breaking down barriers to child care assistance

by Maria Griego & Sovereign Hager

One often insurmountable barrier to financial security for many New Mexican families is the high cost of child care, this is especially true for low-wage workers. The astronomical costs prevent thousands of families with children from accessing meaningful work and educational opportunities. Unfortunately, while the number of New Mexicans who qualify for state-provided child care assistance has increased, enrollment in the program has actually declined.

We dug into the problem and found that the Children, Youth and Families Department required families to go through a torturous child care assistance enrollment process. Families automatically eligible for child care assistance because they engage in work and educational activities through our state cash assistance program (TANF) were forced to visit multiple offices to turn in unnecessary paperwork. Many families lack reliable transportation, and the frequent office visits interfered with work and school schedules, making it impossible for them to complete the process.

We also found that CYFD sent confusing and threatening letters to participating families in an attempt to illegally recoup erroneous prior overpayments of child care benefits. The letters demanded clients return money within 15 days or have their balance sent to collections. Unpaid overpayments can bar families from the child care assistance program. Families eligible for assistance often live from paycheck to paycheck and unexpected bills can cause financial distress and bankruptcy.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty reached out to CYFD and informed them that the requests for back payment were illegal. We also offered to help streamline their administrative processes to improve access to the child care assistance program, especially for the lowest income families that are automatically eligible.

CYFD agreed to stop sending the letters and accepted our proposal to drastically simplify the application process. The state also issued regulations that established a clear time frame for processing applications so families do not have to wait indefinitely for benefits if they are eligible. Since these changes were implemented, nearly $24,000 has been returned to families who were illegally changed for prior over payments and there has been a 39 percent increase in enrollment of the families already enrolled in TANF.

While this is great progress there are still far fewer people enrolled in the program than who are eligible. There’s much more work to be done. Families are still required to turn in in unnecessary paperwork and have difficulty in the application process because notices that families receive are not translated into Spanish.  Families are not informed about their right to appeal a denial of benefits.

Find out if you’re eligible for child care assistance and learn how to apply here. You can find information in Spanish here. Please spread the word!

Photo credit: freeABQimages.com