After water was briefly cut off to residents by the new owners of Massie Mobile Home Park in Montgomery County, some tenants are suing the park with the assistance of Southwest Virginia Legal Aid Society.
A hearing is set for Jan. 6 in Montgomery/Christiansburg General District Court. At issue is a shutoff of water to park residents for a few hours on Nov. 15 by the county’s Public Service Authority due to nonpayment. The bill was owed by the park management, not by the individual residents.
Kristi Murray is a staff attorney with Southwest Virginia Legal Aid Society. She specializes in housing and is based in the organization’s Christiansburg office.
“We started getting some phone calls from residents that morning that they had no water service. So we started calling our other tenants that we were already assisting … and we found that most all of our residents there did not have water service that day,” Murray said.
“I immediately reached out to opposing counsel, which is Grimes Creasy, with Johnson, Ayers & Matthews in Roanoke, to let him know what was going on and to see if he could provide any explanation. He said he would get in contact with his client. Within just a couple hours, he said it had been taken care of and the water should be restored by the end of the day.”
It is not clear why the park’s owner, Massie MHP LLC, delayed paying the bill. Creasy did not return a message requesting comment.
In August, Billy Massie sold Massie Mobile Home Park (called Massie’s on signs at the park) to Massie MHP LLC for $10 million, according to county real estate records.
Massie MHP LLC is a subsidiary of Homes of America, Murray said. Homes of America has been linked to hedge fund Alden Global Capital, best known for owning more than 200 newspapers, including the Norfolk-based Virginian-Pilot, and the Daily Press, based in Newport News. Alden made the news in Southwest Virginia in 2021 when it attempted to wrest control of the Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, whose newspaper properties include the daily newspapers in Bristol, Charlottesville, Culpeper, Danville, Fredericksburg, Martinsville, Richmond, Roanoke and Waynesboro. Lee fought off the hostile takeover. A recent report on National Public Radio said Homes of America has bought at least 80 mobile home parks across the country.
The water shutoff was not the first issue to cause stress for residents since Massie MHP LLC acquired the park.
The first notices received by many tenants were 30-day eviction notices, Murray said. These forms, using language from 2018, were legally defective because the law was recodified in 2019. They were “not even applicable anymore because they had been replaced by a new code section.”
Murray said she notified Rachel Muse, the onsite property manager, that the notices were not compliant.
Shortly thereafter, a second round of notices went out. “Those notices were the five-day pay-or-quit notices,” Murray said. “So they had corrected and used the proper form that cited current and applicable law.”
But there was a problem with many of these forms as well. The amount due included not only actual past due rent, but amounts that should have been paid by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which subsidizes the rent of some tenants.
At that point a Massie representative contacted Murray and told her that Creasy was representing them.
Murray and Creasy started working together to resolve the HUD snafu, she said. They found that Massie MHP LLC had not updated the payment address with HUD.
“So for a two month period, those payments from HUD were being sent to the old payment address, which was to Billy Massie, the former owner. Billy Massie was contacted, he confirmed receipt of those payments, and confirmed they had already been forwarded on to the new owner.”
When the water was shut off, Legal Aid attorneys discussed the situation. “Despite the fact of the water was indeed turned on back on that same day, there is a statutory law in Virginia that says things that a landlord cannot do and if they do them, they are responsible for the tenants’ actual damages [and] a statutory penalty damage which is basically a punitive damage, which is awarded in order to deter the landlord from doing something similar again. And that statute requires that the landlord either intentionally or willfully caused the interruption of essential services.”
Jennifer Harris, public information director for Montgomery County, said the county’s public service authority has a single account for the mobile home park. The customer of record is Massie MHP LLC. Bills are distributed monthly. If payment is not received, a delinquent notice is sent. If payment is not received following a delinquent notice, water is disconnected for nonpayment. The water was disconnected due to nonpayment on Nov. 15 at approximately 10 a.m., and restored at approximately 1:30 p.m. on the same day.
“They were told the cut-off day, and they simply didn’t pay the bill before it was turned off,” Murray said. “So we decided that we felt like we had evidence necessary to prove what the statute requires, despite the fact that the water was turned back on.”
Legal Aid contacted the approximately 25 tenants they were already representing at Massie, and about 13 tenants agreed to become plaintiffs in the water case, Murray said.
The goal of the case is to recover damages for the tenants, and also to get Massie’s attention, so “they don’t do things like this again in the future.”
On Jan. 6, “the court will be determining whether the owner willfully caused the interruption of an essential service to the tenant and depending on its finding, could potentially award damages consistent with that finding,” Murray wrote in an email.
“Virginia Code § 55.1-1243.1(A) prohibits a landlord from willfully 1- removing or excluding a tenant from the dwelling unit, 2 – causing the interruption of an essential service to the tenant, or 3 – taking action to make the premises unsafe for habitation. We will be arguing that the landlord caused the interruption of an essential service as prohibited and is therefore, liable for actual damages, statutory damages, and attorney fees pursuant to subsection (D) of 55.1-1243.1.
“These Unlawful Exclusion actions are considered civil lawsuits and it is fair to say the tenants have sued,” she wrote.
“These poor residents have been through the wringer over the last several months,” Murray said. “And, you know, unfortunately, there have been a lot of things that caused them stress and caused them panic, that we weren’t able to immediately file suit about.”
If the shutoff had been due to mere negligence, “we probably would not have filed suit, because we would not felt that we can meet our burden of proving that it was willful. But after discussing it with Montgomery County, we felt that the evidence could prove that it was willful. And that’s what will be argued on Jan. 6.”
A notice dated Nov. 22 was distributed to residents notifying them that “moving forward we will be passing through utility bills to residents … the following utilities will be passed through starting on the next billing cycle: water, sewer trash.”
In another matter related to the park’s utilities, Sarah Rupp, a community organizer who has been working with tenants, provided Cardinal News with photos of what she said was sewage that had been discharged from an uncapped pipe within the park.
Harris, the county public information director, said the county public service authority does not maintain the Massie sewer system, and that it is responsibility of the park owners.
Gary Coggins, environmental health manager, senior, for the New River Health District, confirmed that the health district had received a complaint about a sewage discharge at Massie. Speaking on Thursday, he said, “My staff are in the field today and hopefully that’s one of the things they’re going to be taking a look at … Sewage on the ground is always a public health threat, it’s always a matter of concern. If we investigated and determined it is likely sewage, then we need to kind of determine the source and who’s responsible and work with them to try to get it corrected.”
A woman reached at the park office, who declined to give her name, said the park would not make any comments.