Hope remains for Hilltop Mobile Home Park residents working to re-establish community

James Tuttle moved Jan. 31 from his trailer in the Hilltop Mobile Home Park and now rents a Parkway Plaza apartment with two roommates he found on Craigslist.

He said it’s “been going OK,” but that he’s having trouble locating a more permanent place to live.

Tuttle is a taxi driver and, while his new apartment is closer to where he picks up his cab, it’s farther from his church and favorite grocery stores.

Joy Habovick and her 12-year-old son, Anthony Pastrana, moved Dec. 15 from their trailer in the College Township park to live with her parents in Howard.

“I hate it,” she said. She must share a room with her son, who now has about an hour van ride to school in State College, and she has a half-hour drive back into town to meet with her son’s doctors — he has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

She also must drive in for her part-time job with event parking at Penn State. She lost her other job the week before they moved and is looking for another.

Tuttle and Habovick are just two of dozens of residents who have moved from the park in recent months. Owners Kenneth Mayes and his sister, Sharon Mayes, notified residents by letter last fall that the park would be closed and sold. They were given until Thursday to move, and most have done so.

Matt Rooke is a resident who has led the charge to save the park and is one of 17 or 18 people who are still living at the park. Now serving as the president of Hilltop’s resident association, he said he counted 21 trailers left in the park Thursday.

He’s also working with members of the broader community, lawyers and organizations who can help residents potentially purchase the park themselves and start a community cooperative, a concept that has seen success in other states.

Rooke said it would offer stability and could become a desirable place to live again, perhaps drawing from the Penn State Mobile Home Park in Patton Township, where residents also were notified last year the park would close and be sold. That group has until July to move.

“A lot of people who left Hilltop are in bad living situations,” he said. “They would come back. So we’re staying in contact with residents who have moved.”

Tuttle and Habovick said they would return in a heartbeat.

“If that works out, it would pretty much be my first choice,” Tuttle said, adding that he liked living in the community because it was close to town and a reasonable price.

Rooke will stay at Hilltop where many empty rectangular pads remain “as long as we can,” though he said he expects eviction notices will be sent. Despite that, he said he believes the owners have not followed a new law, which took effect in December, giving mobile home park residents more rights in the event of a closure.

The law mandates $4,000 in compensation for relocation of trailers and a minimum of $2,500 to residents unable to move their homes. It also requires owners to consider resident proposals to purchase their parks.

The state Attorney General’s Office agrees with Rooke’s position on the new law, and is negotiating with the park owners, said Tom Creehan, of the attorney general’s State College office.

The Attorney General’s Office has jurisdiction over mobile home parks and has the power to enforce the law — the Manufactured Home Community Rights Act — according to its text.

“We’ll see if a judge agrees with us,” Rooke said. “Even with that kind of hope in place, there’s a lot of stress and uncertainty. We’re really hoping this can be resolved at the township level and the court level.”

The Mayeses have not commented on the situation since the announcement of the park closure, and they did not return messages last week. Creehan said he spoke to Kenneth Mayes, who “indicated that he understands that some of (the residents) have yet to make concrete plans.”

“So I wouldn’t think they would be in fear of being thrown out while they’re still in the unit,” Creehan said.

Also in play is Indiana-based developer Trinitas Ventures — which specializes, in part, in student housing — has an option to purchase the Hilltop site if College Township approves a rezoning request. Trinitas has asked to rezone the property — currently only allowing mobile home parks — to higher density residential.

The firm originally made the request last year but asked for a delay for unknown reasons. Last week, it resubmitted a request letter and will appear before the Township Council at its meeting Thursday.

Township Manager Adam Brumbaugh said representatives have not yet discussed their intentions for the 30-acre site, and have until Monday to submit more materials for the council agenda packet.

The stress of the situation has caused at least one resident to become physically ill, resulting in the person missing a brainstorming session Rooke hosted Thursday night in State College for residents and advocates.

Local housing nonprofit organizations have worked with residents from both parks since the closure announcements, and Housing Transitions Inc. case manager Colby Woodring said she sees residents remaining at Hilltop who are concerned and worried. She said the hope is that, if eviction notices come, they will give 30 days to move.

“Hopefully answers will come by then, and people can either stay in the park or they’ll have 30 extra days to move,” she said.

In the meantime, HTI and other groups will continue to assist residents who need help, even if they’ve already moved.

“We have helped probably about a quarter of the people who have been in the park,” she said. “That’s pretty good because some of the people might not have needed help, and some of them might not have reached out to us.”

Of those who have reached out, six families have received an average of $1,500 apiece to help with relocation costs. The assistance comes through a displaced residents fund organized by various organizations, with funds distributed by Interfaith Human Services.

“We’ve been really fortunate that we’ve had some great donors and congregations and other groups responding,” said IHS Executive Director Ruth Donahue. “I’m happy that the community as a whole recognizes that there are people who have a need and they are caring for them.”

While the original goal of the fund was to provide help with security deposits and first month rent payments, Donahue said it also helps people buy gasoline to facilitate a move or pay for utilities.

“It really is a matter of doing whatever we can to help them get to that new home,” she said. “I want people to recognize that, for most of the individuals, this really is a great hardship.”

Among those offering help have been Penn State students, eighth-graders at Good Shepherd Catholic Church, who wrote letters of encouragement to the residents, and numerous churches that offered significant donations.

IHS also has a 12-foot box truck Donahue said residents can use to move.

“I’m just surprised over and over again by the generosity of people who live here and the compassionate hearts of other people, truly, to take care of others,” she said, adding that agency collaboration also makes a difference.

“It’s a great challenge, but I think it speaks highly of the agencies’ commitment.”