Judge sides with powerless trailer residents


Article Courtesy of Palm Beach Post

Thursday, January 20, 2005

A judge ruled Wednesday that residents of hurricane-battered Tropical Trailer Gardens can withhold half of their rents from the landlord because of a lack of full electric power at the mobile home park.

The landlord of the Lake Worth park also was barred from evicting tenants for nonpayment until the court decides how much rents should be reduced for tenants without power or with partial power.

"This is a good ruling," said attorney Cathy Lively, who represents 15 of the park's tenants who have gone without air conditioning and refrigeration for months.

After hearing from two tenants, Circuit Judge Timothy McCarthy ruled that half of their rent payments be guarded in a court escrow account until the court decides how to resolve the dispute.

"It's obvious to the court that there are financial consequences to the loss of electrical power, but I don't have a clue as to what is the amount of damages," McCarthy said after a two-hour hearing. Another hearing will be held to determine each's tenants economic loss.

Two tenants testified that ice for coolers and gasoline for generators are among the items that have cost them thousands of dollars in extra expense. They say they are also forced to wash clothes in bathtubs or buckets because the park's laundry room was closed after Hurricane Jeanne struck Sept. 26.

"I go to the store every day to buy two to three bags of ice," said Sherry Henderson, who is withholding her $265-a-month rent from owner Wesley Cox. Henderson said some lights, her television and microwave work, but not the refrigerator or air conditioning.

"My life has been completely changed, but not for the better," Henderson said.

Another Circuit Court judge last week found that Cox has failed for years to keep the park's internal power system in compliance with city code. Judge Kenneth Stern ordered Cox to immediately begin building a new system.

In December, Cox threatened tenants who were withholding their rents with eviction.

Tenant Annie Johnston testified Wednesday that she was told by the state attorney general's office that she was not obligated to pay rent if she had no power. She said she paid $700 for a gas-powered generator and about $900 for gasoline. The generator was later stolen from her home, she said.

Cox testified that he has offered a 10 percent reduction in rent for tenants with partial power and a one-third discount for those with no power.

He said tenants could solve their problem by running extension cords to electric boxes to power their appliances.

"There is no excuse, unless you want to play sue-the-poor-landlord," a defiant Cox testified.

Cox said he could rewire the whole park, but the cost would force him to double the rents. He said he didn't know how many of the park's remaining 21 tenants don't have full power.

Under Wednesday's ruling, the park residents have 60 days to pay back rents, with half going to Cox and the rest into a court account.