Scheme forced Latino farm worker tenants to sign purchase agreements to remain in poor living conditions
OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced today that the owner of a Mattawa mobile home park will pay $100,000, to be used for restitution, and make needed repairs to all homes after forcing tenants to sign sham “purchase” agreements so he could avoid city health and safety inspections. The cost of the repairs is estimated at approximately $400,000.
If Gary Chavers, the owner of the Sun & Sand Mobile Home Park, fails to fulfill the terms of the agreement, he will also face more than $200,000 in civil penalties.
Many of the mobile homes at the 53-unit park were in very poor condition when Ferguson filed a lawsuit against Chavers in 2015. Residents complained of warped and malfunctioning doors that failed to keep out the cold and moisture, or that would blow open with the wind if not secured internally by string and nails. Many homes had old or worn flooring, some with holes in the floor or staples poking out of the carpet. Some homes were infested with cockroaches, and residents, including children, were being bitten by bed bugs.
Many homes had old, leaky windows with rotted window sills and frames. The stairs leading to the front door of several homes were rotted and unsafe. Chavers voluntarily began to repair some of these conditions after the State filed suit.
Today’s agreement requires Chavers to hire licensed contractors to fix the most pressing health and safety issues at the park — like plumbing and electrical defects — within the next 180 days. The state is exercising oversight of the repairs.
“Mr. Chavers deceived a vulnerable population to avoid his legal responsibilities as a property owner,” Ferguson said. “The condition of his properties is disgraceful, and this agreement obligates him to fix them.”
In late 2009, the City of Mattawa passed an ordinance creating new health and safety requirements for rental units following a tragic fire earlier the same year. The fire, in a mobile home rental property that was converted into a duplex, claimed the lives of a mother and two children.
Shortly after the City apprised him of the ordinance, Chavers devised a scheme to force tenants — most of whom are Latino farm workers who speak little to no English — to sign sham “purchase” contracts. Chavers only provided the contracts in English, and tenants were not allowed time to review or get help translating the documents before signing.
The scheme allowed Chavers to avoid inspections and compliance with the new health and safety requirements.
As part of today’s agreement, Chavers will pay the state $100,000, which will be used to provide restitution to about 100 families harmed by his conduct. He is also required to make necessary repairs to all 53 homes at Sun & Sand, which is expected to require an estimated expenditure of $100,000 per year on improvements to the units for the next four years.
In addition to correcting all electrical and plumbing hazards, Chavers has agreed to correct all subpar conditions inside and outside the homes. The repairs will correct problems like the leaky windows and malfunctioning doors, damaged walls and flooring, leaky roofs and moisture damage, and rotted and unstable entry stairs. Old and worn carpets will also be replaced, and damaged kitchen and bathroom cabinetry will be repaired or replaced.
The agreement also places a $100,000 lien against the property to secure payment of the money the state will return to the affected residents as restitution.
All Sun & Sand tenants who were forced to sign purchase agreements, or move out, will be able to rescind the sales contracts and revert to being tenants under a traditional lease. For those who live in duplex mobile homes and are “buying” half of the home with strangers, their purchase contracts will be rescinded, with their consent. Residents who moved into Sun & Sand after Chavers implemented the sham sales contracts will be given the choice to continue buying under replacement contracts that comply with the Retail Installment Sales Act, or to convert to tenants under a traditional lease. All lease and sales contracts will be provided in both English and Spanish.
Other requirements of the agreement include:
- Chavers is prohibited from raising rents for four years;
- Chavers must provide interim housing to tenants if repairs require them to be temporarily displaced from their unit; and
- Chavers must provide quarterly reports to the state documenting his progress in fixing the units.
The state has the right to inspect all repairs. If the repairs are not made according to acceptable industry standards, Chavers will be required to fix them or face further court action.
Assistant Attorneys General John Nelson, Patricio Marquez and Jennifer Steele handled the case for Washington.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Brionna Aho, Interim Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; email@example.com