Rochester resident Jeannie McCormick disagrees with the city when it comes to defining where she lives.
“They consider people living in an RV as ‘vehicular homeless,’ the city of Rochester does,” she said. “I consider it being my forever home because it’s paid for.”
McCormick became a tenant at Bob’s Trailer Court in early 2020 after buying an RV that had been sitting empty on the property at 1915 Marion Road SE.
“When I went to look at it to buy it, I asked ‘Will I be able to live in it here because I have nowhere else to put it’ and (the property manager) said for a couple months at least,” she said.
A year later, she received notification from the city that long-term RV living violates city ordinances. June and September notices followed the April letter, but McCormick said she didn’t take it seriously until she was told the city might remove her RV.
McCormick contacted Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services and the city’s plan was blocked, but it did not eliminate the possibility she'd be forced to move.
“I don’t believe they are done trying to make us leave,” she said.
While city officials note the initial action raised concerns, staff also said there are safety concerns connected to living in a RV or camper trailer, especially after a recent camper fire at the park.
“An RV isn’t a habitable dwelling,” said Taryn Edens, the city’s housing and neighborhood services supervisor, who noted the issue was noticed by the city after several complaints were filed.
At this point, the city has shifted its focus to the property owner, rather than individual tenants.
The owner, Scott Kramer and the Pennsylvania-based TSJ Parks LLC, purchased the 3-acre site for $1.3 million in June, according to Olmsted County property records.
Kramer said he was aware of the issues at the park and has hopes of transforming it. At the same time, he said COVID-related restrictions limit some actions.
“Our hands have been tied because of the eviction moratorium and some other things, but we are really working with the city,” he said.
He said several tenants in the park, including McCormick, have failed to pay rent during the moratorium and only one appears to have sought state help to cover back rent.
McCormick said she’s applied for the RentHelp program and the site’s management company, Brainerd, Minn.-based Real Property Management Deluxe, has agreed to stop seeking eviction under state restrictions.
Kramer said he considers four to five residents who haven’t paid rent to be squatters and will seek eviction as soon as possible.
It’s something he said would have happened this summer without COVID-19 restrictions.
“Under normal circumstances, this would have been resolved in the first 30 days,” he said of providing notice that rent needs to be paid and city ordinances need to be followed.
As an owner of other parks, he said it’s not about forcing people out, but he does want to make sure tenants are meeting their end of any agreement that gives them a place to live.
“We are not looking to throw people out. We are looking for them to communicate, and there’s been no communication,” he said, adding that he has worked with city and county staff in an effort to connect residents with available services.
McCormick acknowledged meeting with members of the county’s Housing Stability Team when they visited the site, but she’s unsure where she would go.
Her 28-year-old son, Roger Heinrich, who shares the RV with her, could stay with friends in Mower County, but she said it would be harder for her to find long-term housing, especially after losing her cleaning job because of cutbacks caused by the pandemic.
“I have a couple of people I could at least spend a few nights with at each person’s -- maybe three or four people -- but it wouldn’t last long, because I wouldn’t want to overstay my welcome or anything like that,” she said.
Brian Lipford, the legal services attorney who helped McCormick block the removal of her RV, said the best option might be for his client and the property owner to reach an agreement on renting a traditional mobile home on the site.
McCormick said she’d like to, but the move would double her monthly housing expense while she’s still seeking to secure a new job. Rent on a lot is $400, and renting a mobile home would add at least another $400 to the monthly cost, she said.
Lipford said other options could be more costly.
“If it’s $400 or $800, where are you going to find a place to live in Rochester for either of those amounts,” he asked.
For now, the RentHelp application protects McCormick from eviction for the lack of rent payments and offers the promise of back rent payments for the trailer park, but it might not be enough to fend off other action.
“It’s not a simple eviction action, because part of what we are recognizing is even if she were to remedy the financial situation, she’s living in circumstances that are not allowed under the law,” Rochester Interim City Attorney Michael Spindler-Krage said. “She can’t live in an RV in that space, period.”
Kramer said he’s hoping solutions can be found, noting it will take time to address concerns that existed before he became owner of the park.
“Everyone is trying to be cooperative to help,” he said. “I’m not in the business of making people homeless, and neither is the city.”