‘Unlivable,’ ‘Unaffordable,’ ‘Unsanitary’: A home lost, a hedge fund found
One resident’s story of loss at Lake Bradford Estates echoes complaints and lawsuits about the property’s owners in other parts of the U.S.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - A mound of keepsakes and debris towered at the end of Cathedral Drive. Family photos, dog cages and clothes peeked out – remnants of Paul Patchin’s life.
After the pile sat for a week, neighbors at Lake Bradford Estates began to complain. The burnt memories were rotting. And it smelled.
Patchin’s loss was palpable.
The 71-year-old sat up playing video games one night in February, as he did most nights since his partner passed nearly three years ago. His companions then: Red, Sissy and Baby Girl, his three dogs.
Suddenly, his light flicked out. When Patchin got up to check the breaker, he spotted flames.
“I ran to the bathroom and grabbed my fire extinguisher. I couldn’t get it to work, and it was too late,” he said. “Within seconds the flames were just all up the wall.”
As the fire lapped at his home of more than 20 years, his pups cowered.
“I was trying to get them out, I wasn’t even thinking about anything else,” he said. “I was wearing my pajamas. I didn’t have anything on my feet.”
Patchin sustained burns to his face and body and consumed smoke while trying to rescue his pups, but they wouldn’t leave. He couldn’t save them.
“Burned my head real bad, I lost half my hair. I was spitting out black stuff for a week,” he said.
The Tallahassee Fire Department deemed Patchin’s trailer a total loss after extinguishing the Feb. 13 structure fire. The damage was so significant, TFD said investigators could not determine the cause. Patchin and Linda Burke, his stepdaughter who owned the trailer he lived in, believe it was electrical.
Burke said the loss of the home she owned for about 30 years was “like losing an arm.” And for Patchin, the loss of his dogs was even worse.
In a devastating catastrophe, the fire and death of his dogs dealt Patchin another blow in a stream of loss and grief he and Burke weathered over the last several years. Grief and illness continue to batter the pair, who are already straining under financial pressures.
Weeks after surviving the fire, doctors diagnosed Patchin with lung and liver cancer. Burke was also diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Both are undergoing treatment.
The diagnoses followed the loss of Burke’s sister in 2019. Her mother, who was Paul’s partner of about 40 years, died in 2020. And then Burke’s husband died in 2021.
Burke said the grief has been overwhelming. On top of the losses, the pair said they faced mounting costs at Lake Bradford Estates.
The pair allege the park attempted to raise the rent for homeowners twice in less than a year. For someone like Patchin, who lives on Social Security Income, an increase is not feasible, they said.
“They just was just piling stuff on there, just piling stuff on there. And it just was, we live on fixed income. We live on a fixed income,” Burke said. “And after my momma passed, he lost half of his income. And then, there was no way. I mean if he’d have paid the amount they were asking, he’d of had $25 to live on for the whole month. Twenty-five dollars.”
Court records show they faced an eviction from the property at the end of 2022, and records through March of this year indicate the pair reached an agreement to settle the case.
The pair are far from alone in facing these proceedings.
Lake Bradford’s owners accused of raising rents in other states, facing class action lawsuit in West Virginia and tied to a hedge fund
A lawyer for nonprofit law firm Legal Services of North Florida, along with several residents WCTV spoke with, also alleged the park attempted to increase the lot rent for homeowners more than once in 12 months.
Staff attorney Mary Whitehouse said the firm is investigating the alleged increases because they may be a violation of Florida’s Mobile Home Act.
Management at Lake Bradford Estates declined to comment or answer questions, and lawyers representing the mobile home park did not respond to messages over phone and email from WCTV.
Lot rent increases are coming up across the nation, according to Whitehouse.
“This is a phenomenon that legal advocates, mobile home advocates, are seeing across the country,” Whitehouse said. “Where out-of-state developers are buying up mobile home parks. Oftentimes, they’re in more rural areas… And they come in and they raise the lot rent.”
Out-of-state companies Homes of America and Smith Management LLC both have ownership of Lake Bradford Estates, according to Florida LLC filings obtained by WCTV. News outlets in at least four other states have reported on communities seeing jumps in lot rents after being purchased by the same companies.
Smith Management LLC is listed in SEC filings as a division of hedge fund Alden Global Capital. The controversial West Palm-based investment advisor owns more than 200 newsrooms. It’s faced criticism for its management of some outlets, notably in an October 2021 report from The Atlantic alleging the hedge fund has been “gutting newsrooms.”
Recently, the hedge fund has seemed to dip its toes in acquiring mobile home parks. But it has faced criticism for changes it has made to some properties.
The Bluefield Daily Telegraph reported a nonprofit legal organization filed a class action lawsuit against the Smith LLC and Homes of America at the end of last year following their purchase of five manufactured homes in West Virginia. The paper reports lot rents at some of the properties allegedly more than doubled after the groups took over.
Last week, the paper reported a judge overseeing the proceedings paused the lot rent increases until the parks completed repairs to issues including sewer services and water runoff. The deadline for repairs is August 1, according to the May 18 report.
Lake Bradford Estates was purchased by Lake Bradford MHP LLC in May of 2021 for $657,500, according to the deed obtained by WCTV and Leon County Property Appraiser records. In state LLC filings for Lake Bradford MHP LLC, Smith Management LLC and Homes of America are listed as points of contact.
In addition, Alden Global Capital executive Tom Del Bosco is listed in Lake Bradford MHP LLC paperwork in association with Smith Management LLC.
Cardinal News in Virginia reported in November that Alden Global Capital, Homes of America, Smith Management LLC and Del Basco were tied to a mobile home park in the southwest region of the state where residents allege drastic payment increases.
In addition, a newspaper in North Dakota reporting on mobile home parks in the area ran a story in March with the headline “Homes of America operates ‘eviction mill,’ and a Louisiana news station also reported rent increases at a mobile home park after Homes of America acquired the property.
Residents at Lake Bradford Estates have also faced eviction filings because of rising costs at the park, and many left, according to the former residents and Whitehouse.
“These are poor people. These are people that live on fixed income,” Burke said. “It was affordable when we got there. And then, all of a sudden, there was no way a person that lives on Social Security could live in the neighborhood.”
According to a WCTV analysis of cases registered in the Leon County Clerk of Courts system, the amount of Landlord-Tenant cases filed at Lake Bradford Estates have risen in the last decade.
From the park’s licensing in the 1980s until 2019, there were 87 Landlord-Tenant cases that the park was involved in. The park has since been involved in 58 cases, with the last four filed May 9.
All four cases were eviction proceedings filed by Ryan Vatalaro, a lawyer from Atlas Law based in Tampa, according to records. One of the cases was dismissed before a hearing after the tenant paid $195. The other three are ongoing.
Whitehouse said this follows a trend of increases in housing-related issues in Leon County, which is experiencing an affordable housing crisis.
“Last year, in 2022, we saw there was well over 5,000 evictions filed in Leon County. I don’t know what this year’s going to look like, but to me, it looks like it’s already going to surpass that number,” the attorney said.
For Patchin, the effects of the affordable housing crisis mean his only option is to continue staying in his stepdaughter’s living room. Burke’s sister lives with them full-time, too.
Burke said that like her stepfather, she also relies on Social Security Income to pay her bills, and those funds aren’t enough to keep up with her home.
“My house needs a lot of repair done to it. But, as long as the roof don’t leak too bad and the floors, the holes ain’t so bad, we’ll be OK until I guess it falls down,” she said. “I mean, we’re doing the best we can given the situation.”
The 64-year-old’s stepfather said he doesn’t want to impose on Burke, but he can’t find anywhere he can afford.
“The house is crowded enough, you know. So I don’t want to impose. But I feel like I am sometimes,” he said.
Burke responded that Paul is welcome and not a burden. But she also said that with expense and health concerns, she doesn’t think he’ll find a place of his own again.
“You gone be here a while,” she told him. “If you find a place, it’s gonna be like 10 years from now, and there ain’t no point in you going then.”
It was hard to see her mother and Paul’s home come down, Burke said. She feels powerless.
“I want to be superwoman and fix everything, and I can’t even afford to fix the holes in my roof. It’s just, it’s hard. It’s real hard,” she said.
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