Alejandra Rivera was already working less than usual when she had to undergo surgery in February. The nail technician used to do at least eight sets of nails a week; the pandemic brought her down to two. When she couldn’t work at all for 12 weeks, her 20-year-old son left school and picked up a full-time job.

She wants him to go back, but a new increase in the rent at Ridgewood Mobile Home Park may mean it’s impossible.

“They’re going to raise the rent up to 40 percent for some, but they have not responded to the serious health and safety concerns that we have,” Rivera says in Spanish, translated through a supporter. “They are squeezing us.”

Rivera is one of four residents who spoke at the entrance of Congressman David Price’s office on June 29, but they represented a group of about 40 residents who were struggling with their new landlords, an LLC owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital (a group also known as the “destroyer of newspapers” for its consumption and decimation of regarded newsrooms such as the Chicago Tribune). 

In April, the new owners sent out a new lease agreement to residents regarding rent increases that they were told they had to sign by June 30. The information was sent in English, despite nearly all of the households in Ridgewood speaking only Spanish. The contract also states that residents will be charged for water and septic use, even though they use well water.

“We also tried to talk with the owners through the managers, to try to negotiate with them that they do not increase our rent again, since we are going through a pandemic, and the rent increases range from $65 to $150 for some of my neighbors,” Rivera says.

The group of residents organized a press conference with their supporters, asking Price to intervene in the contract negotiations on their behalf. Aside from rent increases, the group has concerns about sewage buildup and dead trees that could damage their homes, as well as the contractual inability for them to sell their mobile homes directly; now, they must sell to Smith Management, the LLC, or move them off the property.

Jane Gump, a retired widow and 27-year resident of the park, says her rent has increased by $150. She also brought photos of her backed-up septic system, which is pooling in her yard after being cleaned the month prior. She has been told by the property managers that the new owners are preventing them from submitting and fulfilling work orders.

“That will just increase and overflow into the next yard, and children play there,” Gump says.

The issues between residents and their new landlords is not new; they previously tried to work through their concerns privately but couldn’t resolve them. 

Julia Sendor, the media relations coordinator for the residents and a community organizer at Orange County Justice United, says representatives of Smith Management were surprised when they received a call from the group, and told them not to call the company again.

“We were trying to figure out the right moment, and then it came all of a sudden,” Sendor says.

The INDY contacted two employees of Smith Management for this story, but neither responded to requests for comment.

In a press statement last week, Price said that while he couldn’t directly solve private housing disputes, he planned to speak to residents on July 6, after this story went to print.

“Too many residents are being pushed out of their homes due to rising rents, low wages, and unsafe conditions,” Price said in the statement. “We must work at every level of government to make housing a priority and ensure families can stay in their homes.”

The group also plans to speak to the Orange County Housing and Community Development Department on Wednesday. Although the community has a Chapel Hill mailing address, it is outside of town limits and under jurisdiction of only the county.

For now, Sendor says the majority of the residents have signed contracts but will keep trying to negotiate and work toward potential litigation.

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