Mobile home tenants, landowners at an impasse

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DOVER, Del. (AP) - After months of negotiations, owners of mobile homes in Delaware still haven't found common ground with landlords who own the parks in which the homes sit.

A hearing by a House committee trying to provide certain protections to tenants whose mobile home parks are being sold was abruptly adjourned Tuesday when it became clear the negotiations were at an impasse.

The panel chairman, Rep. Robert Valihura, accused the tenants of reneging on agreements in principle that were reached with the landlords several weeks ago.

"It is the essence of bad faith negotiations," said a frustrated Valihura, who shouted and pounded the table repeatedly during Tuesday's meeting of the House Subcommittee on Manufactured Housing.

The meeting was part of an effort to draft a compromise bill that would give residents of a mobile home park the chance to purchase the property if it is offered for sale, thereby avoiding possible eviction, while also protecting the economic interests of park owners.

"I thought we were going to get that resolution today, I really did," said Valihura, adding that tenants need to "think about what their position is."

Meanwhile, a bill giving tenants a right of first refusal remains stuck in Valihura's committee.

"The bill is going to remain in committee until I find five (members) ... who say bring it back and we're not going to negotiate anymore," said Valihura, R-Wilmington.

Landlords believe that giving a tenant group the right of first refusal could deter other potential buyers and thus negatively affect the value of a property. They have not ruled out the possibility of a court challenge if such legislation is passed.

"There is uniform commitment from every park owner that we have no interest in giving up the right of first refusal," said Jerome Heisler, who is leading negotiations for the landlords. "... The legislature can do that for us, but nobody is going to do it willingly."

Among the key issues to be resolved in crafting a compromise bill is whether, and how, landlords should be able to sell their properties at auction. Under a tentative proposal, the tenants would be allowed a final chance to beat the landlord's auction price. But the tenants are holding out for the ability to make the first offer to buy a property before an auction, which they believe would drive up the price and put them at a competitive disadvantage.

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"We're still at polar opposites on the auctions," said Chris White, an attorney representing the homeowners.

"Raising our voices and slamming the table isn't going to get us there," White added in a barbed criticism of Valihura.

Tenants also fear that landowners might try to set up rival tenant organizations, and that there needs to be a way to define who rightfully represents the tenants of a park being considered for sale.

Fred Neil, a spokesman for the Delaware Manufactured Homeowners Association, suggested that Valihura is allowing park owners to keep inserting "gotcha" provisions into the discussions after tentative agreements are reached.

"I feel very much like you are a magician with playing cards, forcing things into our hands," he told Valihura.

But Heisler accused Neil of being the roadblock.

"There's no constructive dialogue on the other side at this point," he said. "... Our goal is to benefit everybody, not just to protect one party."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. Active hyperlinks have been inserted by AOL.

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