Trailer Hitches

Jean Weisbrich (with husband Earl), who led the charge from trailer No. 13: "Kjellberg's picked the wrong person to pick on"
Sean Smuda

"The water came out of the spigot like pudding sometimes. Like thick, lumpy, black pudding." Pauline Collins wrinkles her nose, remembering the gunk that had poured from the faucets in her trailer at Kjellberg's mobile-home park near Monticello. Then she adds, "Some mothers said that after bath time their kids got rashes. Can you believe it?"

Kjellberg's Park sits about a mile south of the main intersection of Monticello, just beyond the metro area's northwest suburbs. The park straddles Highway 25--300 mobile homes sitting on handkerchief lots, surrounded by soybean, potato, and corn fields. On a weekday afternoon in mid-September the narrow, tree-lined streets are quiet: A shirtless guy leans under his car hood, checking the oil; a gray-haired man waters his grass; kids ride by on bikes. On redwood decks, plastic pinwheels twirl amid colorful flower pots. Anyone passing through might not suspect that lawsuits are tearing the place apart.

Number 637, where Bernice and Barry Halberg live with their two sons in a trailer they bought for $6,000 this summer, got a taste of the strife not long ago. In August Kjellberg's management told the Halbergs that they were required to install vinyl siding and skirting on their aluminum-clad home. If they refused? They'd be out by December 15.

The couple signed a paper agreeing to abide by the requirement, even while trying to figure out how in the world to scrounge up the thousands of dollars they'd need to pay for new siding. That was before they found out that the order may violate Minnesota Statute 327C, which says that manufactured-home park rules must be "reasonable." Surely, they figured, this one wasn't.

Reasonable or not, several families in the park have in recent years been ordered to vinyl-side their homes or face eviction. Bernice Halberg--a petite woman with jet-black hair pinned up in a ponytail--says neither her family nor any other she knows at Kjellberg's can afford to comply with the order: "Probably 95 percent of the young people in this park work in the fast-food places in town--the DQ, McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, or at Cub and Kmart. I mean, nobody makes much money. If we did, we wouldn't live here."

The siding issue isn't the only thing on park dwellers' laundry list of complaints. Residents own their homes and lease the lots at Kjellberg's--paying an average monthly fee of $260, which covers land rental and costs for sewer, water, and weekly garbage pickup. (That arrangement is standard for nearly all of the state's 125,000-plus trailer-park residents.) But a good share of the folks who live at Kjellberg's Park say the services they receive just aren't acceptable.

The water? It turns black about once a week, residents say, and is vile-smelling. John Simola, Monticello's director of public works, has heard their grievances, but because the park and its wells are privately owned by Kjellberg's Inc., he has no jurisdiction over the situation. "We've received numerous complaints from residents about water, but our hands are tied," Simola says. "All we can do is pass them on to the county and the health department."

And the sewer? According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, it has long been defying state standards. The agency had been wrangling with Kjellberg's for nearly a decade; the matter, says MPCA compliance coordinator Tod Eckberg, is "clearly the longest case we've worked on." Eckberg explains that the agency filed a lawsuit in 1991 in Wright County District Court against Kjellberg's Inc. on the claim that the park's sewage-treatment system wasn't up to code. "We were alleging that they were polluting surface and ground waters," he recalls. "They had nothing--a big septic tank, discharged into a wetland."

Even garbage collection comes with a hitch. In August Kjellberg's Inc. filed suit in federal court against the City of Monticello, charging that the city cannot charge park management for trash pickup because its residents are taxpaying homeowners and thus entitled to free services.

Simply put, Kjellberg's Park is a lawsuit-addled place.


Jean Weisbrich, who lives with her husband Earl in No. 13, knows it all too well. She finally got tired of the way she and her neighbors were being treated, so late last year she picked up her phone and called All Parks Alliance for Change (APAC), a St. Paul-based advocacy group for trailer-park dwellers statewide.

APAC immediately hit the narrow streets at Kjellberg's, says alliance organizer Miriam Wyman. "In November 1998 we came in and flyered the park, generally letting residents know we were out there and giving them our toll-free hotline." That prompted a letter from Thad Yuker, the park's resident manager, informing them that they "must obtain permission to trespass" at the court. APAC turned to the attorney general's office for assistance and got it: AG attorneys in December informed Kjellberg's that it was the group's constitutional right to distribute leaflets in the park for noncommercial purposes.  

Even so, APAC's campaign got little response from residents. "The first meeting I had out there, three people showed up," Wyman recalls. "Later, residents told me they were too afraid to come: If management knew they were there they'd get picked on."

Yuker dismisses that fear as unfounded; no one in management, he says, has ever stood in APAC's way or intimidated residents who want to discuss their living conditions with organizers. "Why should I care if somebody goes to a meeting?" he asks. "There are people that go to APAC, there are people that like Hitler. I can't take these things personally."

That's not been Weisbrich's impression. The couple bought their Forestbrook in 1990 and moved it onto a lot; her brother-in-law lived in the park and had told them life at Kjellberg's was good enough to recommend. But nine years later, her husband says, he "can't believe what Jean's been finding out. It's like the slumlords you hear about in New York City."

This spring Weisbrich learned that some of their neighbors were getting sick. She began to wonder if their illnesses had to do with the water. She got on the horn again, this time calling the Minnesota Department of Health to voice her concerns. As a result inspectors rescheduled their routine review for an earlier date. In late May they discovered a potentially harmful form of coliform bacteria contaminating one of the park's wells.

Health department staff wasted no time in drawing up a flyer warning residents to boil their drinking water; Weisbrich set about distributing it to every home. And it didn't take long for word to reach Yuker and Kjellberg's owners that the handout was making the rounds.

The park's owners, Weisbrich claims, began keeping tabs on her leafletting, even to the point of following her down the streets. "Residents were coming out of their trailers to ask me about the flyer," Weisbrich says; "I would keep walking, point my head over to the truck and the van, and say, 'They're watching me. I don't want you to be in trouble. I gotta go.'"

The lawsuits started flying again. For starters Kjellberg's Inc. filed a claim against APAC and Weisbrich in Wright County District Court alleging, among other things, defamation, and concluding that if APAC and Weisbrich did not curtail their activities, Kjellberg's would be "irreparably harmed in its business operations."

On the tenants' side, APAC secured pro bono assistance from Tom White, an attorney with Klein & White in Edina. At the same time, red flags were going up at the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, whose lawyers contended that the lawsuit disregarded Weisbrich's right to free speech. In mid-July, they hooked her up with Todd Noteboom, an attorney with the Minneapolis firm of Leonard Street & Deinard who agreed to take the case free of charge.

Noteboom filed a counterclaim against Kjellberg's on behalf of Weisbrich which, he says, argued that "by prohibiting Jean from leafletting in the park and freely communicating with her neighbors, her First Amendment rights had been violated." He adds that "Kjellberg's had their sights set on Jean, and we were firing back."

In the meantime, Kjellberg's served eviction papers on two residents--Ron Rutz and Steve Leino--who had not obeyed orders to vinyl-side their homes. Attorney Julie Fishel of Winthrop & Weinstine took that case, also on a pro bono basis. Fishel explains: "Our issue is that it's unreasonable. There are less expensive alternatives." Under Minnesota law, she says, park owners are allowed only to instigate rules that are "reasonable"; that residents' trailers all must be vinyl-sided certainly doesn't qualify.

Such a rule, she argues, places a tremendous financial burden on park dwellers: "Either residents--who by and large don't have access to legal services--decide to completely vinyl-side, which we've been seeing run from $3,500 to $7,000, or they are evicted and lose their home because they can't afford to move it or can't find a park that will take their older home."

Something had to give. It did, this summer, when Kjellberg's began following an agreed-upon schedule to bring their sewage system up to code. In late July, the City of Monticello started taking bids for a city-sewer extension out to the park--exactly what the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency had suggested in its long-running suit.

As of this week, four of the remaining court cases appeared headed for out-of-court resolution. (Kjellberg's suit against APAC and its claim against the City of Monticello concerning garbage service are still pending.) Attorney Todd Noteboom reports, "Kjellberg's has just agreed to dismiss claims against Weisbrich, and Weisbrich has agreed to dismiss her counterclaim."  

As for the unlawful detainers against Rutz and Leino, it appears that the defendants will prevail in two ways--by successfully fighting their evictions and by permanently altering the vinyl-clad rule. Attorney Fishel calls the settlements fair: "Kjellberg's can require re-siding, but only after the home reaches a certain level of disrepair. And the owner can choose the siding."

The settlements may mark the beginning of a more concerted effort to raise the living conditions in the park. At Kjellberg's and other trailer courts around Minnesota, Fishel points out, "APAC comes in and gives park residents this [empowered] mindset--they say, 'You have a right to question park rules.'"

That right was something Weisbrich never doubted. "Kjellberg's," she says with a grin, "picked the wrong person to pick on."

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