The Manufactured Housing Dispute Resolution Program: What You Need to Know
What is the Manufactured Housing Dispute Resolution Program?
In an effort to create a more equitable, less costly, and more efficient means for manufactured/mobile home community landlords and tenants to resolve disputes arising from the rights and duties articulated in the Manufactured/Mobile Home Landlord-Tenant Act (“MHLTA” RCW 59.20), the Washington State Legislature enacted RCW 59.30 back in 2007. It is presently administered by the Washington State Attorney General’s Manufactured Housing Dispute Resolution Program (“MHDRP”).
The Legislature believed that the unique factors of tenancy in a manufactured housing community generated inequality of bargaining position between landlords and tenants, and that tenants were often financially unable to adequately protect their rights under the MHLTA or to relocate their homes affordably in the event their tenancy was terminated. To address these concerns, the MHDRP was created to provide landlords and tenants the opportunity to submit disputes to a third party who could assist in their resolution as an alternative to resolving the matter through litigation.
From the MHDRP website, atg.wa.gov/manufactured-housing-dispute-resolution-program, the Program defines its mission as follows:
The Manufactured Housing Dispute Resolution Program enforces the Manufactured/Mobile Home Landlord Tenant Act, educates stakeholders, and fosters relationships between manufactured/mobile home community land owners and homeowners. We facilitate communication among parties in an effort to resolve disputes and avoid evictions.
Further, the MHDRP represents itself as a neutral party, stating:
We do not represent landlords or tenants but advance the public interest as a neutral third party negotiating an agreement that complies with the MHLTA. If an agreement cannot be reached we may formally investigate and move forward with enforcement action.
Historically, the MHDRP most often investigates tenant complaints. In 2017, the MHDRP fielded 243 complaints from tenants compared to only 11 from landlords. Historical data prior to 2017 suggests investigative patterns even more favorable to tenant complaints and with minimal investigation of landlord complaints that a tenant is in violation of the MHLTA.
After the recent onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the issuance of Proclamation 20-05, the eviction moratorium from Governor Jay Inslee, landlords have increased filing their own MHDRP complaints for dispute resolution with tenants violating their responsibilities under the MHLTA. The MHDRP recognizes that its jurisdiction is limited to only those disputes that arise under RCW 59.20. Therefore, it lacks the ability to investigate or mediate any disputes outside the scope of the rights and duties explicitly articulated in the MHLTA. For that reason, any landlord considering filing a complaint against an offending tenant should remember that the complaint must allege violations of the MHLTA, specifically the section on tenant duties (RCW 59.20.140), for the MHDRP to assert jurisdiction over the dispute. Further information on the MHDRP’s quarterly and annual statistics, including the annual reports to the Legislature, can be found here: atg.wa.gov/program-statistics-and-case-outcomes
The MHDRP program is funded by an annual $10 fee collected from each mobile home park lot space that is split equally between the tenant and the landlord. While landlords are responsible for payment of the full fee directly to the MHDRP, landlords have the right to collect the tenant’s $5 portion. Equal payment of this fee by both parties, instead of landlords bearing the full financial burden, was negotiated strenuously at the time the bill was drafted. This benefit is only realized if landlords protect their right to collect half the fee from the tenant.
What are the MHDRP’s Procedures for Investigating Disputes?
The MHDRP, in general, will not investigate a dispute between a landlord or a tenant unless requested to do so by one party or the other. To initiate the dispute resolution process, a party must file a complaint with the program and allege that the other party has breached an explicit duty or infringed upon an expressed right of the complaining party as enumerated under the MHLTA.
Parties must file a written complaint and transmit that complaint to the MHDRP by regular mail, email, or fax. Forms must be completed by the complainant and not on their behalf. Homeowners Associations may not file complaints on behalf of a specific tenant or tenants belonging to their association.
After a complaint is received, the MHDRP will evaluate the complaint and determine if the complaint alleges a violation of RCW 59.20. In practice, the MHDRP affords tenants broad leeway to assert a violation of the MHLTA. A specific duty need not be referenced to accept the complaint and begin the dispute resolution process.
Once opened, the MHDRP will begin what it refers to as Step 3: The Negotiation Phase. The Program will contact the opposing party, forward a copy of the complaint, and request a written response to the allegations contained in the complaint. It is at this stage that a prudent MHC owner will prepare a detailed response to the complaint. An effective response will include legal arguments that no violation of the MHLTA has occurred and supplemental facts that supports the owner’s position that the complaining tenant may have omitted in the original complaint. Time and effort spent on the response at this stage can resolve the matter and save the owner from the substantial time and expenses incurred if the process proceeds beyond this initial inquiry.
Accompanying the communication from the Attorney General’s office and the original complaint is a flow chart that explains the various stages of the dispute resolution process which can be viewed here.
After the Negotiation phase is completed, or if the opposing party elects not to participate, the Program will once again review the complaint to determine if further investigation is warranted. If not, it will issue an “Administrative Closure,” which is a decision finding that the matter is resolved to both parties’ satisfaction or that there appears to be no actual violation of the MHLTA.
If the MHDRP suspects a violation of RCW 59.20 has occurred, it will open a formal investigation and begin Step 5: Investigation and Determination phase. Investigations will end one of five ways:
- Settlement Agreement: The parties agree to a resolution that may include terms requiring one or both parties to take actionable steps to assure compliance with the MHLTA.
- Compliance Met: The opposing party took action to correct the violation before the MHDRP issued a finding of violation or a settlement was reached.
- Notice of Violation: The MHDRP determines that a violation of the MHLTA has occurred. At this point, the party found in violation has 15 days to appeal the decision to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) or accept the decision of the MHDRP and pay fines until it takes the corrective action prescribed by the Program. If the decision is appealed, an Administrative Law Judge will hear the case and render findings that replace the decision made by the MHDRP. The Judge may elect to affirm the position of the MHDRP or could overturn the MHDRP’s decision and find that no violation has occurred. The Judge’s decision generally becomes the MHDRP’s official position on the case.
- Notice of Non-Violation: The MHDRP determines that the MHLTA has not been violated after investigating the complaint. The complaining party may appeal this decision to OAH just as the opposing party may appeal a Notice of Violation.
- Notice of Deactivation: The MHDRP lacks the information necessary to complete the investigation and puts the investigation on inactive status, which could change if more information arrives later. This outcome is rare.
What should I do if I Receive a Complaint from MHDRP?
Remember, receiving a complaint means that the MHDRP is only at Stage 3 of the dispute resolution process and has not officially opened an investigation. The vast majority of complaints are lodged from tenants who, while perhaps dissatisfied with some condition of their tenancy or unhappy with their landlord, have not experienced an action by their landlord that violates the MHLTA. Make sure to carefully note your requested response date, and if you are unable to provide a response by that date, contact the MHDRP and request a reasonable amount of additional time to prepare a response.
When preparing your response to the complaint, stick to the issues that the tenant originally complained about. You should look to the MHLTA and attempt to reconcile the alleged action with your duties and rights under RCW 59.20. Remember, a thorough response will include legal and factual arguments that address the complaint and provide any supporting documentation. Address the alleged violations concisely, explain why the alleged actions are falsely stated, incorrectly applied, or do not constitute a violation, and conclude by requesting that the complaint be dismissed.
When should I Contact an Attorney for Help with the MHDRP?
When you should seek the assistance of an attorney in responding to an MHDRP complaint varies on a case-by-case basis. There are attorneys who are very experienced in dealing with the MHDRP and have a high success rate of having complaints dismissed at the Negotiation phase before any formal investigation begins. However, as we all know, legal representation is not cheap.
Here are some factors to consider when determining if you need legal representation for your complaint.
- Your level of comfort in drafting a written response to the MHDRP that adequately addresses the issues of the complaint and reconciles them with the MHLTA.
- Whether or not the alleged offense occurred at all.
- Whether or not the alleged action is a violation of the MHLTA.
- Your prior experience handling MHDRP complaints and the outcomes of those cases.
- The financial cost of hiring an attorney compared to the likelihood that a response prepared by a legal professional will help you properly convey the performance of your duties or exercise of your rights under the MHLTA.
It is highly recommended that you consult with an attorney if you reach Stage 5 of the MHDRP process, the Investigation and Determination phase. If you are found to be in violation of the MHLTA and you still believe your actions are proper under the law, you will likely want to appeal the decision. When you appear before an Administrative Law Judge, the MHDRP will be advocating directly on behalf of their findings under the program, and at that point they transition from a third-party to an adversary in litigation.
Under no circumstances should you agree to any terms in which the MHDRP’s interpretation of the law erodes your rights as a landlord under the MHLTA or as a property owner. These rights are valuable not just to yourself, but your fellow MHC owners as well. A failure to defend these rights could embolden the MHDRP or tenant advocacy groups to apply similar reasoning in the future and fundamentally shift the nature of the landlord/tenant relationship under the MHLTA negatively for landlords.
This management bulletin was prepared by Michael McLaughlin, Managing Attorney at Michael D. McLaughlin, PLLC, in consultation with RHAWA. Since becoming a lawyer in 2014, Michael has centered his practice around providing MHC landlords comprehensive legal counsel on transactional matters and in litigation, including defending them against MHDRP, Fair Housing, and HUD complaints. Michael has represented MHC landlords in many MHDRP complaints resulting in dismissals before initiation of the formal investigation stage of the process.