Trailer park residents given notice to leave after landlord lets water bill lapse

Trailer park residents given notice to leave after landlord lets water bill lapse

August 31st, 2015 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

LaFAYETTE, Ga. — Nikki Cortez took a jug of water, splashed it into a pan and heated it up on the stove.

Mixing in some cool water to make the liquid bearable, she dumped the pan into her plugged bathroom sink, poured in some soap and dipped her washrag. She pressed it against her skin and began to scrub.

These days, at the Pear Pine Mobile Home Park, this is the most effective way to get clean.

"We're on our own little deserted island," Cortez said. "You survive the best way you know how."

Gallery: Life without waterTrailer park residents given notice to leave after landlord lets water bill lapse

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It was about five weeks ago, on July 22, that Cortez heard some neighbors shouting. That happens here sometimes, she said. The place attracts a rowdy crowd. But this time, they yelled about a man-made drought.

LaFayette city officials had shut off their water supply. Their landlord, Fernando Gene Fernandez, had fallen behind on the utility bill. Someone made a payment of $1,500 on June 17. But that was $4,000 short, the city manager said.

That amount ballooned to $8,600 before city officials turned off the water main and fastened a padlock around it.

Cortez, who has lived here with her disabled husband for eight years, said she could adapt. She can't wash her clothes, but she can use her friend's washing machine. She can't flush, but she can save rainwater in a tub and pour it down the toilet. And while she can't use the shower, her bird bath will do.

Compared to others in the trailer park, she's efficient. Some said they just plain stopped taking showers last month. William Anderson said he dunked his head in a bucket of rainwater until a friend let him use his shower.

There is no official tally of how many residents have stayed at Pear Pine since the city shut off the water. Of the more than 20 trailers, some were grown up in brush and uninhabited, others dilapidated but recently lived-in.

One woman, who asked not to be identified, said she counted 16 people. Cortez guessed the number was closer to eight, though more people than that walked around outside their trailers one day last week.

Some people found friends or family members to take them in. But those who stayed behind say they don't have much of a choice.

Empty water bottles are seen in the trunk of a car at the Pear Pines Mobile Home Park on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015, in LaFayette, Ga. Few residents remain after the landlord's financial problems caused water to be turned off at the property several weeks ago.

Empty water bottles are seen in the trunk...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Cortez said local apartment complexes whose rents are similar to the trailer park's $370 a month are all booked. The city's public housing comes with a three- to six-month waiting list. And those in the trailer park with felony convictions don't even have that option, assuming they could wait that long.

But the remaining Pear Pine residents will need to find a place soon. On Friday, city officials placed condemnation stickers on the trailers. Claiming the current living conditions are a health hazard, the city is giving residents 30 days to leave.

City Manager David Hamilton said he doesn't have a better option. He can't give taxpayer money to a charity to help the residents. And even if he let the water continue to run, there are still pipe leaks, sewage leaks, dilapidated trailers.

"We've tried to be very patient, very sympathetic to the residents who are still living there," Hamilton said. "But when we have a residence that doesn't have potable water, it doesn't meet the minimum living standards."

Located next to El Trio Mexican Restaurant off U.S. Highway 27, Pear Pine wasn't always so bad, some residents say. April Barbare, who lived here in 1999 before returning at the beginning of this year, said the former owners took care of the place. But now she sees knee-high grass and human waste.

Cortez said the problems began when the Fernandez family bought the property for their son, Gene, in 2010. He was lazy, she said. When the trailers began breaking down, he ignored complaints. He hired managers but refused to pay them.

In August 2011, a tenant sued, claiming he injured himself when his floor caved in. Cortez's own living room floor has holes in it, which she said Fernandez ignored.

April Barbare's son, Steve, said he fell through his front porch earlier this year, injuring his hips and costing him work. He also said a trailer where he used to live in Pear Pine had a faulty outlet. Sparks flew off it. At night, when he tried to sleep, he accidentally rolled against the wall, shocking himself. He said Fernandez ignored his complaints, too.

The tenant later dropped the suit. In June 2013, police arrested Fernandez for fighting with a tenant. A state court solicitor later dropped those charges.

In November 2013, police arrested Fernandez again, this time for pointing a gun at a tenant. Police said Fernandez retreated to his own trailer and holed up for three hours, until officers threw cans of pepper spray through his windows. Prosecutors agreed not to pursue those charges against Fernandez in December 2014.

One trailer park resident said that's about the time they stopped seeing Fernandez. Hamilton said city officials don't know where he is, just that he has stopped paying bills.

Georgia property records show Gene Fernandez as the registered agent for Quality of Life Investments LLC, whose local address is 38 Jessie Drive.

Last week, some residents said, a woman they didn't know stopped by with bottles of water. She told them she had heard about the problems at the trailer park and wanted to help. Other than her, though, they haven't received much in the way of charity.

"There's a lot of big churches in the area," said April Barbare. "It has surprised me. We have a reputation, though. Drugs. Crime. We're dangerous."

Added Cortez: "(Fernandez) let everyone in here. No background checks. He just didn't care."

She sat on her front porch, next to her tub of rainwater, just in case she needed to go the bathroom again.

"I don't know what people think in the outside world," she said.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6476.


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