ROSSVILLE — In the trailer parks off Schmidt Road, where the roofs leak and the doors don't quite close, residents wonder where they'll live next.
For at least three years, nobody paid property taxes on 18 trailers in the Stoney Pointe Mobile Home Park and Blue Ridge Estates. The parks are around the corner from each other. Both are owned by a man named Tom Lackey, of Roswell, Ga.
The combined back-tax debt for these trailers is $20,500, according to the Walker County tax commissioner. Though he owns the parks, Lackey does not own all of the mobile homes, property records show. Still, half of those 18 trailers belong to him, with a debt of $10,200.
Last week, county workers taped yellow sheets of paper to those 18 mobile homes. "NOTICE," they read. "This property has been seized." The county will auction the trailers off on May 1.
Residents said this problem isn't their fault. They're only renters. And it's not that they didn't pay their rent, they said. They paid about $600 a month. The problem is, Lackey hasn't held up his end.
"We don't want to move," said one resident. "If he don't pay the taxes, we don't have a choice."
The four residents who spoke to the Times Free Press requested anonymity. They said they feared Lackey's employees would evict them. Or the employees would increase their rent. One tenant said she was on disability. Another said he lived off Social Security checks. Another said she lived in her car before renting one of Lackey's mobile homes.
Lackey did not return multiple calls seeking comment Friday. But residents said he has sent word: He will pay the taxes back. In fact, one resident said, employees told her Lackey had already paid the taxes, despite the public record to the contrary.
Some said they are wondering whether to leave now or wait for May 1, hoping Lackey follows through.
"I don't trust him," one woman said. "I trust him as far as I can throw him."
'We have nowhere to go'
One woman told the Times Free Press she signed a lease with Lackey's company within the last six months. When she found the county's notice on her mobile home last week, the property's maintenance man told her that was everything was OK. Supposedly, the man said, the notice actually meant that Lackey had already paid the property tax.
The tax commissioner's records say otherwise. As of Friday, Lackey owed more than $1,000 on the woman's mobile home, with taxes due since 2015.
"They're taking advantage of me," the woman said. "The owner; the whole group of them."
Another woman facing eviction said she has struggled to find affordable housing for her family. They moved here from South Georgia a couple of years ago, and an old friend recommended Lackey's trailer parks. She said they were nice and affordable.
The woman quickly became disenchanted. She said maintenance was slow to fix broken doors. She saw mold in people's bathrooms and bedrooms. A chunk of roof even caved in on one woman in the park while she slept in bed with her daughter.
Someone in the community got a text this week, supposedly from Lackey. It says he will pay the debt before the trailers go to auction.
"I'm angry," she said. "I'm confused. I feel like my family is at the mercy of Tom right now."
A couple of trailers over, a man says he is worried he'll be next. While 18 trailers will go on the auction block next month, tax commissioner records show, Lackey is at least one year behind payment on another 20 trailers. All of them are in his company's name. The combined debt is $9,400.
The man told the Times Free Press he moved here after his daughter's landlord kicked him out of a home in Fort Oglethorpe because too many family members were living inside. Social Security checks are his means of income. He said they provide too much money for public housing officials to accept him. Lackey's $600 rent is the best he can do.
The man's mobile home sits on a tilt. And the floors are water damaged from a past tenant. And the electricity stopped working in part of the house at some point last year. Still, his family wants to stay.
"I don't know what to do," he said. "We're kind of in a bind. We have nowhere to go."
Lackey bought Blue Ridge Estates in 2013. He bought Stoney Pointe Mobile Home Park the next year. But the county hasn't collected property taxes on some of the trailers in the park since 2009.
Tax Commissioner Carolyn Walker said this isn't for a lack of trying. Former owners abandoned the area, leaving the tax bills behind. (Multiple trailers up for auction in the park sit empty with broken windows.)
In general, the county puts property up for auction after an owner fails to pay taxes for longer than a year. But for auctions to work, you need buyers willing to pay the back taxes. And people aren't exactly lining up for old trailers, some with mold and rats.
"They're not going to sell, probably," Walker said. "But there's nothing else I can do. I can't seize them."
In some cases, people just move into the trailers without actually buying them. They could go to magistrate court, Walker said, and contest that the property is abandoned. But the whole process is tedious. It takes paperwork.
In theory, the county government could take these trailers. Technically, the county would have to buy them at the auction and pay itself. But county spokesman Joe Legge said Commissioner Shannon Whitfield isn't interested. If the county had the trailers, it would have to rent a lot from the owner of the park, Lackey.
"Financially," Legge said, "we would not be interested. And it sounds like a big hassle."
There is another option. The county can offer these mobile homes for less than the back taxes owed on them, hoping to attract buyers. County Attorney Matt Williamson said he is interested in the idea.
He's not holding his breath, though. He said the county tried that years ago. The plan worked, sort of. A handful of buyers bought some old mobile homes — but only a small percentage of those available.
"This is not going to be a silver bullet or an easy fix," he said. "This is more like a Band-Aid instead of a tourniquet."
And what, exactly, would a tourniquet look like? Williamson isn't sure, exactly.
"We're still considering different options," he said.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.