“We bought a trailer that wasn't really ours. I mean, it really hurt me. My nerves have been tore up. I've been crying.”
ROSSVILLE, Ga. — Tonya and Brian Evans crammed shelves, a dresser, a bed, some family photos and Power Rangers action figures into their Honda Odyssey last week, bound for a storage shed down the road. It was time to move on, Tonya said. They were defeated.
They bought the trailer here, on Lot 66 of Stoney Pointe Mobile Home Park, almost two years ago. Or they thought they did. Tonya Evans keeps a bill of sale with her, proof she paid $16,138 for the trailer in June 2016. A squiggly signature sits at the bottom of the paper, above the word "SELLER." She says that's a promise in writing by Tom Lackey, the park's owner.
But about five weeks ago, county workers showed up and taped a yellow seizure notice to their house. They did the same with 17 other mobiles homes at Stoney Pointe and Blue Ridge Estates, located around the block on Schmitt Road. Nobody had paid property taxes for years, the workers explained. If nothing changed, the county would auction the homes May 1.
The Evanses were guilty. They hadn't paid taxes since the purchase. Tonya Evans said she didn't know she had to do that with a trailer. (They don't own the land where it sits.) But at the tax commissioner's office, she learned part of the debt on the property dates back to before they bought the home. In all, the county expected $1,123.
Tonya Evans learned something else. The bill for the taxes did not list her as the owner. It didn't list Lackey, either. The manufactured home was in the names of the previous owners of the park, Rick and Amber Johnson. When he purchased the property in May 2014, Lackey did not get the title for each home.
"We bought a trailer that wasn't really ours," Tonya Evans said. "I mean, it really hurt me. My nerves have been tore up. I've been crying."
When she purchased the property, she said she asked Lackey for a title. She said Lackey told her she didn't need one. Last week, she said she talked to Lackey about the issue again. She said he told her he would get one for her — in three or four weeks.
Lackey did not return a call seeking comment on his personal number and two numbers for Stoney Pointe on Friday. He also did not return an email, which included a copy of the bill of sale that Tonya Evans provided to the Times Free Press.
Just as when you buy a car, you must get a title when you purchase a manufactured home. Upon purchase, you present the title to the county tax office. An employee will check the record, make sure nobody owes back taxes on it. You then get a new title in your name.
Danny Sane, the tax commissioner of Whitfield County, said a bill of sale is basically worthless. You can use it in the weeks after a purchase — when you're waiting for the new title — to prove that you have given the previous owner money for the home.
None of this should be confusing, he added.
"Dealer rules and regulations are very clear," he said. "You're not supposed to be able to sell a car or a mobile home without the title in your name."
Walker County Tax Commissioner Carolyn Walker said the purchase of a mobile home park can be confusing. You're buying the land, not necessarily the trailers inside. True, many of these acquisitions include the homes as well. But the new property owners must transfer the trailers into their names.
"Mr. Lackey must go through the proper proceedings before he can legally rent, or sell the mobile home," Walker said in an email to the Times Free Press.
When asked by the newspaper, Tonya Evans said last week she does not have a bank statement that backs up the purchase of the manufactured home. But she says she paid Lackey cash. They had just received a big check from a settlement after a car crash.
Zack England, an attorney with Warren & Griffin, verified Tonya Evans' account. On a rainy day in February 2016, England said, Brian Evans traveled on Fant Drive in Fort Oglethorpe when another driver lost control around a corner and crashed almost head-on. Brian Evans' vehicle flew off the ground before dropping back into the pavement. The roof and driver's side door collapsed.
Tonya Evans, who was driving in another car nearby at the time, said people had to drag her husband onto the road.
"He couldn't remember anything," she said. "He had blood all over his head."
England said the crash shattered Brian Evans' right femur and knee. Their 8-year-old son, Noah, suffered a concussion. England said he negotiated a $24,000 settlement with the other driver's insurance company. The money came in one check, around the summer of 2016.
The Evanses came to Stoney Pointe in June of that year, after they got kicked out of subsidized housing at Battlewood Apartments. Tonya Evans said her sister-in-law's boyfriend got arrested and claimed to live with them. She said the man was lying. But no matter: It was a violation of the apartment rules.
She called Stoney Pointe, and Lackey showed them multiple trailers. Most tenants in the park rent their homes, with the option to purchase the trailers at various points outlined in their contracts. Some of these deals are predatory, critics say, with poor tenants paying tens of thousands of dollars more than the appraised value of the trailers.
But the Evanses had just come into a lot of money. They thought the purchase of the home would be a worthy investment they could keep for years. If something happened to them, their three children would get it. They could sell it, maybe move somewhere better one day.
Before they arrived, Tonya Evans said, a contractor for the park dumped beige paint on the floor and bathtub. She and Brian Evans spent hours scrubbing it away.
"We wanted to own our own home, so we wouldn't have to leave," she said. "We wanted our kids to grow up here."
They still faced swift evictions twice. Even though they supposedly owned the home, the Evanses paid a $265 monthly lot rent, as well as about $60 a month for water. Electric bills can run north of $100, Tonya Evans said. They fell behind.
In June 2017, Lackey filed a dispossessory case against Tonya Evans in Walker County Magistrate Court. He said she owed $826. Brian Evans sold his Chevrolet Blazer, and they paid Lackey back.
In March, Lackey filed a second dispossessory case against them, this time telling a magistrate that the family owed $1,003. Tonya Evans says this wasn't true, that she has the receipts proving she made her payments. There's no transcript of what happened in court, but Magistrate Judge Jerry Day ruled in favor of Evans. Lackey has appealed to Walker County Superior Court.
Tonya Evans said they're now looking for a new place. They're leaving Stoney Pointe for a couple reasons. The trailer isn't in their name, and they don't believe they will ever receive a title. Also, they can't pay the back taxes on the property. They believe the county will kick them out, eventually. Sixteen-thousand dollars, wasted.
Though they don't receive disability, Tonya and Brian Evans say they can't work. Tonya Evans said her right hip is deteriorating. She doesn't know why; she's had problems with it since she was a child. Brian Evans said he quit his job as a bagger at Food City after the crash. Standing all day hurts his leg too much.
Their son receives a $750 disability check every month for some cognitive issues, Tonya Evans said. They also get about $1,103 a month for food stamps, which covers eight people, including two nephews and a niece who live with them.
On paper, she said, it feels like a lot of money. Then the bills come. They barely make it.
"I can't fight it," she said last week of her issues with the trailer. "I don't have the money to get a lawyer."
There is a twist, though. The Walker County Tax Commissioner's website shows that the taxes are clear, after all. Someone — maybe Lackey — paid off a little more than $1,000 of the bill for the Evanses' property. When a reporter read this information from the website to Tonya Evans, she yelled, "Are you freaking kidding me?"
This seemed like good news. But then she thought about the issue a little bit more. They had already moved most of their belongings to a trailer, leaving them with only a couple beds, some food, some clothes, TVs and towels.
And then there was the whole money thing. They didn't plan to stay, and they already spent what they could have used for lot rent and the utility bills.
"We don't have the money," she said. "I don't know what to do."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.