The owners of Smoke Creek say they created an oasis in the quiet hills south of Snellville. Children now shout in a swimming pool that was once filled with murky water. A small fountain in the manufactured housing park churns in a clear pond once described as “mosquito alley.”
Working-class renters can have all this, plus access to Gwinnett County’s acclaimed schools, for a couple hundred dollars less per month than what they’d pay for a house in one of the subdivisions nearby. If you have troubled credit, Smoke Creek can help. Six months of on-time rent earns residents a chance to buy one of the manufactured homes.
Yes! Communities, which operates Smoke Creek, is the nation’s fourth largest landlord of manufactured homes with affordable housing in its mission. Stepping in where government has pulled back, the for-profit company gives working-class families a rare shot at renting or owning in safe neighborhoods near decent schools.
But it’s also one of metro Atlanta’s most aggressive eviction filers, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found. Yes files eviction notices at nearly twice the average rate, according for an AJC analysis. This amounted to about 1,000 filings for its nearly 1,800 units in 2016. It filed days earlier and far more often than the landlord it replaced.
Yes is a big player in a trend recently revealed by the AJC: landlords are increasingly using the threat of eviction as leverage to collect overdue rent, rather than to remove tenants. This practice, which surprised even the experts, emerged from an examination of seven years of eviction filings in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties.
Yes argues that its eviction filings are only a small part of a unique approach that makes for financially stable, happier families. An eviction notice encourages tenants to choose to pay the current month’s rent sooner, which helps them pay on time the following month, said TC Brown, Atlanta regional manager for Yes.
“It sets them on a path to success,” Brown said. “It’s always their decision on what they’re going to do.”
About 90 percent of households that receive eviction notices from Yes catch up on their unpaid rent, late fees and utilities, according to Yes’ figures.
Yes has resounding financial support for its brand of private, affordable housing. It arranged for $1 billion in financial backing from government-sponsored housing behemoths Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and is now majority owned by an investment fund run by the Singapore government. With that support, Denver-based Yes has grown to operate more than 54,000 home sites in 18 states — enough to make up a mid-sized city — and currently holds six parks in metro Atlanta’s core counties.
Yet for families who live paycheck to paycheck, take on too much financial risk to live in better neighborhoods, or simply overestimate their ability to abide by the terms of their leases, the threat of eviction puts many tenants in a state of crisis, with no good ways out.
Rent comes due
Priscilla Vetaw had already staved off four eviction attempts in eight months when May rent came due at Smoke Creek.
The math was the same, no matter how many times she counted. Between the money in her bank account, a state tax refund, an uncashed check, three pre-paid cards and a handful of cash, she was $162 short on her rent.
Payments at Smoke Creek were due on May 1, late on the second and drew penalties after the 5th. Vetaw’s next payday from her customer service job fell on the 8th. New rules she found tacked to her door warned that if she missed deadline one more time she and her four children would be evicted.
To understand the impact of repeated eviction filings on tenants in Atlanta’s increasingly unaffordable housing market, the AJC followed Vetaw as she tried to stay in her Smoke Creek home.
She’d worked as a phlebotomist, medical assistant, food truck proprietor and a security guard at one of the tallest buildings in the world to support her children. So far, she had made it work. Her eldest son was set to graduate from Shiloh High School in May and planned to go on to college.
Vetaw tried to turn on the kitchen sink, which hadn’t run for hours because of maintenance problems. It still didn’t work.
“I feel like I’m on the edge of an emotional breakdown,” she whispered.
Yes: ‘A lifestyle of feeling’
Yes launched in 2008 when the manufactured home industry’s fortunes were at their worst. Mortgages had been so easy to get during the run up to the housing crash that consumers turned away from manufactured homes, which only lose their value with time. The industry was also notorious for predatory practices that trapped buyers and renters in homes they could not afford.
With the help of longtime business partner Stockbridge, a $2.6 billion San Francisco-based private equity firm, Yes used its access to hundreds of millions of dollars to buy and operate communities that hearkened back to the industry’s affordable roots. Its managers boast they run communities, not trailer parks, and showcase holiday gatherings and pool parties. Charities can use their clubhouses for English language and after school programs.
“It’s really a lifestyle of feeling, of relationships,” said Kim Kurz, a Yes division vice president. “We do spend an awful lot of time finding ways where residents can interact positively with one another and us with them.”
Yes’ homes can be more expensive than other affordable housing. Rents at Smoke Creek reach $1,250 for a new trailer and lot, which is roughly equal to the mortgage payment on a $250,000 house. Payments fluctuate according to demand, rising when more families are eager to move in. The landlord accepts no federal housing choice vouchers, known as Section 8, to avoid paperwork and yearly inspections for which they say they are not equipped.
What makes Yes parks accessible to families living paycheck to paycheck is that it is easier to move in. Leasing agents can use their discretion to admit applicants with monthly incomes that equal only two times their rent payment, which is far less than the standard three times rent that many landlords require.
“With a company with a name like Yes, we try not to say, ‘No’,” said Brown.
Company’s rapid growth
Yes’ approach fueled rapid growth. By 2010, it was chosen by a trade group as its Manufactured Home Community Operator of the Year. In 2013, it bought Smoke Creek in a deal involving 64 manufactured housing communities with over 14,000 home sites, including eight others in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties. Yes announced that it was one of the largest manufactured housing communities in the United States after the deal.
Yes brought the rent collection strategy that it uses at all of its communities to the hills south of Snellville: On average, it files for eviction days earlier than Smoke Creek’s previous owner. It accepts no partial payments, and those who pay after the 5th of the month are subject to a $75 fee. Late tenants must pay an additional $200 if they submit their rent after Yes files for eviction. This can increase renters’ monthly payments by double the 15 or so percent in penalties that Gwinnett County eviction judges often deem reasonable.
Smoke Creek residents struggled to adjust to Yes’ strict rent collection. Eviction filings more than quadrupled in the two years following the acquisition before settling at near double their prior rate, an AJC analysis found. Under the new rules, tenants had to realize that rent comes first, Brown and other managers said. Those who are short on cash can contact nonprofits for assistance.
“These are grownups making life decisions and they’re either paying rent or they’re not,” Brown said.
More than 700 miles away in a town outside Gary, Ind., Vetaw made the decision to move with her children and her sister’s family to Gwinnett in 2014. “We literally went and did research for the best school system in Georgia and we came up with Gwinnett County,” said her sister, Shema Vetaw-Charleston, 39.
It was an ideal place for Vetaw, who lived as a child in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods and witnessed her sister lose an eye to a stray bullet shot into their living room. In Gwinnett, she charmed her way into a medical assistant job during prenatal doctors’ visits for her youngest son, and rented a house on a hill not too far from Smoke Creek. Its rocking chair front porch overlooked a lake.
It was a good time for Yes as well. For three years, income rose an average of 12 percent per year for each community, according to an investor’s memo. In 2016, Singapore, an affluent city-state renowned for its progressive housing policies, made a $1.5 billion investment in Yes through one of its massive trust funds. Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, two federally sponsored institutions that boost house and multifamily apartment purchases, helped finance the deal.
At the time, a Fannie Mae executive said that the deal would “make a difference for families and communities across the nation.”
By then, Vetaw’s streak of good fortune was over. A layoff and overdue tax bill forced Vetaw and her family to crowd into a $199 per week room at a hotel so dangerous that she kept her kids indoors. The highlight of her youngest son Jayceon’s day was a walk to the snack machine to buy a honey bun, she said. A daughter was so miserable she left to live with her father.
That’s when Vetaw found Smoke Creek. Her intention was to buy one of the homes, not to rent, so she could be on safer financial footing and get her life back on track. Lenders approved her for a $52,000 loan.
It was a well-calculated risk for Yes, which could easily rent or re-sell Vetaw’s house because it buys up and services the loans made by third parties on its homes. It spelled financial peril for Vetaw, who only satisfied income requirements because she worked 70 hours a week as a certified nursing assistant, she said. The loan’s 7.9 percent interest rate was so high that federal consumer protection regulations deemed it risky for consumers.
In the end, delays forced Vetaw to rent because she spent much of the savings she hoped to use for a down payment. Her leasing agent said the only available unit cost $929 plus utilities, which was pricier than one Vetaw saw advertised online.
“She continued to remind me it’s better than you and your kids being homeless,” Vetaw said.
“I stepped away and said a prayer,” Vetaw said. She signed the lease.
A safe community, at a price
Still, Vetaw and other residents said they were grateful to live in Smoke Creek. The streets are free of trash and the narrow lawns are neatly clipped. Residents said that violence is rare, although an 18-year-old was slain in May at the basketball court.
The housing has its appeal. At Smoke Creek, even 20-year-old trailers like Vetaw’s have floors covered to look like wood and counter tops speckled like granite.
Yes residents also complain of chronic maintenance problems. Toilets overflow, water service shuts off repeatedly, and repairs can run weeks or months late. Over time living under Yes’ terms can take a toll. Yes writes its leases to allow it to change community rules at any time, which means that an unmown lawn, a sofa on a porch, or a large work truck parked in a driveway can bring fines and fees that can topple a tight budget. A sign written in magic marker at Smoke Creek’s entrance warns that the penalty for a lawn violation is $75.
Yes’ fines, fees and rising rents leave many feeling trapped, residents said. The AJC interviewed more than two dozen current residents at Smoke Creek and other Yes communities, most of whom requested that the AJC withhold their names for fear of upsetting their landlord.
Late fees and due dates can change with 60 days notice, which is allowed under Georgia law. They changed for Vetaw in late winter with only 39 days notice, around the time a Norcross lawyer took on her fourth eviction case for free. Niquita Sanders discovered that Yes filed Vetaw’s case under the name of a company that was not registered to do business in Georgia, records show, and was unable to prove that it had given her required notification of the eviction filing. Yes also acknowledged in court filings that in the past it had accepted Vetaw’s rent weeks late until managers changed their minds.
A judge denied Yes’ bid to evict Vetaw, but her win seemed to only aggravate the park’s managers.
A notice threatening eviction arrived a week later: “Failure to vacate the property will result in your belongings being set out of the unit for anyone to rummage through and claim/steal as abandoned property,” it said.
Managers insisted she had an unspecified past due balance worth more than $2,350 that Vetaw said didn’t add up. The amount ballooned by $330 over three months with no explanation on her monthly bill. Yes did not comment on her case.
Vetaw longed to leave, but saw no way out.
“My fear is my children and I will not have a place to live after the lease is up,” Vetaw whispered. “My fear is they are willing to go above and beyond to make it really difficult for me because I took legal representation, and I have nowhere to go.”
Fatigue and anxiety for Vetaw
No side jobs or loans came through for Vetaw by the morning of Tuesday May 1, the day rent was due, so Vetaw took to her phone. Any plan to stave off eviction had to be launched from home. She had given up her broken-down car in a voluntary repossession.
First was a call to the state’s Division of Family and Children Services, which subsidizes daycare for her children, to say she could no longer afford her $400 monthly payment because a contract job was ending. The automated system hung up on her twice. No one picked up on her third try.
Next were job applications for Walmart and an emergency dispatcher position.
“I’m so excited,” she said. But the next morning there was no word from DFCS, Walmart or the dispatch job, and she left empty-handed from a faith-based charity because it was closed for client services. She sank into her rocking chair after returning with Jayceon, who was home from daycare because she was late on payments.
“Give me some lovin’,” she said to Jayceon, and stretched out her arms.
“Two lovin’s,” the boy said, and hugged her twice.
It was Friday morning before Vetaw learned she could pay her rent. A check of a pre-paid card she used to receive child support payments showed she had $200 she thought wouldn’t arrive for weeks.
On the afternoon of Saturday the 5th, Vetaw climbed out of her sister’s minivan, clutching an envelope containing a money order for $929. She slid it into the leasing office deposit slot instead handing it to an agent inside.
“I did it,” she said and gave a weary smile. “I’m going to sleep well tonight.”
She had so many reasons to be grateful. Vetaw’s kids were going to a party with a bounce house that day. Vetaw found a free space at a public park for her eldest son’s high school graduation celebration. Family would be coming to town to celebrate.
She still had no job, but she could worry about that later. Next month’s rent would be due in three weeks and five days.
Postscript: Vetaw filed suit in June over other problems at the park. Days later, Yes filed to evict her for late rent. She has since been hired for two retail jobs and caught up on payments, but must move when her lease ends in October. When landlords check her rental history, they will find Yes’ repeat eviction attempts on her record.