Midvale • Shirlene Stoven believes the hand of God guided her to live in Midvale's Applewood Mobile Home Estates two decades ago, though the why of it wasn't clear.

Then, in 2014, a new owner bought Applewood and sought rent hikes that Stoven says would have forced out most of her neighbors in the seniors-only park. So the scrappy Sanpete County native, now 80, began to organize park residents and research state law in hopes of pushing back.

"I realized Heavenly Father led me here to fight for these people because I can," Stoven said. "Somebody needs to stick up for them."

She and other advocates hope a recent report regarding Utah's mobile-home park dwellers will help do just that.

After 14 months of operating a specially created legal help line for residents and owners of manufactured-home parks, attorneys at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law have concluded the line should shut down — and be replaced by enforcement of laws already on the books.

Help-line calls revealed a host of problems that park residents face, including rent increases, hidden fees and confusing park rules. But, according to U. law professor Linda Smith, the callers also made clear that Utah's Mobile Home Park Residency Act lacks the legal teeth to protect homeowners.

"It's odd," said Smith, supervisor of what was to be a two-year help-line program before she urged in November for it to be closed. "We have a pretty good act with a lot of procedures but no enforcement."

Funded by the 2015 Utah Legislature and run by a 12-member U. law school team, the line drew at least 123 calls from residents in 10 counties.

Legally required notices advertising the help line at all mobile-home park offices were delayed in being posted, several sources said, after a monthslong dispute about the handbill's wording.

Utah has as many as 70,000 park sites, or pads, for manufactured houses, according to a coalition representing these homeowners. Their concerns have been repeatedly debated by state lawmakers in recent years.

Help-line information reveals Utah's mobile-home residents are vulnerable to exploitation, one key legislator said.

"It's clear from the data that, however rare, there are cases of abuse," said Sen. Dan Thatcher, R-West Valley City and sponsor of the bill creating the help line. "There needs to be a remedy."

Often elderly and on fixed-incomes, Thatcher said, mobile-home residents lack full protections under state property-rights laws, because they don't own the land beneath their dwellings. They aren't covered by renters' rights, because they own their homes.

"The Legislature has treated these homeowners like they were just whining little children," added Connie Hill, a resident of Cottonwood Cove in Murray and head of the Utah Coalition of Manufactured Homeowners. "But the support for these homeowners is coming around."

Creating the help line, Hill said, was a compromise in lieu of changes to the law or assigning a legislative task force to examine the issue.

"It did what we expected it to do," she said.

Hill, Smith and others are urging changes to the Mobile Home Park Residency Act to assign enforcement to an unspecified state agency or, alternatively, to make it easier for residents to recover damages if they take their disputes to court.

But a representative of Utah's mobile-home-park owners downplayed the concerns and warned against toughened enforcement of mobile-home laws, saying that adding a new layer of government to press existing rules "just gums things up."

"I just don't see that the answer is creating a new agency and pushing it through that way," said South Jordan-based attorney Robert Poulsen, who believes residents can already take their problems to court.

Once notice of the help line began to spread in 2015, Smith said, the typical caller was a senior citizen in a low-income household, though many were reluctant to provide personal information for fear of retaliation. Callers raised 240 separate issues, Smith said, with rent and other costs chief among them.

In Midvale, Stoven said her aging neighbors — some of them veterans, others homebound — commonly struggle to pay their bills.

When the new owner bought Applewood more than two years ago and sought rent hikes, Stoven said, many residents faced homelessness.

"We walked out of every house crying," Stoven said of a home-by-home survey of Applewood residents.

Smith verified that rent hikes were a common complaint to the help line, but those concerns are not covered by the Mobile Home Park Residency Act, which places no limits on rents that landlords can charge for mobile-home park sites.

Moving a mobile home can cost between $10,000 and $20,000, which few residents can afford. That can limit their choices when confronted with rent increases, utility surcharges, deteriorating park conditions or other disputes.

"Mobile homes are poorly named," Smith said. "They are not mobile."

The most serious issue help-line callers raised, she said, involved park owners refusing to allow homeowners to sell their homes.

Seventeen callers, the professor said, asserted that parks had withheld permission for outside sales, ostensibly so they could later buy the homes themselves at lower prices.

Other top violations mentioned included parks charging above cost for utilities and what residents argued were unreasonable park rules, according to Smith's report.

While the help line was set up in hopes it might resolve disputes and improve compliance, Smith said U. staffers could confirm their efforts helped in only a few cases.

Hill said she has been stunned by the cool reception Smith's findings have received on Capitol Hill. At a mid-November interim hearing, she noted, legislators agreed to let the help line expire, while repeatedly turning aside attempts to discuss changes to the law.

Meanwhile, Hill said, mobile-home owners are getting squeezed. "The state is sticking its head in the sand," she said, "if it ignores this reality."

tsemerad@sltrib.com

Twitter: @TonySemerad