Editor’s note: The subject of the story has asked her real name be withheld out of fear for her safety due to a previous violent relationship.
When Joanna first moved into her new home, it seemed like a step in the right direction. She had just gotten out of jail and had spent some time in a transitional home in Olathe for women who struggle with addiction.
She was looking to piece her life back together and getting a home meant she was a step closer to regaining custody of her children and having them live with her once again.
She moved in on May 2, but in just two weeks, the decision to move into a manufactured home in Delta would turn out to be hazardous to her health — and, ultimately, a big step backward.
Shortly after signing a rent-to-own contract on a trailer home in Country Acres Mobile Home Park, Joanna began to get serious headaches and became drowsy. She reported to the trailer park management she could smell gas. The park manager told her she would need to call the gas company to look.
The gas company ran tests and discovered there was exhaust leaking into the home. Joanna was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.
The culprit wasn’t immediately clear. She had a gas-powered space heater, but it didn’t appear to be leaking when the trailer park sent a maintenance man to look at the problem. Joanna said he claimed he couldn’t smell the gas when he inspected the home.
Joanna’s bedroom was located next to the hot water heater closet, accessible from the exterior of the trailer, and holes had been punctured through the wall right next to where she slept.
The trailer park management denied there was a problem and told her it was safe.
“He looked at me like I was crazy,” she said of the maintenance man who inspected the property.
She continued to live there.
“The headaches got worse,” she said. “It was to the point where I couldn’t go to work.”
She recalled waking up one morning, making herself something to eat, then going right back to bed, too drowsy to even stand. She had only recently gotten her job at Natural Grocers in Montrose. She had to take off a week of work and was afraid she might lose her job.
When she did make it back to work, she said she could barely keep her eyes open and her head was throbbing. Her boss told her to go to the doctor because she wasn’t fit for work. At the doctor’s office, medical staffers ran tests and gave her prescription medicine to manage her headaches — and to help her manage the stress of the situation.
After her doctor’s appointment, she had the Delta Fire Protection District visit her home. The agency discovered the problem: the gas water heater. The label on the heater reads: “not for use in manufactured houses.” Above the heater was a place for ventilation through the ceiling. The connection was never hooked up and the coil attached to the water heater wasn’t long enough for Joanna or a friend to hook up the connection.
The fire department told her if her children had slept in the home, they could have breathed in a fatal dose of carbon monoxide.
“Basically, it would have killed them,” she said.
Nowhere to turn
In rural Colorado, Joanna discovered, there was little help. Although the fire district informed Joanna her home was inhabitable, officials there weren’t able to fine the owners of the property, and there is no fire marshal in Delta.
Betsy Suerth, the director of public works and utilities for Delta, whose office manages building inspections, said her department doesn’t have any authority to enforce codes on an existing structure. Only when there are major changes to a home that require permitting does the office even enter the home. Even then, representatives said, they likely wouldn’t have the ability to enforce any codes unless they had to do with the improvements being made to the home.
Joanna said the trailer park management claimed there was a full remodel of the home before she moved in, but there was no evidence permits were required for the updates.
The Delta Building Department referred her to an agency within the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies. The agency office never returned her call, she said.
DORA on Wednesday offered general information in a written response to the Montrose Daily Press: water heaters need a permit pulled for installation.
It’s unclear whether there was ever a permit was pulled for the water heater at Joanna’s home.
“If the installation did not occur with a permit attached, that would be a violation of statute. If the installation does not pass code, corrections must be made before the installation is accepted and the inspection is passed,” DORA wrote in an email. “If there is a suspicion that a permit was not pulled, then a complaint should be filed in writing to DORA. Complaints are accepted online. The complaint is received and a determination is made whether to open an investigation.”
With nowhere left to turn, Joanna sent a certified letter to the trailer park management notifying them she’d be moving out in June. She also requested a refund for what she says was a breach of contract. As part of the rent-to-own agreement, the home was required to be habitable. She had already moved out, bouncing around from place to place since she discovered the severity of the carbon monoxide problem. She just hoped to get out of the contract and to move on.
The next day, the trailer park company, Diego Corp., which runs five trailer parks in Colorado and Wyoming, placed a notice on her front door. Joanna said it was an eviction notice. Malinda DeLisle, the rental office manager based at a different trailer park in Montrose, told the Daily Press the notice was a “notice of quit,” and that by being in a rent-to-own contract, Joanna was responsible for problems with the property.
DeLisle also told the Daily Press that in the company’s opinion, there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the property.
“I went out and looked at it myself, and I didn’t see anything wrong with it,” she said.
There are currently “for sale” signs on the house. DeLisle acknowledged that, as of Wednesday, the water heater hadn’t been replaced.
Joanna has since found a new place to live and is working to get her kids back.
This story is part of “Parked: Half the American Dream,” a first-of-its-kind collaboration more than a dozen Colorado news organizations. Newspaper, online, radio and wire service journalists fanned out across the state to focus on the evolving landscape for mobile homes — Colorado’s largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing. Contributors to this project, organized and led by The Colorado Sun, include: The Aspen Times, Associated Press, Aurora Sentinel, Colorado Independent, Cortez Journal, Delta County Independent, Durango Herald, Fort Collins Coloradoan, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Greeley Tribune, KUNC, Montrose Daily Press, Ouray County Plaindealer and Steamboat Pilot & Today.