Maria and Jesús “Chuy” Hernández in front of the manufactured home in Marshall where they've lived for 21 years and raised three children. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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MARSHALL, MINNESOTA — Jesús “Chuy” Hernández remembers his shock when he heard that school buses would no longer be driving into Broadmoor Valley, the manufactured home park in Marshall where he’s lived with his family since 2000: “At first, I didn’t believe it.” 

The school bus company that serves Marshall Public Schools feared that the road conditions had deteriorated to the point that driving through the park would risk children’s safety and damage the vehicles. 

The bus company approached the mobile home park owner, Schierholz and Associates, about fixing the roads in 2015. The company responded by banning the school buses, according to a lawsuit Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed Friday.

Since then, kids have waited for the school bus on the side of Highway 23, a busy county road behind the trailer park, sometimes walking up to half a mile through unplowed snowy roads.

Hernández, who now works as a school bus driver himself, recalled a particularly terrifying winter day dropping off young children on the side of the highway. “We told them a thousand times to be careful with the cars,” he recalled. “But they ran.” As the kids were running, Hernández could see a vehicle turning in his mirror—and he saw it slide downhill, unable to stop. He still doesn’t know how the kids got out of the way in time.

And it’s not just buses that stay out of the park, Hernández told Sahan Journal. It’s difficult to get plumbers or electricians to come service the homes in the park, too. 

Shortly after the Hernández family bought their home, Schierholz and Associates, a real estate company based in Colorado Springs, purchased the Broadmoor Valley mobile home park. Since then, the roads haven’t been paved. Some potholes have measured 11 inches deep, causing damage to residents’ cars. More than a dozen homes sit vacant, attracting wild animals. Tree limbs dangle dangerously over homes, sometimes falling on the homes in a storm.

On Friday outside the Hernández family home, Ellison announced the lawsuit against Schierholz and Associates, alleging unlawful fees, failure to maintain the roads and park, consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices, retaliation, and interference with freedom of expression. The lawsuit, filed in Lyon County District Court, requests a judge to order abatement of these conditions, restitution, and civil penalties. 

Ellison described his first tour of Broadmoor Valley two years ago, traveling the pothole-pocked roads in winter.

“I was shocked, quite honestly,” he said in a press conference. “Despite people’s best efforts to make a beautiful, warm environment, they were going up against a difficult wind….The residents’ tireless and courageous effort to push for safety and dignity for their families led to this lawsuit.”

Hernández, the president of the resident association, described feeling isolated from the rest of town in a fenced-in community without access to basic services. “How do you explain to your kids that they have to walk in the cold or in the heat, through the busy intersection, and wait for the bus there?” he asked. “How do you explain that they can’t have the service come to their door, or at least come to the corner of their street, like everybody else in town?”

“The only thing we want is for him to fix our streets,” said Anais Rodriguez, a resident of the park for more than 15 years. “What’s so hard?”

Forty minutes before the press conference, Sahan Journal reporters spotted Broadmoor Valley staff clearing out tree limbs and attempting to patch parts of the roads. The lawsuit notes that the company occasionally performs minor road repairs that wash away in the rain, and do not improve the roads in a lasting way.

In a statement to Sahan Journal, Paul Schierholz, the company’s chief executive officer, blamed multiple levels of government. 

“The Company wants the infrastructure to be improved,” he wrote. “The City of Marshall, County of Lyon, and State of Minnesota should upgrade the infrastructure to their standard and maintain the infrastructure for the residents. Better to spend time and money on infrastructure than adversarial lawsuits.”

Schierholz accused Marshall of disrespecting Broadmoor Valley staff and residents, not spending tax money for their benefit, and of using Broadmoor’s privately owned storm water system to serve surrounding subdivisions without paying. “The current arrangement between the community and the governing agencies is unsustainable,” he said. “A long-term sustainable financing solution needs to be implemented to ensure future viability of this housing alternative.”  

The Marshall city council recently declared four structures at the park hazardous, and held a closed-door session to discuss possible legal action to force the company to take action. Residents have asked city leadership to enforce local laws requiring property owners to maintain private roads. Ellison commended the mayor and city council for trying to bring Schierholz into compliance. Yet while the city may play an enforcement role, state law specifies that maintaining the roads and park is the responsibility of the owner: Schierholz.

Minnesota Attorney Keith Ellison announces his lawsuit against real estate company Schierholz and Associates outside the Hernández family home in Marshall. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

‘How can we build a voice?’

Nearly 180,000 Minnesotans live in manufactured homes, which are a crucial affordable housing resource. A report from the Minnesota Housing Partnership notes that rents in southwestern Lyon County have been rising, mirroring state trends; a quarter of all households pay more than 30 percent of income on rent, slightly less than the state average. The Broadmoor Valley park, home to 75 families, is one of the only affordable housing options in the county. While the rural county has long been predominantly white, census data show a growing Latino population.

When the Hernández family moved to Broadmoor Valley in 2000, most of the homes in the park were occupied and well-maintained. The roads had been recently paved. And importantly, their home was affordable. 

Hernández and his wife, Maria, had met working at the local turkey plant, where most of the undesirable jobs went to Latinos: hanging live birds, killing them, rehanging them once they were dead.

“My wife always says, if you want to meet the right person, meet them at work because that’s where you see their real personality,” Hernández said. “You meet them at a party, they’re all dressed up. If you meet them at church, they’re all pretending to be a saint. That’s my wife’s theory. She says meet them at work. You see the real person when they come and they’re in a bad mood.”

Newlywed and expecting their first child, the couple felt excited to finally have a place of their own. Like many residents of manufactured home parks, they own the home while renting the land. They planted a garden and made a homemade soccer net for the yard.

And in the next two decades, as the Hernández family raised three children—now 20, 17, and 14—the park fell into disrepair. 

Until the buses stopped serving the community, Hernández had been too busy to notice the problems piling up in the park. He was working 12 to 14 hour days as a machine operator at Schwan’s, and spending his evenings playing or coaching soccer. But when residents first met with city and school officials to discuss the bus situation, he started hearing about other problems too—including complaints about evictions without cause. 

That was a “wakeup call,” Hernández said. He started wondering if he might be next. He received a bill for $600 with no explanation of what it was for. He had always paid his rent on time. But when he tried to talk to Schierholz about it, Hernández said, the company owner literally closed a car door in his face.

“I knew that on my own, I wasn’t going to get anywhere,” he said. “So I started thinking, how can we build a voice?”

One of his neighbors, Misty Butler, whom he knew because her daughter played soccer, suggested it was time to organize. In 2018, the group organized a cleanup event to beautify the park. They collected six truckloads of trash. One resident, according to the legal complaint, had obtained permission from Schierholz to use two vacant lots to hold a barbecue after the cleanup.

But the next month, that resident received a bill for $1,680—the cost of a security deposit plus one month’s rent for both lots. Neighbors fundraised to pay the bill, and formally registered a resident association, calling it the Broadmoor Valley Resident Association.

Then, according to the legal complaint, Schierholz and Associates registered that name with the Minnesota Secretary of State and threatened legal action if residents continued using it. 

A tour of disrepair

After the press conference, Hernández gave a neighborhood tour to a Sahan Journal reporter and photojournalist, stepping around the muddy potholes, and waving good-bye as his friends and neighbors drove off. 

Pointing to a boarded up puce-colored home, he explained that it had been empty since the previous resident died. 

After her death, Schierholz tried to charge her kids “all these crazy amounts they didn’t know about,” Hernández said. “So they decided to just leave. So that’s that one. It’s been empty for, I don’t know, 10 years, maybe longer.” Except for any skunks or other animals that might have taken up residence, he noted.

A boarded-up home reflected in the muddy, potholed street. Hernández said no one had lived there in at least 10 years. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

A short walk down the road, Hernández pointed to a white home, also boarded up. “This one, it’s been abandoned I want to say at least 13, 15 years,” he said. The last people who lived there had problems with water freezing, he said. 

He pointed to a home further down the street. “That one over there, it’s just destroyed,” he said. “He’s trying to sell it. It’s probably one of those that has been condemned by the city.”

Butler and her husband, leaving the press conference, drove by. 

“Thank you very much, guys!” Hernández called to them. “We’ll talk later!” 

“She’s one of the main characters behind the scenes,” Hernández explained. “I know I get a lot of credit for all this, but I would say she’s helped tremendously. She has been there from the beginning.”

Another person who played an instrumental role behind the scenes, Hernández said, is Pablo Tapia.

‘No one will take better care of the park than the people that live there’

Three years ago, Butler connected the fledgling group with Tapia, the executive director of the Minneapolis-based group Asamblea de Derechos Civíles. Tapia, who lives in a mobile home park in suburban Lexington, has helped organize resident associations in parks throughout the state.

In Dayton, for example, a resident association wanted a meeting with management to request repairs to the roads, Tapia said. When the company refused to meet, the residents met with a state representative. Within a few months, the roads were paved. More lights appeared on the streets. Residents demanded a key to the storm shelter, and got it.

“That was the outcome,” he said. “The real victory is that tenants organized, they came and learned, they got trained, and now they don’t need me to organize. They can do it themselves.”

Tapia, a longtime organizer, helped connect Broadmoor Valley residents to the attorney general’s office.

He wants other mobile home park residents to see the attorney general’s lawsuit as “a beacon of light in an ocean of injustice.”

Hernández hopes the lawsuit ultimately results in residents being able to own the park as a co-op. He’s spoken to mobile home park residents in Worthington who successfully managed this transformation in their park.

“I feel like no one will take better care of the park than the people that live there,” he said. “And we can finally call our homes our homes.”

But in the short term, his goal is simple.

“I want my kids to feel proud of saying, I live at Broadmoor Valley,” Hernández said. “I don’t want them to be ashamed.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.