Faced with what they describe as steep rent increases, a drop in services and poor management, the residents of a Lake Elmo mobile home park say it's too much: They want help.

The renters and homeowners in the 450-site Cimarron Park and Golf Course have formed a Resident's Association and teamed up with an attorney from the nonprofit Housing Justice Center to explore legal options in the face of worsening conditions, said resident Brey Mafi.

"When I moved in, I quickly realized I got sold a bill of goods," Mafi said, echoing other residents who say the owner, Chicago-based Equity Lifestyle Properties, has squeezed the park's operations for shareholder profits.

Their litany of complaints include poorly maintained streets, a lack of safe lighting, electrical issues and water main breaks, and that amenities such as the swimming pool, golf course, basketball court, playground and party room aren't always available as advertised or properly maintained.

A spokeswoman for the park's owners contested much of what residents have alleged, saying the park's management has offered rent deferrals and a hardship program to help people struggling to pay rent while also maintaining the park and its amenities.

"We look forward to many more years of working together with the residents of Cimarron Park to ensure the community remains among the premiere manufactured housing communities in the area," wrote spokeswoman Jennifer Ludovice.

The owners won't meet with the residents association to address their differences, Mafi said, so the group has been reaching out to anyone who will listen, including city, county and state officials and nonprofits that work with manufactured home communities.

Speaking at a May 9 Lake Elmo City Council workshop meeting, City Attorney Sarah Sonsalla said the city has limited authority to help the residents because the park is privately owned. It's up to the listed property owner, MHC Cimarron LLC, to make the needed repairs, she said. The city's only recourse would be to revoke the special use permit that created the park, but that wouldn't solve residents' problems because the park would have to close.

"A lot of it is out of the city's hands, unfortunately," Sonsalla said.

City Administrator Kristina Handt told the council that she spoke to the park's local management about parking rules after hearing residents complain about frequent towing on Cimarron's residential streets. The special use permit Lake Elmo Township passed in 1967 to create the park required that guests be allowed to park on one side of residential streets, Handt said. She added that the park's local manager argued with her about permit requirements, while the Chicago office later said it would allow on-street guest parking.

Handt said the city "won't be entertaining any future partnerships with them until they get into compliance with their special use permit."

Lake Elmo Mayor Charles Cadenhead said the city should send a letter to the park's owners to "let them know that we're taking the residents' concerns at heart."

The cost of living in the park, located about 12 miles east of downtown St. Paul along Interstate 94, has climbed sharply in recent years, from about $690 a month five years ago to $908 today, Mafi said. The rent increases land heavily on seniors and veterans who are living on fixed incomes, none of which are rising as fast as the rent, she said.

"If you are 10 days late on your rent, they start the eviction process," Mafi said.

During the pandemic, when some residents lost their jobs, Mafi and her husband started a biweekly food shelf program at Cimarron. It's continued into this year thanks to support from the local charities.

Rents rose an average of 4.7% annually over the past five years, including a 7.8% increase for 2023, Ludovice said. The rent increases are in line with comparable housing options in the area, she added.

The five members of the Cimarron Residents Association board say they've spent months studying regulations and enforcement measures for mobile home parks. And they've learned of similar problems at other Equity Lifestyle Properties parks around the country. According to the company's website, it owns 450 properties containing 171,477 sites in 35 states and British Columbia.

The company's chairman was billionaire Sam Zell, who died last week at age 81. Zell was the largest mobile home landlord in the United States, according to a recent article in The Guardian. The article, published before Zell's death, said tenants in ELS-owned parks have had to contend with rising rents, disrepair and neglect. It focused on an ELS park in Florida, but also interviewed people living at Cimarron.

Mafi said she's tried to make it clear to city leaders and others that Cimarron residents feel like they're in a David vs. Goliath battle.

"They don't understand what we're up against," she said.