Out in western Chester County, horses strain to pull Amish buggies up hills as cars whiz by in the quaint juxtaposition of history and modernity that is Honey Brook.
But the rich and cultivated Chester County landscape obscures dark truths about rural poverty: Many people live hungry in little-seen pockets of this pastoral tableau.
That’s why the Honey Brook Food Pantry was created four years ago — to slake need in a place that looks too pretty for privation.
Lately, thanks to the pantry and its supporters, low-income people who live in mobile homes in the area have been getting extra help that could allow them to stop overpaying property taxes, as they appear to be doing.
It’s a rarity in these times: a poverty story with a potential solution, and a possible happy ending.
One of the heroes is Randy Blough, 67, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former nuclear safety inspector for the federal government. Now retired, Blough volunteers at the pantry along with his wife, Debbie, 66, herself a retired chemist.
The Bloughs, who have two grown children, collect clothing for pantry clients, help them apply for food stamps, and offer assistance on issues such as utility shutoffs.
“Debbie and I have been very fortunate our whole lives,” said Blough, standing outside the pantry, a low-slung space in an industrial building abutting a farm that blasted the air with the stink of manure used for fertilizer. “We wanted to give back.”
Debbie concurred. “A lot of people need help, need food,” she said. “I was taught as a kid to help. When we help, people are so happy they cry. And then I cry.”
What got pantry clients crying in gratitude lately was Randy’s discovery that many folks who own mobile homes are overpaying property taxes.
For example, one person who paid $800 for a used mobile home has been paying $1,300 in annual property taxes, Randy discovered.
“Mobile homes’ assessments are grossly overestimated,” said Ken Ross, founder of the pantry. “Randy is getting some savings for people.”
The Garvines are a good example.
Gary Garvine, 54, and his wife, Carrie, 45, have been paying $700 to $900 a year in property taxes on a mobile home they bought for $5,000 two years ago in Valley View, a mobile-home park on Route 322 in Honey Brook. About 15 mobile-home parks with an estimated 1,000 mobile homes line the roadway in the area.
Carrie describes the Garvines and their two children as living near the federal poverty line. For a family of four, that’s about $25,000 annually. Not everyone who lives in the parks is poor, but many of the area’s low-income residents live in the mini-villages.
County tax documents say the home is worth $26,790. But Blough said that valuation is wholly unrealistic. It’s the “legacy value” of the mobile home “from the distant past,” when it was built 28 years ago, he said. Unlike brick-and-mortar houses, mobile homes depreciate like cars.
The last time Chester County reassessed home values was in 1998, county records show. So the assessment of the Garvine property still reflects that of a new mobile home, Blough said.
Blough was able to find a firm that lists mobile-home values, akin to the Kelley Blue Book, which describes the estimated worth of cars. It said a mobile home such as the Garvines’ runs around $13,000.
But the Garvine home isn’t worth anywhere near that, according to Carrie, who said the place was “abandoned and abused” when they bought it. The 1,344-square-foot residence featured doors that didn’t close, ripped-out faucets, and a subfloor damaged by the waste of 15 cats that lived there and never went outdoors, she said.
Instead of $900, the property tax should be closer to $100, Blough estimated.
That would make a huge difference, Gary said, because mobile-home owners typically must rent the lots on which their homes sit, and the Garvines pay $600 a month on top of the yearly tax, he said.
Blough was able to set up an appeal for the family with the Assessment Office of Chester County. It’s scheduled for next month.
He did similar work for 21 other families at the pantry who are awaiting appeals, after he circulated a flier that read, “Appeal your tax assessment!” He added that “although your mobile home depreciates over time, the tax authority does not lower your assessment unless you appeal.”
Jonathan Schuck, director of the county’s assessment office, said that as unwieldy a process as it is, an appeal is a mobile-home owner’s best chance to lower an assessment.
“This is one of those areas that mystify a lot of people,” he acknowledged, adding that the state legislature has proposed bills to aid mobile home owners, although nothing has become law.
Often, low-income people don’t have the knowledge or wherewithal to fight for themselves in the face of too-high assessments, said Kevin Putt, a director of the pantry, who is also vice president of R-V Industries, an industrial equipment manufacturer in Honey Brook. Many don’t have the computers and printers, let alone filing fees, one needs to mount an assessment appeal, he said.
In fact, Putt said, many folks in the area live in “barely inhabitable motor homes that are beyond useful life. They shouldn’t even be taxed at all.”
To facilitate the 22 appeals, Randy Blough collected money from donors to pay for the process, which cost about $44 per case.
“If the appeals go through, Randy will be getting $8,000 in savings for those 22 families,” Ken Ross said.
That money will help people pay their utility bills, or even make needed repairs, Blough said.
For his part, Gary Garvine is looking forward to his appeals hearing.
“It’s worth a shot,” he said. “Every dollar counts for us, and for a lot of people who live in mobile homes out here.”
Philadelphia Media Network is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.