As affordable housing becomes more scarce, many family-run mobile home parks are ready to cash out. The baby boomers running them are looking to retire and downsize.
The supply-and-demand curve favors park ownership now more than ever, said Kevin Borden, a co-director for MHAction, a national movement to help residents organize to protect the affordability of their communities. “Now is the time to buy up this sector and consolidate it. The speed by which it happens is pretty pronounced.”
As of Feb. 1, about 2.5 million mobile home residents cut a rent check to a corporate entity, he said, citing a report produced by MHAction in conjunction with the Private Equity Stakeholder Project and the Americans for Financial Reform Education Fund.
Most of those corporate owners are reaping their profits, Borden added, rather than looking to redevelop the property. He’s quick to note, however, that while not all the smaller operations did right by their residents, local owners are more likely to respond to residents’ concerns because “when you’re local owners, you’re running into these folks at the grocery store.”
Borden said that not a week goes by that his organization doesn’t get a call from a resident urgently seeking counsel after their park has been purchased. He has found that activating these groups isn’t so difficult, as they tend to be close-knit communities. But most states, including Colorado, offer limited protection for residents in manufactured homes.
Andrea Chiriboga-Flor of the nonprofit 9to5 Colorado, which advocates for affordable housing, says that in the past year, most of the calls she fielded from homeowners recited familiar scenarios: My park was bought out, they’re trying to make us sign this new lease with 25 pages of arbitrary rules.
“They have these people captive,” said Jack Regenbogen, an attorney with the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, which advocates for low-income residents. “They can raise rents to whatever degree they want. It’s very difficult to move or sell – in some cases almost impossible because of the condition of the unit. In other cases, it can cost upwards of $10,000. It’s a precarious legal landscape if you own your structure.”
Corporate owners bring ultimatums Karla Ottero went home to her trailer in the Sans Souci park in unincorporated Boulder County one day last summer to find a blue tote bag hanging from her door knob. “We’re Glad You’re Here!” it announced in cheerful white script.
Inside was an announcement: The park had been sold by its local owners to a company in Greenwood Village. The news blindsided the small community tucked in a valley just off Colorado 93, nearly hidden from the highway but with a panoramic view to the Flatirons.
Residents had begun talking about purchasing the park themselves, and had heard no rumblings of an impending sale, so the news triggered concern – especially when residents looked at page after page of new rules and regulations, a list one resident figured would put virtually everyone in violation of something.
If residents didn’t comply in a timely manner, the new rules allowed for management to perform improvements on residents’ property – and send them the bill.
“I did not sleep that night,” Ottero said.
Anxiety spread quickly. It wasn’t calmed by a meeting to announce rent increases and a plan to install new water meters and charge for water separately. And residents still had a tough time with 11 pages of rules – whereas the old ownership had just three.
Michael Peirce, who moved into his single-wide in Sans Souci when he taught philosophy at the University of Colorado in Boulder, says he watched as the transition team aggressively pursued improvements.
“They drove around the park with their yellow lights flashing, telling people what they wanted them to do,” Peirce said. “A lot of people were given an ultimatum, coupled with moderate offers of help. Most of the residents were OK with the idea that the park could use a cleanup, but not with the aggressiveness of the tactics.”
Cheryl Muhovich says the new owners ordered her to fix a leaky roof covered only by a tarp. She’d been postponing maintenance until she paid off her loan. Ultimately, she traded a small cabin her Vietnam veteran husband left her when he died for roof repairs on her trailer.
“It took away the most important thing in the world to me,” she said.
Feeling they’d been pushed too far, Peirce and other residents began to research Colorado’s Mobile Home Park Act to see if any of the new rules violated the law. They got legal help. More than half the residents formed an HOA so they’d have standing to represent the community.
Peter Reinert, senior vice president and general counsel for the new company, Strive Communities Management LLC, calls the Sans Souci pushback “a rather unique response” that he hasn’t seen at other properties that faced the same rules. Still, the company agreed to let the park’s previous rules stand.
“We’re just not pushing it,” Reinert said, adding that “(The rules) are written to protect the safety of all residents.”
“It feels like a truce,” Peirce said. “Neither side knows what to do next. There’s still a lot of folks stressed out, wondering what will happen.”
Ottero still has the blue bag she found on her door. Now it contains all the documents she has accrued as the community scrapped to keep their housing affordable. She even took it with her to the state Capitol when she testified on behalf of HB 1309, the bill that added protections to residents of mobile home parks.
She calls it her “battle bag.”
“This bag was a gift from the new corporate owners welcoming me to my new neighborhood – that I’d lived in for 26 years,” she said. “It’s their new neighborhood. It’s our community.”