AP NEWS

A new path to affordable housing?

April 13, 2019

Allie Lachner sees an affordable housing solution all around her as she walks through Zumbro Ridge Estates.

Lachner, who is marking her 20th year at the mobile home park north of Rochester, said its 30 empty lots could provide the right home for many struggling families.

“Affordable housing for most, or a lot of people, is not $200,000 homes,” she said. “It’s just not.”

While mobile home parks are sometimes dismissed based on stigma or worries about not owning the land under homes that are often not easy to move, Lachner said that’s not the case at Zumbro Ridge Estates.

“Stigma is what happens when you have a community that doesn’t care,” she said.

Zumbro Ridge Estates is creating a unique community around residents’ 2017 decision to form a cooperative and purchase the park.

LeRoy Milliken, the co-op board’s president since it was formed, said the initial goal was to keep outside investors from taking over the park, where he has lived for four decades.

“I think that was going to happen — an out-of-town investor would come in, the rent would come up and everybody would be out of there, looking for someplace else to live,” he said.

With lot rents maintained at $375, Milliken and Lachner said the new goal is to fill the park’s 117 lots to provide funds for a variety of repairs and renovations, and eventually be able to lower lot rents to make the site even more affordable to those needing housing options.

“The majority of people out here are low- or moderate-income,” Lachner said.

While prices fluctuate based on credit qualifications and other factors, Lachner said a new three-bedroom mobile home could come with a monthly cost that’s lower than two-bedroom apartments deemed affordable in Rochester by federal standards.

STEPPING FORWARD

When she joined the co-op board in May, Lachner took on the role as volunteer operations manager, frequently working more than 40 hours a week to collect lot rents, show co-op owned homes that are for sale and field calls about empty lots.

A former property manager, who once built a career on turning around struggling apartment buildings, she’s suited for the challenge and says she’s constantly searching for new opportunities to improve life in the park for the 82 families that would not be able to find other options if their housing costs climbed.

“Many of the people who live at Zumbro Ridge Estates have two-parent homes and they work two jobs each, and they still have to decide if they are going to put food on the table,” she said.

Others are seniors who may need to make the same decisions regarding medications or health care, she added.

In the past year, Lachner has enlisted a growing roster of supporters and partners.

Among the first was Jeff Urban, outreach pastor for Bear Creek Christian Church, who has a history of leading teams of volunteers to rehabilitate mobile homes and maintain affordable housing options.

The church’s volunteers have already helped prepare former rental homes for sale, and plan to do work on other other homes this summer, making roof repairs, installing flooring and sealing leaks.

“We are really looking to partner with families out there,” Urban said, noting volunteer work can reduce costs to mobile home owners to approximately 40 percent of market rates.

Evangel Methodist Church is also providing volunteer support for work at the park.

Banks and counselors have signed on to help potential new residents, who will become co-op members for a $100 one-time fee, which gives them ownership in the park and a say in future decisions.

Others have offered free professional services and support. Among them is HGA Architects and Engineers, which is volunteering time to create drawings of a planned playground, which will include equipment funded through a Kaboom playground grant and donations being solicited through gofundme.com.

Hal Henderson, a HGA principal, said the goal is to provide marketing tools to help share the vision of the Zumbro Ridge board and residents.

“It’s a little hard for people to visualize what they are getting into,” he said.

BUILDING COMMUNITY

With all the volunteer support, Lachner appears most excited when she talks about the work being done by park residents, whether it’s the clean-up sessions scheduled throughout the spring and summer or the bonds formed by common ownership of the park.

“This is a community where everyone looks out for everybody,” she said.

Steve Borchardt, the housing coalition director for Rochester Area Foundation, said that community initiative is demonstrating the ability to meet the needs of area residents facing a housing gap.

“We have to put some energy into helping develop this solution for people making $30,000 to $50,000 a year,” he said.

He said the group needs support to help fill the park and generate the funds needed to continue renovation of the entire park, which includes resurfacing streets and removing dead trees.

Once all the work is done and the co-op’s 10-year loan is covered, Lachner said lot rents will likely be lowered, but Borchardt said a wider community concern exists.

“If we don’t help that place become successful, we’ll have 80-some people that can’t afford to live someplace else,” he said.

One effort to help fill the park starts Thursday with the annual Homes of Harmony spring sales push. From Thursday to Saturday, Lachner will be in a model of a $68,000 home to talk to people about Zumbro Ridge Estates, which sits across the road from the model homes at 5220 N. Broadway Ave.

She said she hopes the event attracts new tenants, but also shows people how the Zumbro Ridge model could be one way to help address the affordable housing crisis.

FUTURE IMPLICATIONS

Urban said he sees a future in the effort, noting he’s already talked to tenants renting apartments at Bear Creek Church’s Crossroads campus about the possibilities at Zumbro Ridge.

“It’s an option for them to move on and move up into homeownership,” he said.

While mobile homes tend to decrease in value after sale, Borchardt said he sees a chance to change that in the local market.

“I do believe, as this market develops, and nice well-maintained communities become the norm, they are not going to depreciate anymore,” he said. “They might not appreciate as much as a stick-built house, but even if you just get your money back out, it’s better than rent.”

Lachner said she’s hoping more than prices grow in the community being built at Zumbro Ridge.

“We don’t see ourselves as a community that is just going to take,” she said. “We see ourselves as a community that is eventually going to give back, but we do need help now.”