Mobile home parks move from mom-and-pop to corporate
DENVER (AP) — In the Aurora mobile home park where she lived for 16 years, eviction notices kept coming to Petra Bennett’s door -- for unauthorized guests, lack of insurance, late rent. They were bogus threats to make the single mother leave. And eventually, she did.
In Federal Heights, Karla Lyons’ waitressing wages are eaten up by a constant stream of home and yard repairs ordered by her park manager, including removal of a giant maple tree that fell on her patio roof and crushed it. She would move if she could afford it.
And in Boulder, Greg Gustin carries a knife in the pocket of his jeans while on duty as manager of a 1950s-era mobile home park that is one of the sketchiest spots in town. When a resident was accused of strangling his wife last year and leaving her to die in the manager’s officer, Gustin pulled surveillance video to defend himself to police.
Across Colorado, where the housing crisis impacts both rural and urban towns, the strife between mobile home park residents and park owners is approaching a boiling point. The business model -- in which homeowners pay lot rent to park their houses on someone else’s land -- exposes the immobility and economic vulnerability of tenants who can’t afford to move or live anywhere else.
Mobile homes provide the largest inventory of unsubsidized, affordable housing in the nation, but many began as RV parks in the 1960s and 1970s and are now old, with rundown water and electric systems and trailers that have been long past “mobile” for decades.
The Colorado Sun, along with more than a dozen partner news organizations across the state, spent the summer visiting mobile home parks to hear from residents, managers and owners. The project found that the number of parks is declining and ownership is consolidating as mom-and-pop parks sell out to large investors, which sometimes leads to displacement and redevelopment -- and, in the eyes of many residents, an imbalance of power that threatens their low-cost lifestyle.
More than 100,000 people live in more than 900 parks across Colorado. Those residents include many of Colorado’s working poor and immigrants who are undocumented. They have been mostly ignored for decades.
“We’ve relegated mobile home parks to a corner of the American imaginary,” said Esther Sullivan, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Denver and author of a book on mobile homes called “Manufactured Insecurity.”
“We have media representation of who is living there and stereotypes of who is living there that are absolutely false. In reality, this is a major swath of our workforce. This is the primary way that our working households attain the American dream of home ownership.”
Born in the post-World War II era, when quick, cheap housing was in demand among returning veterans, mobile homes endured and hit a peak in the early 1970s, according to U.S. Census data, before beginning a gradual decline in new home sales. Today, 70% of homes sold under $125,000 are mobile homes.
Sullivan calls mobile homes the largest source of “naturally occurring” affordable housing, an organic solution not created by public policy or housing assistance. Mobile home residents live under the radar -- literally zoned out of sight and segregated from conventional housing. In 2015, their median income was $39,000.
“We could lose this crucial source of affordable housing and low-income home ownership,” she said, “which would exacerbate the affordable housing crisis.”
Even now, the diminishing number of mobile home units represents the last, best hope for some semblance of home ownership.
“It’s like living half the American dream,” Fort Collins City Council member Emily Gorgol, an advocate for protecting mobile home parks, told The Coloradoan, “because you own your home but not the land underneath your feet.”
A NEAR-CAPTIVE CLIENTELE
In Colorado, economic, political and social forces converged this year to usher in the first significant changes in the law governing mobile home parks in years, giving traction to homeowners and setting the table for further reforms in the 2020 legislative session.
Residents complained that park owners could evict them with just 48 hours’ notice. Many spoke of a homeowner-versus-park-owner drama that has residents fixing up their homes or lawns to meet park owners’ demands. Residents might invest tens of thousands of dollars -- either by choice or under threat of eviction -- in a mobile home that, in reality, isn’t likely to move from its initial hookup. (In fact, mobile homes built before 1976 face legal hurdles to moving; since then, the industry has referred to them as “manufactured” homes.)
Mobile home parks have been regulated, in theory, since Colorado passed the 1985 Mobile Home Park Act. But enforcement has been another matter. With no dispute resolution mechanism in place, conflicts were left to the courts -- a potentially expensive proposition that almost universally favored park owners.
This year, with both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s office ruled by Democrats, changes to the law sailed through, even with some bipartisan support. Tight deadlines to cure late rent payments and, in cases of eviction, sell homes or move have been eased. County governments now have the power to enact ordinances governing the many mobile home parks that reside in unincorporated areas. And stakeholders currently are hammering out rules for a dispute resolution mechanism that will be available by May.
Part of the impetus for the changes came from economic shifts within the industry.
Corporate and institutional investors, attracted by potentially hefty profits from a near-captive clientele, underscore what has always been an unusual housing proposition. And such acquisitions have ramped up in recent years.
Today, the top 50 owners of mobile home parks have a combined 680,000 home sites across America, a 26% increase from 2016 to 2018, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute. Investors and private equity firms, formed by investors who directly invest in other companies, now own more than 150,000 manufactured home sites, according to a 2019 report from three housing advocacy groups.
The Utah-based Kingsley Management Corp., for example, has seven parks along Colorado’s Front Range.
Nationwide, an estimated 20 million Americans live in mobile home parks. Nearly 10% of the nation’s housing stock is manufactured homes, which numbered about 8.5 million in 2018, the institute reported.
Park owners charge residents rent for the lot on which the unit sits. The tangle of rights and responsibilities for decades has favored the park owners. But now, as the housing shortage becomes more acute and mobile home residents become more organized, power dynamics may be shifting.
In Aurora last summer, residents of the 60-lot Denver Meadows Mobile and RV Park were told to vacate when the park’s owner announced plans to sell the property for redevelopment. The 20-acre park sits near the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center and prime access to a new light-rail line. Residents fought the upheaval, and though they were forced to move, many received financial assistance based on the value of their trailers.
Bennett, who worked as a convenience store manager while she raised her children at Denver Meadows, said she was threatened with eviction so many times during her last year there that she was emotionally exhausted. Among the final straws: the park denied her request to let her sister from Germany stay with her for one month -- anything longer than a two-week visit was against park rules. For months, she helped fellow residents fight the park’s closure.
Bennett left the park six months before it closed, lost her manufactured home to foreclosure and used all of her savings to buy a small, conventional home in Aurora. “It’s costing me double what I used to pay, but at least nobody is going to take it away from me and say I can’t live here,” she said.
Seattle-based attorney Ishbel Dickens, who helped organize Boulder homeowners groups, notes that fear of losing their home sends many residents retreating into silence. Immigrants not only fear eviction, but also that authorities might question their legal status if they cause a problem.
Still, many mobile home parks -- Dickens calls them “gated communities for low-income families” -- have a sense of shared experience that fosters the kind of tight-knit neighborhoods that, under the right circumstances, can be moved to action.
“It’s crisis that brings people together,” she said.
NO ‘HILLBILLY’ PARKS
Mobile home parks have long represented a slice of the American dream for those who couldn’t afford land, or perhaps for those who wanted a place to park a summer home. Now, though, their reputation increasingly has evolved into a cash cow for park owners.
Look to Mobile Home University based south of Denver in Castle Rock. Frank Rolfe and Dave Reynolds, who own the fifth-highest number of mobile home parks in the nation, are educating other entrepreneurs about how to follow in their footsteps. The two men own 200 parks in 25 states, and for the past decade, have been teaching others how to invest in the industry.
They started Mobile Home University, Rolfe told the Denver bureau of The Associated Press, because no one had taken the mobile home industry seriously for half a century.
Rolfe’s training academy has been widely criticized -- including on “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver -- for teaching people how they can reap profits from homeowners whom Rolfe has referred to as held “hostage.” In defense, Rolfe said local owners have kept rent “unsustainably low” and that many are “held together with chicken wire and duct tape.”
“What you have occurring is you have these mom-and-pops basically never adjusting for inflation,” he said. “Every park is a turnaround where you’re trying to bring the whole mobile home park back to life, so you either raise the rent to do that or you tear it down.”
When Rolfe buys a park, he typically enacts new rules about upkeep and safety. “Mobile home park owners hate losing residents so we bend over backward to not lose anyone,” he said. “If a house doesn’t meet rules, we’ll do it for them.
“I don’t have any hillbilly parks, gravel roads or residents who can’t pay their rent.”
Homeowners at times view the rules as nitpicky and intrusive, questioning why the landowner has authority over whether the home they own needs new paint, for example. But park owners and managers take a different view, often bringing up safety.
Gustin, manager of Ponderosa Mobile Home Park in north Boulder, has outfitted his whole park with security cameras. “I feel so unsafe that I have 25 live security cameras that record 10 days worth of data,” he said. “It is a dangerous job.”
Gustin recently evicted a resident who was using methamphetamine. There was a fatal shooting in the park a few years back. And last summer, a resident was accused of strangling his wife in Gustin’s office, a killing recorded on one of Gustin’s cameras.
Gustin said he is not picky about regulations, unless they’re safety-related. He gives residents more time than allowed to come up with lot rent, which is about $500 in Ponderosa compared to the $800 or $900 some other Boulder parks charge. Gustin lets friendly dogs roam off leash, but will write up a resident for blocking the road because he is the one who would get in trouble if a fire truck couldn’t get through.
“There are a lot of people here because they like that live-and-let-live attitude,” he said. Still, one resident “can make life miserable for a lot of people.”
“The whole business model of a mobile home park is ridiculous,” Gustin said. “It made sense back in the ’40s and ’50s when moving them was really cheap. I think governments have known for 30 or 40 years that it’s a flawed business model. They quit doing new mobile home parks. They’re all old. There is just no place for people to go because there is no competition.”
‘YOU’RE STUCK, AND THEY KNOW IT’
First it was the warning to pick up the toys in her yard, the ones left there by the neighbor kids. Karla Lyons had five days to deal with that as well as remove her back deck or face possible eviction proceedings.
Then it was the giant maple in the side yard -- the one growing on the land owned by Lamplighter Village, a park adjacent to Water World in Federal Heights with more than 200 homes. Lyons and her husband said they were told by the park manager that they had to remove it.
Hiring a professional seemed too expensive, so the Lyons’ son and son-in-law worked on it limb by limb, whenever they had time. A neighbor in the manufactured home park offered to finish the job for $100, but when he did, the tree toppled onto the Lyons’ patio awning and knocked it off.
So the next note taped to Karla Lyons’ door demanded she fix the awning. The park supplied the materials, for $900, and tacked it onto her $800-per-month lot rent in $100 installments. Karla, who works as a waitress, and her husband, who is disabled, still are paying it off several months later.
Then there was the requirement to replace the skirting on the light-blue mobile home -- another $800. And the time the park manager ordered the Lyons to paint the wooden fence, only to inform them a few months later that fences were no longer allowed and they had to tear it down.
Karla Lyons finally lost it when the park manager told her she had to paint her house.
“If you want me to move, why don’t you just say so?” Lyons recalled asking her.
“It’s been one hassle after the other. Unfortunately, it’s cheaper for me to live here than an apartment. Otherwise I would have left a long time ago. You’re like stuck, and they know it.”
The park manager at Lamplighter said she “wasn’t at liberty” to talk to The Colorado Sun, referring questions to the park’s corporate owner, Kingsley Management. Kingsley did not respond to requests for comment.
A few streets over from Karla, her neighbor Cheryl Whisenhunt is suing the park after a series of park-ordered home improvements that Whisenhunt terms harassment. She’s had so many notices posted on her door, she’s lost track. “She gives them out like candy,” Whisenhunt said of the park manager.
Whisenhunt claims park management has been targeting her beige-and-green double-wide because it’s one of the few aluminum-sided homes still left in the park. Many homeowners have paid thousands of dollars to replace aluminum siding with wood at the park manager’s request, and Whisenhunt fears many did so because they do not speak English well and don’t understand the law.
“I feel like I live in Russia,” she said.
HOUSING MARKET FAVORS PARK OWNERSHIP
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,” he said. “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 holding on to their investment and reaping their profits, Borden added, rather than looking to redevelop the property. He’s quick to note, however, that while not all of the smaller operations did right by their residents, local ownership is more likely to be responsive to public pressure when residents raise 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 mobile home owner urgently seeking counsel about what to do now that their park has been purchased. He has found that getting these groups activated and engaged isn’t so difficult, as they tend to be close-knit communities. But most states, including Colorado, have limited protections for residents in manufactured homes.
Andrea Chiriboga-Flor of the nonprofit 9to5 Colorado, which advocates for affordable housing, says that over the past year in Colorado, 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 came 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 on the outside.
Inside was an announcement: The park had been sold by its local owners to a company based 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 to become a resident-owned community, and had heard no rumblings of an impending sale, so the news triggered concern -- especially when residents looked closer at page after page of new rules and regulations that the owners planned to impose, a list one resident figured would immediately 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 recalled.
Anxiety spread quickly. It wasn’t calmed by a subsequent 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 what they felt were draconian rules -- 11 pages of them -- 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 clean-up, 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 -- “so I’d always have a roof over my head” -- for roof repairs on her trailer.
“It took away the most important thing in the world to me,” she says.
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 push-back “a rather unique response” that he hasn’t seen at other properties, where that same list of rules and regulations has been imposed. Still, the company agreed to let the park’s previous rules stand.
“We’re just not pushing it,” Reinert said. ”(The rules) are written to protect the safety of all residents, that’s what they’re designed to do.”
He added that any issues were resolved at community meetings and that it’s “ancient history.”
Peirce said, “It feels like a truce.”
“Neither side knows what to do next,” he said. “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.”