Hallie Golden is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, and the Associated Press.
When a landlord sells a mobile home park, it can upend an entire community. Through co-ops, residents are finding a way to stay where they live and control their rent costs.
More than a decade after Jim Wallace moved into a small mobile home community in Duvall, Washington, he said the landlord threatened to sell the property and possibly make everyone leave. Wallace had been living there since 1982. He didn’t want to move. He also didn’t think he could afford to.
If he tried to move his 14-foot, single-wide mobile home, it “would fold up like a cardboard box,” he said. Wallace didn’t own the land he was on; like his neighbors, he was renting it. Leaving the community would probably have meant dropping his home off at the dump and leaving Duvall, where he has lived in his entire life, in order to find a cheap apartment somewhere farther north.
“I was doing some pacing on the floor,” said Wallace, now a 71-year-old retired manufacturing engineer.
But by 2012, everything changed. Once again, there was concern that the landlord was going to sell, but this time Wallace and the other members of the 25-home community had a plan. For years, the residents had wrestled with the fact that they have little to no say in the park’s long-term future. So in July, they wrote a letter to the landlord, expressing their concern. “We wanted assurance that our homes would be safe for us to enjoy in the future,” said Katy Bowen, president of the Duvall Riverside Village’s board of directors and one of its residents. The next month, the landlord sent them a letter offering to sell them the property.
They formed a co-op, got a loan, and bought the 4.5-acre land, about 25 miles northeast of Seattle, for $1.18 million. With that, they officially became Duvall Riverside Village. Now any household can pay the one-time membership fee of $200 to become part of the co-op that owns the land. In other words, the residents were given the long-term security and financial stability that is so often unavailable at a mobile home park.
Manufactured home communities have a long history of providing low-cost housing in the U.S., where residents drive their homes in, secure them, and pay a monthly rent to stay on the owner’s land. These homes are typically the least expensive option when it comes to unsubsidized housing, serving households with a median annual income of about $30,000, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute, a national trade organization. Today, about 22 million people in the U.S. live in these homes. On average, they pay a gross housing cost of $564 per month, compared to $1,057 per month for people living in homes or apartments, according to Apartment List.
But residents in most states find there are few protections to prevent them from being kicked out of mobile home parks at an owner’s or developer’s whim. If the land value increases, the owner might be tempted to sell, and residents in many places aren’t entitled to such protections as an advanced notice to vacate or money to cover relocation costs. As a result, an increasing number of approximately 40,000 mobile home communities in the United States have opted to take landlords out of the equation.
Today, at least 220 mobile home parks have been converted to resident-owned communities, said Mike Bullard, the communications and marketing manager at ROC USA, a national non-profit that helps residents take ownership of manufactured home communities. ROC USA and its affiliates have helped to make this switch for 14,252 homes, a quarter of which have made the change in just the last two years.
A 79-home community in Fridley, Minnesota, called Park Plaza Cooperative made the switch in 2011. Natividad Seefeld, the co-op’s president, said the land was up for sale and she was concerned about the residents getting displaced, given the desirable area they live in—15 minutes north of downtown Minneapolis, near a train station and two major highways.
“When a community is offered up for sale, it means anyone can come and purchase you,” she said. “They can displace you, your whole entire community.”
And often it’s not just the community that gets lost in the process—it can also mean residents lose their homes altogether. Despite their name, relocating a mobile home can pose some big hurdles. For one thing, the home needs to be in good enough condition to move, and the owner has to find a community that will allow it in. (Many have rules about the age of homes that are brought in). Owners also must be able to afford the $5,000 to $15,000 price tag that may be needed to move the structure. Bullard said the process involves a crane and a truck, and often additional vehicles to escort the oversize load.
“Unfortunately what happens when communities are closed is often times people just abandon their home,” he said. “People who own a home, that’s their largest asset, and if you have to forfeit it, that’s a huge financial setback.”
Becoming a resident-owned community isn’t a simple process. The Duvall village failed on two separate occasions because the residents couldn’t afford it.
By 2012, with the landlord getting older and the price of living in the city continuing to rise, the residents were facing a truly uncertain future.
“We kept hearing about these mobile home parks where they sell them and tell people to get out immediately or within months,” said Bowen. “So we talked to him and he thought about it and came back with a letter saying that he talked to a broker and is willing to sell to us.”
The residents held an hour-long meeting to make sure everyone was on board with the plan, and agreed to buy the land through a loan financed by ROC USA and Washington State Housing Finance Commission, a state entity that helps with local housing programs. That was still just the beginning: They then had to review the purchase and agree to it, and do the same for community bylaws and rules (a ROC USA template for bylaws helped with that part); they also had to elect a board of directors.
At the beginning there was so much to discuss, approve, and learn that they were having meetings every week just to keep up with it all, Bowen said. “We were so tired of meetings, but they had to be done.”
After they officially bought the land, each household was responsible for a monthly co-op fee of $475, about $25 more than they were paying before the switch. Since then, that monthly fee has only increased one time, by $5, because of higher insurance rates. Bowen said when the land was owned by an outside landlord, rent increased by at least $5 to $10 every year.
The village now has monthly meetings to make decisions, and members vote on the board’s budget each year. They also have an annual summer picnic. Bowen said she used to not know many of her neighbors. Now, with regular meetings and events, “everybody knows each other,” she said.
Wallace said he’s happy with the change and doesn’t ever plan to leave. “It’s our property now, so that’s a good feeling,” he said. “You’re not at the mercy of someone.”