TAUNTON, Mass. — When Kathy Zorotheos retired in 2014 after working for nearly four decades, she spent her days walking around the Oak Hill Mobile Home Park where she had been living for several years.
“That’s all I did. I just walked,” she said. “That’s what started the whole thing.”
On her walks, she’d wave to neighbors as they drove past the rows of mobile homes. But not everyone waved back. So she waved more, waved bigger and rarely missed an opportunity to speak with fellow residents. Soon, she came to know many who live in the park’s more than 250 homes.
Then, in 2015, she received a notice in the mail that the park was being sold to an out-of-state corporation.
Zorotheos feared that rents could soar and worried about how effectively absentee owners could run the park. There was also the chance that new ownership could ultimately mean redevelopment of the land for other uses. That’s what happened to residents of a park in Foxborough, half an hour away, when the Patriots needed a new stadium nearly 20 years ago.
Zorotheos started Googling: “How do you buy a mobile home park?”
The answer: Rally the residents. It would take somebody who knew everybody, and luckily, Zorotheos matched that description.
What followed was a scramble to gather everyone, a vote in favor of buying the park themselves, and a crash-course in forming a cooperative and getting loans. When the owners of Oak Hill brought the issue to court, unsure if they could pull out of the deal with the company they had agreed to sell to, Zorotheos worked the phones once again, urging residents to come to court and lend their support. Dozens did, riding a school bus to a hearing.
The residents won, and they bought the park with a loan from Resident Owned Communities USA, a nonprofit that helps mobile home residents organize and get financing. The residents’ rents went up slightly but it gave them control.
“For just $37 more a month, we could own and run our own park; it was incredible,” she said. “We fought a lot, but we won, and that was the best thing.”
Zorotheos never looked back.
About 20 million Americans live in mobile homes, the largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the nation. In areas like Massachusetts, where the median home price is nearly $400,000, mobile homes often offer the only chance of homeownership for those on limited incomes. At Oak Hill, for instance, homes have sold for between $80,000 and $140,000 over the past year.
But while they provide affordable housing to many Americans, mobile homes continue to face stigma and marginalization. Mobile home parks are often seen as unsightly, derelict places to live, where drugs, violence and poverty are common. As a result, they are largely kept out of mind and out of sight, said Esther Sullivan, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Denver and the author of “Manufactured Insecurity: Mobile Home Parks and Americans’ Tenuous Right to Place.”
“Requirements that these communities be fenced off and visually screened from view with landscaping etc., remove even the sight of these parks, so even if you’re driving on the road you might not see them,” Sullivan said. “That really has implications for how we think about these communities.”
And mobile home dwellers face one big issue that traditional homeowners do not: They often don’t own the land on which their homes sit.
This means that when parks are sold, residents are vulnerable. “These things are cash cows,” said Doug Ryan, director of affordable home ownership at Prosperity Now, a nonprofit that focuses on financial security and economic inequality. “They make investors a lot of money, that’s why investors are chasing these deals.”
There’s even a crash course for would-be buyers. Mobile Home University — an outfit run by Frank Wolfe, one of the biggest owners of mobile home communities in the U.S. — promises to teach people how to maximize profits by, for example, raising rents and cutting back on services and amenities.
“Affordable housing is the hottest arena in real estate now,” the MHU website reads. “With 20% of Americans trying to live on $20,000 or less, the demand for mobile homes has never been higher - and the big winners are the owners of mobile home parks in which these customers reside.”
Private equity firms are also increasingly seeing mobile home parks as a money-maker. Last month, The Associated Press reported that a Utah-based firm bought two Iowa mobile home parks, announcing rent hikes of 58 percent and 69 percent.
Unexpected rent increases can be devastating for residents, even when they seem small. “$50 is real money and is going to be a real burden for somebody who is making $30,000 a year,” said Ryan, adding that the average mobile home owner makes about that much.
And it’s hard to leave. Despite their name, most mobile homes are not exactly mobile.
Older homes — as well as those that have had significant improvements made to them — can risk structural damage in a move. Even if a mobile home can be moved, it costs thousands of dollars to do so. And at a time when few new mobile home parks are opening and many are closing, finding a new spot for a mobile home presents an additional burden.
In Colonial Estates, a mobile home community across the street from Oak Hill for residents 55 and over, there are homes that, although built in a factory, look more like traditional houses: homes with porches and attics that were moved there in two pieces on trailer frames.
“Very few places embrace the idea of having more or new mobile home parks, so as we’ve seen parks be converted to other uses or redeveloped, we’re losing lots and we’re not replacing those at the other end,” said Kate MacTavish, a professor of human development and family sciences at Oregon State University and the author of “Singlewide: Chasing the American Dream in a Rural Trailer Park.”
“This is not a housing source we’ve embraced as a nation,” MacTavish said.
In Massachusetts, mobile home park residents have the first right of refusal, meaning that they must be notified of a pending sale and given the opportunity to purchase the park themselves. This is the provision that enabled Oak Hill residents to eventually purchase their park. But not all states have such laws in place.
Michael Bullard, the communications director of ROC USA — which provided financing to both Oak Hill and Colonial Estates — said Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont are the only states where “right to purchase” legislation is really working.
Several other states have a right of first refusal policy in place, but with significant loopholes, like provisions that require the new owners to say they intend to discontinue using the land for a mobile home park.
“By and large, in most states, there’s nothing,” Bullard said.
Laws protecting mobile home residents benefit states, said Sullivan, because they help protect affordable housing stock. “Otherwise, it’s on the state to deal with the housing crises that are happening in so many states and build more housing,” she said.
But changing laws for mobile home parks is a tall order.
MacTavish said that the stigma surrounding parks means they have few advocates in their corner. “If you don’t want to keep it around, you don’t want to preserve it, you don’t want to pass the legislation that you need to make that happen,” she said. “Mobile home parks don’t have many allies.”
But what parks like Oak Hill and Colonial Estates do have, however, are strong communities. Oak Hill residents’ decision to purchase their park reached beyond the park’s boundaries: Colonial Estates residents decided to buy their own land when their park was put up for sale, partially because of the success they saw across the street.
“If somebody bought our community, they were in it to make money — they were going to raise the rent,” said Pete Richard, the vice president of the Colonial Estates residents association. “This way, you have control. If you raise the rent, you have a reason for it, something in the community needs to get done.”
Reverend Michael Scarlett, a tattooed 65-year-old Catholic priest who is the president of the Colonial Estates residents association, had previously tried to encourage residents to buy the park when it was first up for sale in 2014. But residents voted against the purchase, fearing that it would cost too much to run a park on their own.
Instead, Colonial Estates was sold to out-of-state owners who mismanaged the park, Scarlett said, and did not respond to the needs of residents.
In 2016, the park was up for sale again, but this time Colonial Estates residents were eager to purchase it and did — at $3 million more than they could have a few years earlier.
The ownership has fostered a strong sense of community in the park. To save money, the park decided to use volunteers for most of its upkeep and maintenance work.
Scarlett gets up on ladders to put up solar panels on light posts. Richard operates a front-end loader to handle bigger repair issues. Another man rides an industrial-sized lawn mower that’s torn up a few articles of clothing and lawn decorations, but has otherwise gotten the job done. It feels like they are taking care of a town.
“It’s all private ownership. It’s really what it is,” said Scarlett. “The whole attitude changes on everything.”
Zorotheos feels the same about Oak Hill. “We’re not a park, we’re a community now. We’re not trailer trash,” she said. “It was the best thing we could ever do.”
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