Thu. Sep 28th, 2023


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The battle to keep Colorado’s mobile home parks in local hands

11 min read

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Peter Frombgen tries not to take this for granted.

Every morning for 20 years, the former ski bum and bike mechanic peers out the window of his mobile home tucked alongside Lincoln Avenue, basking in a full view of the town’s famed ski area and lush Emerald Mountain before him.

The ramshackle trailer might represent the most unique living arraignment in Routt County: A 1953 silver airstream cut in half, with a standard mobile home haphazardly welded in the middle. The kitchen floor slopes at odd angles and water sometimes leaks through ceiling cracks during heavy rainstorms.

But the home allows Frombgen, 70, to continue living in a place he considers paradise — a place that has allowed him to ski 100 days a year, bike on gorgeous pathways and kayak the blue waters of the Yampa River.

“As far as life goes,” he said, “I’m pretty (expletive) spoiled.”

In a resort town where the average home price is close to $1 million, the Whitehaven Mobile Home Park represents one of the last vestiges of affordable housing for the community’s vital laborers, teachers, cooks and ski workers.

Last summer, Frombgen and the other 26 families in the park thought they might be living here on borrowed time. The park went up for sale, with an asking price of $3.2 million. New owners usually come with steep rent increases, the type that force low-income residents out of Steamboat — or Colorado entirely.

But a 2022 law allowed for a new possibility: Residents could sign over their right-of-first-refusal to a nonprofit or public entity. With a few large anonymous donations and a favorable loan, the Yampa Valley Housing Authority stepped in and bought the park, with plans to transition ownership to residents in three years.

“It was like, ‘Oh my God, we can actually save our homes,’” said Jake Dombrowski, Whitehaven’s HOA president.

Whitehaven’s saga is a shining example of Colorado’s recent legislative efforts to boost protections for the tens of thousands of residents living in the state’s more than 700 mobile home parks.

As private equity giants and national real estate investors gobble up these communities across the country, the state’s new laws have birthed a swath of creative solutions designed to keep mobile homes out of corporate hands.

Before state lawmakers in 2020 passed the “opportunity to purchase” bill — which hoped to make it easier for residents to purchase their parks — there existed just one resident co-op in Colorado.

But after a slow start and key legislative updates, eight parks are owned by residents — and two more are on the way. Another three parks were bought by nonprofits or cities, with the goal to transition ownership to residents. A park in Durango is trying out a community land trust model, which operators hope could be replicated across the state.

Meanwhile, a new state-run revolving loan and grant program recently doled out nearly $30 million specifically to help residents purchase the land beneath their homes or keep rents manageable.

Lawmakers, advocates and residents acknowledge these success stories are still the exception, not the rule. Corporate owners continue to snatch up available parks. And without rent control — which died under the governor’s veto threat last year — landlords can still hike rents as high as they please.

Still, the growing number of community-owned parks represents a noticeable trend in an otherwise brutal affordable housing landscape, experts say.

“I’m real keen to the let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach,” said Michael Peirce, a mobile home owner in Boulder who spearheaded efforts in 2021 to purchase the Sans Souci park as a resident-cooperative. “It’s really nice to see different models being tried out, then we can sort out whether some are working and others aren’t.”

Legislative changes

Mobile home parks — sometimes referred to as manufactured housing communities — operate as their own, unique form of housing.

More than 91% of the 52,275 mobile homes in Colorado are owned by the residents who live in them. But the land beneath their homes is owned by a landlord, who rents the small plot out to them on a monthly basis.

As a result of this distinctive arrangement, mobile home residents are beholden to landlords in a way apartment renters are not, housing experts say. If a landlord increases your rent in an apartment building, you can leave. But with mobile homes, the owner has a mortgage. And despite their name, mobile homes are often not able to be moved.

That leaves residents stuck.

In recent years, housing advocates and residents around the country have sounded the alarm over a steady increase in corporate investors purchasing mobile home parks in search of consistent, passive profit. Mobile Home University, a seminar based in Castle Rock, teaches investors to remove amenities and raise rent repeatedly because tenants are unlikely to leave.

In light of these trends, Colorado lawmakers overhauled the state’s decades-old Mobile Home Park Act. They created an oversight program to mediate disputes between residents and landlords, limited the number of times a year landlords could raise rent and gave enforcement bodies more teeth to battle bad actors.

Democrats wanted to include rent stabilization measures in last year’s bill — long a third rail in Colorado politics — but stripped it out after Gov. Jared Polis threatened a veto.

One of the most important changes came through HB20-1201. The law mandated park owners alert residents when they intend to sell the park and give them a window to put together an offer. But more than a year after the legislation took effect, only two resident groups were successful.

Housing advocates and residents said owners would often not “negotiate in good faith” as the law intended. Resident cooperatives simply didn’t have enough time to organize and obtain millions of dollars to complete complex real estate transactions, critics said.

In response, Democrats ran a bill last session that worked to remediate some of these problems. HB22-1287, which went into effect in October, extended the residents’ purchase window to 120 days from 90.

Crucially, the new law also gave residents additional avenues to help them purchase their parks. Resident groups could now assign their purchasing opportunity to a nonprofit or public entity to buy the community on their behalf.

“We can actually save the park”

These legislative changes immediately became relevant for the residents in Steamboat, who learned in August that their park was up for sale.

“That was a very bad day, I’m not gonna lie,” Dombrowski said. “Everybody was freaking out.”

The 33-year-old grew up in the valley and returned after college, becoming a general manager at a local janitorial supply company.

As home prices in the valley skyrocketed, Dombrowski and other local workers knew mobile home parks were their only affordable housing option if they wanted to stay in town.

“We were pretty much convinced that no matter what, we were probably losing our homes,” Dombrowski said.

Whitehaven residents had 90 days — a “ticking time bomb”, as Dombrowski called it, to match the buyer’s offer.

After an article published in the local paper, local philanthropists reached out.

Residents quickly formed a cooperative, with Dombrowski serving as its president. He hoped they could raise $10,000 or $20,000 from people in town.

Soon after, the newly formed HOA board met Jason Peasley, executive director of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority, for a meeting at Integrated Community, a nonprofit center in Steamboat. They hoped for good news.

Peasley told the group they had raised $750,000 — including half-a-million dollars from two anonymous donors.

It was like a movie scene, Dombrowski recalled.

“Just hearing that we were hit with this total wave,” he said. “‘This might be a reality — we can actually save the park.’ It was unfathomable.”

On Oct. 1, the new state law took effect, allowing Whitehaven residents to assign their purchasing power to the local housing authority. That gave Yampa Valley a right of first refusal — meaning that park owner must sell the park to the housing authority if they meet the purchasing offer.

“It was super critical,” Peasley said of the legislation. “It put us in a much stronger position to execute on the deal.”

Along with the grant money, the housing authority found $2.5 million in loans. Rent wouldn’t go up a dime.

The housing authority only intends to act as an interim owner, Peasley said. The goal is to address pressing infrastructure needs — such as hooking up the park to city water and abandoning a decaying well system — before transitioning the park into residents’ hands within three years.

“It’s a really good piece of legislation,” the housing director said. “It really puts communities in the driver’s seat of these negotiations. It allows you to create these opportunities where mobile homeowners can have security in their homes and control their future.”

The nonprofit model

The Whitehaven sale was the first time mobile home residents in Colorado had assigned their purchasing power to a city.

But it’s not just municipalities getting involved.

Soon after the Steamboat sale closed, residents in Alamosa voted to allow the San Luis Valley Housing Coalition to purchase the Century Mobile Home Park on their behalf.

The nonprofit, whose mission is to provide safe and affordable housing to low- and moderate-income individuals, had initially started helping the 148 residents organize to purchase the park as a cooperative.

But challenges abounded: Community members spoke three languages; the park needed $2 million in repairs on top of the $6.8 million asking price; and 90 days gave them little time to waste, said Dawn Melgares, the housing coalition’s executive director.

“They didn’t feel it was enough time to start a business, get leadership and get that all put together,” she said. “They felt the best way was allowing someone to take over that had all those steps done,” she said.

Residents wouldn’t see any increases in their rent. And any future hikes would be minimal and tied to actual need — a promise institutional investors rarely make.

“It’s really due to the new law,” Melgares said. “Without that, I do believe the residents would not have had success.”

“It was sickening”

Less than a mile up the road from Whitehaven, residents of the West Acres mobile home park are facing the realities of life with larger ownership groups.

In February, tenants came home to letters posted on their doors. Rent would be going up 50% in April.

“It was sickening,” said Scott Barbero, who’s lived in the park for seven years. The 54-year-old cook was paying $668 a month. His April rent: $1,068.

He and other residents are taking on extra shifts or finding second and third jobs to make ends meet.

One of the park’s minority owners, Charley Williams, said the group was unlikely to sell the park — and if they did, it would be in the $60 to $80 million range, said Paul Smith, a resident.

“It makes you feel like you’re a cash cow to somebody who doesn’t care about the community,” he said.

No rent control means there’s nothing anyone can do about the hikes, even if it “seems unconscionable,” Peasley, of Yampa Valley Housing, said.

During a meeting this month, residents asked Williams if he would provide a translator, given that roughly half the park is Spanish-speaking.

“This is America,” Williams said, according to multiple residents in attendance. “We speak English.”

People stormed out of the meeting.

“It felt racist,” said Tania Carbajal, a single mother who has lived in the park for 12 years with her three kids. “It made us feel like we’re not humans. We’re all American. We all contribute.”

Williams did not respond to multiple calls and messages seeking comment. He told the Steamboat Pilot & Today in February that the new state laws have added a regulatory burden on park owners, leading to increased costs.

With the rent spikes and contentious meeting in mind, residents couldn’t help but envision what owning their land, much like their neighbors down the road, would be like.

“That’s what we strive for in life — to have ownership of something,” Barbero said. “Who wants a mother to tell you what to do with your own place?”

More tools in the toolbox

It’s these tales that keep housing advocates pushing for more resident-owned communities in Colorado. Slowly but surely they’re becoming more common as a wider array of funding mechanisms and lending organizations take root amid a fertile legislative climate.

In 2021, a year after the “opportunity to purchase” bill took effect, Cooperativa Nueva Union in Leadville, Animas View Co-op in Durango and Sans Souci Cooperative in Boulder became resident-owned. The following year, cooperatives in Johnstown (Paradise Village Cooperative) and Fort Collins (United Neighbors/Vecinos Unidos) joined the mix. Whitehaven and Century Mobile Home Park followed suit.

In Durango, Westside Mobile Home Park residents elected to try a new model, assigning their purchasing opportunity to a community land trust. The plan, under the stewardship of Denver-based Elevation Community Land Trust, is to redevelop the park, building permanent, affordable housing on the land to replace mobile homes.

The trust committed to no displacement while the homes are being built and no lot rent increases.

“Mobile homes extract wealth,” said Stefka Fanchi, the land trust’s CEO. “The purpose of a community land trust is to build wealth.”

Elevation purchased the park but is running it in partnership with a resident cooperative, Fanchi said, with the two sharing decision-making. She hopes to replicate this model state-wide.

“The resident-owned community model isn’t the only answer,” Fanchi said. “The more tools we have in the toolbox the better.”

That toolbox is getting fuller in Colorado — and there’s about to be more money to keep it well-stocked.

SB22-160, signed into law last year, established a revolving loan and grant program to provide assistance and financing to mobile homeowners seeking to organize and purchase their parks.

This month, the state doled out $28.75 million to three organizations to support resident-owned communities.

For Impact Development Fund, which received $11.75 million, that money could potentially help fund 11 new resident-owned communities at $1 million apiece, said Sean Doherty, the fund’s executive director.

Thistle, a Boulder-based affordable housing nonprofit, has played a critical role in helping seven Colorado parks transition to resident ownership. Its team is also working with two additional parks in Golden and Lafayette that hope to finalize cooperatives by the end of summer.

The organization received $5 million from the state’s revolving fund and has no shortage of interest. Last year, 24 mobile home communities reached out to Thistle to become a resident-owned community, the company said. Staff estimates eight to 10 potential park sales could convert to resident-owned communities over the next three years.

“Colorado has shown a huge interest in making this possible for residents,” said Tim Townsend, Thistle’s ROC program director.

Still, these community-led sales represent just a tiny sliver of Colorado’s 731 registered mobile home parks.

Michael Peirce, the Sans Souci resident who also runs the Colorado Coalition of Manufactured Home Owners, estimates for every six resident groups who want to buy their park, there exists support for only one.

“The broad disappointment is that the network of support organizations and qualified people is lagging behind the demand,” he said.

Intense competition from out-of-state institutional buyers has also driven up the cost of mobile home parks in Colorado, wrote ROC USA, a national lending organization, in its state application for funding.

Prices are often well above $100,000 per home site for parks with 75 or more sites, the company wrote. With sky-high prices, communities and their partners have a choice: Make the deal work or half the park’s residents may be out on the street.

“It’s not a negotiation,” said Dani Slabaugh, a University of Colorado Denver doctoral student, whose dissertation focuses on resident-owned communities in the state. “It’s a hostage situation.”

It might be a drop in the bucket, but the water is slowly rising, community by community.

“Going from very few (resident-owned communities) to the number we’re seeing — it’s pretty big,” Peirce said. “We’ve made it more likely people can succeed.”

It means people like Peter Frombgen can still get up in the morning, gaze out at the mountains, and know he won’t have to say goodbye.

“I don’t know how long I’ll live,” he said. “But I should be secure here for a while.”

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