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Building stability through resident-owned mobile home parks

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Building stability through resident-owned mobile home parks

Mar 31, 2024 | 11:08 am ET
By Lia Kvatum
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Building stability through resident-owned mobile home parks
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Leaders of the Madelia Mobile VIllage Co-Op broke ground on a new storm shelter in September. (Photo by ROC USA via Daily Yonder, used with permission.)

In 2011, it was chance that took Marjory Gilsrud and her husband, Mike, to a home in the Madelia Mobile Village Cooperative. But it’s choice that has kept them in the resident-owned mobile home park in rural Minnesota.

Before her move to Madelia Mobile Village, the Gilsruds lived in a private mobile home park that got sold to an investment firm. Rent started rising while the home was in a terrible state of disrepair.

“We were paying $450 a month by the end,” Gilsrud told the Daily Yonder. “And the rents were increasing every six months like clockwork.”

The Madelia cooperative, located in the town of Madelia in Watonwan County, Minnesota, was different, however. Unlike most manufactured housing communities (also known as mobile home or “trailer” parks), Madelia Mobile Village Cooperative is owned by the residents who live there.

In conventional mobile home parks, residents own the home but rent the lot. In a resident-owned community, residents own and manage the property cooperatively. Residents get a say in setting rent and investing in upkeep and improvements.

There are many advantages to this system, advocates say, but the biggest is stability: Residents must approve lot fees, and generally they stay fairly stable.

“We’ve increased lot rent only once in the last four years,” said Gilsrud. “And that was by $6.”

Mobile homes are an important source of affordable housing, particularly for rural people and and people of color. Mobile homes make up a larger percentage of the housing stock in rural areas than urban ones, according to a study of North Carolina. A 2023 article in the Journal of the American Planning Association found that “more Americans live in manufactured housing than in public and federally subsidized rental housing combined.”

But manufactured housing’s ability to help make homes more affordable is limited by a number of factors, including lack of control over the property the homes sit on. Becoming a resident-owned community like Madelia is a way to address that.

ROC USA is a national nonprofit that has helped establish 321 resident-owned mobile home communities, including Madelia Mobile Village Cooperative. The group helps residents navigate the complex legal and financial considerations that go into establishing a resident-owned community.

Nineteen states offer some consideration to residents if a park owner decides to sell. In nine states, residents get a chance to match the highest third-party offer for purchase.

“If you are a community owner and you’re deciding to sell, you give the homeowners the right to match the best offer that you have,” Mike Bullard, ROC USA’s vice president of communications, told the Daily Yonder. “It’s not right of first refusal. It allows residents the chance to make that same offer.”

Most states, including those that have the highest percentage of manufactured homes, have no such provisions.

ROC USA works with partner organizations and the residents on things like forming a board of directors, drawing up a purchase agreement and securing funding. Because groups are low-income, they make sure that the payments on the loans are affordable. They also seek out  current owners of mobile home parks who want to sell and work with them to help them get a fair price for their park.

There are many advantages to becoming a resident-owned community, according to Bullard.

“The first one is the stability of cooperative land ownership. They own an equal share of the whole community, and they elect a board of directors to make decisions and manage,” he said. “They have an annual meeting where they’re voting on the big things, like everybody, all the members get a vote on the big things like adjustments to the rent, the budget, community rules.”

He’s noticed other advantages, too: the communities tend to become tight-knit and supportive, and people seem happier.

But there are other issues that complicate manufactured housing. The homes themselves are frequently in need of updates or replacement, which can be expensive on the market dominated by a single company, Clayton Homes.

Berkshire Hathaway, which owns Clayton Homes, is also the majority stockholder in one of the only companies that finances mobile home purchases.

Unlike conventional mortgages, most manufactured homes are purchased with personal property loans, sometimes called “chattel” loans, which have terms more like car loans. This means rates tend to be very high.

Insurance rates on these homes are also much higher than traditional homeowner’s insurance.

And because in most states they are not considered houses but vehicles, owners don’t qualify for home equity loans for any improvements they make. That means owners have to have the cash on hand before they can repair or modify their homes, Gilsrud said.

“And for low-income people that can be nearly impossible.”

Parks are being snapped up by investors, who can make steep rent increases or choose to redevelop the land, displacing residents. They receive little pushback because residents have few consumer protections. According to Carolyn Carter at the National Consumer Law Center, only eight states have “strong” protections for residents when a community is sold. Eleven others have some protections, but in the majority of states, where most manufactured homes sit, have no protections at all. Carter is the co-author of a report that provides model legislation to give mobile home park residents the chance to purchase their communities.

ROC USA reports that every community they’ve converted to resident-owned is still going strong.

For her part, Gilsrud, in the Madelia Mobile Village Cooperative in Minnesota, reports that overall her community is doing well and has an excellent relationship with the town’s government. They’re working to improve infrastructure and recently broke ground on a community storm shelter. As president of the board of directors, she’s encouraged other residents to step up and join the community’s board, including those who have never been so involved before.

Gilsrud plans to stay for the foreseeable future. Her own horizons have expanded, too: In addition to her work on state-wide issues, she’s also a part of the ROC Association, a group of volunteers who offer peer-support to resident-owned communities across the country and brings community concerns to the ROC board of directors. She’s also been to Washington, D.C., to push for greater protections.

“This has really boosted my confidence,” Gilsrud said. “And the friendships I’ve made across the country are incredible.”

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.