Aspen Journalism: Organizing mobile home owners as investors gobble up parks
Case study gathers resident sentiments about rents, rules, legislative remedies
Like a lot of his neighbors, John Sullivan looks down his Apple Tree Park street and across the Colorado River toward the small Western Slope town of New Castle and wonders about the future.
The 290-space mobile home park where he has lived for 25 years has one of the more picturesque settings among the 50 or so such parks, large and small, that dot the region from Aspen to Parachute.
The streets and yards are lined with mature trees to provide ample shade in the summer, and there’s a good-sized community park where children can play and families gather for picnics. Many of the spaces even overlook the river — albeit with Interstate 70 and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks just to the other side.
It’s not quite paradise, but in a hot real estate market like the one that emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, the 63 acres of riverfront property could be a developer’s dream.
“That thought is certainly in the back of your mind. You never know, it could possibly happen at some point. I mean, it’s happened elsewhere,” said Sullivan, who recently retired from his longtime maintenance job at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs.
Two of his adult children also live at Apple Tree with their families, which means the grandchildren are nearby. It’s a great place to live, especially for people of modest means, he said.
“It would be hard to go anywhere else, unless you have a lot of money to try to go buy something,” Sullivan said. “That’s really not an option for most of us here.”
What Sullivan and his neighbors worry about — corporate ownership takeover, creeping unaffordability, the potential for the park to be displaced by redevelopment — is happening at an accelerating rate, both in the Roaring Fork Valley and across Colorado, prompting stronger policy prescriptions from elected officials and community leaders.
In 2020, according to Garfield County property transaction records, Apple Tree Park sold for $22.7 million to the Park City, Utah-based Investment Property Group (IPG), when the Talbott family, which had owned the park since its inception, decided to sell.
That same year, IPG also purchased the 68-space Mountain Valley Mobile Home Park, on Highway 133 at the entrance to Carbondale, for $9.5 million — almost $4.3 million more than what the property sold for just two years earlier, records show.
IPG first entered the area real estate market in January 2019 when it purchased the 79-space Aspen-Basalt Mobile Home Park, on Willits Lane in Basalt, for $11.2 million, according to Eagle County property transaction records.
The company’s portfolio now includes more than 150 properties across 13 states, including 114 mobile home parks offering more than 19,000 spaces, according to the Mobile Home Park Home Owners Allegiance’s online database.
IPG bills itself on its website as a residential property management company with an emphasis on renovation and maintaining its properties for the long term. Company officials declined comment for this story.
It’s part of an ownership trend away from family-owned trailer parks (as they used to be called) — often built by farming and ranching families as a way to bring in additional income through rents and to help house workers for large public works projects in the mid- to late 20th century — and toward out-of-state real estate investment interests.
“It’s definitely a national trend,” said Jon Fox-Rubin, who works with the Carbondale-based Manaus philanthropy fund as its Housing Innovation Project lead. “And, ironically, some of the federal funds that were designated for affordable housing have been accessible for many of these investor groups to come in and buy up mobile home parks to get incredibly low interest rates on their financing.”
There are decent players in it for the long haul, and IPG and some of the other recent new players may prove to be among them, he acknowledged. Yet, there are rarely any covenants forcing the owners to keep rents affordable or preventing them from eventually selling the land off for potential redevelopment, he said.
Rules and raising rents
The move away from local ownership has brought new rules for many park tenants, such as limiting the number of sheds and other exterior structures they are allowed to have, ensuring fences are stained and in good repair, and getting rid of junk cars and recreational vehicles or finding another place to store them.
The rules are meant to clean things up in terms of the parks’ appearance. But they can be onerous, not to mention expensive for people who are just scraping by.
“I try to comply and do as much as I can,” said Sullivan, who had to remove two of his three lean-to sheds, where he stores his firewood for the winter. He now has to store some of it off-site at an extra cost.
“That’s how I heat my house for the winter, is wood,” he said.
And, of course, the new rules are accompanied by increases in space rents.
Sullivan said he saw an $80-per-month rent increase the first year under the new ownership at Apple Tree, and a smaller one last year. He now pays $588 per month for the right to keep his home — which he owns outright — parked there. (As with most mobile home parks, the residents own their houses but pay rent for the space.)
Through its community organizing efforts, local advocacy group Voces Unidas de las Montañas learned that new tenants who purchased an existing mobile home or moved in a new one under IPG have been charged space rents 50% to 60% higher than what long-standing tenants, who are grandfathered in, are paying.
“That’s the difficult part that a lot of these residents talk to me about,” said Voces Unidas’ Alan Muñoz, who has been helping Apple Tree residents mobilize on things such as compliance issues, rents and ongoing concerns about the water quality in the park.
Having grown up and continuing to reside at the Cottonwood Springs Mobile Home Park, near Rifle, Muñoz said he’s used to rent increases, but usually no more than $10 or $15 a year.
“So, you go from paying maybe $410 to $425 in a year, where some of these corporate-owned parks are jumping from $400 to $500 or $600 in a single year,” he said. “And we don’t have any sort of legislation to prohibit that.”
With pressures mounting on mobile home park residents across Colorado, multiple efforts are underway, both at the grassroots level and in the state legislature, to try to preserve mobile home parks as one of the last bastions of affordable, low-income housing.
A case study
In 2021, the Mountain Voices Project, a community advocacy organization launched by Manaus, teamed up with the Partners in Evaluation and Research (PiER) Center at Kaiser Permanente Colorado’s Institute for Health Research to conduct both a statewide assessment of mobile home park ownership and a local case study.
According to the final report published by PiER this past summer, more than 100,000 people live in roughly 900 manufactured or mobile home park communities in Colorado.
“Despite many residents owning their mobile homes, the opportunity to maintain stable, safe and affordable housing is challenged by several factors, including lack of renter protections, overbilling, park maintenance and wrongful evictions,” an executive summary of the report states.
With housing insecurity as its focus, the study looked at some of the solutions, including what impact, if any, legislation that was signed into law in 2019 and 2020 had on park residents.
Those bills included:
- The Mobile Home Park Act Oversight (House Bill 19-1309) and a 2020 update to that act (HB 20-1196)
- The Mobile Home Park Residents Opportunity to Purchase (HB 20-1201) and a 2022 amendment to that measure.
The measures tasked the Colorado Department of Local Affairs’ Division of Housing with implementing and enforcing new mobile home park regulations, created the Mobile Home Park Act Dispute Resolution and Enforcement Program, and granted cities the authority to enact ordinances supporting the safe and equitable operation of mobile home parks.
The opportunity to purchase law requires landlords to give 12 months’ notice before any change of use can occur on the property. Residents then have 120 days — the law’s original provision of 90 days was amended in 2022 — to make an offer to buy the property.
Among the key findings in the study, though, is that policy implementation takes time and that the language is often confusing and has loopholes.
It also notes that mobile home park residents live in fear of retaliation if they complain about rent, rules or conditions, which makes it hard to organize so that they can advocate for themselves.
Although the legislation signaled progress for mobile home park advocates in terms of ensuring racial equity and better housing security, there is still work to do, the report states.
“In general, we observed a lag in policy rollout and implementation during the two years following [the laws’] enactment,” the study concludes. “Despite new protections offered by the policies, fear of retaliation among mobile home park residents was a substantial barrier that limited the effectiveness of the policies.”
Locally, with real estate values and interest rates soaring, there are few tools for residents to advocate for themselves regarding rent increases, or to try to take ownership of their parks, Fox-Rubin and others point out.
There are approximately 3,000 mobile homes in Garfield County alone, housing an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people, according to the local case study that was included as part of the statewide assessment. Inventories taken by both Manaus and Voces Unidas suggest that about half of the park residents in Garfield County are Latino.
The local study looked at three mobile home parks in Garfield County: Apple Tree, Cottonwood Springs (290 spaces) and Cavern Springs (97 spaces), located between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale near the intersection of Highway 82 and Garfield County Road 154.
Cottonwood Springs, which has been under local ownership since its inception in 1969, is now registered with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office as Cottonwood Springs Holdings LLC. It has a 2023 property valuation of $14.2 million, according to Garfield County Assessor’s Office records. The registered agent listed for that entity, retired Glenwood Springs attorney John Schenk, could not be reached for comment for this story.
Cavern Springs, formerly known as the H Lazy F Mobile Home Park, is now owned by Maryland-based Horizon Land Management, with a current valuation of just under $10 million, according to Garfield County Assessor’s Office records.
In early 2021, Colorado-based Thistle ROC (Resident Owned Communities) got involved to try to help residents buy Cavern Springs. Thistle ROC is a nonprofit organization that assists in financing low-income resident corporations so they can buy and improve their parks and build equity.
Cavern Springs was part of a multiproperty portfolio owned by the now-defunct Strive Communities, said Andy Kadlec, who worked for Thistle ROC at that time and later chaired the Roaring Fork Community Development Corporation (RFCDC) when it was resurrected by Manaus. He is now executive director for the Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority.
Thistle was successful in peeling off two of those portfolio properties to sell to residents. “But the price on Cavern Springs was astronomical — approximately double the cost per lot of most of the other parks in the portfolio,” Kadlec said.
Fox-Rubin and Kadlec said that a good rule of thumb regarding market value for mobile home parks is about $100,000 per unit. In the case of Cavern Springs, that would put the market value at about what the assessed property value is: roughly $9.7 million. But the asking price was about double that per-unit value when the inquiry was made, they said.
“I met with the residents a few times, but the debt needed to purchase was unobtainable and would have resulted in rents close to tripling,” Kadlec said.
Garfield County property records show the nearly 14-acre property transferred ownership from MHCO H Lazy F to Horizon subsidiary Cavern Springs MHC LLC in late March 2021. However, no document fee was recorded, which would indicate a sale price. The company representative who made the filing claimed a statutory exemption from recording the fee, said Bev Eberle, a recorder with the county Clerk and Recorder’s Office.
According to Colorado Secretary of State’s Office business filings, Cavern Springs MHC’s registered agent is Maryland attorney Rikki Drykerman, who, according to her LinkedIn page, serves as general counsel for Horizon. The company website lists an ownership portfolio of dozens of properties across multiple states, including five on the Western Slope: Grand Junction, Montrose, Craig, Hayden and Glenwood Springs.
Horizon representatives declined a request for comment for this story, and Drykerman could not be reached for comment.
“We excel at creating and maintaining affordable, clean and desirable land-leased neighborhoods; generally located in high cost of living areas,” the Horizon company website states. “Our land-leased neighborhoods are Manufactured Home Communities (MHCs). MHCs are similar to traditional single-family residential neighborhoods, except the landlord, rather than the homeowner, owns the land upon which the resident’s home sits.”
Residents offer thoughts
The case study involving Cavern Springs, Apple Tree and Cottonwood included a resident survey to gauge their perceptions about park conditions, management practices and safety, and their willingness to consider organizing to protect their interests.
Most of those surveyed said they live in their mobile home park because it’s the only home they can afford in the area, and because the parks are typically quiet and close to the places they need to go.
But there’s also a fear factor, given the power dynamics of mobile home park living. Also captured in the survey:
- Just 34% of residents felt safe from retaliation by park management.
- Only 24% felt safe from being evicted.
- 43% and 44%, respectively, were “unsure” if they were safe from retaliation or from being evicted.
“This large percentage of ‘unsure’ responses highlights a theme heard from resident leaders that people were afraid to answer authentically for fear of the owner finding out and the possibility of that affecting their living situation,” the study said.
Asked if they would be interested in cooperatively owning the park with their neighbors, 68% of respondents said yes. In addition, 71% said a resident association would be helpful in dealing with concerns and beginning the process of resident ownership.
“These percentages were the highest in recently sold parks Apple Tree and Cavern Springs (89% and above),” the study concluded. “This could be due to negative experiences the residents have had with the new park owners and residents having a better understanding of how mobile home park ownership could help them avoid some of their current challenges.”
Water quality has been a big issue at Apple Tree Park, where the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment intervened this year, hosting a community meeting with residents and representatives of IPG to try to come up with some solutions.
Although water-quality testing through CDPHE has found that the water does not violate health standards, it is discolored due to high iron content from the underground source. Residents say that they don’t drink it and can’t wash clothes in it or use it for cooking, and that iron deposits also reduce the lifespan of water fixtures and appliances, prompting costly replacements.
Cavern Springs residents expressed similar concerns about water quality in the survey. Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with access to clean drinking water and 42% ranked water and sewer-system issues, equitable utility billing and rents as their top park needs.
Another piece of legislation, the Mobile Home Park Water Quality Act (HB 23-1257), was passed this year and was sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Elizabeth Velasco, who represents Garfield County and the Roaring Fork Valley. It creates a water-testing program for mobile home parks and makes grants available for remediation.
It includes provisions for a park to be deemed a public nuisance if it doesn’t comply with testing requirements or if it fails to create a water quality remediation plan when problems are identified in the test results. In extreme cases of noncompliance, parks could even be turned over to local government ownership.
The mobile home park owner lobby in Colorado and elsewhere in the country has pushed back against many of the provisions aimed at protecting park tenants, including health standards and attempts at rent controls. Whether the measures, if challenged, would hold up in court remains to be seen.
Resident ownership vs. rent controls
A key policy goal stated in the PiER study is to give mobile home park residents the opportunity to purchase their parks before the owners decide to list them.
But that opportunity is very limited under the 2020 law, with a 120-day time frame to put together a competitive offer; confusion among park residents about how to organize an association to serve as the purchasing entity; difficulties obtaining financing; and inadequate notice from owners despite the law’s provisions, the study concludes.
The location of a park can also have ramifications.
Manaus in 2021 partnered with Thistle ROC to organize residents of the 50-space Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park, located off Basalt Avenue near the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers.
Fox-Rubin noted that 98% of residents there were on board to try to buy the park and the owner was willing to sell. But floodplain issues arose that impacted their ability to obtain financing and would have resulted in the elimination of several homesites that are in the floodplain.
The plan fell through.
“So, the sad news is the process created false hope that they would be able to purchase it,” Fox-Rubin said.
The Roaring Fork park, which straddles the border between Pitkin and Eagle counties, does have some level of protection from rent increases on the Pitkin County side through a condition of approval that came with a 1996 rezoning of the property, limiting space rent increases to no more than 3% per year, Pitkin County Community Development Director Suzanne Wolff confirmed.
There are critics of the push for resident ownership, including from within the Latino community, which represents a large percentage of mobile home park residents in the Roaring Fork Valley and Garfield County.
Voces Unidas President and CEO Alex Sánchez believes the resident-owned model can be a “false choice,” especially for working families in the Colorado high country where real estate is extremely expensive.
“Many of these folks are living on a very tight budget, and a lot are retired people or senior citizens, some with disability or mobility challenges who are on some sort of government assistance,” Sánchez said. Challenges with immigration status can hinder efforts to obtain loans, he added.
Also this year, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis created the new Mobile Home Park Acquisition Fund, to be administered by DOLA’s Division of Housing, which will make $28 million in loans and technical assistance available through three different entities — ROC USA, the Impact Development Fund and Colorado-based Thistle ROC — to help facilitate resident ownership.
But, as Sánchez points out, that overall amount is less than what it would take to purchase one or two big mobile home parks, limiting its viability to some of the smaller parks, if all the pieces fall together.
Voces Unidas has been on the front end of lobbying efforts at the state Capitol in Denver to get some of the recent mobile home park legislation passed. Sanchez noted that Voces was instrumental in getting the opportunity-to-purchase laws drafted and passed, and fought to expand the notice requirement from 90 days to 120 days. The model can work, Sanchez said, “if we have the right mix of incentives and reduce the barriers.” He added that the group is trying to get more funding into the loan program to help residents buy parks. This next session will probably bring a renewed focus on adding rent stabilization to the mix.
“We went out and polled 1,500 Latino voters last year, and overwhelmingly, regardless of whether or not they lived in a mobile home park, they supported some type of rent control or rent stabilization,” Sánchez said.
An effort last session to get such a measure passed — also co-sponsored by Velasco — was struck down when Polis indicated he would veto the bill.
Sánchez vowed to keep plugging away in the 2024 legislative session on gaining rent controls as a stronger protection than what he believes the resident ownership model can provide, saying the latter often leads to false hope for residents and other unintended consequences.
3-Mile pilot project
But Manaus and at least one small group of area mobile home park residents aren’t giving up on the idea of ownership as a solution.
Manaus last year resurrected the previously dormant RFCDC and in April was successful in purchasing the 20-space 3-Mile Mobile Home Park outside Glenwood Springs for $2.5 million. The organization intends to manage the property under the existing lease-hold arrangement, while working to organize residents to eventually buy the land.
“While we are in the game to ensure community preservation, we now intimately understand the hoops and red tape residents of mobile home parks must navigate to buy the land beneath their homes,” Sydney Schalit, who directs Manaus and the RFCDC, said at the time of closing.
“We’re more steadfast than ever in our support of resident ownership opportunities in our valleys and across the Western Slope and hope other entities like RFCDC will step in to be the interim owners while the residents coordinate their collective efforts,” Schalit said.
The deal was made possible only through the willingness of the longtime owners of the 3-Mile park — the Krueger family of Eagle-Vail — to sell to Manaus instead of going with what probably would have been a higher bid from a private investor.
“My dad had owned the park for something like 40 years and had gotten to know the people who live there very well,” Bern Krueger said of his late father, Ben, who died in 2021. “When you get to know the people a little bit, there’s a desire to enable them to stay where they are without having to move out.”
“When he died, we knew this was what he would prefer to do,” he added. “And we didn’t want someone coming in and pushing out 20 families.”
At the time of closing, the RFCDC partnered with Common Good Management, a nonprofit that works specifically to help manage community-owned mobile home parks in Colorado, and hired Brianda Cervantes as park manager and community organizer. Cervantes was formerly a community liaison and organizer for the Roaring Fork School District and helped to start the English-Spanish dual language K-8 Riverview School in Glenwood Springs.
She has since received additional training as a community organizer through the Mountain Voices Project.
“It’s been a shift for me, of course, but I feel very supported in this role and ready to learn a lot about how to get this accomplished,” Cervantes said in a June interview. “In my first two weeks, I was there at the park pretty much every day, seeing what the needs are and just getting to know the people.”
In late June, residents showed their appreciation by teaming up with volunteers from Manaus for a community cleanup day, clearing brush and getting rid of some of the clutter that had accumulated outside their homes.
“By doing this, I get to know some of the neighbors that I didn’t know before,” resident Elizabeth Vega said. “We’re building relationships and making it a better place to live.”
Resident Felix Jimenez, who has lived at the 3-Mile park for 35 years, has been the semi-official on-site park maintenance supervisor for most of that time.
“It’s nice to have a reason and to get everybody to come out and talk to each other,” he said of the cleanup day.
Although residents are still getting their heads wrapped around the idea of pooling their resources to buy the park, it’s little things such as working together to spruce things up that help.
“If people feel a little more glued together, we can work to make this happen,” Jimenez said.
Cervantes said it’s that kind of community-building that needs to happen first, before biting off the much larger task of organizing to buy the property.
“Everyone is so excited to see the park changing in a better way,” Cervantes said. “This is just one of the examples of everybody coming together for the same purpose, and to help see this park flourish.”
This story was updated to clarify Voces Unidas’ position as it relates to support for resident-ownership models.
Editor’s note: Rob Pew, board chairman of Manaus, is a funder of Aspen Journalism in his personal capacity. Aspen Journalism is solely responsible for its editorial content.
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