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Parked: New state law brings hope to Colorado’s mobile home residents

On a late-August Sunday afternoon, state Rep. Meg Froelich readied the meeting room at the Sheridan Library for a town hall with constituents. There was one item on the agenda: a recently enacted law designed to give mobile-home owners more protections and a way to handle disputes with the managers and park owners who control the land beneath them.

As she tended to cookies and lemonade, the stream of local residents quickly filled a few rows of folding chairs. And they kept coming. Froelich and others scrambled to set up more seats to accommodate a crowd that topped 60 residents from the handful of mobile-home parks in her district.

Why the big turnout? The 34-year-old Mobile Home Park Act had finally cut some enforcement teeth, and residents wanted to learn more about changes to the law laying out rights and responsibilities of homeowners and park owners, which critics say has been ineffective in curbing decades of abuses by park owners.

Froelich, a Democrat whose district encompasses both Sheridan and Englewood, which contain several parks, as well as upscale Cherry Hills and Greenwood Village, has known frustration in trying to bring out residents for town halls. But this effort to explain the new law and hear feedback touched a nerve.

“I could send a thousand postcards into a neighborhood, and they wouldn’t generate one person,” she said of her previous experience trying to bring out constituents. “This was just amazing, the number of people interested in finding out what’s going on. It put a very local face on the issue.”

That issue — the often-contentious relationship and power imbalance in mobile-home parks — has gained national attention amid an affordable housing crisis. More than 100,000 people live in more than 900 parks across Colorado, helping to fuel an industry that’s increasingly consolidated by investors eager to reap the benefits of a business model whose dynamics have largely favored park ownership.

And while for years Colorado has been among the vast majority of states where park residents have few protections, the 2019 legislative session began to change that. Aided by Democratic control of both chambers and the governor’s office, lawmakers pushed through House Bill 1309, which gives residents a little more breathing room to address eviction proceedings and also provides a mechanism to respond to grievances without the expense of taking matters to court.

Froelich brought Rep. Edie Hooton, the Boulder Democrat who sponsored the bill, and Cesiah Guadarrama Trejo, from the nonprofit 9to5 Colorado, to walk the residents through the primary features of the bill — some of which already are in effect, while some will kick in by May 2020:

Extends the time a homeowner has to move or sell a mobile home after an eviction order to 30 to 60 days from the current 48 hours.

Allows counties to adopt and enforce rules for safe and equitable operation of parks in unincorporated areas.

Creates a database of mobile-home parks with five or more homeowners, plus their locations and ownership information. It also collects a registration fee from the parks.

And perhaps most significantly, creates a dispute resolution and enforcement program that starting May 1 can receive, process and adjudicate complaints concerning violations of the Mobile Home Park Act. The program also collects and annually reports data generated by disputes and violations.

Residents took in the presentation, posed questions and proffered opinions — the strongest of these maintaining that rents are still too high, especially for those on fixed incomes. But they also expressed gratitude that politicians finally seemed to be doing something about a long-festering problem.

The passage of House Bill 1309, regarded as only a “first step” by affordable housing advocates, reflected a shift that has been four years in the making.

Boulder led the way to protect ‘vulnerable families’

Mobile homes, and the parks that contain many of them, stretch all across the state. But this type of affordable housing has been watched with particular interest in Boulder, where both the city and county have sought measures to protect and maintain mobile-home parks.

It was here that Seattle attorney Ishbel Dickens, former executive director of the National Manufactured Home Owners Association, responded to a request for proposals to help local mobile-home parks. Over the course of more than two years, she helped local communities organize and work to pass helpful city ordinances.

A group of Boulder homeowners grew into the statewide Colorado Coalition of Manufactured Homeowners, which set its sights on legislative reform, “because state law is very biased in favor of landlords, and weak for homeowners,” Dickens said.

“It was suggested that we get some kind of tangible report to the legislature that would help illustrate the issue,” she added. “‘He said, she said’ isn’t going to work. We wanted to show that there were significant problems that homeowners were facing, that landlords without any regulation could run rampant over powerless, vulnerable families and get away with quite a bit.”

So the group filed a “sunrise review application” with the state Department of Regulatory Agencies, proposing that mobile home park owners and managers be licensed. As part of the application, the coalition needed to give specific, verifiable examples of the harm that resulted from the actions of park owners and manager. To protect the homeowners, the application did not immediately reveal individuals’ names or the names of the parks where they lived, but it did list a wide array of allegations, including:

Retaliation: “Comply or vacate” notices for trivial and sometimes nonexistent rules would be issued, sometimes against homeowners who had testified publicly about park conditions.

Threat of eviction by posting “quit or cure” notices that sometimes, especially in cases where the homeowner was hampered by a language barrier, resulted in the homeowner simply selling the mobile home at a loss to avoid dealing with the issue.

Improperly passing of responsibility for maintenance and repair to homeowners, or doing the work and then billing the homeowner for it.

Trespassing on homeowners’ property and harassing homeowners, especially those without good English-language skills, by telling them it’s against the law or park rules, to join the park’s homeowners association.

Predatory towing of vehicles without notice.

Unexpected charging of fees without discernible improvement in the property.

After investigating the allegations, and hearing many more complaints during site visits, from witnesses who submitted testimony by writing and in media reports, DORA last year offered its findings, which read, in part:

“Clearly, harm is occurring in manufactured housing communities. Those instances of harm are not due to a lack of professional competence among manufactured housing community owners and managers. The harm largely stems from the lack of enforcement of existing laws, bad actors exploiting a relatively loose regulatory structure, and the inevitable tension that arises when the house belongs to one person but the land beneath it belongs to someone else.”

DORA found that, despite the obvious harm to homeowners, regulating park owners and managers wasn’t likely to fix the problem. Nonetheless, the findings of harm vividly illustrated the issue, as Dickens had been told it would. Those findings, coupled with the ongoing affordable housing crunch and the 2018 elections in which Democrats assumed majorities in both legislative chambers (while Democrat Jared Polis won the governor’s office) set the stage for a bill to address some of the issues that dogged homeowners.

That became House Bill 1309.

“There was a convergence,” Rep. Hooton said. “The impetus was there for a long time, but now the political makeup of the chamber of the legislature has changed to make this more possible. … This sunrise report helped define clearly at least the first thing that needed to be done, and that was to have an enforcement provisions for Mobile Home Park Act passed in 1985 — and never enforced.”

New law already reducing evictions

But before the bill passed, it went through a long, bruising committee hearing in which testimony unfolded at the Capitol while a snowstorm slowly shut down the city. Although the testimony in past years would have been little more than a prelude to such a bill’s defeat, this year the political winds favored its proponents — even when taking on traditionally powerful lobbies.

“There’s been a big shift at the Capitol now, because some industries have never had to negotiate on anything,” Hooton said. “Any attempt to negotiate would be scoffed at or they’d bring down the hammer. Certain industries have just been able to shut everything down.”

She includes owners of mobile-home parks among the untouchables. The measure would end up passing in the House with no Republican support. But Hooton and others were gratified when six Republicans in the Senate crossed the aisle to vote for the measure, making it at least nominally bipartisan.

Confusion over rights and responsibilities abounds, on both sides, and it was obvious during statehouse testimony.

Residents fear park owners can toss them out within days, even though an eviction requires a judge’s order — and that usually takes several weeks. Park managers testified they fear for their lives when they evict a problem homeowner, unaware of a provision in the law that allows for a 10-day eviction when a dangerous person or vicious dog is involved.

In general, homeowners are required by their leases to keep up their home exteriors and yards, including the skirting along the bottom of the home designed to keep rodents from nesting underneath. The interior of the home is their business.

What’s murky territory is landscaping — the park owner is responsible for major landscape projects, but does that include tree removal? Depends on whom you ask.

Testimony lasted for hours, as one resident after the next — some speaking in Spanish with translators — detailed the times they were threatened with eviction if they didn’t make requested improvements. Attorneys representing residents said park managers are often trying to see what they can “get away with.”

Attorney Jason Legg, who works with 9to5 Colorado, testified that one of his first cases involving a mobile home park resident centered on a water fee of a few hundred dollars tacked onto a rent bill.

“As soon as I started asking questions, it was withdrawn,” Legg said. “There was no there, there. It was completely illegitimate. It was just a pass to see if they could bring in additional revenue.”

On the flipside, park managers lined up to tell lawmakers they were opposed to the legislation. Most park managers go out of their way to keep residents in their homes, they said, and it typically takes 30 to 90 days to get an eviction through the court system anyway.

One park manager said a resident she was trying to evict came to her home and stabbed her husband. Another said it took him a month and a half to evict a convicted drug dealer who threatened another resident.

A few short months after the law took effect, some of its effects are apparent.

A key part of the law gives residents 10 days — double what they had before — to pay late rent before eviction proceedings can begin. And it is preventing evictions, according to Aimee Bove, an attorney who represents 20 mobile-home parks along the Front Range and in the mountains.

Bove estimates evictions are down 35% in the parks she represents since that part of the law took effect May 1.

But Bove has concerns about other parts of the law, saying too much regulation could cripple park owners’ incentives to run them and entice them to sell their property to developers. Another part of the law gives homeowners 30 days to move after an eviction.

The point of that delay was to give homeowners time to figure out whether to sell their home or move it to a new spot, instead of walking away from their equity. But it could mean that residents stay in their home for up to two months without paying rent — because it typically takes one month for a judge to sign an order of possession, and then the resident has 30 days before a sheriff can remove them. The resident could use the savings of not paying rent for two months to move to a new place.

“For people who have been unable to pay their rent, they may see this as a carrot,” she said. They might not realize what an eviction does to their rental history, and that “it’s a very quick slip to homelessness.”

Bove said the mobile-home industry was blindsided by the legislation last spring and fought for its place in the discussion. It shouldn’t have to feel like a resident-versus-park-owner battle, she said. Bove is advocating for a return to the legislation next year, with more input from both sides.

“It does not need to be a war,” she said. “In the end, it’s a community where people live. With our tightening of housing here in Denver, these are important conversations to have.”

Law modeled after Washington state

Sponsors based House Bill 1309 on similar legislation passed four years ago in Washington state that also gave parties recourse for resolution outside of the courts. With passage of that law, complaints spiked the first year, then fell off dramatically.

“Washington’s interpretation of this is, with the enforcement in place, the law is being followed by everyone,” Hooton said. “They had complaints filed by park owners, too. There are plenty of opportunities for park owners to have complaints. But for a homeowner, if they have a complaint, their only option was the court. And they don’t have the money to do that.”

Proponents hope Colorado will see similar results when the dispute resolution program is up and running in May. But so far, advocates for mobile home owners seem to temper their expectations for the impact of the new law.

“I’d like to be optimistic,” said Dorie Glover, a resident of a Boulder mobile-home park. “I don’t think it’s ever going to be easy. But maybe, even if park owners will just hesitate, just think twice. I guess the most vulnerable will continue to be exploited. But those of us who could fight back, even a little, will be emboldened, I think. I hope.”

Dickens, who helped start the political ball rolling in Colorado, figures that House Bill 1309 is a good “first step,” but sees continued engagement by homeowners as key to further success.

“Homeowners are more sophisticated than they were in inviting legislators to candidate forums, but it’s still pretty hit or miss in parts of Colorado,” she said. “Only so many (candidates) are sympathetic to their situation. I like to think things are turning around, but it depends on who’s in power at a certain time. There’s not a groundswell across the political spectrum. Homeowners have to use their vote.”

And Froelich, whose constituent gathering at the Sheridan Library opened her eyes further to the issues in play with mobile-home parks, sounded pleased with the progress so far but certainly not satisfied.

“I think it’s on a trajectory, a good trajectory, with implementation still a ways out,” she said. “I’m optimistic, but we’re not there yet. We’ll be tweaking, especially after hearing dozens more questions and just the stories of raised rents and what that does to people on fixed incomes.”

One of her constituents who watched the meeting with interest, 75-year-old Charlene Moore, offers an instructive account that underscores the importance of a balance of power — and perhaps cause for optimism over the dispute-resolution program — when it comes to homeowner-park manager conflicts.

She has lived with her husband, Al, in a custom-built, 1968 double-wide for more than 30 years and through, by her count, five park management teams. She also said she has fended off what she describes as multiple eviction threats.

Moore claims park management has threatened to kick her out while taking issue with a small hairdressing salon that she opened in the early ’90s — with the park’s permission, she notes — in a back room of her home. When this happened, she phoned a lawyer.

“We couldn’t afford it, but we got him and we’re glad we did,” Charlene said. “We probably would have been bullied out of here several times over.”

The attorney, Rick Watrous, notes that once he made contact with the park’s attorneys, any issues were resolved quickly without going to court.

“Once they knew she wasn’t going to roll over and go away, we were always able to resolve the problem,” he said. “There is at least somewhat of a sense that these residents are less financially able and can be bullied.

“Obviously, Charlene couldn’t be.”

A wise man in Aspen’s midst

Please join us in welcoming Geshe Lobsang Tsulrtim to the Red Brick Center for the Arts in Aspen now through Sept. 29. As a graduate of several advanced schools, he will be a part of our community to share his understanding of happiness with you and will be offering lunch and learn talks, evening events, Tibetan astrology, and blessings.

He is also a world-renowned artist and will be sharing how to integrate wisdom practices into art through an introduction into Tibetan calligraphy, painting and symbols. Please reach out to AspenTibet.com with your questions and volunteer interest. Tashi Delek!

Serene Washburn

Aspen

Media bias strikes GOP in Pitkin County

An article appearing in the Sept. 13, 2019 issue of The Aspen Times was headlined “Pence’s visit underscores murky area of campaign law.”

I read the headline and the article with a sense of irony given that the only things “murky” about the subject matter of the article were first, the author’s apparent desire to perpetuate coverage of Vice President Pence’s recent visit to the Aspen area and, in so doing, to “out” the anonymous donors who responded to Sheriff Joe DiSalvo’s concern about getting reimbursed for security costs incurred for that visit (of which only about a third were Pitkin County’s) and second, Pitkin County’s policy on reimbursement concerning visits by sitting vice presidents and others requiring augmented protection.

Taking each of these murky areas in reverse order, the Pitkin County Republicans have several times asked that the county and the sheriff issue a clear statement of the county’s policy regarding the circumstances in which they expect reimbursement for security costs and from whom. As the article makes clear, there is no policy on this subject, different politicians and others in the political sphere having been treated differently by Pitkin County.

On the subject of outing the civic-minded people who came forward to help shoulder the security costs associated with the vice president’s visit, one can only presume that this was done by the author of the article as a warning to others who might try to arrange similar visits to the Aspen area by politicians disfavored by the author.

We all bemoan the sorry state of our political discourse. This is felt particularly acutely in Aspen, where conservatives are a distinct minority. When adults are afraid to say that they are Republicans or support certain candidates for fear of being ostracized by the community or having their businesses boycotted and children are fearful of the impact on their grades and college recommendations if their political views were to become known, one has to wonder what the Aspen Idea means in practice.

Frieda Wallison

Old Snowmass

Pence team can pay for their Aspen visits

Friday’s piece on costs from Vice President Pence’s visit in July is head-spinning (“Pence visit to Aspen underscores murky area of campaign finance law,” aspentimes.com). Did the $18,175 paid by two local benefactors, only after a considerable outcry, to cover Sheriff’s Office expenses providing additional security for Pence’s lavish fundraising visit constitute political donations subject to federal election laws?

Apparently, the sum covered Sheriff’s Offices costs (and other agencies’) and not those of Aspen and Snowmass.

Chris Murray, a Denver Republican election lawyer, argues local law enforcement is obligated to help support the Secret Service during presidential visits. Vice President Pence was not in town on official White House business. He was here holding a $35,000-a-couple lunch at the Caribou Club, after which he and his team of committed public servants retired to the Limelight in Snowmass, I have no doubt to hold strategy sessions on preventing the next mass shooting or making sure no more kids have to drink lead-laced water.

Why should we pay for additional security for this vice president while he raises money from wealthy supporters? Why should we pay for the security of a man whose significant achievement as Indiana governor was sanctioning discrimination against LGBTQ people, whose sole claim to his office is the preposterous imprimatur of Christian values he lends this barbaric president?

Sure, they’ve stacked the courts with men with probably their share of frat party indiscretions (two now sit on the highest court), now more than ready to legislate women’s bodies. Somewhat harder to explain is the maximum cruelty inflicted on children, throwing those fleeing violence and poverty into prisons while deporting those with cancer and muscular dystrophy back to the very same violence and poverty.

I’d say the next time Mr. Pence visits, he and his rich supporters pay for their own security. Perhaps with some of that tax-break money.

Will Hodges

Carbondale

Now is the time for solar project

We write to thank The Aspen Times editorial board for their endorsement (“Solar farm proposal should get Pitkin County commissioners’ full support,” Aug. 30) for Pitkin County Solar, a 5-megawatt photovoltaic facility that will be located on a brownfield site in Pitkin County that has sat unused since 2005.

If approved by county commissioners on Sept. 25, this new solar array can power approximately 1,000 homes with clean energy and offset roughly 8,750 metric tons of CO2 annually, or the equivalent of taking 2,000 cars off the road.

Holy Cross Energy solicited the Pitkin County Solar project in direct response to community demand for local renewable energy. This project provides a unique opportunity for renewables in the Roaring Fork Valley and supports Holy Cross’s commitment to providing reliable, affordable and clean power to its members and communities. This project will help Holy Cross reduce our carbon footprint in accordance with our Seventy70Thirty plan announced last fall.

The owner of the land and applicant, Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District, is one of the largest consumers of energy in the area. From the beginning, Aspen Sanitation has recognized the significant benefits in repurposing a long-vacant brownfield in order to unlock substantial economic and environmental benefits by switching from coal-powered electricity to clean, renewable energy.

Over the last several months, Holy Cross and Aspen Sanitation have worked closely with partners and vendors to hear and address concerns and misconceptions from landowners, homeowners, climate activists and elected and appointed officials, among many others. We pledge to continue to work closely with neighbors to be the best partner we can be.

In advance of the Sept. 25 meeting, we urge county commissioners to consider the following two questions during their review: If not here, where? And if not now, when?

Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District and Holy Cross Energy

Parked: Half the American Dream

In the Aurora mobile home park where she lived for 16 years, eviction notices kept coming to Petra Bennett’s door — for unauthorized guests, lack of insurance, late rent. They were bogus threats to make the single mother leave. And eventually, she did.

In Federal Heights, Karla Lyons’ waitressing wages are eaten up by a constant stream of home and yard repairs ordered by her park manager, including removal of a giant maple tree that fell on her patio roof and crushed it. She would move if she could afford it.

And in Boulder, Greg Gustin carries a knife in the pocket of his jeans while on duty as manager of a 1950s-era mobile home park that is one of the sketchiest spots in town. When a resident was accused of strangling his wife last year and leaving her to die in the manager’s office, Gustin pulled surveillance video to defend himself to police.

Across Colorado, where the housing crisis impacts both rural and urban towns, the strife between mobile home park residents and park owners is approaching a boiling point. The business model — in which homeowners pay lot rent to park their houses on someone else’s land — exposes the immobility and economic vulnerability of tenants who can’t afford to move or live anywhere else.

Mobile homes provide the largest inventory of unsubsidized, affordable housing in the nation, but many began as RV parks in the 1960s and 1970s and are now old, with rundown water and electric systems and trailers that have been long past “mobile” for decades.

The Colorado Sun, along with more than a dozen partner news organizations across the state, spent the summer visiting mobile home parks to hear from residents, managers and owners. The project found that the number of parks is declining and ownership is consolidating as mom-and-pop parks sell out to large investors, which sometimes leads to displacement and redevelopment — and, in the eyes of many residents, an imbalance of power that threatens their low-cost lifestyle.

More than 100,000 people live in more than 900 parks across Colorado. Those residents include many of Colorado’s working poor and immigrants who are undocumented. They have been mostly ignored for decades.

“We’ve relegated mobile home parks to a corner of the American imaginary,” said Esther Sullivan, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Denver and author of a book on mobile homes called “Manufactured Insecurity.”

“We have media representation of who is living there and stereotypes of who is living there that are absolutely false. In reality, this is a major swath of our workforce. This is the primary way that our working households attain the American dream of home ownership.”

Born in the post-World War II era, when quick, cheap housing was in demand among returning veterans, mobile homes endured and hit a peak in the early 1970s, according to U.S. Census data, before beginning a gradual decline in new home sales. Today, 70% of homes sold under $125,000 are mobile homes.

Sullivan calls mobile homes the largest source of “naturally occurring” affordable housing, an organic solution not created by public policy or housing assistance. Mobile home residents live under the radar — literally zoned out of sight and segregated from conventional housing. In 2015, their median income was $39,000.

“We could lose this crucial source of affordable housing and low-income home ownership,” she said, “which would exacerbate the affordable housing crisis.”

Even now, the diminishing number of mobile home units represents the last, best hope for some semblance of home ownership.

“It’s like living half the American dream,” says Fort Collins City Councilwoman Emily Gorgol, an advocate for protecting mobile home parks, “because you own your home but not the land underneath your feet.”

A near-captive clientele

In Colorado, economic, political and social forces converged this year to usher in the first significant changes in the law governing mobile home parks in years, giving traction to homeowners and setting the table for further reforms in the 2020 legislative session.

Residents complained that park owners could evict them with just 48 hours’ notice. Many spoke of a homeowner-versus-park-owner drama that has residents fixing up their homes or lawns to meet park owners’ demands. Residents might invest tens of thousands of dollars — either by choice or under threat of eviction — in a mobile home that, in reality, isn’t likely to move from its initial hookup. (In fact, mobile homes built before 1976 face legal hurdles to moving; since then, the industry has referred to them as “manufactured” homes.)

Mobile home parks have been regulated, in theory, since Colorado passed the 1985 Mobile Home Park Act. But enforcement has been another matter. With no dispute resolution mechanism in place, conflicts were left to the courts — a potentially expensive proposition that almost universally favored park owners.

This year, with both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s office ruled by Democrats, changes to the law sailed through, even with some bipartisan support. Tight deadlines to cure late rent payments and, in cases of eviction, sell homes or move have been eased. County governments now have the power to enact ordinances governing the many mobile home parks that reside in unincorporated areas. And stakeholders currently are hammering out rules for a dispute resolution mechanism that will be available by May.

Part of the impetus for the changes came from economic shifts within the industry.

Corporate and institutional investors, attracted by potentially hefty profits from a near-captive clientele, underscore what has always been an unusual housing proposition. And such acquisitions have ramped up in recent years.

Today, the top 50 owners of mobile home parks have a combined 680,000 home sites across America, a 26% increase from 2016 to 2018, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute. Investors and private equity firms, formed by investors who directly invest in other companies, now own more than 150,000 manufactured home sites, according to a 2019 report from three housing advocacy groups.

The Utah-based Kingsley Management Corp., for example, has seven parks along Colorado’s Front Range.

Nationwide, an estimated 20 million Americans live in mobile home parks. Nearly 10% of the nation’s housing stock is manufactured homes, which numbered about 8.5 million in 2018, the institute reported.

Park owners charge residents rent for the lot on which the unit sits. The tangle of rights and responsibilities for decades has favored the park owners. But now, as the housing shortage becomes more acute and mobile home residents become more organized, power dynamics may be shifting.

In Aurora last summer, residents of the 60-lot Denver Meadows Mobile and RV Park were told to vacate when the park’s owner announced plans to sell the property for redevelopment. The 20-acre park sits near the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center and prime access to a new light-rail line. Residents fought the upheaval, and though they were forced to move, many received financial assistance based on the value of their trailers.

Bennett, who worked as a convenience store manager while she raised her children at Denver Meadows, said she was threatened with eviction so many times during her last year there that she was emotionally exhausted. Among the final straws: the park denied her request to let her sister from Germany stay with her for one month — anything longer than a two-week visit was against park rules. For months, she helped fellow residents fight the park’s closure.

Bennett left the park six months before it closed, lost her manufactured home to foreclosure and used all of her savings to buy a small, conventional home in Aurora.

“It’s costing me double what I used to pay, but at least nobody is going to take it away from me and say I can’t live here,” she said.

Seattle-based attorney Ishbel Dickens, who helped organize Boulder homeowners groups, notes that fear of losing their home sends many residents retreating into silence. Immigrants not only fear eviction, but also that authorities might question their legal status if they cause a problem.

Still, many mobile home parks — Dickens calls them “gated communities for low-income families” — have a sense of shared experience that fosters the kind of tight-knit neighborhoods that, under the right circumstances, can be moved to action.

“It’s crisis that brings people together,” she said.

No ‘hillbilly’ parks

Mobile home parks have long represented a slice of the American dream for those who couldn’t afford land, or perhaps for those who wanted a place to park a summer home. Now, though, their reputation increasingly has evolved into a cash cow for park owners.

Look to Mobile Home University based south of Denver in Castle Rock. Frank Rolfe and Dave Reynolds, who own the fifth-highest number of mobile home parks in the nation, are educating other entrepreneurs about how to follow in their footsteps. The two men own 200 parks in 25 states, and for the past decade, have been teaching others how to invest in the industry.

They started Mobile Home University, Rolfe said in an interview, because no one had taken the mobile home industry seriously for half a century.

Rolfe’s training academy has been widely criticized — including on “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver — for teaching people how they can reap profits from homeowners whom Rolfe has referred to as held “hostage.” In defense, Rolfe said local owners have kept rent “unsustainably low” and that many are “held together with chicken wire and duct tape.”

“What you have occurring is you have these mom-and-pops basically never adjusting for inflation,” he said. “Every park is a turnaround where you’re trying to bring the whole mobile home park back to life, so you either raise the rent to do that or you tear it down.”

When Rolfe buys a park, he typically enacts new rules about upkeep and safety.

“Mobile home park owners hate losing residents so we bend over backward to not lose anyone,” he said. “If a house doesn’t meet rules, we’ll do it for them.

“I don’t have any hillbilly parks, gravel roads or residents who can’t pay their rent.”

Homeowners at times view the rules as nitpicky and intrusive, questioning why the landowner has authority over whether the home they own needs new paint, for example. But park owners and managers take a different view, often bringing up safety.

Gustin, manager of Ponderosa Mobile Home Park in north Boulder, has outfitted his whole park with security cameras.

“I feel so unsafe that I have 25 live security cameras that record 10 days’ worth of data,” he said. “It is a dangerous job.”

Gustin recently evicted a resident who was using methamphetamine. There was a fatal shooting in the park a few years back. And last summer, a resident was accused of strangling his wife in Gustin’s office, a killing recorded on one of Gustin’s cameras.

Gustin said he is not picky about regulations, unless they’re safety-related. He gives residents more time than allowed to come up with lot rent, which is about $500 in Ponderosa compared with the $800 or $900 some other Boulder parks charge. Gustin lets friendly dogs roam off leash, but will write up a resident for blocking the road because he is the one who would get in trouble if a fire truck couldn’t get through.

“There are a lot of people here because they like that live-and-let-live attitude,” he said. Still, one resident “can make life miserable for a lot of people.”

“The whole business model of a mobile home park is ridiculous,” Gustin said. “It made sense back in the ’40s and ’50s when moving them was really cheap. I think governments have known for 30 or 40 years that it’s a flawed business model. They quit doing new mobile home parks. They’re all old.

“There is just no place for people to go because there is no competition.”

‘You’re stuck, and they know it’

First it was the warning to pick up the toys in her yard, the ones left there by the neighbor kids. Karla Lyons had five days to deal with that as well as remove her back deck or face possible eviction proceedings.

Then it was the giant maple in the side yard — the one growing on the land owned by Lamplighter Village, a park adjacent to Water World in Federal Heights with more than 200 homes. Lyons and her husband said they were told by the park manager that they had to remove it.

Hiring a professional seemed too expensive, so the Lyons’ son and son-in-law worked on it limb by limb, whenever they had time. A neighbor in the manufactured home park offered to finish the job for $100, but when he did, the tree toppled onto the Lyons’ patio awning and knocked it off.

So the next note taped to Karla Lyons’ door demanded she fix the awning. The park supplied the materials, for $900, and tacked it onto her $800-per-month lot rent in $100 installments. Karla, who works as a waitress, and her husband, who is disabled, still are paying it off several months later.

Then there was the requirement to replace the skirting on the light-blue mobile home — another $800. And the time the park manager ordered the Lyons to paint the wooden fence, only to inform them a few months later that fences were no longer allowed and they had to tear it down.

Karla Lyons finally lost it when the park manager told her she had to paint her house.

“If you want me to move, why don’t you just say so?” Lyons recalled asking her.

“It’s been one hassle after the other. Unfortunately, it’s cheaper for me to live here than an apartment. Otherwise I would have left a long time ago. You’re like stuck, and they know it.”

The park manager at Lamplighter said she “wasn’t at liberty” to talk to The Colorado Sun, referring questions to the park’s corporate owner, Kingsley Management. Kingsley did not respond to requests for comment.

A few streets over from Karla, her neighbor Cheryl Whisenhunt is suing the park after a series of park-ordered home improvements that Whisenhunt terms harassment. She’s had so many notices posted on her door, she’s lost track. “She gives them out like candy,” Whisenhunt said of the park manager.

Whisenhunt claims park management has been targeting her beige-and-green double-wide because it’s one of the few aluminium-sided homes still left in the park. Many homeowners have paid thousands of dollars to replace aluminum siding with wood at the park manager’s request, and Whisenhunt fears many did so because they do not speak English well and don’t understand the law.

“I feel like I live in Russia,” she said.

Housing market favors park ownership now more than ever

As affordable housing becomes more scarce, many family-run mobile home parks are ready to cash out. The baby boomers running them are looking to retire and downsize.

The supply-and-demand curve favors park ownership now more than ever, said Kevin Borden, a co-director for MHAction, a national movement to help residents organize to protect the affordability of their communities. “Now is the time to buy up this sector and consolidate it,” he said. “The speed by which it happens is pretty pronounced.”

As of Feb. 1, about 2.5 million mobile home residents cut a rent check to a corporate entity, he said, citing a report produced by MHAction in conjunction with the Private Equity Stakeholder Project and the Americans for Financial Reform Education Fund.

Most of those corporate owners are holding on to their investment and reaping their profits, Borden added, rather than looking to redevelop the property. He’s quick to note, however, that while not all of the smaller operations did right by their residents, local ownership is more likely to be responsive to public pressure when residents raise concerns because “when you’re local owners, you’re running into these folks at the grocery store.”

Borden said that not a week goes by that his organization doesn’t get a call from a mobile home owner urgently seeking counsel about what to do now that their park has been purchased. He has found that getting these groups activated and engaged isn’t so difficult, as they tend to be close-knit communities. But most states, including Colorado, have limited protections for residents in manufactured homes.

Andrea Chiriboga-Flor of the nonprofit 9to5 Colorado, which advocates for affordable housing, says that over the past year in Colorado, most of the calls she fielded from homeowners recited familiar scenarios:

My park was bought out, they’re trying to make us sign this new lease with 25 pages of arbitrary rules …

“They have these people captive,” said Jack Regenbogen, an attorney with the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, which advocates for low-income residents. “They can raise rents to whatever degree they want. It’s very difficult to move or sell — in some cases almost impossible because of the condition of the unit. In other cases, it can cost upwards of $10,000. It’s a precarious legal landscape if you own your structure.”

Corporate owners bring ultimatums

Karla Ottero came home to her trailer in the Sans Souci park in unincorporated Boulder County one day last summer to find a blue tote bag hanging from her door knob. “We’re Glad You’re Here!” it announced in cheerful white script on the outside.

Inside was an announcement: the park had been sold by its local owners to a company based in Greenwood Village. The news blindsided the small community tucked in a valley just off Colorado 93, nearly hidden from the highway but with a panoramic view to the Flatirons.

Residents had begun talking about purchasing the park themselves to become a resident-owned community, and had heard no rumblings of an impending sale, so the news triggered concern — especially when residents looked closer at page after page of new rules and regulations that the owners planned to impose, a list one resident figured would immediately put virtually everyone in violation of something.

If residents didn’t comply in a timely manner, the new rules allowed for management to perform improvements on residents’ property — and send them the bill.

“I did not sleep that night,” Ottero recalled.

Anxiety spread quickly. It wasn’t calmed by a subsequent meeting to announce rent increases and a plan to install new water meters and charge for water separately. And residents still had a tough time with what they felt were draconian rules — 11 pages of them — whereas the old ownership

had just three.

Michael Peirce, who moved into his single-wide in Sans Souci when he taught philosophy at the University of Colorado in Boulder, says he watched as the transition team aggressively pursued improvements.

“They drove around the park with their yellow lights flashing, telling people what they wanted them to do,” Peirce said. “A lot of people were given an ultimatum, coupled with moderate offers of help. Most of the residents were OK with the idea that the park could use a clean-up, but not with the aggressiveness of the tactics.”

Cheryl Muhovich says the new owners ordered her to fix a leaky roof covered only by a tarp. She’d been postponing maintenance until she paid off her loan. Ultimately, she traded a small cabin her Vietnam veteran husband left her when he died — “so I’d always have a roof over my head” — for

roof repairs on her trailer.

“It took away the most important thing in the world to me,” she says.

Feeling they’d been pushed too far, Peirce and other residents began to research Colorado’s Mobile Home Park Act to see if any of the new rules violated the law. They got legal help. More than half the residents formed an HOA so they’d have standing to represent the community.

Peter Reinert, senior vice president and general counsel for the new company, Strive Communities Management LLC, calls the Sans Souci push-back “a rather unique response” that he hasn’t seen at other properties, where that same list of rules and regulations has been imposed. Still, the company

agreed to let the park’s previous rules stand.

“We’re just not pushing it,” Reinert said. “(The rules) are written to protect the safety of all residents, that’s what they’re designed to do.”

He added that any issues were resolved at community meetings and that it’s “ancient history.”

Peirce said, “It feels like a truce.”

“Neither side knows what to do next,” he said. “There’s still a lot of folks stressed out, wondering what will happen.”

Ottero still has the blue bag she found on her door. Now it contains all the documents she has accrued as the community scrapped to keep their housing affordable. She even took it with her to the state Capitol when she testified on behalf of HB 1309, the bill that added protections to residents of mobile home parks.

She calls it her “battle bag.”

“This bag was a gift from the new corporate owners welcoming me to my new neighborhood — that I’d lived in for 26 years,” she said. “It’s their new neighborhood. It’s our community.”

Corporations take lead on gun control

Thank you, Wal-Mart! Thank you for stopping the sale of handguns and ammunition used in handguns and military-style weapons in your stores following the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings. Thanks also to the several companies that have joined you in taking a stand against open-carry in their stores to help protect employees and customers from gun violence. And a belated thank you to Dick’s Sporting Goods for halting altogether assault-style gun sales in its stores after the Parkland massacre.

Given the recalcitrance of the Senate to take up the House’s gun control measures or to put forward any of its own, business leaders are stepping up. According to the New York Times (Sept. 12, 2019), the heads of 145 companies have shared a letter written to Senate leaders urging an expansion of background checks to all firearms sales and stronger red flag laws. Kudos!

These actions by businesses are a good start for a national response to too many guns and too easy access to them. The business community has recognized it’s high time to do something. So should we all.

Joyce Jenkins

Glenwood Springs

Stop the fluoride insanity

A recent Canadian study produced results which indicated that maternal exposure to fluoride during pregnancy lowered the IQ in their children.

These results replicated a 2017 U.S. government study. Five other studies have also produced the same results.

Do we continue fluoride insanity at the risk of our children? Is it right to risk brain health and continue fluoridating the water in the name of dental health?

To put it another way, would you rather fix a cavity or a child’s brain?

Dr. Tom Lankering

Basalt

Where everything is permitted

This summer, I was blessed to attend a dinner party atop Red Mountain, one with an idyllic setting and enchanting hosts, but unfortunately “the incident” sullied the evening.

A place-setting put my husband, Dr. Michael Pacin, far from me at a long table. I, however, happened to be seated next to a man, who engaged me in a conversation that was more akin to an interrogation. When he learned that I am a law professor who teaches constitutional law, he asked me my opinion of Ginsburg. I responded, “You mean Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg? She is the best jurist in American history!”

Instantly, he, exploding, branded Ginsburg “totally incompetent,” and then vented his rage on me. When I tried to quell the outburst with the sedative, “let us agree to disagree,” he, interrupting, boomed “You are what’s wrong with this country!” At this juncture, his fury escalated, teetering on the edge of physical violence, and I, 5-feet-tiny, feared that he would strike. Luckily, there was a deus ex machina in the form of a lovely woman, his companion, who led him away.

Sadly, the incident is not sui generis: Several of my friends (also RBG fans) have told me that they too have been victims of similar eruptions, but only in recent years. What could be the underlying cause of this ostensible epidemic? Is it due to a bacchanalian binge? The onset of dementia? Or can we turn to the great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, for the diagnosis. Dostoevsky’s character, Smerdyakov adheres to the credo, “everything is permitted,” which implicitly condones the unleashing of assorted primitive impulses and even puts its imprimatur on fratricide. Perhaps there is an emergence of a newfangled species of Smerdyakovs, who now roam the earth, relentlessly chanting “everything is permitted.”

Dr. Amy D. Ronner

Aspen and Miami

Medicare for All is the cure

I agree completely with my friend Dr. George Bohmfalk in his support for the Medicare for All health care plan (“Why a public option won’t work,” commentary, Sept. 11, aspentimes.com).

The notion that people are reluctant to trade their private health insurance plan for one that would be more comprehensive and ultimately cheaper seems crazy. Medicare for All would eliminate surprise billing, which are bills from physicians or other health care entities not in your private insurance network.

So the next time someone in your family has a surgical procedure and receives a bill for thousands from an anesthesiologist or pathologist out of network, will you really regret changing your private plan for Medicare for All.

Dr. Michael Marek

Aspen