In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Frank Rolfe and Dave Reynolds discovered a lucrative new area of real estate investment, manufactured home communities (MHCs), and made millions by buying out older mom-and-pop operations and putting new profit-oriented practices into place. Soon after that they offered their first weekend business seminar to share their techniques: Mobile Home University. For $2000, potential investors could learn how to turn someone’s neighborhood into a profit stream by raising rent, adding new charges for utilities and services, simplifying operations by closing recreation rooms and laundromats, and filling empty lots with rental trailers—in some cases castoffs purchased from FEMA.
For investors, the strategy generates an impressive new revenue stream; but for the residents the experience has been dehumanizing, as neighborhoods are turned into someone else’s investment zone. And now that model has come to Champaign County.
There are approximately thirty MHCs in Champaign County, and in the past few years at least twelve have been purchased by one of the largest MHC investment corporations in America, RV Horizons. These numbers highlight the intersection of two trends in U.S. economics, as well as the widely different experiences of those on opposite ends of growing inequality, noted Gary Rivlin in his 2014 New York Times article, “The Cold Hard Lessons of Mobile Home University.”
The first trend is the growing market for the affordable housing MHCs offer. The combined effects of an aging population with limited retirement income (many with less than $1200 a month), a 200,000-unit decrease in public housing units in the U.S. since 1995, and a simultaneous 43% rise in household housing insecurity in the last decade means that there are a lot more Americans looking for affordable housing in the private sector. But for the founders of Mobile Home University these statistics spell not tragedy but opportunity.
The second trend is the growth of private equity investment in what had previously been locally run essential services (community hospitals, rehab facilities, nursing homes …), now converted to profit models.
In 2014 there were about 12 million Americans living in MHCs, with thousands locally living in the approximately 30 of those communities in Champaign County. Traditionally park owners kept up the public areas and rented spots to residents who owned the homes; because it can cost $5000-7000 to move such a home, residents tended to sell to a new resident when relocating. Residents enjoyed the advantages of stand-alone housing (no worries about your pet, music or children waking the neighbors, and the freedom to decorate and update as you wish) at a reasonable price. The rental fee for the lot might be $200-250 per month plus utilities, the loan payment on the home might be an additional $200-300. As in any neighborhood, the most stable parks were those where residents stayed for years, knew each other through shared interaction at community amenities like playgrounds, pools and recreation rooms, and felt that they had a relationship of mutual respect with the owners in handling community issues.
These communities had some drawbacks. Illinois professor emeritus Sonya Salamon and her colleague Katherine MacTavish spent two decades studying these communities (see their 2017 book Singlewide: Chasing the American Dream in a Rural Trailer Park), and found the most significant downside compared to owning traditional single family housing was the difficulty of accumulating household wealth. Manufactured home purchases have higher interest rates than other mortgages (up to 13.5% with a 30- year loan) and lower resale value. Still, they concluded that buying a used home in a MHC provides families with a lower housing bill than renting a two- or three-bedroom apartment.
An additional challenge that Salomon and MacTavish researched is the price community residents pay for the “trailer park” stigma. For teens, the price can be high in a society with a pop culture image of trailer parks as havens of transients and criminals. Residents also feel the “trailer park” stigma has affected their ability to protect their communities from outside owners. It’s hard to convince people that important social networks are in danger if those networks are invisible to many outsiders. The challenges posed by recent corporate takeovers of MHCs have completely eclipsed previous concerns. Soon residents began to experience rent and utility increases, new fees and deposit demands, the closure of community facilities and inaccessible management.
RV Horizons appeared to be following its own playbook, presented to paying audiences at its “Mobile Home University” business seminars. It doesn’t look like high finance at first, but additional monthly fees of $11 for trash, $50 for rent, pet fees ($15 for a cat and $25 for a dog), plus the closure of the expense of the community areas, additional revenue from filling empty lots with rental units and late fees—and suddenly a 200-unit park can generate an additional $200,000 a year in revenue for the owner, at the expense of the residents who, as Mobile Home University admits, aren’t really free to leave.
Of course, residents can leave, but first they have to sell their home, and leases give the owner the ability to credit-check buyers. One resident of an Urbana community described her neighbor’s experience. RV Horizons told her that none of the nine offers she received passed the credit check (although they provided no documentation), and in the end she sold it to the park for less than half of her original asking price. Residents are also prohibited from posting a For Sale sign on the property, are discouraged from meeting with realtors and must alert management 30 days before the property is listed.
In 2016, nearly a hundred residents gathered at the Urbana Free Library to confront RV Horizons with their complaints. In the last few years, local MHC resident Linda Reynolds has worked with others to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, to petition the Attorney General and to generally attempt to hold RV Horizons under scrutiny.
Reynolds isn’t the only resident pushing back, as recognition has grown that the same techniques are employed not just across Champaign-Urbana, but across the country. Residents have joined the Manufactured Housing Association of Illinois (mhoia.org) and Manufactured Housing Action (mhaction.org). In December, 2017, Jeff and Debbie Kiel of Urbana joined other protesters in confronting RV Horizons at a Mobile Home University Workshop in Austin, Texas.
This month (December, 2018), the Manufactured Housing Association of Illinois is launching a campaign to call attention to the destructive business model used by RV Horizons and Kingsley, two of the largest corporate actors in this sector, calling attention to the gray area that manufactured home communities fall into—not completely renters but also not completely owners—which raises practical issues of how to regulate rights in these communities. But beyond these practical challenges lies a much greater one. Why are there so few affordable housing options available, despite a growth in the population which needs them? Why are individuals with the least housing/income security the most vulnerable to the corporatization of housing? Should neighborhoods be seen primarily as investment platforms for corporations? Why do neighbors who live in modestly priced communities where they may find social support but little long-term financial gain deserve less housing protection than those who can afford to buy showplace homes with extravagant carbon footprints? It’s easy to monetize property values and tax revenue, but its hard to monetize the contribution that neighborhoods with safe affordable housing can make to a town.