Profits Over People: Investors Try to Commodify One of the Last Viable Sources of Affordable Housing

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TIME Magazine uses a case study of a manufactured home community in Akron, New York to explore how investors are commodifying the mobile home industry. By raising rents to increase returns, big companies are putting America’s most vulnerable low-income homeowners at risk.

Fortunately, the homeowners are fighting back – and protecting one of America’s last viable source of affordable housing in the process.

High Rent, Dangerous Conditions

As mom-and-pop owners age out of the mobile home industry, big investors are stepping in. Unfortunately, these wealthy individuals and institutions do not use their resources to better the communities they purchase but rather exploit residents to make a profit.

In the Akron Manufactured Home Community in New York, the Florida-based company, Sunrise Capital Investors, bought the company and immediately proposed a rent increase of more than 40%. That same year, residents suffered through a “winter without plowing or salting,” and one retired homeowner in the community told TIME “a couple of people fell and got hurt.”

The story is similar in other mobile home parks purchased by investors across the country. Residents endure rent increases, followed by neglected property maintenance and unsafe conditions – particularly when snow and ice hit in the winter.

The Affordable Housing Crisis and a Lack of Legal Protections

Nationwide, there are more than 11 million low-income families. To house all of them, the country would need 7.2 million more affordable housing units. As a result, more than 500,000 people in the United States are experiencing homelessness on any given night.

Even those who are lucky enough to have places to live often spend more than 30% of their income on rent (these people are ‘housing cost burdened’), and 75% of all low-income families use more than half of their income to pay rent (this income/rent relationship is known as ‘house poverty’).

Many mobile homeowners live in manufactured communities so they do not have to be housing cost burdened or experience housing poverty – or because they simply cannot afford more traditional housing options. When mobile home park owners raise the rent, residents are left with few options and even fewer legal protections.

The predatory practices in American mobile home parks could intensify the affordable housing crisis and drive more individuals and families into homelessness.

How Mobile Homeowners Are Fighting Back

Because most mobile home owners own their homes but rent the land they live on, and relocating a mobile home costs upwards of $5,000, these low-income homeowners cannot simply walk away from a bad situation.

Investors who buy mobile home parks or manufactured communities “know they have a captive audience.” Many mobile homeowners must accept the increased cost of living or be forced out of their own homes. Fortunately, some residents band together to fight back against self-described ‘opportunistic’ landlords.

Cooperative Conversions

Mobile homeowners say there is “no reason for [mobile home parks] to be something profitable,” and when parks go for sale, some residents step up to protect their communities. When mobile homeowners purchase their parks in cooperative conversions, they can work together to create something similar to a homeowner’s association (HOA) to keep the park in business while minimizing expenses for all homeowners.

Sadly, the upfront costs are frequently too big of an obstacle, which is why nonprofits like PathStone help finance cooperative conversions and stand up to big investors.

Rent Strikes

Another tactic mobile homeowners can use if they organize is rent strikes. If all the mobile homeowners in a given community decide not to pay rent, the investor does not receive any return on their investment and may be more willing to negotiate manageable living expenses. Residents can also organize rent strikes to improve conditions, but the risk of eviction remains imminent.

Many mobile homeowners who organize rent strikes do it because they know they are stronger together – and because they feel like they have nothing to lose.

Legislation and Litigation

The manufactured home industry is continuing to transform from what it once was. While some investors are stepping in with bad intentions, local and state governments are beginning to offer mobile homeowners some protections, like those that exist for more traditional renters under landlord-tenant law.

Many mobile homeowners are politically active in hopes of changing the law and adding new protections, and when mobile home park owners violate existing laws, residents can always turn to litigation.

If you have been harmed by unsafe conditions at your mobile home park, you may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit against the park owner. Similarly, you can file suit for violations of mobile home law – at least in states like California.

At Allen, Semelsberger & Kaelin LLP, we have been representing mobile home park residents since 1987. If there is a solution to your legal problem, we will help you find it. Simply fill out our mobile home questionnaire to find out if you have a case or call us at (888) 998-2031 to get started today.

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