Mobile homes sell dream of homeownership, with a catch

By: - May 18, 2021 7:00 am
Mobile home

Karen Riek has lived in this mobile home in Blue Mounds for 16 years. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

For years, the Blue Mounds Mobile Home Park had a sign out front that said it was a “nice place to live.” But that was two owners ago. 

The man who originally owned the park in Blue Mounds — nestled in the rolling hills of rural Dane County near Blue Mounds State Park and across the highway from a cheese processing plant — died in 2018. Now, the park is owned by Impact Communities — a Colorado-based company that owns mobile home communities across the country. 

The longtime owner raised rent by $10 every other year, residents say. Since taking over in 2019, Impact has raised rent by nearly $100 while upkeep and management of the property has suffered.

Mobile Homes
The Blue Mounds Community was bought by Impact in 2019. Residents say lot rents have been hiked while property management has suffered. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Ed and Fran Chancellor have lived in Blue Mounds since 1989 and have been in their home at the park since 2004. For years they operated a local grocery store and Ed, now retired at 87, helped the longtime owner with upkeep of the property. 

Ed would plow the roads in the winter, saying he always finished before 6 a.m. Now, Impact contracts out the plowing but the company will only come out if snow accumulates to a certain level — which causes problems, residents say, when there’s an inch or so of ice, snow and slush on a steep hill during a Wisconsin winter.

Most of the residents in the park’s 100 homes are retired and living on Social Security. The rest, Ed says, are low-income workers, many of whom work on nearby dairy farms. A $100 increase on lot rents can be a huge hit for the residents. 

“The mom and pop type of owner, he looked out for the tenants and he didn’t overdo it,” Ed says. “He liked to make a buck and he was good at it, but still, he didn’t go overboard. I think that’s the way most of these types of parks are and it’s the corporations that are buying them up who are putting the screws to us.” 

The Chancellors, in their late 80s, are proud of their home, which they hope is the last place they will ever live. Ed keeps a garden in the back and occasionally their great-grandchildren visit. 

But since Impact took over, the communal property hasn’t been taken care of. Months ago, Impact tore up the street outside the Chancellors’ home to replace the water main and the asphalt still hasn’t been replaced — leaving loose dirt everywhere. After a rain, the couple is forced to tromp through mud to get inside. 

Across the park lives Karen Riek, a 76-year-old grandmother who barely touches five feet tall. Riek is leading a crusade against Impact, keeping copious notes on the company which she has collected in a manila envelope. When she heard a reporter was interviewing her neighbors, she marched across the park to stick the envelope full of notes under the windshield wiper of his car. 

Riek moved to the community 16 years ago from Verona after her kids moved away and she needed to downsize. The one-story building is good for her and she loves all the natural light in the kitchen. She’s proud of her home and likes to take care of it, though she says it’s not “Martha Stewart.” She enjoys her yard and says it’s been a good, affordable place to live with her cat in retirement.

But ever since Impact took over, she says she has felt like she’s in a “nightmare.” The rent is going up while the property owners refuse to properly take care of the land. Whenever it rains, she says, she and her neighbors’ yards are flooded and for years Impact hasn’t done anything to fix drainage problems. 

Her lot rent has increased so much that it now accounts for a third of her Social Security payments. Affordable Housing shouldn’t exceed 30% of a person’s income, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 

Impact, which doesn’t have a phone number or other contact information on its website, was reached through a general contact form on the company’s website on Friday. An Impact vice president responded Monday and, after falsely suggesting sources for this story aren’t actually current residents of the Blue Mounds Community, said she had not had enough time to respond to request for comment on this story.

Jessica Kramer, a Madison-based lawyer who works with Impact, responded for the company, saying the average resident’s lot rent has increased by $80 since the company took over in the fall of 2019 and that rents are determined through a variety of market factors.

Kramer says that any tenant complaints can be made to the local property manager and that Impact is constantly working to make sure it is taking care of the people who live in the communities it owns.

“I want to reiterate, communication is important and welcome,” Kramer says. “My client welcomes residents letting them know of specific concerns. Impact operates multiple communities in Wisconsin and is in constant communication with its people on the ground and with me. They’re always doing the best they can do — complying with the law, respecting residents’ rights and it’s a never ending process.”

Riek has looked into moving but housing prices are high and she doesn’t want the stairs that come with condos. 

“I want out of here so bad,” she says. “But on Social Security, I cannot afford a $1,000-a-month apartment.”

The challenges facing Rieke and the Chancellors are emblematic of the pressures facing mobile home residents across Wisconsin.

Ed and Fran Chancellor, now 87 and 85, have lived in this home since 2004. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Mobile homes, also known as manufactured housing, are an important affordable housing option in a state where housing prices are high. They provide more space and stability than rental apartments while giving people pride of ownership. But while mobile home residents may own their homes, they often don’t own the land underneath them. 

“I’ve been paying for this chunk of dirt for 16 years and gotten nothing,” Riek says. 

This gives property owners — whether a local “mom and pop” or an out-of-state corporation — a captive market to raise rents and fees as a way to squeeze their largely low-income residents for profit. 

“If you own your house but not the land underneath it, you can theoretically be forced to move,” says Kurt Paulsen, a professor at UW-Madison who researches affordable housing policy. “The challenge, of course, becomes, if the property is purchased by an out-of-state investor, then the residents don’t have real security of tenure.”

And, despite the name, mobile homes aren’t actually all that mobile. It can cost $10-15,000, or more, to pay a company to move the home. Even if that is possible, which it often isn’t, the homeowner needs to find another place to put it and hope nothing gets structurally damaged in transit. 

“You can’t just have Uncle Joe come with a pickup and move it,” says Kristin Slonski, the director of litigation with Judicare — a legal aid organization in northern Wisconsin. 

Increasing lot rents aren’t the only way property owners take advantage of their captive market. When a homeowner has essentially no choice but to sign the lease every year, the landlord can add dozens of provisions. 

The residents in these communities aren’t lawyers and often sign right away because they have little choice.

“The fiction is that people have a choice to sign the lease,” Slonski says.

But even if a resident wanted to go over each line of the lease, it isn’t always so simple. The leases in Blue Mounds expire at the end of May. As of May 14, none of the residents had received a copy of the new lease from Impact, Riek and the Chancellors say. 

Taken on their own, the provisions in the leases don’t seem so bad, but when added together they give property owners more and more excuses to evict people for breaching the contract, Slonski says. 

“The vehicle owner rents the lot, the lot landlord will often have these extensive leases, things like you have to keep your siding in good repair, you can’t have certain signage, an attractive nuisance like a swingset,” she says. “Each little thing, if you took it individually, it can make sense. Taken by itself it seems reasonable, seems reasonable, seems reasonable, but each of those provisions is a potential breach of contract.”

If someone is getting evicted whether for failing to pay rent or not following all the provisions in the lease, it becomes a fire sale, Slonski says. 

The homeowner has to leave the property just like any other eviction, but they still own the home itself. But, it costs upwards of $10,000 to move so that isn’t often an option. After the eviction, the owner has 30 days until the home becomes classified as abandoned property and the property owner can take control to re-sell or rent out. This gives the homeowners less than a month to try to find a buyer to recoup some of their losses. 

Impact has filed 10 eviction notices for the company’s Wisconsin properties in the last year, online court records show.

In Blue Mounds, residents have joined together to form a tenants association, but they’ve got few options in a fight that feels a little like David and Goliath. They’ve written letters to state legislators and members of Congress in hope of sparking some change. 

The Chancellors say they hope some legislation is passed that would cap rent increases. Riek wants HUD to be given authority to come and do inspections on the properties.

Mobile Homes
Karen Riek wants to move out of the park but can’t afford much on her Social Security. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Some lawmakers have heard the pleas for help. Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley (D-Mason), recognizes the problem and the need to find a balance between providing affordable housing and keeping residents from getting trapped. 

“It leaves these people in a very precarious situation,” she says. 

A spokesperson for Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Black Earth), the Blue Mounds tenants’ congressional representative, said in a statement that people aren’t just profit margins and need their housing needs to be met.

“Congressman Pocan is deeply concerned about the rise of private equity in many industries including in mobile home communities and manufactured homes — seeking to profit off the lives of others without actually supporting their housing needs,” Pocan’s communications director Usamah Andrabi said.

While living in that precarious situation, the Chancellors have gotten slightly more than half the residents in their community to join their tenants’ organization. But their group doesn’t have money for lawyers or lobbyists like the property owners do. 

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In Wisconsin, the owners and manufacturers of mobile homes are represented by the Wisconsin Housing Alliance (WHA). In the last two years, the group has lobbied against a rule that would have allowed the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) to prohibit late rental fees and a law that would have prevented landlords from asking prospective tenants about evictions from more than five years prior. 

The WHA did, however, work last year to make sure the Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program — a program started last year by Gov. Tony Evers to help people pay rent and other bills during the pandemic — is applicable to lot rents.

Amy Bliss, WHA executive director, says mobile and manufactured homes are critical to Wisconsin’s affordable housing formula and that the organization is “always advocating on behalf of tenants in manufactured homes,” because they’re frequently excluded from housing programs that would be able to provide loans or other assistance.

“Wisconsin Housing Alliance is an advocate for the manufactured and modular housing industry and for the consumers who purchase homes and live in manufactured home communities,” she says. “Obviously, consumers/tenants are critical to the success of the industry. The good news is this industry provides a very valuable source of unsubsidized housing for over 50,000 families that choose the affordability and low debt lifestyle that living in a manufactured home community can bring.”

Bliss added that price increases are dependent on a lot of factors, including economic conditions and local zoning laws.

“As with any housing option today, costs have risen sharply as the supply of affordable homes and rentals has been elusive throughout Wisconsin due to NIMBYism and strict municipal zoning that very seldom allows the development of affordable housing and specifically manufactured home communities,” Bliss says. “When supply is restricted, the cost and demand go up. Unlike lower income apartment development, tax incentives and grant programs are almost always denied to manufactured home community development and to the owners of manufactured homes in a land-lease community. The industry would welcome the opportunity to build additional land lease communities to alleviate some of the cost pressures, unfortunately, it is an uphill battle against those who hold outdated stereotypes about the industry. Issues that cause price increases are items such as non-payment of rent, maintenance, property taxes, infrastructure upgrades, regulatory burdens and insurance just to name a few.”

The WHA has also made regular donations to the landlords in the Republican caucus of the Legislature, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington). Ed Chancellor says the only political donation he’s ever made is $25 to Rep. Nancy Pelosi because he wanted to help her oppose President Donald Trump.

This leaves people like Chancellor and Riek not only fighting a faceless corporation, but also a lobbying organization sending money to the people with the power to help. 

“This is the kind of thing that is the hard work that legislators should be doing,” Bewley says. “I need to be able to reach across the aisle and know that somebody is willing to do something that is the right thing. You’ve got to be willing to sit down and have the realtors and the non-profit organizations and a Democrat and Republican and hash this out. The realtors aren’t greedy, they want to protect their industry, that’s their job. But at the same time, there are also fewer non-profits who want to protect the interests of people who don’t have quite as much power as a large lobbying group.”

Despite all the headwinds, mobile homeowners do have one slim chance of fighting to control their own fate — though it’s a chance that has already passed Riek and the Chancellors by. 

In 2005, Countryside Park, a mobile home community near Cumberland in Barron County, was about to be sold. The park sits on a lakefront property and was set to be sold to a developer who planned to build condos on the valuable piece of land. 

With the help of WestCAP, a local housing non-profit, the residents of Countryside Park convinced the property owner to section off the land, sell the lakefront property to a developer and sell the community to the residents. 

Years later, the community still exists under the ownership of the residents as a co-op

“Here was a perfect example of people who need to organize, stop the eviction and figure out a way to keep their trailers there,” says Stephen Parliament, who was WestCAP’s development director at the time but now teaches at UW-River Falls while still working on housing issues. “It’s a power balance where the owners of the trailers have more power than they think. They’re the ones paying the rent, they’re the asset. The only way to make that powerful is to organize. You have to get yourselves together, form a trailer association, form that into a tenants’ union which becomes a co-op. But that takes an organizer with a little savvy.”

Bewley, who’s visited the Countryside Park community, says the co-op model is a possible option for residents in the future who are at risk of having their homes pulled out from underneath them. 

“I do think this is a viable idea,” she says. “Whenever people put their heads together, if your motive is to help, you can come up with ideas.” 

But in Blue Mounds, they’re still looking for ideas as the residents face rising costs and increasing precarity. 

“I guess if everybody’s worried about the homeless, mobile home tenants could be the next homeless people,” Ed Chancellor says.

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.

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