Breathing new life into an old trailer park

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Northfield News (Minnesota)
By: David Henke
October 12, 2010

The last thing Bill and Cari McGeough needed was a personal disaster, but that's what they got when the roof of their 40-year-old manufactured home collapsed in during a downpour this summer.

Out of a job, Bill was taking online courses to become a private investigator, leaving the family of five dependent on the wages Cari received from a factory job in Lakeville. To make matters worse, the McGeoughs had just finished repairing and renovating the worn out manufactured home valued at $9,100, according to county tax records.

There was no way they could afford to purchase a new home, the McGeoughs thought, until a city program and two big-hearted landlords stepped in to help out.

The McGeoughs are one of eight families in five years to qualify for and receive assistance in purchasing a new manufactured home through the Manufactured Home Acquisition Program, run by the Northfield Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

The goal of the program is simple: Improve the safety and conditions of Northfield's two manufactured home parks, Viking Terrace and Florella's Manufactured Home Park, by helping homeowners replacing older, rundown manufactured homes with new or slightly-used homes. If a family meets the program's criteria, they are eligible for as much as $7,000 in grant assistance -- a maximum of $2,000 for the demolition and removal of the old home, and $5,000 toward a new house.

Even before the hole in their roof, the McGeoughs fit the program's qualifications. The insulation was so poor in their 40-year-old home that, prior to renovations, the family was paying roughly $400 in monthly heating bills during the winter. If that wasn't enough, the water pipes underneath the home frequently froze, leaving the McGeoughs without water until Bill could manually thaw them.

It's a situation Northfield Housing Manager Michele Merxbauer, who oversees the acquisition program, has dealt with numerous times.

Problems like those facing the McGeoughs are common among older manufactured homes, according to Merxbauer. While newer manufactured homes are better-constructed, homes built in the 1970s are typically poorly insulated, leaky and prone to mold, which can affect the family's health, Merxbauer said. Even if the family has money to retrofit an older home, the renovations are often difficult because of the metal construction of the homes, Merxbauer added.

The result? Dozens of families living in homes that may not be in compliance with city code and could pose a health hazard to their occupants.

Viking Terrace owner Fran Haan is all too aware of the health risks and problems older manufactured homes pose to their occupants. New manufactured homes can cost as much as $60,000, Haan said, which is far out of the financial reach of many residents living in Viking Terrace, he said.

In his eight years as the landlord of Viking Terrace's roughly 1,000 residents and 168 lots, he and his wife Deb have personally provided financing for several low-income families so they could purchase new homes. Between the city's grant program and his financial assistance, Haan says that roughly a dozen families have been able to upgrade their manufactured homes to newer models.

The McGeoughs, who got the maximum of $7,000 from the city, also sought and received financing from the Haans.

After living in a hotel for 45 days this fall, the McGeoughs moved into their new home last week. Valued at $33,500, it has new appliances, retains heat and even has a wood-burning fireplace, according to the McGeoughs.

"It took a lot of the stress off our family, that we could actually have something nice and be able to afford it because of the people that are honestly out there to help you," Cari said on Monday afternoon.

When asked where he and his family would be without help from the city and the Haans, Bill was silent for a moment, then shook his head.

"I don't have a clue, I couldn't honestly answer that," he said.

-- David Henke covers public safety, the arts and business for the Northfield

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