The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA)
By: Chris Burrell
April 6, 2013
QUINCY - They pay ever-increasing fees and rent to a landlord, have trouble getting loans and watch their homes depreciate in value, unable to build equity. It's a predicament that is beginning to change as residents of mobile home parks band together to buy the land that has been their home, but not their property.
The region south of Boston has some of the highest concentrations of manufactured housing communities in the state - 77 in Plymouth and Bristol counties combined.
Last year, two mobile home communities in Carver formed cooperatives and bought the land on which their homes sit. It happened again in February at a 66-home development in Plymouth, and more park residents are considering the option.
"The ball has started rolling in Massachusetts," said John Van Alst, a lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center in Boston, which watches the trend locally and nationally.
A big factor is that Massachusetts is one of just 18 states in the U.S. with laws that give residents of mobile or manufactured housing developments right of first refusal - a shot at buying the land on which their homes sit - when a park goes up for sale.
Of roughly 250 manufactured home communities in the state, only 25 are cooperatively-owned by the residents, but a coalition of nonprofits and consumer organizations want to grow that number as a way to help predominantly low-income people and retirees build an asset.
"We're trying to preserve that affordable housing stock ... that was typically ignored at best," said George McCarthy, a director at the Ford Foundation in New York which funds projects that help communities turn cooperative.
In the process, McCarthy said, homeowners who become landowners instead of tenants feel empowered.
"These are people who went from being of lower stature than renters, pilloried in the community and then suddenly managing a multimillion dollar enterprise," said McCarthy. "It's not a trivial event in their lives."
A year after Larry Erickson helped organize nearly 400 residents of two parks in Carver into a cooperative, he said conditions there are improved, and for the first time in years, nobody saw a hike in their monthly fees.
"We're getting drains cleaned out. We're working on fixing up the playground, which was not in good shape. There's a better working relationship with the police department," he said. "People have a say in a way they never did before."
Residents of Westwood Village in Plymouth, who just bought the 23 acres under their homes for $3.8 million, feel similar pride.
"It's four words: control our own destiny," said Ken Groppi, who sits on the newly formed cooperative board of directors.
Westwood Village is a high-end park where homes have sold for about $270,000 each, but its residents - many of them retired - were worried about annual increases in their monthly rent for the land.
Like Westwood, residents at the parks in Carver took advantage of their right of first refusal and teamed up with a nonprofit in western Massachusetts that works with ROC USA in New Hampshire to secure all the financing.
Residents of all three parks feared what would happen if the land was sold to a new owner, who would possibly raise the rents or fail to maintain the grounds.
State Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton said parks are increasingly taken over by nationally-run real estate companies.
Another market force at play is that many parks sit on large parcels of land, tempting real estate developers who want to buy the parks and evict the residents, said Albert Saiz, a professor at MIT's Center for Real Estate in Cambridge.
"In a state that's very built up like Massachusetts, there are not so many good plots of land left. Such a big piece of land is really very valuable," he said.
To protect these lower-cost housing communities and build a relationship with the towns where they are located, Sen. Pacheco filed legislation to have them counted - even partially - as part of municipality's stock of affordable housing.
But for residents in many parks, a co-op remains a dream.
"Residents won't sit together here," said Joe Gorman, who lives in a one-bedroom mobile home in Nob Hill Estates in Weymouth. "There's big turnover here."
Gorman, a disabled steelworker, has seen his rent rise nearly 50 percent, from $295 to $435 a month.
In a Rockland mobile home park called Hillcrest, Priscilla Hall's rent has almost tripled in 16 years from about $200 to $580 a month.