The Unstable Permanence of Mobile Homes
Two recent showdowns with investment firms in Chapel Hill outline the trap for mobile home residents: a home you own sits on land that outside investors are eager to buy and profit from // Photos by Rachel Jessen
Martina had lived at Tar Heel Mobile Home Court for nearly seven years when the new owners came in. She and her husband paid $350 per month to rent the pad where their $3,500 home stood. Compared with the $900 per month apartment they moved from, it was a bargain.
“It was really nice, it was peaceful and everything, no problems here,” Martina, a woman originally from Mexico who works in food service in Carrboro, said through a translator. The 83-home park is tucked behind the now-closed Marathon Gas Station on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a busy four-lane road that leads into downtown Chapel Hill.
White Christmas lights and American flags adorn the houses, tomato plants flourish on steps, and residents tackle woodworking projects in their backyards. Martina, who asked to use a pseudonym to avoid conflict with the park owners, said she’s friendly with her neighbors and her older son rides his bike around with another boy who lives in the area.
The trouble started with the new ownership. Stackhouse, a property investment firm based in Durham, bought the park in 2018, raised the rent by $100 a month, and told the residents they couldn’t have kiddie pools, trampolines, or any other play equipment in their yards.
But it was the uncertainty that really disrupted the community. Stackhouse asked the town for a conditional zoning change that would allow them to build a storage unit on the property and reopen the old gas station and convenience store. If the town didn’t grant their rezoning requests, they said, they might decide to go with another proposed plan for the site: give everyone 180 days to get out of the park, tear it down, and build apartments.
Tar Heel Mobile Home Court // Photo by Rachel Jessen
The negotiations, which played out over the next few years, was just one in a string of recent threats to the Triangle’s mobile home parks. It illustrates the tenuousness of life in these communities—especially in Chapel Hill, where soaring prices and limited land drive acrimonious conversations over how to balance development, preservation, and the needs of the town’s most vulnerable residents. The four mobile home parks in town all lie along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a transit corridor that’s ripe for dense, lucrative construction.
“It’s a tough issue, because all of the communities are in areas that are very desirable for developers,” said Nate Broman-Fulks, the Affordable Housing Manager for the town of Chapel Hill. “They’re on transit lines, not far from downtown, near shopping. There’s a lot of interest in this area of town and a lot of development interest.”
22 million Americans live in mobile home parks, and they’re in trouble all over the country. Private equity firms and other corporate investors have focused on these parks as a way to make money; one organization called Mobile Home University offers classes on best practices for profiting off a mobile home park. Although mobile home parks often house the poorest members of a community, they can offer sky-high returns on investment. And as Mobile Home U explicitly points out, mobile home residents are a captive audience, meaning that buyers can make even more money by cutting services.
“It’s a very good way to make money. You have people who are stuck there,” said Julia Sendor, an organizer who works with Orange County Justice United and the NC Latino Congress. Raising rents can be lucrative, and mobile home residents have struggled with evictions and mortgage payments during the pandemic and well before.
In North Carolina, mobile home parks account for approximately 13 percent of the housing stock. And in Chapel Hill, where approximately 650 residents live in mobile home parks, the rising cost of land adds a new layer. According to Zillow, home values in town have increased by an average of $100,000 in the last five years, and according to the town, the average home value is more than $480,000. Another complicating factor is the urban services boundary, created in the 1980s, which prevents the town from extending municipal services outside a certain line. USBs are common urban planning tools intended to prevent sprawl or preserve agricultural land, but a side effect is that they curtail the amount of developable land in town, making the 14 acres that Tar Heel Mobile Home Park sits on prime real estate.
That’s the situation the Chapel Hill Town Council found when Stackhouse approached them with their ultimatum.
“They were playing hardball,” said Town Councilor Amy Ryan. “They had a plan that they very much wanted to see come forward and they were willing to use the residents as a bargaining chip in that plan. They portrayed it as, ‘the Town Council is going to decide whether you have a house or not.’”
At issue was whether the Town Council should set a precedent by agreeing to Stackhouse’s demands, or if it should refuse and likely prompt the company to evict dozens of families during the pandemic. Many residents spoke out both in private meetings with organizers and at public hearings at Town Council meetings, pleading with council members to give Stackhouse what they wanted.
“[Stackhouse] approached their residents—I was there and heard this myself—they said, ‘if you talk against us, and Town Council doesn’t pass it, then we’re going to close down the park,” said Delores Bailey, executive director of EmPOWERment, a community development nonprofit that worked with residents throughout the Stackhouse crisis. “Never was there a time when they were considering the residents. They were living in fear.”
The town council ultimately approved Stackhouse’s request 5-3 (Ryan voted no), with the addition of a restrictive covenant that capped rent increases and ensured the park remained open for 15 years.
But even the Town Councilors who voted for the plan spoke out against it at a March 10 meeting. The looming storage unit in a residential neighborhood didn’t fit with their strategic plan for this part of town. Worse, they felt strong-armed. At that meeting, Ryan called the precedent set by the agreement “dangerous and repellent.” Councilors Jessica Anderson and Hongbin Gu called the developers “predatory,” while Anderson added that it was a “really tragic situation” and lamented that the council had engaged in “terrible negotiating.”
Tar Heel Mobile Home Court // Photo by Rachel Jessen
This situation was particularly high-stakes because the Tar Heel Mobile Home Park is that rare beast: a place with affordable houses with yards, often costing less than an apartment, within the highly-ranked Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system. They can be Spanish-language enclaves, places to romp outside for kids, homes where families can cultivate gardens, put up trampolines, or have grills. That makes any thought of alternative strategies difficult. Even if town governments could find subsidized apartment units for every resident, many would not want to go.
“A lot of folks living in mobile home parks really like that kind of living better than in an apartment building,” said Ryan. “Many have children, many want to have kids out and playing right around the house. It’s not simple ... it’s not simple at all.”
The name “mobile home park” is preferred by advocates to “trailer park” with all its negative connotations, but “mobile home” is actually a misnomer. The name is a holdover from the mid-20th century, when mobile homes resembled RVs. During World War II, they were used to house troops, and after the war, they helped compensate for the housing shortage during the baby boom. In the 1950s and 1960s, mobile homes’ popularity exploded, and manufacturers started building bigger and bigger homes.
Today, trailers are built 10 feet, 12 feet, or even wider, meaning they can only be transported under a special one-time moving permit. These days, “manufactured home” is actually the preferred term in the industry, because it more accurately describes the immobility of most of these structures.
That permanence reveals a major trap for residents in these parks. Many of them own their homes, either mortgaged or outright. But residents don’t typically own the land beneath their homes. In other words, mobile home park residents own a depreciating asset sitting on an increasingly-valuable asset that they have to rent from a landlord. And legal loopholes often exclude these residents from typical tenant protections. Residents who receive an eviction notice must coordinate moving their home, find a place to move it to, and pay thousands of dollars to actually get the job done—if moving the structure is even possible.
“Even if you wanted to move your home, can the home physically withstand a move? If you put tile on a floor that was linoleum or carpet, that’s enough to throw it off, where it’ll damage the house if you move it,” said Mike Bullard, the communications manager for ROC USA, an organization that helps mobile home owners buy their own parks.
This is one of the issues at hand in another Chapel Hill park recently bought by new owners: Ridgewood Mobile Home Park, tucked in a rural corner of town at the end of Damascus Church Road. The area is marked by contrasts, with the mobile home park surrounded by new development including genteel homes with leafy lawns and Black Lives Matter signs.
Ridgewood was recently purchased by Smith Management LLC, a subsidiary of Alden Global Capital, the New York hedge fund notorious for buying and gutting newspapers like the Chicago Tribune. Ridgewood residents were told to sign leases with $100 to $150 rent increases—written in English even though 90 percent of the park residents are Spanish speakers. The residents will now bear responsibility for raking leaves, mowing grass, and shoveling snow. But most crucially, if they want to sell their trailers, they now have to sell to Alden Global rather than seeking a buyer through the market.
Ridgewood Mobile Home Park // Photos by Rachel Jessen
Laura, a housecleaner who’s lived at Ridgewood since 2013, put $8,000 into improving her $13,000 trailer over the past few years. She and her husband redid the roof and floor, painted and remodeled the bathroom. Now, she either has to accept Ridgewood’s new rules, or sell the trailer at an expected loss to Alden/Smithfield.
“It really upsets me because we work really hard and they don’t want to pay what we would ask if we sold the trailer by ourselves,” said Laura, who asked to use a pseudonym to avoid reprisals from the company, through a translator. “We’ve put all this time and effort into it and they just want to come and take that all away.”
Alden’s publicly available phone numbers are disconnected and representatives from Smithfield Management did not return multiple phone calls.
On June 29, four Ridgewood residents, not including Laura, spoke out about their new landlords at a press conference outside Congressman David Price’s office. One of the families at the conference, the Rojases, said they found themselves in the same situation as Laura. They wanted to leave Ridgewood after the old owners closed the playground and someone called social services on the Rojas children for playing in the street. They decided to sell their home to their in-laws and replaced their roof and installed a new floor, new windows, and a porch, all to prepare for Jose Rojas’ parents to move in.
But now they cannot sell their home to anyone but Smithfield Management. Sendor, the Orange County Justice United organizer, explained that although this stipulation isn’t part of the lease, the company has instructed on-site managers to reject any lot applications from tenants buying a house from a previous owner. When Sendor ran this policy by lawyers from the North Carolina Justice Center, they said that the policy is technically legal as long as the company does not show a pattern of discrimination. Two different families have tried to get a new copy of the lease for incoming buyers, but the managers told them the new residents would be rejected. She added that the residents have tried to contact the company to find out more about this policy and to negotiate, with no luck.
Residents at the conference spoke about other issues too. A 27-year resident named Jane Gump said she’s on a fixed income and can’t afford the $150 additional rent. The residents also spoke of maintenance issues: overflowing septic systems with foul smells, untrimmed trees dropping branches and damaging trailers.
“This is a situation we’ve been going through for a long time because our community has passed from owner to owner,” said a nail technician named Alexandra Rivera at the press conference through a translator.
Chapel Hill is no stranger to bitter arguments about the future of its housing stock, built environment, and town character. As in many college towns, residents often engage in fractious debates about what they want their community to look like and how to achieve that vision.
In 2014, a group of Chapel Hill residents threw down a gauntlet by founding Chapel Hill Alliance for Liveable Town. CHALT, depending on your perspective, is an organization that promotes responsible building and local government, or a retrograde, anti-development group implicitly proclaiming “not in my backyard.”
In 2015, CHALT became one of the town’s first PACs, leading to an acrimonious local election; a debate raged over whether “treading carefully on development” limits housing stock and doubles down on a problematic past, or whether it’s a cautious approach to new building that prevents developers from gentrifying neighborhoods and driving up home prices.
Ridgewood Mobile Home Park // Photo by Rachel Jessen
One recent flashpoint for these debates was Aura, a 400-unit housing development proposed for North Estes Drive. Proponents say that Aura would bring 40 affordable units to the community, while CHALT claims that the development would increase traffic and double down on luxury housing. With Chapel Hill municipal elections on the horizon and affordable housing a perennial political concern, some notable CHALT candidates are already throwing their hats into the ring (and a heated spat broke out on Twitter this week regarding the links between CHALT and news site The Local Reporter).
This debate’s impact on mobile home parks is complicated. Classic NIMBY-ism, which is often fraught with racism and classism, curtails affordable housing, drives lower-income residents to other towns, and limits the number of mobile home parks built in the first place. From that lens, an enthusiastic, yes-in-my-backyard approach to new development could be a salve.
But many mobile home residents don’t want to move into new apartments: they instead value the peace, quiet, yards, trampolines and gardens that their less dense current housing provides. Also, YIMBY-ism often entails “upzoning,” which means changing zoning ordinances to allow denser construction such as multi-family homes or even new apartment buildings in single-family neighborhoods. But stricter zoning measures are often local governments’ only leverage against developers who want to displace residents (for example, if a developer wants to bulldoze a mobile home park and build a medium-rise apartment, they often have to seek a zoning change from the town). Creative YIMBY approaches might include zoning changes that allow single-family residents to rent out a mobile home in their backyard—but that doesn’t solve the community conundrum.
The mobile home park model doesn’t fit neatly into the terms of these debates. It’s low-income housing that hails from a bygone era when density wasn’t prized the way it is by some planners today.
The town of Chapel Hill is well aware that residents caught in this old-fashioned, valuable form of housing need protection. The town began work on a strategic mobile home plan in 2017, when one of the town’s four parks, Lakeview Mobile Home Park off of Weaver Dairy Road, caught the eye of a Texas-based developer, who wanted to build high-density luxury apartments.
“I don’t believe the town council actually understood that that mobile home park was a community [until then],” said Bailey, the executive director of EmPOWERment.
The developers eventually abandoned the idea, but the town government realized that this wouldn’t be the last time a developer would move in on a mobile home park, so they kept working on the strategic plan.
The resulting Manufactured Home Strategy outlines what to do in situations when residents face displacement, said Broman-Fulks. Under the strategy, the town approaches residents on a case-by-case basis and works with them directly to figure out housing solutions. The town also tries to provide them with down-payment assistance on a new home, financial assistance to move the mobile home if possible, or assistance in securing rental housing. One strategy, said Broman-Fulks, is to use the town’s leverage in setting zoning policy to negotiate with developers—just as they did with Stackhouse.
“A lot of folks weren’t thrilled with the [Stackhouse] development that was approved but it’s an example of a way to keep residents on the site,” said Broman-Fulks.
Bailey said that the town could have purchased the park, which Stackhouse bought for $3 million, but didn’t or couldn’t. But Broman-Fulks and other officials stressed that allocating funds for affordable housing projects is complicated. Ryan pointed out that depending on how the town organized the project and what funds they used for it, they might run into issues with fair housing laws; that is, they wouldn’t be able to simply buy a park for a select group of residents already living in a community, but would have to open applications to everyone in town.
Chapel Hill devotes six percent of its budget to affordable housing, said Ryan, and with that six percent, they have to juggle a mélange of competing interests: a commitment to diversity, a commitment to limiting car usage by encouraging those who work in town to live in town, plus a commitment to prioritizing dense development near public transit corridors—all with limited government funding.
Sometimes, municipalities contribute public funds to help keep a park afloat; in Charlottesville, Virginia, Habitat for Humanity has used public funds to buy parks and keep them running without any resident displacement. And some towns do succeed in outright buying a park. Boulder, Colorado, for example, purchased a mobile home park in 2017 and developed it in a way that avoided displacing residents, although some residents remain unhappy with the town’s stipulations. But Boulder was only able to buy that property because it lies on a flood plain, which allowed them to use a federal Resilience Planning Grant to buy it. Under ordinary circumstances, said Chapel Hill officials, towns don’t have the millions of dollars it takes to buy a park—which ultimately leaves the parks up for grabs and residents up for potential displacement.
“None of [the solutions] are easy, and a lot of them cost a significant amount of money, if you are to preserve a community,” said Broman-Fulks. He added, “There’s not enough funding to go around to do everything we want to do.”
In Asheboro, North Carolina, an hour west of Chapel Hill in the state’s center, lies the Oak Meadows Community Association. The 60 families here have the distinction of living in the only community-owned mobile home park in North Carolina.
Resident-owned communities, or ROCs, are one way out of the trap set for mobile home residents in America. A resident-owned community is basically a co-op: Residents of the park own the land and administer the park together rather than paying a landlord or management company.
“Once a co-op buys it, that ties home ownership with land ownership,” said Bullard.
There are about 270 ROCs nationwide, said Bullard, whose organization, headquartered in New Hampshire, helps connect potential ROCs with local affiliates who can train residents and provide resources for transitioning to the community-owned model. ROC USA also acts as a lending arm to help these parks with the initial cost of buying land; they lend residents up to 110 percent of the value of the community, allowing them to build equity so that they can refinance with a commercial real estate loan down the line if they want. Sometimes, ROC USA affiliates team up with local municipalities; Bullard said that the town of Durango, Colorado recently granted half a million dollars to a lending affiliate to help residents purchase their park.
Even with the help of ROC USA, opening a co-op park is not easy: Residents not only have to finance the cost of the land, but they also have to deal with the infrastructure costs and logistics of putting water, sewer and other utilities into the park. But the advantage is stability. If residents own a community, they don’t have to worry about being shunted from owner to owner, about new rules, unexpected rent hikes, or sudden evictions disrupting their community.
“I’ve been to dozens of ROCs now, and that’s the thing I hear most consistently. [When you don’t own the land], you come home and there’s a note on the door, the community’s about to be sold and you’ve got to go,” said Bullard.
It’s easier to open ROCs in some states than in others. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, Oregon, and Colorado all require owners seeking to sell a mobile home park to first offer to sell it to the residents and negotiate with them in good faith. Some other states, including North Carolina, extend benefits to owners for selling their parks to residents. In 2008, North Carolina legislators considered legislation that would require owners to give residents the right of first refusal when it came to buying the park, but the proposal was watered down to a simple five percent tax incentive for owners who sell properties to residents. But in the hot real estate market of the Triangle, it’s difficult for residents to compete with lucrative offers from a developer or hedge fund.
And yet, residents have tried. The residents at Ridgewood, with the help of ROC USA affiliate Carolina Common Enterprise, tried to buy the park in October 2020. Their bid was runner-up to Alden Global, which bought the park for $2,850,000 in early 2021.
Once a park sells to a company like this, said Sendor, it becomes more difficult to wrest back local control. If any of the remaining parks in Chapel Hill—Lakeview, for example—stand a chance at becoming ROCs and thus weathering the storm of rapid development, rocketing land prices, hungry private equity firms, and tough debates about the town’s future, they need to act now.
“All these local parks are selling to faraway companies,” said Sendor. “It’s a race against time.”
Emily Cataneo is a writer and journalist based in Raleigh. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Boston Globe, The Baffler, Slate, NPR, Atlas Obscura, and more. She's also the co-founder of the Redbud Writing Project.