This is the second story in a two-part series about mobile homes in Massachusetts. Read the first part here.
Michael Baptiste Sr. still works a couple of days a week for a gas company. The 72-year-old has been easing into retirement with the security of knowing he owns his own home in a mobile home community in West Wareham. But when the longtime owner told residents he’d put the park up for sale, Baptiste feared a new owner would raise rents well beyond his means.
Baptiste is now fighting to make sure homes in his community stay affordable. Like most mobile home owners, he and his neighbors at Greentree Estates own their homes, but pay rent on the land under them.
“We’re on a fixed incomes,” Baptiste said. “It’s hard to survive out there. Retirement isn’t a bed of roses for everybody.”
Mobile homes, also known as manufactured homes, are a critical source of affordable housing for some 35,000 people across Massachusetts and 22 million people nationwide. At a time when the federal government would like to see more people access this kind of housing, critics say an already-limited supply is under threat from investors more interested in turning a profit than housing low-income people.
Investment in mobile home parks reached a record $4.5 billion high last year nationally, according to the commercial real estate firm JLL. Mobile home parks hit a sweet spot for investors because they provide steady rents and have relatively few ongoing expenses. Since there’s little to no new supply of mobile home parks, bidding has grown intense in Massachusetts and across the country.
That’s where the idea of collective ownership comes in. Residents like Baptiste and his neighbors at Greentree Estates are banding together in a bid to buy the land themselves. Massachusetts is one of a handful of states where residents have to be given the chance to match any offer from an outside buyer. But, with with deep-pocketed investors pushing prices up, it’s getting harder for resident groups to compete.
High bids, higher rents
“[Investors are] bidding up prices to such a point that they’re having to charge excessive rents in order to make the returns that they projected,” said Paul Bradley, founding president of ROC USA, a nonprofit dedicated to helping residents purchase their mobile home communities.
Bradley and others say those rents force lower-income residents out.
One way to keep rents affordable is to turn mobile home parks into resident-owned communities, a movement spearheaded by Bradley. He’s taking issue with the typical model where people own the mobile home but rent the land underneath it.
“We’ve come to recognize just how risky that is,” Bradley said.
GBH News examined state and mobile home industry records and determined major out of state investors own at least two dozen communities in Massachusetts out of 250.
Baptiste said he and his fellow residents “started a movement” he hopes will result in them collectively owning the park.
”People should control their own destiny,” Baptiste said.
Mythbusting: Mobile homes aren’t so mobile
Despite their names, mobile homes are no longer easily moved, so if rent becomes unaffordable, residents often have to sell their homes. Massachusetts state law over such parks dictates that all residents must receive the same rent increase, but doesn’t have rules about how much those increases can be.
“Folks who live in manufactured housing are especially vulnerable to displacement via eviction, via unreasonable imposition of new rules, or new fees or rent hikes,” said Zachary Lamb, assistant professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley.
Bradley and others say that, after investors take over, they’ve seen rents jump by as much as 70%. But Leslie Gooch, CEO of the Manufactured Housing Institute, an industry trade organization, said that the average rent increase across all mobile home sites in 2021 was much lower — roughly 4.2%.
“As with other forms of housing, it is easy to come up with isolated incidences of outsized rent increases or questionable practices,” Gooch said.
Those who work closely with communities here in Massachusetts and around the country say the incidents aren’t isolated.
“So we see these large companies come in. They keep operative costs really low by deferring maintenance often, and you know, just notching the rent up and up,” said Nora Gosselin of the Northampton-based Cooperative Development Institute, which helps residents navigate the process of buying a mobile home park.
Getting “Priced Out” of mobile homes
Massachusetts' 250 mobile home communities are relatively few compared to other states. Still, as intense competition among investors has driven up sale prices, residents are increasingly getting “priced out,” Gosselin said.
Professional investors have another leg up on resident groups: easier access to low-interest, government-backed loans to buy mobile parks. Mobile homes are not categorized as real estate like other homes, which makes such homeowners ineligible for affordable housing grants and tax credits.
Deborah Winiewicz, a resident in Halifax Estates in Halifax and an advocate for mobile home communities across New England, thinks government agencies like Fannie Mae that help lend money to big investors for their mobile park purchases should be helping residents.
Five years ago, she joined the fight in her community to successfully fend off an outside buyer with the help of financing from ROC USA. Just 45 minutes from Boston, it’s now the largest resident-owned mobile home community in the country with 430 homes.
“Where we are today is 154 acres of prime dry land,” Winiewicz said. “That’s a developer’s dream. But we get to say, ‘You can’t have it because we own it.’”
While Halifax Estates is the exception, not the rule, there may be signs of change in Massachusetts.
Dancing in the streets
Several months ago, Royal Crest, a community of about 200 residents in Wareham, was able to match a $12 million offer from Legacy Communities, an Arizona company that owns three other nearby mobile home communities. The residents’ cooperative obtained loans from ROC’s financing arm, and — in a first for a manufactured home community — also received $1.9 million grant from the state’s Affordable Housing Trust.
Gosselin said Royal Crest’s residents were relentless, calling up state representatives, state agencies and even trying to tap federal lawmakers.
“‘We need to find other avenues, like, we need to shake all the trees,’” Gosselin said, describing the massive effort. “Not only were they going through a commercial real estate transaction — which is extremely intense — and a community organizing effort of their neighbors — which is extremely intense — they were sort of driving a policy campaign to find state money.”
That funding also enabled the community to set aside money for needed repairs, an advantage investor ownership can bring when upgrades are needed for things like water, sewer and roadways.
Kerry McKusick moved to Royal Crest 17 years ago following a divorce, and she now enjoys her mobile home’s spacious living room, sun-dappled guest bedroom and screened-in porch. She touts how the insulation holds up to New England weather.
“There are a lot of people who can’t afford $600,000 homes and up,” McKusick said. “And you can pretty much live comfortably [here] on a low income.”
She said when resident ownership became a reality, everyone felt like “dancing in the streets” because it relieved a lot of anxiety about the park’s price getting out of reach.
“We don’t have the fear of being kicked out if they decided to go so high [with rent] that we got behind,” McKusick said.
And drawn together by a common goal and making decisions together, residents described an unexpected benefit of becoming resident-owned: becoming more tightly knit as a community.
At Greentree Estates, where residents are now preparing their purchase offer, Baptiste said his community “got together like we’re a family.”
When it comes to affordable housing, people of modest means rarely have the opportunity to decide how they want to live together and what their community should look like, said UC Berkeley’s Lamb.
“It is truly transformative for folks to come to see themselves as collective owners,” said Lamb, “and having that power to shape their own futures.”
You can share your Priced Out story or ask a question you’d like answered by filling out this Google form. Find more from the series at Priced Out: The fight for housing in Massachusetts.