Four hundred and thirty mobile home owners in Halifax, Massachusetts, have made history.

For $27 million, these residents bought the land beneath their homes. It is the largest purchase of its kind ever in the country.

“I almost didn't think I'd live long enough to see it,” says Myrna Yunits, who has lived at the Halifax Mobile Home Estates – about an hour south of Boston – since 1980.

As Yunits and her community have freed themselves of an outside landlord, they’ve ushered in a new sense of security — and also a lot of work.

At the community center, the residents are eating a cake in celebration. The frosting reads: “We Own It!” Out the window are streets and streets of manufactured homes, pastel vinyl between tall pines, all of which residents here now own.

Before today, they were like most mobile home parks; they had the worst of both worlds: buy the home and rent the land.

A mobile home can cost tens of thousands, if not a few hundred thousand, dollars. But, residents still pay hundreds in rent each month.

Despite being called "mobile homes," these houses are very hard and expensive to move. Increases in land values go mostly to the landlord, not the homeowner. Plus, the residents are at the whim of whoever owns the land.

“When you had a complaint. It was so sad, too bad,” says Barbara Davis.

On Fridays, residents of Colonial Estates in Taunton gather around their new fire pit.
Gabrielle Emanuel WGBH

Davis lives at Colonial Estates, a 55 and older manufactured home community in Taunton. Soon after Davis moved here, a big corporation bought the park and, she says, the company wasn't taking proper care of the property.

A year ago, when the land went up for sale for $11 million, residents tried to buy it as a cooperative. Massachusetts is one of just five states that, by law, ensures residents have first dibs to team up to buy the land.

“I fought it, like crazy,” Davis says. She admits she didn’t think the residents should collectively purchase the property.

“Honestly, I didn’t think that we had the capabilities within the park to be able to run it,” she says.

However, a majority of the residents voted in favor of the purchase.

Now, Davis is a cheerleader for the other side.

“How wrong I was. This is the best thing that ever could have happened,” she says.

Colonial Estates homeowners formed a low equity co-op, where residents bought in at $1,000. The rest of the purchase was financed by a loan to their association and didn’t require personal liability.

This model started in the 1980s in New Hampshire but has taken off, especially in New England. Since 2009, seven percent of Massachusetts’ manufactured home communities have become resident-owned. 

They function like a mini-democracy. One house, one vote. Collective responsibility.

Davis says everyone does what they can. She mows the lawn. “This week, I mowed Wednesday for four hours and, yesterday, I mowed for three hours,” she says.

Davis swears there’s a totally new sense of community since the purchase: residents volunteered to buy new benches, and neighbors are getting to know one another. There's a bocce team, bingo on Mondays, cards a few nights a week, and a bonfire every Friday — to name just a few of the community events.

However, democracy can be messy.

“You have 147 households now. So, you have 147 different personalities,” says Michael Scarlett, who is on the board at Colonial Estates.

He says despite seeing a lot of benefits from the purchase, rents did go up from $500 to $580 per month. He says that’s hard on many residents, especially seniors on a fixed income.

And, he says, many communities struggle with setting expectations correctly.

“When you buy the community, the first thing people feel is: We own the community now, things will get done. They don’t realize that it doesn’t work that way,” says Scarlett.

Colonial Estates needs to update their power lines, redo some roads, repair the communal tool sheds. Scarlett has had to explain to everyone: “It's going to have to be figured into the budget, which is going to definitely increase the rent, because we're just by the skin of our teeth now.”

Scarlett says it helps that there's no profit motive. And it also helps they're not alone. There’s a management community that helps with day-to-day operations. And there’s Resident Owned Communities USA.

ROC USA is a nation-wide nonprofit that helps manufactured home communities figure out their financing and set up their governance structure.

“In the beginning, it was really messy. I actually I had no idea what a board of directors even was,” says Jeanee Wright.

Wright lives in a resident-owned community and, for the past five years, she's worked with an affiliate of the ROC USA network – called Cooperative Development Institute - teaching other manufactured home communities. All the resident-owned communities get one-on-one coaching for a decade and free leadership trainings forever.

“The sense of empowerment of people goes far beyond basic daily problems,” says Wright.

Having grown up in a manufactured home park, Wright says the communities are often stigmatized. She was called a ‘Tin Can Kid’ in school. And she knows her family worried about rent increase. 

“I remember my parents not feeling very secure,” says Wright. She adds that when a community becomes resident-owned, “people who have never had the opportunity to have a say in almost anything they did in life, have that opportunity. It's a hugely empowering process.”

ROC USA has helped more than 200 communities nationwide become co-ops. “And not one co-op that we’ve assisted with their purchase and afterward has ever failed – has ever resold their property, ever closed down, ever gone bankrupt or filed for bankruptcy or lost it due to a foreclosure. Not one,” says Paul Bradley, president of ROC USA.

The community in Halifax is ROC USA's biggest test yet.

"It's kind of scary. We're taking on a lot,” admits Myrna Yunits. “But we can do it."

Yunits says for the 430 families at Halifax Mobile Home Estates, having a sense of security and control of their own fate is worth the work and the rent increase.