Mobile-home owners find cooperatives the way to roll
For years, Henry Benedict and his neighbors battled the owner of the Swanton mobile-home park where they live. They fought over rent increases. They fought over water and sewage fees. They fought over maintenance issues.
Then, one day last May, Benedict and the 26 other families who live in the Homestead Acres mobile-home park received letters in the mail saying the owner was putting the 50-acre property up for sale. So they did something crazy: They formed a co-op and bought the place themselves.
“Everything happened real fast for us,” says Benedict, who works for the town of Highgate’s recreation department. “There was no time to think about it.”
When the newly named Homestead Acres Cooperative closed on the property in December, it joined the leading edge of a national movement to empower mobile-home residents by helping them buy the properties on which they live. Last month, a mobile-home park in Milton joined Homestead Acres and a park in Windsor  to become the third cooperatively owned park established in Vermont in recent years.
The emerging trend is a significant development for the nearly 7000 Vermont families who live in mobile-home parks. While 80 percent of them own their dwellings, 70 percent live in for-profit parks where they have little leverage over the rent they pay for their lots. Despite the name, mobile-homes aren’t all that cheap or easy to move, so when rent goes up or the park changes hands, residents are left hoping for the best.
“We’re kind of stuck here,” says Benedict, sitting on a recliner in the living room of the 14-by-80-foot home he purchased a decade ago. “If you live in a trailer, you can’t just pick up and move.”
Cindy Shambo, a neighbor of Benedict’s and a cashier at the St. Albans Hannaford, sits on a couch across the room and pushes one of Benedict’s two cats off her shoulder.
“We are stuck here,” she agrees. “But now we’re making it better, so we don’t mind being stuck here.”
The way Benedict tells it, the story of Homestead Acres is that of a bunch of disconnected neighbors who fought their landlord as individuals for years without much success. Only when they banded together and formed a community association did they realize they had the power to demand fair treatment.
“One on one, [the property owner] always seemed to win. When we formed an organization, it looked like we were winning a little more,” Benedict says.
Dan Shedrick, a neighbor who works at the St. Albans Rent-A-Center, says, “Bottom line, we became a pain in [the property owner’s] rear. He just didn’t want to deal with it. When he realized he had 26 people to deal with instead of one or two at a time, he decided he got in over his head and decided to sell the park.”
John Wilking, who co-owned the park and whose company, Neville Companies, managed it, disagrees with his former tenants on most counts. He says he treated them fairly, followed the letter of the law and did not raise rent excessively. But he does agree that the arrangement just wasn’t working out.
“Mobile-home park residents are about the most difficult residential tenants you can possibly have. Everyone has a story, and people don’t want to pay rent on time. I’ve been dealing with those stories for 12 or 15 years, and I was a little fed up with them,” says Wilking, who still owns three other parks in Vermont. “It was a good investment, but it was time to go. We had been really good Boy Scouts but had got nothing but pain in return. So it was time to go.”
Thanks to strong tenant-protection laws in Vermont, once the residents of Homestead Acres learned of Wilking’s intention to sell, they had 45 days to decide whether they wanted to seek out a nonprofit buyer — or to purchase the place themselves. Working with the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity’s Mobile-home Project, they learned about the co-op model and decided to pursue it.
As Shedrick recalls, “At first there were some people who stood back and kind of questioned the motive and questioned the whole security thing, making sure we weren’t going to be belly flopping and blowing a whole lot of money.”
But, working with CVOEO, the residents were able to draw on the expertise — and, more importantly, the capital — provided by a pair of out-of-state organizations working to replicate the success of a New Hampshire program that has converted 100 mobile-home parks into co-ops since 1984.
Sarah Woodward, of CVOEO’s Mobile-home Project, explains that for years options were limited for residents whose parks went on the market. Typically, her office would help find a nonprofit housing organization willing to buy the park in question, but in recent years, those organizations have been pulling back from mobile-home parks.
In September 2010, when the Bunker Hill Mobile-home Park in Windsor was faced with closure, CVOEO decided to explore the possibility of importing the co-op model to Vermont. It sought assistance from the Massachusetts-based Cooperative Development Institute, which provides technical assistance; and from the New Hampshire-based ROC USA, which supplies low-interest loans.
“We knew that we could manage ourselves better than an outsider,” says David Furman, a Bunker Hill resident who helped lead the effort to purchase the community. “We’re here; we know what needs to be done; we see things.”
When Bunker Hill closed the deal in June 2011, becoming Bunker Hill Community Cooperative, it became the first mobile-home co-op in Vermont in 18 years — and it would be a model for Homestead Acres in Swanton.
Advocates of the co-op model say the benefits are myriad.
“First and foremost is, it’s a pretty much instantaneous form of achieving some form of rent control,” says Jeremiah Ward of the Cooperative Development Institute, who worked with both the Bunker Hill and Homestead Acres communities. “When residents own their own parks, if they’re going to raise their rents on themselves, it’s for something that’s correlated with an actual increase in quality of life.”
Typically, every family living in the community can choose to buy a membership for a onetime fee of anywhere from $100 to $500. This allows them a vote on the cooperative’s board and a say in rent, maintenance decisions and community rules.
“It’s very empowering, because people who may have never met each other before are working alongside one another, becoming new friends, getting the opportunity to raise their voice and use their skills. It’s an amazing thing to see,” Ward says.
After signaling their intention to buy Homestead Acres, Benedict, Shambo and Shedrick had 90 days to convince a majority of their neighbors to join the co-op and make an offer.
“We got them just in the nick of time to stop the sale,” Benedict says.
After securing financing from ROC USA, the community purchased Homestead Acres for $780,000 and closed the deal on December 1. It borrowed an additional $25,000 as a cushion for immediate maintenance needs and other expenses. And, while rent has increased from $375 a month to $385, residents say they’re fine with that — because they made the decision themselves, and they believe they’ll be able to lower that figure in the future.
“It’s not going to go up. It’s only going to go down,” Shedrick says.
The experience has brought the community together. Residents are hoping to hold regular barbecues and lawn sales this summer. And they’re already talking about trying to build a safe place for kids to play in the park — once they take care of more immediate needs, such as repaving the roads.
“Now people are getting together more often, talking more,” Benedict says. “People are getting to know each other.”
When we leave Benedict’s trailer and walk from one end of the park to the other, he points out a sewage system the community has been working to improve and a pump house that needed new pipes and chlorinators. He talks about the community’s efforts to fill a couple of vacant lots and the possibility of eventually building new lots.
It’s not easy running the park on their own, Benedict says, but it’s worth it.
“We were always living on pins and needles before,” Benedict adds. “It’s like a sigh of relief, because you don’t have to worry about a letter coming in the mail saying you’re being evicted.”