Housing advocates protest ‘boot camp’ to maximize trailer park profits

Inside Austin’s Westin Hotel on Friday, two mobile home investors gathered more than 100 potential park owners for a crash course in how to maximize profits owning trailer parks.

Downstairs, protesters flooded the Westin lobby with chants and signs, then gathered on the sidewalk for a graduation ceremony mocking the course — complete with a megaphone speech from “Dr. Profit.”

It was the latest showdown in the tension over Austin mobile home parks, where displacement of low-income residents and vanishing space has narrowed options for those who own a mobile home but must rent a site for it.

City Council Member Greg Casar and local advocacy groups helped residents of the North Lamar Community Mobile Home Park sue in 2015 after new owners spiked rents and served eviction notices to those who didn’t pay. A settlement later moderated the rent increases.

BACKGROUND: Residents feel a squeeze over mobile home costs

The new owners of the park are Frank Rolfe and Dave Reynolds of RV Horizons, the same men whose Friday Mobile Home University “boot camp” at the Westin promised to teach investors “the correct way” to finance and operate mobile home parks.

“They are teaching unethical business practices, and that is what we’re here to stand up against,” protesters shouted.

Mobile Home University’s website touts mobile homes as “the hottest sector of real estate right now, due to the endless decline in the U.S. economy.” It says the $2,000 course will teach others how to profit by raising rents on people who, in many cases, are helpless to go elsewhere.

“With over 20% of American households now making $20,000 per year or less and another 10,000 baby boomers per day retiring into social security incomes that average $14,400 per year, the demand for affordable housing is giant,” the site reads. “The fact that tenants can’t afford the $5,000 it takes to move a mobile home … makes it easy to raise rent without losing any occupancy.”

“If you have a 100 space mobile home park and raise the rent $50 per month, the increase in net cash flow is $60,000 per year.”

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Controversy over that message is nothing new for Rolfe, who once told reporters that a mobile home park is “like a Waffle House where the customers are chained to their booths.” He later said the quote was meant only to describe the consistent revenues of a business where people are unlikely to leave.

Rolfe and Reynolds are the fifth-largest owners of mobile home parks in the country, with some 250 parks in 25 states, according to their website. Their site offers to co-invest with students who find great deals.

Jeff and Debbie Kiel joined the Austin protest from Urbana, Ill., where they live in the Woods Edge mobile home park. They said new fees of about $75 per month hit hard after RV Horizons bought the property.

“They started raising our rent and utilities immediately,” Jeff Kiel said. “To us, it was a terrible inconvenience, but to our neighbors who were living week-to-week on their Social Security and pensions, it had a huge effect on them.”

Casar said he was concerned about the company’s business model, and he said he supported his mobile home park constituents in asking for a meeting with company representatives to discuss concerns.

RELATED: Austin mobile home owners face vanishing space

Rolfe told attendees at his event Friday that he had tried to meet with the North Lamar residents two years ago. He accused the protesters of seeking only to drum up membership dues and donations for the advocacy group MCAction.

“They’re just like locusts,” he told the attendees, in opening remarks overheard by an American-Statesman reporter. “There’s nothing you can do, there’s nothing you can say because they just want to protest to put it on their website to show they’re doing something. It’s like the North Korean missile program. You just saw the North Korean missile program here in Austin. So, I apologize. There’s nothing I can do.”

He added that he didn’t believe any of the protesters were from the North Lamar park, but instead were “radical groups” brought in by activists. He called the goal of stopping rent increases impossible.

Shoshana Krieger, a project director at tenants’ rights nonprofit BASTA, said about a dozen people from the park attended the protest — a number she called impressive since most people there work weekdays — and denied Rolfe had ever tried to meet with residents.

Residents have been trying since March, she said, to get a meeting, not necessarily with Rolfe and Reynolds themselves, but with anyone from the company to discuss concerns about maintenance and costs.

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