Residents feel a squeeze over mobile home costs

Roberto Sanchez doesn’t know how long he will be able to stay at the North Lamar Community Mobile Home Park, where he has lived for the past 14 years with his wife and three kids.

The 69 mobile homes in the park face higher costs since new owners bought the place in January. Sanchez, who is president of the recently formed Asociación de los Residentes de North Lamar, said his rent went up from $390 to $450 a month, and he said he’s now having to pay about $140 a month for water and drainage costs that used to be covered in his rent.

He and his family “lived comfortably and happily” until the park off North Lamar Boulevard and U.S. 183 changed hands, Sanchez said in an interview conducted in Spanish. But if the costs keep going up, he worries they might not be able to afford to stay.

When other residents received notices to vacate after refusing to pay the extra money, the residents turned to District 4 City Council Member Greg Casar, who helped them organize a neighborhood group and find legal assistance. And last week, with the help of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, the residents filed a lawsuit against park owner RV Horizons, which brought about a 14-day agreement with the owners to hold off on any evictions.

That action came not long after Casar joined residents at another mobile home park in Northeast Austin, Stonegate Austin, in confronting park management about a tenant who had been without electricity for weeks, KUT reported. Residents told KUT that the manager threatens to evict them or calls the police when faced with a request to fix something. (The manager refused to comment.)

The day after that gathering, the radio station reported, power was restored to that tenant.

While Casar’s involvement in these disputes magnifies the voices of the residents, it is their work that is getting results, he said.

“This is the beginning of those communities standing up for themselves and standing together,” said Casar, who was a community organizer with Workers Defense Project before joining the City Council in January. “I think that as long as they hang together they can achieve the best results themselves.”

Mobile home parks provide some of the most affordably priced housing in a city where affordable housing is hard to find. But the supply of mobile homes in Austin dropped 18 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to a 2013 affordable housing study commissioned by the city, bringing a “likely … reduction in the number of lower-priced units in the City.”

The costs are lower, in part, because residents typically own the mobile homes and pay rent only for the land. But the cost of moving those homes, typically several thousand dollars, can also make it harder to pick up and leave. And in the case of many of the older homes at the North Lamar park, Sanchez said, residents fear the units are too fragile to move without falling apart.

While many Austinites are feeling the pinch of rising rental costs, Casar said the issues in these mobile home parks are special because out-of-state owners are squeezing residents for more money.

Frank Rolfe, one of the partners at RV Horizons, which bought the North Lamar park, disputes that characterization. Rolfe, who lives in Missouri and owns more than 100 mobile home parks in 17 states with Colorado investor Dave Reynolds, said they had to raise the rents to keep up with the market value. He also said they had invested in the park by cleaning it up: Abandoned appliances, car seats and other castoff items were hauled away.

Rolfe noted that other investors could have forced the residents to move out to clear the way for more lucrative development.

“If the rent isn’t raised, the park will cease to exist,” Rolfe said.

He added that residents can move anytime if they want to find something less expensive.

Rolfe teaches Mobile Home University classes around the country showing people how to get rich buying and running mobile home parks. Part of that strategy involves inching up the rent and charging tenants for the water, according to a 2014 New York Times Magazine article (working residents “can always pick up extra hours” at their jobs to cover the rising costs, the article quoted Rolfe as saying).

Even so, the tenants in other parks owned by Rolfe and Reynolds told the Times they were happy with their landlords, describing how potholes were repaired, drainage problems were fixed and junk debris was removed.

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