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For millions of Americans, mobile homes provide an affordable form of residential ownership. But now a combination of threatening forces has placed many of them in highly precarious positions.
About 7% of American households are mobile homes – or manufactured homes, as they are more accurately called – and many of them exist together in “parks" where their owners rent the land. So they are homeowners and renters at the same time, an unusual category, and that's where much of the problem lies.
Like renters, owners of manufactured homes may be required to move off rented land at any time. But unlike renters who are being evicted, an owner of a manufactured home facing eviction must either sell the home or move it to another site.
The problem is that, despite their names, mobile homes really are not actually very mobile. The costs of moving a mobile home typically fall in the $5,000 to $10,000 range, according to the National Consumer Law Center.
If the owner cannot afford to move it, the only good option may be to sell it. But during the coronavirus pandemic, at least, the market for manufactured homes in many parts of the country has dried up. If owners cannot find buyers, they have little recourse but to sell at fire-sale rates or just leave the home in the park. In many states, these homes are considered abandoned property after 30 days and the landlord can take over the titles and lease them to new tenants.
A huge problem facing manufactured-home owners is that “in many states they are excluded from the basic legal protections that cover tenants in rented houses or apartments, such as mandatory notice periods for rent increases and evictions," Sheela Kolhatkar wrote in a recent article in The New Yorker.
The vulnerability of residents in these communities may be part of the reason why large investment firms have been targeting mobile-home communities in the last 10 years or so, Kolhatkar wrote: “They see the parks as reliable sources of passive income – assets that generate steady returns and require little effort to maintain."
In any event, stories of rent gouging and abrupt evictions are common in manufactured-home parks all across the nation.
In Fresno County, California, for instance, the lawyer for an organization that is representing mobile-home residents in a lawsuit against a new owner said a rent hike imposed on them amounted to a 72% cost-of-living increase over a two-year span.
Residents of Paradise Park Mobile Home Park in Miami received a six-month eviction notice during the heart of the pandemic last November, days after the park was bought by developers intent on redeveloping it, probably as condos. The park's homeowners association has filed suit, claiming that the new owners are obliged to provide a proper compensation package.
In March, residents of 65 homes in the North Fork Mobile Home Park in Morehead, Kentucky, were told they had a month and a half to leave and take their homes with them — a city-subsidized development was coming, and the trailer park had to go.
Compounding the problem for many mobile-home occupants is the greater likelihood that they have been hit hard by pandemic-related job losses. The Urban Institute says that 35% of mobile-home owners worked in industries that lost the most job during the pandemic – more than any other housing category – and for many of them that meant failing to make mortgage payments as well as rental payments. So in addition to eviction, many mobile-home owners could be dealing with repossession.
The $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law in March, included $10 billion for a Homeowners Assistance Fund for the most vulnerable homeowners facing foreclosure. Some of that money is supposed to be for mobile-home residents, but details have not been announced.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a moratorium on evictions, including those involving mobile-home renters of land in mobile-home parks, through June 30. That order has been extended through July 31.
But as the New York Times reported on June 22, “Already, there are indications that evictions could rise when the moratorium and post-pandemic relief ends. A review of eviction filings in six states by Private Equity Stakeholder Project, a not-for-profit advocacy group, found five large mobile home park operators in a list of 150 corporate landlords that have been filing the most eviction actions since the federal moratorium went into effect in September."
Laws governing manufactured homes vary from state to state. Generally, though, if an owner is renting land in a park, that state's landlord-tenant laws do not apply. However, anti-discrimination laws under the federal Fair Housing Act do apply.
The difficulties being faced by manufactured-home park tenants in many parts of the country highlight the fact that these residents lack the same protections as home and apartment renters.
Recognizing this, some states have taken steps to help people in manufactured-home parks. Colorado, for instance, passed a bill in early June to do that.
U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa), meanwhile, has been leading efforts nationally to provide greater protections. In June, she introduced two bills aimed at protecting residents of manufactured-housing communities. Among other things, the bills would toughen the requirements on park owners to show good cause for evictions, and require grace periods for late payments and longer notice requirements for rent increases.
It would also provide grant money for residents cooperatives to buy and preserve their local manufactured-home parks. They are growing in number; by one estimate, there are at least 1,000 of them now, covering about 2% of the total.
For most residents, though, the challenge of avoiding eviction is probably more pressing. Perhaps the first step for people in this situation is to learn what the laws governing manufactured-housing residents and park owners in their states. Many attorneys general provide guidance in this area. Minnesota and Massachusetts are two examples.
It's also important for manufactured-home owners to keep in mind that they do have constitutional rights. These include freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from retaliation, and the right to equal protection under the law.
And finally, residents facing eviction or other problems in manufactured-housing communities might benefit from the guidance of an experienced lawyer in their locale.