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By Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado | Source |

FRESNO, Calif. — Laid alongside Fresno’s premier retail centers, the rows of homes at the Trails End Mobile Home Park have been a low-cost refuge for many.

The cook who moved in four months ago was renting an expensive two-bedroom apartment in the city by himself. He hoped moving to the park would help him save money. It did, but he felt the cost of that decision in other ways. Now, he doesn’t have hot water or air conditioning at the mobile home he rents with a roommate. He says he can’t stand being inside when temperatures creep up to the 90s, as they did earlier this month. But he works two jobs, so he’s never really home anyway.

The retired woman, whose home is near the park’s entrance, is known for the many music machines that adorn her porch. The wind chimes and jukebox remind her of her parents. A self-described “hippie,” she says she wants to keep them all up. Now, they must come down, according to the crews hired to clean up the park.

And Aurelia Franquez, who grew up at the park, is 18 now. She attends college and helps with her mom’s pancake business. She’s always wondered what it would have been like to grow up in a house, one permanently affixed to a foundation.

While Franquez would like to eventually leave the park, “I do want to stay,” she said. “I’d rather stay here with my neighbors. They’re not even my neighbors, they’re my family. [I want to] stay with them, and experience what else is going to happen here.”

In Fresno, where rents have risen up to 20 percent since last year, residents have opted for affordability over luxury. For some, that has meant leasing the available spaces at mobile home parks – where rents are typically more affordable than single-family homes or apartments. People who rent at mobile home parks pay rent on the space where the mobile home stands; in other cases, a renter can pay rent on the mobile home in addition to the space below it if the home is sublet from an owner. Utilities are paid separately.

More than 20 million people in the United States live in mobile homes. While they are attractive, affordable options for renters, investors have also taken notice of the high occupancy — and profitability — of these parks. Mobile homes are seldom vacant due to their low costs, according to housing experts. And although rents have not risen like they have for standard housing, they have trended upward in recent years, according to Marcus & Millichap, a California-based commercial real estate company.

But with investors scoping out opportunities to purchase mobile home parks, mobile home residents across the country are worried that this affordable housing option will no longer be affordable. Some parks have resisted corporate ownership, citing concerns over rent increases and new ownership rules that may cut into the sense of community the parks’ tenants have built. After mobile home parks are purchased by new owners, improvements can be made in addition to new rules that are put in place, including the increase of rents at some parks.

The residents at Trails End have decided to organize an effort to purchase the park themselves in the form of a cooperative. If they are successful, it would be an unusual housing model for the Fresno area – and a still-growing housing model in California.

At least 290 mobile home parks are tenant-owned across the country through the cooperative model created by ROC USA, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit focusing on tenant ownership of mobile home parks that was born out of a housing cooperative effort in New Hampshire in the 1980s. Altogether, at least 1,000 communities, including ROC members and communities unaffiliated with the nonprofit, have formed a variation of tenant ownership models.

In the last eight years, ROC USA has added to the number of communities choosing cooperatives. The organization works in 20 states, according to spokesman Michael Bullard. He said the main distinction of a resident-owned community is rent stabilization and housing stability because residents, through a cooperative, own the land they live on.

Mariah Thompson, a housing attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance based in Fresno, represents the tenant group pushing for resident ownership at Trails End. She said the residents are working on securing financial support needed in order to put together a proposal.

The tenants’ idea came after a number of issues at the park left them wondering who was in charge. Later, residents learned Harmony Communities, a Stockton-based mobile home operating company, offered to pay $1.7 million to buy the park. A Fresno judge will review final offers in May.

For now, the residents at Trails End are working on their proposal. They hope to submit it May 2, days before the deadline.

Trouble at Trails End

The sale of Trails End will signal a new direction in the long saga of struggle for residents at the troubled park.

Last year, hazards at the park caused two fires that killed one man and destroyed five homes. Uncollected trash filled the park, and roads flowing through the park needed pavement. The California Department of Housing and Community Development, the agency that enforces state regulations for mobile home parks in the state, had revoked the park’s permit prior to the fires.

The fires prompted Fresno city officials to seek state permission to inspect and conduct code enforcement sweeps at Trails End, and by extension, to other parks throughout the city. Trails End now has newly paved roads and trash has been collected. But electrical issues remain, tenants said.

“These people deserve better,” said Valentin Paez, the 30-year-old cook who moved in recently. “They’ve got family, they’ve got kids, they’ve got old persons living with them.”

A 2020 report from the California’s State Auditor’s office found long gaps and delays in mobile home park inspections between 2010 and 2019, which likely increased the risk that health and safety violations “remain undetected and unreported.” The report stated inspectors have not “adequately communicated with residents during park inspections and with individuals who submit complaints.”

City officials in Fresno held a series of meetings with residents at the park following the fires. At these meetings, residents protested the conditions, as well as the potential that the park would be sold to Harmony Communities. Mark Adams, president of the California Receivership Group, a firm appointed as custodian of properties in violation of health standards, was asked by a judge to oversee the cleanup of the park until it could be brought up to code. He later learned the owners of Trails End were choosing to sell the property. Through a lawyer, the owners of the park declined to speak with the NewsHour.

Harmony Communities, which owns 33 mobile home properties in Oregon and California, soon submitted their offer – including putting up $300,000 to clean the park while a judge decided on the case.

Adams, whose company was appointed to clean up the park, accepted Harmony’s offer to conduct the cleaning. He said the problems were evident and in need of fixing. And since the company was interested in purchasing the park, “it made sense” to allow them to conduct the cleanup, he said.

Adams also said he discovered some mobile homes had no hot water, and some residents washed dishes in the tub. Electrical wiring was exposed at some homes, and residents complained of a resident who sold drugs. Cleaning crews collected 20 large bins of trash. At one point, Adams requested an armed security guard to stand outside a mobile home where people regularly lit a bonfire. He said open fires in mobile home parks are not allowed.

“It was a hellhole that needed to be taken over,” Adams said.

The price of Trails End

Rumors swirled that the city wanted to purchase the park, and Thompson, who represents the tenants, said she is negotiating with the city on a potential proposal that residents could back. She said while the possibility of the park becoming tenant-owned is explored, residents will decide whether or not to go through with it.

The controversy over Trails End comes as housing advocates in Fresno have pushed the city to develop stronger policies to protect tenants from the rising costs of housing. Fresno has long faced calls in the past from residents to push absent landlords to fix problems with homes and apartments in the city. Mobile home owners in Fresno are protected by a city rent control policy that allows for residents to have a say in rent negotiations, should an owner want to raise prices.

But while hazard and ownership concerns at mobile homes locally had not risen to the level they did at Trails End, Thompson said the purchasing of mobile home parks by large investors happens across the state and country, and residents in other places are placed under the stress of new sudden ownership plans if there are no regulations in place.

“It doesn’t matter how nice the park is and how clean it is and how safe it is if nobody can live there because it’s too expensive,” Thompson said.

It’s unclear what most tenants pay to lease the spaces at Trails End. Adams, the receiver, said he wasn’t provided those records, but he has learned there are a few owners of mobile homes who sublease their trailers to others. Among the renters who shared their monthly payments with the NewsHour, the cost ranged from $700 to $900.

“As cooperative as the current owners have been, they really didn’t run this park very well and don’t even have that kind of basic information, which is troubling in itself,” Adams said.

For now, rent isn’t being collected until health and safety violations are corrected and the park regains its permit to operate. Adams said while Harmony Communities has spent money already cleaning up the park, and has made an offer, he will still await for other offers, either by residents or the city. But he expressed caution about the idea of a resident-owned community. He said throwing residents into management or ownership positions may not help if they don’t have the experience keeping up with the tasks. He added that he isn’t convinced a majority of residents would choose self ownership.

Thompson said there is technical assistance offered for this type of housing should residents ultimately get ownership of the park. She said the potential value of Trails End may be low enough to allow for the purchase to come from the tenant group, and the funding can come together quickly through forgivable loans offered by a community development financial institution.

The process would include bringing in professionals such as engineers and accountants to evaluate the conditions at the park and decide how much it’s worth – and that would determine the price of rents. Thompson said residents’ main concerns is how much they will have to pay.

“If mobile home owners cannot afford the rent, they will go to great lengths to find the money,” even if it meant cutting down expenses for other necessities like clothes and food, she said. “They bought that home, they invested in that home. They’ve put a lot of money and love and time into that home and that community, and they don’t want to leave it.”

For tenants, Trails End is still their future

A recent flurry of local media attention, sudden visits by politicians and an influx of cleaning crews to Trails End alarmed residents, who up until then had been facing the trouble at the park in silence. But the attention has prompted the group of residents to push for ownership of the park. They say their future is still at Trails End.

One afternoon, a resident, Daisy, pushed her toddler on a Radio Flyer tricycle through the park’s driveways, calling out to residents.

“Community meeting! Community meeting!”

Two years ago, Daisy – whose name has been changed in this story to protect her identity – fled an abusive relationship. At first, the park was her hideout. Then it became home. She says that all of the bad things that plagued the park when she arrived didn’t compare to the fear that her ex-spouse would find her. Trails End “has honestly been like the safest place that I’ve felt,” she says.

She considers herself an introvert, but everything that has happened at the park has turned her into an unofficial park leader. Before COVID-19 upended life, she worked at a pain management clinic. After a layoff brought on by the pandemic, Daisy was among the millions in line to receive unemployment assistance. She later got a job at a local gym, but when an electrical fire broke out at her home, she was out of service for two months. The stress of trying to reach someone from the utility company for two months made it difficult for her to focus on her job.

Now, she helps pull together about two dozen residents for nightly gatherings where the park’s sale and upcoming hearings are discussed. A large number of residents at the park have been vocal with city officials and have spoken publicly about the court process.

Her stepfather, Pedro Moreno, also helps by setting out chairs and tables. Together, the two are shy, but helpful, tenants of the park. And they say they owe much of what they have to the stability that living at the property has brought.

For all that life has thrown at her in recent years – domestic violence, job loss and daily stress at the park – Daisy would much rather stay inside her home and hide from the world with her 2-year-old. But she said she plans to keep pushing for residents to be heard.

At the community meeting, her stepfather, Moreno, stands apart from the group as he finishes a cigarette. After he emigrated from Nayarit, Mexico, as a teen and worked for a number of years in Southern California, Moreno moved up to Fresno where he purchased his mobile home about a decade ago, from a man who allowed him to make payments on it until it was fully paid. He has tried to track down those records ever since the park started getting more attention.

Moreno, a farmworker, is hoping he and his family can keep the mobile home where his wife has grown a big bush of gardenias and different-colored roses at the front entrance. The flowers, plus a guava and lemon tree, release rich smells during their blooms.

Moreno also wants to make sure his son – who has the same dark brown skin as his dad with big curls on his hair – doesn’t get too stressed about the situation that it starts affecting his grades in school. He wishes that his son, when he’s older, doesn’t have to struggle to find a home he likes. Until then, Moreno has decided to stick with the group of residents pushing to find a solution for the park. He expects residents to stay together as the park’s future is decided.

As the group of residents start departing after a community meeting, a woman passes by Moreno and shouts, “¡Nos vemos licenciado!” Moreno says that’s what people at the park like to call him – “licenciado.” Technically, it’s a term to describe an educated person with a college degree. For Moreno, who never went far in school back in Mexico, it’s an endearing way of saying he is upstanding and trustworthy, a leader because of the way he tries to stay on top of things at the park, like his stepdaughter.

“If somebody needs help we’re here, we are helping as much as we can,” Daisy says.

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