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By Madi Bolaños  | Source |

After years of fighting rising rents, a group of mostly Oaxacan farmworkers in Fresno County have done the seemingly impossible: purchased their mobile home park from its corporate landlord.

The group officially closed escrow on the park Thursday.

Previously called Shady Lakes Mobile Home Park, it will now be known as Nuevo Lago Mobile Home Park. The park will be run by a board of directors, made up of residents. Each household will have a small ownership interest in the park, which will be operated as a limited equity housing co-op. They’ll be able to make decisions about how much rent to charge, park finances and operating rules.

“This is a dream,” said board member Juanita Pérez Sierra. “The people who live here are very humble and hardworking. So, to become the owners of the park where they live and to be able to take part in the decisions and the rules here, it’s something I haven’t fully wrapped my mind around yet.”

Amid California’s high priced housing market, mobile home parks offer an affordable refuge for residents, who are often low-income and at risk of homelessness. But that’s changed in recent years as corporations have begun buying mobile home parks across the country – and raising rents.

Taking control of their park wasn’t easy: It required five years of organizing on the part of residents, pro bono legal help and funding from both a national nonprofit and the state. But, residents at Nuevo Lago say it can be replicated.

Pérez Sierra was seven years old when her parents moved her and her five siblings from San Miguel Cuevas, Oaxaca, to Fresno County. They lived out of a van their first few weeks. Eventually Pérez Sierra’s parents, who worked in the fields, were able to purchase a home at Shady Lakes Mobile Home Park.

“We were so happy to finally have a place to live,” she said in Spanish. “That’s why I still have so much love for this place.”

The Pérez Sierra family was one of the first from San Miguel Cuevas to move to the park 30 years ago. Now, most of the families who live there – about 52 out of the 60 who occupy the park – are from the same Oaxacan village. Many of them also share familiar ties, with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins who have made the park home.

Situated outside of Fresno city limits, the park is surrounded by fallow fields and rows of grape vines. In the summertime, Pérez Sierra said the smell of grapes laying out to dry permeates the air.

When she was younger, Pérez Sierra said there used to be two lakes near the back of the park. Families would gather around them to fish and barbeque.

“It was beautiful,” she said. “We really felt like a community, not just neighbors living in the park.”

They were drawn to the park because of the low rent. In 2018, Pérez Sierra’s family paid $395. That same year, the average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in Fresno was $1,034. Pérez Sierra, 37, lives with her parents.

“I can’t afford to live on my own,” Pérez Sierra said. “My parents would likely have to move in with one of my siblings, and I’d have to rent a room somewhere else.”

In 2019, the Stockton-based investment company, Harmony Communities California, purchased the park from its previous owners and the management style quickly changed, Pérez Sierra recalled. The previous owners were friendly and approachable, she said, and generally didn’t get ask much of residents.

“[Harmony] started enforcing these new rules, but all of the paperwork was in English,” she said. Many of the residents who live at the park speak Spanish or Mixteco, an indigenous Oaxacan language.

Harmony Communities’ Matt Davies did not respond to questions regarding these allegations.

“We had no idea where we would go if we were evicted,” Santos said. “We lived in constant fear, thinking, ‘If they do kick us out, where will we go?’”

Several cities and counties across California have enacted rent control for mobile home parks, but Fresno County, where Nuevo Lago is located, has not.

So, the residents banded together to fight back and formed the Grupo Comunitario de San Miguel Cuevas. They reached out to California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) with their complaints. The organization helped residents sue Harmony.

According to the initial complaint filed in Fresno County Superior Court (PDF), residents alleged Harmony raised rents by 32%, maintained the park in “offensive, noxious, and unhealthy” conditions, retaliated against residents who voiced concerns, and failed to provide residents information in their languages.

Harmony, in court filings (PDF), described the eviction threats and illegal rent increases as “irrelevant” to the case. And ultimately, a judge agreed to strike them from the complaint.

As the lawsuit progressed, the nonprofit California Center for Cooperative Development (CCCD) approached the group and offered a solution: They could help the residents buy the land and form a limited equity housing co-op.

Harmony ultimately agreed to sell the property as part of a settlement with residents, who agreed to drop their lawsuit.

Davies said he was happy with this outcome and felt that it vindicated the company’s denial of what he characterized as false accusations against it.

The California Center for Cooperative Development is a part of ROC USA’s network, a national nonprofit. ROC USA’s mission is to provide financing and management support to residents who are interested in forming housing cooperatives with the goal of taking mobile home parks off the private investment market.

Under this model, each resident would have a small ownership interest in the park and could only sell the park to another cooperative or non-profit. This ensures the mobile home park remains affordable and allows low-income households autonomy over decisions at the park, according to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

“If you belong to a limited equity housing cooperative in California, you are agreeing when you come into the deal, you get a good price for the [park] and then you pass that on to the next person by limiting the appreciation on the [park] when you sell it.” said E. Kim Coontz, Executive Director of CCCD. “We’ve got this model that’s very, very successful and it preserves affordability. Why aren’t we doing more of this in California?”

Residents, however, were hesitant. They had never heard about this kind of co-op before, and there was a lot lost in translation between the Spanish- and Mixtec-speaking residents and English-speaking nonprofit workers.

“Our meetings resembled a United Nations meeting,” said Mariah Thompson, an attorney for CRLA representing the residents. “We had 52 households, members from CRLA, the lawyers representing residents in the purchase, and translators all in one Zoom meeting.”

Beyond the language barriers, there were other obstacles residents at Nuevo Lago faced. It required buy-in from all stakeholders. Harmony had to be willing to sell the property, and the residents had to take on the responsibility of owning and operating a park, which can be daunting for low-income households.

“There are many meetings we had to attend, and paperwork that we had to familiarize ourselves with,” Santos said.

Then there was the matter of state funding. ROC USA could help the residents with a bridge loan, but only at a high interest rate, which could have raised the rents beyond what residents could pay.

So, yet another organization – the UC Irvine Community & Economic Development Clinic – helped park residents secure funding for the purchase through California’s Manufactured Housing Opportunity & Revitalization Program program and the Farmworker Housing Grant Program.

These programs, which provided $4.5 million and $3.25 million, respectively, along with a bridge loan from ROC USA, allowed the residents to purchase the park for a little more than $7.6 million, said Adam Cowing, a law professor at the clinic.

“This project would not be possible without the state funding,” Cowing said. “Part of the goal of the purchase of the park is to keep their rents affordable. In order to do that you need some form of subsidy. And that comes in the form of low interest loans from the state.”

These loans offer lower interest rates and allow the park to keep rents low, according to Cowing. He estimated the residents will pay closer to $500 in rent and other fees.

Cowing said that with the right amount of government funding, the limited housing co-op model is replicable, but it may not be right for every park. More legislation is needed, he said, to protect mobile home park residents and ensure they have decent housing conditions and affordable housing.

“We need to make sure that residents, where they don’t necessarily set up this type of ownership structure, are still protected,” he said.

In all, the entire process took five years, three organizations and countless hours from residents. But despite the hurdles, Santos said it was worth it.

“If we can do it,” he said, “anyone can.”



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