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Mobile home residents buy their park, protecting themselves from eviction

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Private investors are buying up mobile home parks across the country, threatening to raise fees or close the parks altogether. From member station WBUR in Boston, Simon Rios takes us to a community near Cape Code where residents decided to fight back.

SIMON RIOS, BYLINE: Bob Costa is like an unofficial mayor of Royal Crest Mobile Home Park in Wareham. On a recent afternoon, he walked through the park, saluting everyone he saw with a big smile.

BOB COSTA: You behaving?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, always.

COSTA: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm too old to get in trouble.

RIOS: The park is like a small village, the kind of place where there are no fences and you know your neighbors. Costa moved here seven years ago after selling a five-bedroom house on Cape Cod. It cut his monthly housing costs in half.

COSTA: I just turned 78 years old. And my wife and I found this place. We loved it. We loved the location. And our intent was to finish out our lives here.

RIOS: Then one day in March, the former cop got a disturbing letter. It said a firm in Arizona planned to buy the park for $12.1 million.

COSTA: Having that fear really was unsettling. I mean, some people said, well, don't be fearful. They can't force you to leave. Yes, they can.

RIOS: It's a concern facing park residents across the country as large investors take over from the mom-and-pop owners residents know. People who own mobile homes rent the land underneath, meaning what's often their most valuable asset - their home - is vulnerable to the whims of park owners.

MEGAN HAGGERTY: It's a fad right now. It's sexy real estate.

RIOS: That's Megan Haggerty, a New York real estate investor and broker. She says the parks offer stability even during down economies.

HAGGERTY: The one sure thing is that there will still be a demand for affordable housing. I'm on the phone every day with family offices, investment firms who are looking to break into the industry.

RIOS: But residents say investors often raise rents, skimp on maintenance and even clear out parks for new development. Sandy Overlock heads the Manufactured Home Federation of Massachusetts.

SANDY OVERLOCK: Their whole thing is just for an investment to earn money. And once they've earned enough of what they want and they've paid their investors or if their investors want more, they try to sell them.

RIOS: But in Massachusetts and a handful of other states, there are laws that give residents the first shot at buying a park before it's sold. At Royal Crest, that meant the residents needed to come up with nearly $80,000 per household. It seemed impossible, but they knew they had to try. They discovered ROC USA, a national nonprofit that helps tenants buy their parks. The residents would also have to take on the extra work of managing a coop. And there was a local nonprofit called the Cooperative Development Institute to help with that. Nine in 10 residents approved the plan to purchase. And earlier this fall, they celebrated their closing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: On behalf of the Royal Crest Association, we call this our official opening.

RIOS: The people of Royal Crest packed into their community center, hugging and helping themselves to big platters of food.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My question is, how does it feel to beat a billion-dollar industry?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yeah.

RIOS: Rachel L'Heureux was at the party with her 90-year-old mother, who's lived here since the mid-1970s. L'Heureux says the purchase means her family will never have to worry about being forced to move.

RACHEL L'HEUREUX: I get teary-eyed. I'm so excited that this happened for us, you know? Everything fell into place.

RIOS: In recent years, nearly a quarter of mobile home park sales across the country have been to institutional investors. And it's forcing residents to decide whether to let that happen or band together and buy the land under their homes.

For NPR News, I'm Simon Rios in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF TREYON DUBS' "MEEKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Simon Rios
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