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The “For Sale” sign on the corner of South 10th Street and West Gunnison Avenue leans on its side, swallowed up by weeds in front of a dozen ramshackle turquoise and white mobile homes.
The asking price for this blighted quarter of an acre known as Frontier Land Mobile Home Park: $1.375 million.
Real estate ads for the park advertise it as a potential moneymaker for a buyer who could either pocket about $7,200 a month in rent payments or scrape the decrepit trailers and build some nice condos — like the tidy 2-year-old units across the street.
The Frontier Land trailers are home to workers and their kids. Most of them belong to an indigenous Mexican population, the Cora, who speak their own language and have become a valued but under-the-radar part of the Gunnison community, filling jobs in construction, maintenance, housekeeping and food service.
Some have lived in this tiny park for a decade. But like more and more people who live in mobile home parks across Colorado, Frontier Land homeowners recently woke up to uncertainty — and a big rent hike.
Wide-ranging legislation crafted over the past three years carried the promise of strengthening residents’ rights and creating a path toward purchasing their communities. But the early impacts of revisions to the Mobile Home Park Act have produced a mixed bag of results — including a batch of lawsuits.
There are examples like Frontier Land and others, where park owners’ actions have rattled residents and prompted concern that the reforms have either been ignored or have yet to gain traction. Mixed among those are few — but for residents, encouraging — tales of parks using the new laws to creatively craft successful bids to buy their parks and chart their future.
Amid all the legislation intended to level a playing field long skewed in favor of park owners — with more scheduled to take effect Oct. 1 and the possibility of still more on the horizon — many residents complain that park owners continue to flout the rules. Some owners counter that residents should blame rent increases and ownership upheaval on the newly imposed regulations designed to protect them.
Meanwhile, mobile home parks remain very much front and center in Colorado’s broader conversation about how to preserve them as the largest inventory of nonsubsidized affordable homes in the state. On a national level, 17 members of Congress — including Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper — recently urged the Federal Housing Finance Agency to improve protections for residents in mobile home communities purchased with federal backing.
For the moment, little of that matters at a park like Frontier Land.
Residents facing rent bumps find few options
Frontier Land manager A.J. Mani, who is also the real estate agent attempting to sell the park, said he doesn’t know if an upcoming rent increase will be used to pay for any park improvements or simply is intended to improve the bottom line as an enticement for prospective buyers.
That rent increase was announced in notices taped to doors that stated rent would jump to $600 per month Oct. 1 from the current range of $425 to $450. The “For Sale” sign signaled residents that, even with the rent bump, their future in Frontier Land is on shaky ground.
The Cora workers tend to be on the lower rungs of the Gunnison economic spectrum, and this park where they live bears that out. Metal walls sag. Windows lack screens.
Inside one trailer, the floors are spongy with rot. Mold and leaks stain drooping ceilings. Kitchen cabinets cling precariously to the walls. Still, for the construction workers who live here, it is unmistakably home. They have built new particle-board steps to access their house. Their beds are neatly made. Floors are swept. Dishes are stacked in a drainer. The beatific face of Our Lady of Guadalupe looks over the main room from a painted cross.
None of the residents own the trailers they live in at Frontier Land. Some don’t have legal status to be in the country. Some speak only their Cora language, which is different from Spanish, so they don’t understand the notices they receive from park management. They haven’t complained about the condition of their rental units because they fear being evicted. They don’t have the means to hire attorneys.
Beyond this park, their only options are moving in with relatives, being homeless, or leaving Gunnison.
“I will try to find a way to stay in Gunnison,” said Vella Molina, an American-born Cora woman who works as a hotel maid and lives in unit No. 6 of Frontier Land with her boyfriend and 5-year-old son.
Molina said she is upset about the rent increase because she does not believe it will bring improvements.
“They say it is due to maintenance costs, but we don’t see maintenance,” she said. “Some of these places don’t look good. Some look real bad. Not everything works.”
Marketa Zubkova, director of the Gunnison Hispanic Affairs Project, said Frontier Land is a good example of the many cracks she sees in the Colorado Mobile Home Park Act and subsequent amendments in the Protections for Mobile Home Park Residents legislation.
“More laws are needed,” she said. “This shows how imperfect the laws are.”
Even park manager Mani agrees.
“This is showing how more protections are needed,” he said.
Parks key to affordable housing
Lawmakers began in 2019 to take a hard look at a mobile home park industry that has for several years attracted keen interest from corporate interests and private equity groups.
Some buyers have been drawn to mobile home parks, legislators reasoned, by a lack of regulation that allowed owners wide latitude to impose rules and rent increases — an approach highlighted by television host John Oliver, who lampooned the Colorado-based Mobile Home University. Mobile home owners, who only rent the land where their housing sits, usually immobile, remained a largely captive, and profitable, clientele.
Amid revelation of a long list of abuses alleged by mobile home owners, Colorado’s first substantial update to the 1984 Mobile Home Park Act took effect in 2020. Among its features were a dispute resolution process that didn’t involve often costly legal representation and rules that required park owners to advise the state — and residents — in advance if they intended to sell their property or change its use.
That was designed to give residents the opportunity to organize, look for financing — the new law includes a possible funding source — and then potentially bid on their park with the goal of creating a resident-owned community. But proponents of the reforms have found that many park owners aren’t giving proper notice when they list their parks for sale.
Since July 2020, a rough starting point for the reforms imposed on the industry, 137 mobile home parks have either sold, been listed for sale, announced an intent to sell or sold with plans to change the land’s use, according to the state’s database. As of last week, 42 of them had been flagged for a “likely violation” of the new laws.
But the Dispute Resolution and Enforcement Program, created in the first wave of reforms to the Mobile Home Park Act, has no specific penalty to assess if a landlord fails to properly notify home owners and other designated parties of their intent to sell, according to program manager Christina Postolowski. A home owner complaint regarding notification could trigger the state Department of Local Affairs to require the seller to remedy the violation, but so far only one such notice of violation has been issued.
Meanwhile, many sales proceed without regard to the new rules.
“Clearly, the penalties are not dissuading them from doing that,” said Rep. Edie Hooton, the Boulder Democrat who three years ago led the push to revamp the laws governing mobile home parks. “With any law that you pass, I don’t care how noble it is, it’s meaningless if there’s not adequate enforcement.”
Lawmakers moved to fill that gap in the 2022 legislative session by creating an affordable housing division within the state attorney general’s office to enforce the provisions of the Mobile Home Park Act. While rulemaking for that division hasn’t yet been completed, Hooton noted that the provision “will be hugely instrumental…to make sure that all the actors are playing by the rules.”
Among the early reforms was a registration requirement for park owners. Current estimates for statewide park occupancy include 47,725 tenant-owned mobile homes and 4,550 mobile homes owned by parks, with about 57,475 total lots, which includes vacant homes and lots with other shelters such as campers.
Legislators who have taken the lead on the mobile home park front — first Hooton and now, as she prepares to leave the Capitol, Fort Collins Democratic Rep. Andrew Boesenecker — have been straightforward about their ultimate goal. To ensure preservation of mobile homes as affordable housing, they aim to create a path for more residents to organize and purchase their parks, thereby gaining a measure of control not only on lot rents, but the general governance of their communities.
“My endgame has always been that every mobile home community in Colorado be owned and operated by its residents and that it not be an investment tool for private equity firms out of New York or anyplace else,” Hooton said. “We’re not just talking tenants, we’re talking homeowners. To keep them in their homes, they need some protections.”
The latest round of reforms gives park residents more time to organize and arrange financing, should they decide to bid on their park. It also includes a tool — right of first refusal — that in some cases could require the park owner to favor residents’ bid over equal, competing offers. But it requires residents to assign their purchase rights to a public entity invested in keeping the park as a source of affordable housing.
Boesenecker points out that Washington state had a right of first refusal law that was struck down in court because it gave that option directly to the home owner/tenants. Colorado’s House Bill 1287 gave residents the option of assigning their purchase right to a municipality, a housing authority or other organization that can then successfully match competing offers to complete a sale.
That structure not only puts the provision on firm legal ground, Boesenecker says, but also gives local entities invested in affordable housing a “handhold inside that transaction.”
“We’ve heard that that is a tool that folks would like to have in their toolkit,” he said. “It’s not to say it makes sense in all situations, but just to give a municipality or county the ability to evaluate whether or not preserving that space as affordable housing makes sense I think is really critical.”
Another update to the Mobile Home Park Act mandates that a financed purchase offer be considered in the same light as a cash offer. The updates outlined in the most recent legislation go into effect Oct. 1.
Initially, the 2022 bill also featured a “rent-stabilization” mechanism — critics labeled it “rent control,” long a toxic term in Colorado — that limited rent increases. But as the legislation seemed on the way to passing, Gov. Jared Polis weighed in at the 11th hour with a veto threat that forced backers of the bill to remove what had once been its centerpiece.
Boeseneker said he hopes that conversations with Polis around the concept can continue.
“I always very much viewed lot rent stabilization as a measure to keep communities affordable until such time as residents could put together an offer,” he said. “So by the ability to cap that at a state level, I think we keep the promise open for residents that they could put together a (purchase) offer and not incur substantial new debt as a result.”
Park owners push back
From new sales, rent increases and evictions in three Gunnison County mobile home parks, it appears the Colorado Mobile Home Park Act and the additions to the law that will go into effect in October may be having an unintended adverse effect as park owners hurry to hike rents and evict some tenants prior to the new regulations.
“If I hadn’t gone ahead with changes before Oct. 1, I would be screwed,” said Mark Schumacher, owner of the Three Rivers Resort Mobile Home Park in Almont, a fishing-resort community between Gunnison and Crested Butte.
There, the tidy rows of mobile homes are nestled among trees not far from the scenic confluence of the Taylor and East rivers. It is the polar opposite of Frontier Land, but it shares some of the same problems.
Schumacher, who has operated the park and the neighboring resort for 29 years, recently notified residents of the 44 mobile homes in the park that rent for their spaces would increase in January to $700 from $400. Also, a dozen spaces in the park are going to be eliminated in September 2023 to make way for the installation of new sewer and water pipes. Because most of the trailers on those sites are too old to be moved, their owners are faced with having their homes crushed and hauled to the landfill in exchange for a payoff of about $7,500.
In his letter to Three Rivers renters, Schumacher wrote three pages of explanation for the changes and listed multiple criticisms of Colorado’s legislative changes that were designed to protect the rights of mobile home park residents. He expressed disdain for the laws that have been passed as well as for more that he fears will be coming.
“This rent increase is necessitated not only by the past few years of onerous and nonstop regulation, but by the shadow of threats that more is on the way,” Schumacher wrote.
Schumacher said if he waits to clear the mobile homes from the land he needs for his infrastructure improvements, it will cost him about $1.2 million to buy out those tenants under the new law. That would not include the $10,000 to $12,000 it would cost to haul each trailer to the landfill.
“While our industry tried to show the legislature that such laws only hurt residents, such concerns fell on deaf ears. What has made matters worse is the unfounded bias and discrimination against some park owners and operators, and the acceptance as universal truth a set of complaints raised by a small group of residents in a few communities,” Schumacher’s letter said.
Walter Kretowicz, who has lived at Three Rivers for about a decade, paid $6,000 for his trailer when he moved in and started out paying $200 a month for space rental. He said he was able to save thousands of dollars in his time at Three Rivers because his cost of living was so cheap.
“Mark has always run a good ship here,” Kretowicz said.
Kretowicz, whose trailer was due to be disposed of in the changes, initially had taken steps to file suit to stop the rent increase and evictions and had planned to move away. But he changed his mind when another trailer that can remain at the park went up for sale. He is buying it for $35,000 and plans to knuckle under and pay the increased rent.
Kretowicz said he believes Colorado needs a moratorium on out-of-state developers buying mobile home parks and a moratorium on rent increases until laws can be improved.
But, he said the new laws will help him in the future should the Three Rivers owner decide to eliminate more units.
“Because of the law changes, if he changes his mind I would get market value for my unit,” Kretowicz said.
Unlike Kretowicz, his neighbor in the park, J.D. Krause, stands to lose both investments and a place to live. Krause said he paid about $10,000 for his trailer when he moved into Three Rivers two years ago. Since then, he has spent another $10,000 making improvements, including adding a new heater, plumbing and drywall.
“We are in a limbo now. There is nowhere for us to go in this valley,” Krause said.
Krause also expressed support for Schumacher.
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“He should be able to do what he wants businesswise,” Krause said. “But this is going to affect the workforce a lot.”
There are 15 mobile home parks in Gunnison County, where the shortage of affordable homes is severe. The overall vacancy rate now stands at around 1%. The cheapest homes in the valley now sell for around $350,000.
The recent domino-effect loss of mobile home sites is viewed as a serious problem.
Changes at the 55-unit Country Meadows Mobile Home Park raised the first Gunnison alarms this summer after the mostly working-class residents attempted to buy the park, but were ignored by the previous owners. The new owners raised rents 70% — to $725 from $425 — and ignored residents’ pleas for repairs to roads, the water system and towering banks of cottonwood trees that drop damaging limbs on flimsy roofs.
The new owners, a corporation based in Aurora, changed the name of the park to Ski Town Village LLC, giving rise to fears that the owners plan to push out trailer-dwelling residents and build something like upscale townhouses.
The residents at Country Meadows/Ski Town Village recently won a moratorium on a rent increase after suing the new owners. The Organizacion de Nuevas Esperanzas, a nonprofit group of residents at the Country Meadows park, won the temporary injunction on the rent increase after they proved that problems at the park have not been addressed by the new owners and the rent hike appeared to be retaliatory for their complaints about maintenance.
But it was a short-lived victory.
The residents of Country Meadows/Ski Town Village were working to come up with a $25,000 bond to guarantee part of the rent increase until the matter can go to trial. They were in the middle of fundraising by knocking on doors around Gunnison and by seeking funds online when, last week, Ski Town Village owners posted a notice on each of the trailers in the park stating that rent will go up to $634 a month on Nov. 1 instead of the initially proposed $725. Attorneys for Ski Town Village contend that rent hike is allowable under the judge’s ruling because some of the repair costs at the park are linked to violations the state issued to the former owner of the park.
Mark Hodge, a representative of the new owners, had testified in court that the initial proposed rent increase was done in anticipation of future legislative action that might establish rent control — the same fear expressed by Schumacher and Mani.
An attorney for the Organizacion de Nuevas Esperanzas has asked the court for clarification on the matter but, for now, the residents are left in a new kind of limbo.
In their fundraising solicitations, the residents of the park quote Colorado Poverty Law Project attorney David Valleau: “Colorado Mobile Home Park Act offers mobile home owners many great protections, but those protections are meaningless without enforcement. This case is important because it is seeking enforcement of the MHPA. … It is giving residents a voice when they have felt ignored and trampled on. It is giving meaning to the protections in this law.
Without it, that law is nothing more than words on a piece of paper.”
The Frontier Land quandary has not generated this kind of notice or legal action because of the tiny space the park occupies and the lack of clout among the residents. Anton Sinkewich, director of the Gunnison Community Development department, said he wishes the city could do something about Frontier Land.
“We certainly are concerned, but we don’t have resources to do anything,” he said.
A newly released report on the importance of mobile home parks to Gunnison County recommends that the city of Gunnison and county team up to preserve mobile home parks. The measures proposed in the report include pursuing options for the purchase of parks by nonprofit entities, helping park residents to create resident associations, and passing local ordinances to give park residents more protections.
So far, those recommendations have not been acted on.
At Three Rivers, Schumacher said he knows he has been cast as just another villain in the saga of wealthy park owners squeezing out poor workers, but he said he is trying to do all he can to find homes for his tenants.
He gave a longer-than-required notice of the coming rent increase. Tenants have four months to gear up for the higher cost. He is offering to buy out tenants who have to move and is helping some of them to find new places to live.
Schumacher said he had no choice but to undertake an infrastructure project at his park because the new state requirements could put him in a financial bind if the decades-old water and sewer lines at the park were to spring a leak.
He calls the Mobile Home Park Act and its subsequent amendments “absolutely nuts” and says the legislation is harmful because it was written to be “one size fits all.”
He said it penalizes responsible park owners as much as it does carpetbagging corporations that buy mobile home parks to wring out every bit of money from tenants.
In his letter to tenants Schumacher referred to them as “friends, former employees, and other good acquaintances,” and wrote, “the legislative climate in Colorado has unfortunately become very hostile to mobile home park owners.”
Some residents break through
In early August, residents of the Parklane Mobile Home Park in Fort Collins joined forces with local nonprofits to lash together a successful bid for their community -— making it one of six resident-owned communities in Colorado.
An offer from a corporate entity had enticed the park owner to consider selling, and that prompted residents to organize, create a new nonprofit, United Neighbors/Vecinos Unidos, with the help of some neighboring organizations and secure funding for an eventual $6.8 million deal, UN/VU board member Nicole Armstrong said.
“Did I think in January that I was going to help form a new nonprofit and buy a mobile home in seven months?” asked Armstrong, who works as the executive director of The Matthews House, a nonprofit next door to Parklane that serves Larimer County youth. “That was not on my bucket list. But it’s been incredible. Because there were trusted relationships there already, it made it easier to move in a more nimble capacity.”
The collaboration, which included an “angel donor” as well as multiple businesses that donated time and services, pieced together funding from the county and other benefactors to outbid the competition. New state laws that require notifying residents of a pending sale worked to extend the time UN/VU had to put together their offer. After going back and forth through 19 separate contracts, the parties finally agreed.
Agreeing to cover all sales commissions and submitting a cash offer turned the negotiation in the residents’ favor, Armstrong said, noting that while the seller was obligated to entertain the group’s offer, he didn’t have to accept it.
“Our real estate team was phenomenal at negotiating and really working with the seller to understand where he was coming from and what he was needing,” she added.
In Durango, home owners in the Westside Mobile Park joined forces with local allies and a community land trust to purchase their community in March. Prior to that, in June of 2021, residents at River View, also in Durango, created a co-op and closed a $14 million deal.
The conversion to resident-owned communities provides both autonomy and economic security that protects residents against predatory rent increases, onerous park rules and excessive threats of eviction, notes Jack Regenbogen, an attorney with the Colorado Poverty Law Project.
“To the extent that we can help facilitate the transfer of ownership to the residents, it really seems like a win-win,” he said. “It’s a win because the private park owner still gets compensated, they get their asking price, they can still make their profit. But in the long run, it also provides housing stability to people who are uniquely at risk.”
Seasonal residents present a twist
But the unique circumstances surrounding mobile home living — and the resulting legal battles — now also reach well beyond the affordable housing realm.
Kathi Channell-Beard bought her 1974 mobile home inside Junction West Vallecito Resort outside Bayfield in 2020. She spent $31,000 on the home, spending her summers a few steps from Vallecito Lake before returning to Tucson, Arizona, in the winter. She had been coming to the resort since 2017, enjoying the interesting mix of about 50 seasonally occupied mobile homes and about 100 RV sites as well as several cabins.
In the spring of 2021, two years after Gov. Polis signed the Mobile Home Park Act, Channell-Beard saw pictures of the owner’s going-away party on Facebook.
“Then it all started going downhill,” she said.
That fall, residents of the park got notices from the new owners, CC5 Vallecito, LLC, detailing new rental agreements with a rent increase — about $500 for the season, which runs April through October. It was not a lease like their previous arrangements.
It was a “seasonal guest registration form,” similar to the contracts signed by weekend visitors in their RVs. It terminated the lease the tenants had with the previous owners and made clear that “this is not a lease and you are not a tenant. You acknowledge that this agreement does not entitle you to any rights under Colorado landlord and tenant law.”
“They told us that failure to sign the agreement meant we could lose our homes,” Channell-Beard said. “We can’t move these buildings. We were coerced and forced to sign that agreement under duress, even though it was illegal and went against mobile home legislation.”
Channell-Beard and two other residents in August filed a lawsuit against the owners in La Plata County District Court arguing the owners and the park’s management company, Florida-based Advanced Outdoors Solutions, violated the mobile home legislation. The lawsuit argues the residents should have been offered a chance to buy the park, and that the new owners also did not properly notify residents about the rent increase or the canceled leases.
The lawsuit also claims that the termination of the leases and reclassifying tenants as temporary visitors — or guests — qualifies as a change in use of the land and requires 12 months notice under the 2020 mobile home park legislation.
The CC5 Vallecito ownership group in Santa Barbara, California — led by Ryan Siemens and Michael Thomas — emailed a statement to The Sun, saying the lawsuit filed by “guests” of the park assumes the seasonal park must comply with the state’s mobile home legislation, “which applies to permanent-resident, year-round mobile home parks.”
“We are disappointed these three individuals have chosen to file a lawsuit and are hopeful we can resolve these individuals’ concerns in a manner that does not conflict with our goal of improving the quality of this summer vacation park for all our guests,” the statement from Siemens reads.
Channell-Beard says she and other residents have been “a target of harassment” by managers at the park since filing the lawsuit. Lawyers have called residents warning they could be evicted immediately. Repairs have been left to languish. Amenities like a shared kitchen and community building are closed. The cable television service to the residents stopped earlier this summer.
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Many residents are receiving notices of violations of park rules.
“They don’t think we are tenants and they don’t think we have any rights so if they want to kick us out, we have to leave immediately,” said Scott, a retired Texas lawyer who joined Channel-Beard in the lawsuit. “That’s BS, I’m sorry.”
The legal wrangling at Vallecito Resort is a bit different from cases playing out in other parks across the state. The case will likely revolve around how to define seasonal mobile home residents and how part-timers fit into protections afforded in state mobile home park legislation.
Kim Perdue, the Durango attorney who is representing the Vallecito homeowners, expects her clients and the owners will soon file briefs asking the court to decide whether the mobile home park act applies to seasonal residents.
It will likely come down to how the judge interprets the definition of “mobile home park,” Perdue said.
Regenbogen, of the Colorado Poverty Law Project, notes that while he supports new legislation that gives residents more control over their lives, he still figures there’s more to be done. Even before the legislature took such a strong interest in mobile home parks, they already were being sold at a “pretty high rate.”
“I think it’s because it’s still a very profitable business model,” he said. “The protections that were established on behalf of homeowners or park residents are meaningful and will help improve people’s lives. But I don’t want to overstate how far they went — and they didn’t prevent rent increases of any amount, despite our best efforts.”