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GUNNISON — For more than 20 years, Hazel Bryant has lived in a trailer park tucked under towering cottonwood trees between a cow pasture and Colorado 135 just north of town.
She has worked to make the tiny space around her 1957 trailer homey. On her leased lot, Bryant has lined up rock borders. She has nurtured pansies, hollyhocks, lilacs, irises and even a bit of delicate new grass. The greenery creates a tidy fringe along a home that is partially covered in bare particle board and a construction wrap called Tyvek that is normally hidden beneath siding. Her sons have added an overhanging roof that shades a “Trump 2024” flag nailed to the trailer’s front. An old barnwood fence on a minuscule side yard corrals Bryant’s three feisty dogs.
Bryant, 69, has been comfortable in her rented spot in what she still insists on calling the Country Meadows mobile home park. That name partially remains on an abandoned, crumbling park office where letters spelling “Count Mead” cling to the dilapidated siding; the other letters have fallen into the weeds below. A new park owner recently changed the name to Ski Town Village, but Bryant, like many of the other 300-plus residents here, refuses to call it that.
The new name doesn’t fit a mobile home park where many of the trailers are ramshackle, with strips of metal hanging off and missing and broken windows covered with wood or plastic. Tyvek flaps from the sides of quite a few trailers. Piles of junk and cars on cinder blocks encircle a number of them. The newest of the trailers here date to the 1970s. Some of the units look like they are sinking into the damp ground on what was once all meadow watered by the Gunnison River.
The main channel of the river flows just across the highway in the high-end Riverwalk Estates development. Homeowners on that side pay as much as $400,000 for lots and nearly $1 million for a 2,500-square-foot cabin that comes with private fishing rights. River Walk LLC was the previous owner of Country Meadows park.
A name that doesn’t fit
The whole concept of Ski Town Village is a bit of a mystery to the residents here. A website for the new owner contains only the address for the park, a phone number, a Denver street address, and a post office box in Cheyenne where rent checks are to be sent. The website describes the park being “on the highway to Mount Crested Butte town and ski area.” It doesn’t mention there are two communities and 33 miles between Ski Town Village and the Crested Butte Mountain Resort ski area.
The new name brings snickers and head shakes from residents whose timeworn mobile homes are linked by dirt roads riddled with immense potholes.
“This is not a ski town. As you can see, it is a meadow,” said Brad Di Vincenzo, a Western Colorado University student who is fixing up a trailer in the back of the park where a pasture stretches from his front yard. He bought the trailer for $40,000 two months before receiving the unexpected news about the sale of the park to a new owner, along with the accompanying rent increase.
Laughter about the new name dies out when Di Vincenzo and other residents of this 56-unit park talk about how, in spite of new state legislation to give more protection to Colorado mobile home park tenants, this park has fallen through the cracks. The 2020 Mobile Home Park Act and Mobile Home Park Oversight Program didn’t provide enough protection for the Country Meadows residents. Updates to that law in the Mobile Home Park Act Updates were recently signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis, but won’t go into effect until October.
Ski Town Village, which spreads for 8.7 acres, is an example of how hard it is to legislate rights for people who live very close to the bone with low wages, disabilities, old age and few or no options of other places to go.
The residents here have landed in the same financial trap that has long bedeviled other mobile home park residents around Colorado and the nation. The tenants of these parks have weaker rights than the landlords. They live at the mercy of a changing cast of owners who buy up parks as lucrative investments — parks they would never live in, parks that offer a hefty, low-overhead way for owners to profit from poverty in places where low-wage residents are often stuck with no options.
In this case, the new owner immediately raised the lot rental fee 73%, to $725 a month from $425.
“It’s pathetic they let these out-of-staters come in and drive out the working class. We’re the highest-cost park in Gunnison County now,” said Bryant, who lives on $800 a month in Social Security and financial help from her sons.
Few residents of Ski Town Village have the option of moving on. Despite their name, mobile homes are not at all easy to move. The cost for hauling a trailer to a new location can be thousands of dollars — if it is even feasible. Many have add-ons of rooms, roofs and porches. Most are too rickety to survive a move. Trailers built before 1976 can’t be moved under U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rules. Another factor is that many other parks won’t accept mobile homes more than 25 years old.
“We have to keep this space. Maybe if we move it, everything breaks,” Luciana Ros Mendez said, waving a hand around lot No. 10 where she lives with her husband and four kids, including a teenager with disabilities.
The Ros Mendezes have built a ramp to accommodate their son’s wheelchair and an extra room that sags from one side. Some of the family’s possessions spill outside the still-cramped unit that the Ros Mendez family has been paying for in installments for nine years.
Promises remain unfulfilled
The transition from Country Meadows to Ski Town Village didn’t just come with an eye-popping rent increase. It also brought so-far unfulfilled promises of improvements. The potholes remain. The untrimmed cottonwoods threaten to drop large limbs on flimsy roofs. Water to domestic spigots remains spotty. Some days there is no water or very low water pressure.
The frustrated residents on Thursday filed a lawsuit against Ski Town Village LLC in an attempt to stop any rent increase until those things are fixed.
John Romero, the new owner identified in letters to park tenants, promised in a June 6 letter to fix the park’s problems.
He wrote that he was soliciting bids for road and well improvements and contacting contractors to take care of issues with the park’s electrical system. He wrote that some tree-trimming had already taken place, but any more will depend on “the availability of vendors.” He also promised some cleanup of common areas of the park and urged tenants to clean up their own spaces.
In that letter, he added that eviction notices would go out in July for any tenants who have been delinquent with rent payments for one month.
“We tell John every day that those things need to be addressed if he is going to charge $725 a month,” said Liz Campbell, the newly elected director of the park tenants’ homeowners’ group, Organización de Nuevas Esperanzas, or Organization of New Hope. “He has straight-out told us he doesn’t want any kind of personal relationship with any residents. He said this is strictly business for him.”
Neither Romero nor anyone else at the phone number for Ski Town Village has returned repeated calls from The Colorado Sun.
Park failed by new laws
Colorado has passed laws in the past three years to give the estimated 85,000 tenants of Colorado’s more than 900 mobile home parks more rights to prevent exactly what has happened at Ski Town Village. Such legislation became necessary as more and more private equity firms and corporations began buying parks that offer the largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the state. The profitability to be had in these parks is laid out in stark terms by the Castle Rock-based Mobile Home University, which teaches investors how to capitalize on mobile home parks.
The “university” advertises its services with this enticement for investors: “Affordable Housing is the hottest arena in commercial real estate right now. With over 20% of Americans trying to live on $20,000 per year or less, the demand for mobile homes has never been higher — and the big winners are the owners of mobile home parks in which those customers reside.”
In Colorado, the 2020 Mobile Home Parks Act was designed to give Colorado tenants more ammunition to fight mercenary practices. Some of the act’s provisions include a requirement that landlords give residents at least a year’s notice of potential changes in use of the land, such as closing a park. It gives residents 90 days after notification of a potential sale to organize financing and attempt to buy parks themselves. Landlords cannot retaliate against tenants who make complaints.
That act fell short in some areas, so the updated act added provisions that lengthen the time for residents to attempt to buy a park to 120 days. It clarifies that owners must engage in good-faith negotiations if residents offer to buy a park. Owners must compensate residents who are displaced if a park is closed or its use is changed. Residents can pursue legal claims against owners without risking having to pay legal fees for owners. Tenants have more rights to take action if an owner refuses to take care of problems in a park.
Country Meadows/Ski Town Village is a good example of why additional protections were needed. The park was sold to a new owner after the residents’ offers to buy the park were ignored. Ski Town Village LLC was set up and registered with the state just days before the sale was finalized.
“We were working for over a year trying to speak with the owners, but they never respond,” said Rolando Fernandez, a maintenance worker who lives in the park.
Thistle ROC USA, a Boulder-based entity aimed at helping mobile home parks remain affordable through creating Resident Owned Communities (ROCs), worked with the residents of Country Meadows after they were notified in June 2021 that the park was under contract for $2.95 million. In the 90-day allowed window, the residents, with Thistle’s help, pulled together a $3.3 million offer with grant funds and space-rental increases of $90 per month. The owner never responded.
“We had worked so hard on it. It sort of crushed our hearts,” Campbell said.
Andy Kadlec, Thistle program director, said that the sale of Ski Town Village happened at an inopportune time between new laws and updates to those laws. Thistle has been successful in purchasing parks where owners were more willing to negotiate with residents. Thistle has helped residents of six mobile home parks around the state to buy their parks since 2019. Another buyout is currently in the works in Weld County.
“It’s unfortunate we weren’t able to help these Gunnison residents purchase the park,” Kadlec said.
He said, at this point, all Thistle can do is help tenants at Ski Town Village learn about their rights so they will have the knowledge to fight what they can going forward.
“This park was a prime example of why the laws were weak and it didn’t serve them,” said Ricardo Esqueda, who works for the City of Gunnison as a community outreach coordinator, but has been on loan to the county-located park to interpret for the park’s many Spanish-speaking residents and to help explain their rights under the new laws.
A lawsuit and hope
The residents of Ski Town Village haven’t given up on becoming resident-owned. Some residents say they are holding out hope that the new owner will decide to sell to them after he realizes how many problems the park has.
Gunnison County is trying to help with legal aid and quality-of-life issues. The county is so squeezed for affordable housing that many service jobs are going unfilled. Businesses in the county are having to cut back hours and services. Most of the residents of the park are working. If they are displaced, the area could lose hundreds of carpenters, maids, grocery-store workers, kitchen helpers, clerks and waitresses.
Gunnison County Commissioner Liz Smith said the park is vitally important to Gunnison County because affordable housing is “virtually nonexistent” in the county. She said she worries that homes for hundreds of workers could be lost through the sale of the mobile home park and the large rent hike.
Smith has been meeting weekly with residents to look for solutions. The county last week delivered a 600-gallon tank of potable water to the park to help residents who are going without water. In the past week, some residents had no water for an entire week. In another part of the park, the water was out for two days.
The county has contacted the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment about the water problems because the new owner has not been responding. The tightened laws that go into effect this fall will require park owners or managers to repair utilities. A time frame for those repairs will be set forth during the rule-making process for the park act updates.
William Edwards, a Gunnison attorney who is working in concert with the Colorado Poverty Law Project, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing homelessness, filed the lawsuit Thursday on residents’ behalf demanding that the new owner not be allowed to raise rents until obligations to park residents are fulfilled. That includes providing a reliable source of drinking water.
At the same time, Campbell said residents are documenting every problem in the park. They have started a spreadsheet that any resident can contribute to. They are also having weekly meetings to discuss their responses to problems. She is making almost daily calls to Romero.
While all this plays out, the residents are worrying, and so are officials who know how important they — and their housing — are to Gunnison County.
“I think people are raising their eyebrows over how much the rent increased. Is that to cover costs or to squeeze people out?” Smith said. “I can only speculate on that.”
That is also all Campbell can do.
“My personal opinion is that he (Romero) is just trying to push all of us out of the park and put up condos,” she said.
Esqueda said this unknown future hanging over Ski Town Village is hard on everyone.
“We just want these people to be able to live in a place they have called home for so long,” he said.
This story first appeared in Colorado Sunday, a premium magazine newsletter for members. Become a Basic+ Member to get Colorado Sunday in your inbox every week.