by Samii Taylor, September 16, 2005 Metro Evening News @ metroeveningnews.com/category/cypress .
As the owner of a mobilehome, I assure you there’s nothing funny about the hidden dangers of owning one – dangers never fully disclosed to consumers.
By the late 1940s, servicemen returning from World War II in search of cheap housing for their families discovered that mobile “trailer coaches” enabled them to pack up, and follow job opportunities across America. Pulling the long, long trailer to follow a dream or a job created the need for a place to park at the end of the day.
Landowners with a few spare acres, or land they hoped to develop in the future, began to provide “trailer parks” for this new breed of homeowner. Trailer parks frequently adjoined major highways, and offered travelers nothing more than a space to park for the night – no phone, no pool, no pets. As the demand for mobilehome spaces increased, landowners realized the potential for income from renting space long term. The landowner’s invitation of “Space For Rent,” enabled coach owners to park their tag-along home, and become members of the community, if only temporarily.
Fast forward to 1980 –
the product known as a “trailer” had evolved into a spacious double or triple-wide “manufactured home” filled with the latest amenities. Today’s homes may feature a master suite, multiple baths, a formal dining room, den, energy efficient appliances, dual pane windows, vaulted ceilings, a fireplace, and garage. The only limits to a manufactured home’s size and appearance are imagination and budget. Attractive and affordable, manufactured housing now boasts nearly 10 percent of the U.S. housing stock. Regardless of whether they are attached to a permanent foundation on the lot of your choice or installed on pylons in a leased community space, these homes no longer qualify as “mobile!”
Mobilehome parks across the nation have also evolved. Manufactured housing communities now offer residents pools, playgrounds, clubhouses, and open spaces. In newly developed areas with land to spare, there are elegantly landscaped, gated communities featuring half-acre lots, and country club-like amenities. Formerly a haven for retirees and Florida Snow Birds, the majority of manufactured home communities are a blend of seniors, families and singles all seeking home ownership, and a lifestyle that is “within their means.”
Clearly, the lure for buyers to purchase a manufactured home is very attractive. Sales of manufactured units have sky rocketed as the pool of available housing in desirable metropolitan areas has diminished. In Orange County, California, manufactured housing dealers advised potential buyers that the cost of these homes was escalating weekly due to increased demand. The country’s politicians, and mobilehome manufacturers continue to tout the manufactured home as America’s new “affordable housing” – the Holy Grail of Housing in real estate markets like Southern California.
When my husband and I decided to consolidate our lifestyle in order to spend more time together as a family, we opted not to purchase a conventional home in today’s overly inflated real estate market. My in-laws had already downsized to a luxurious manufactured home in the Inland Empire, and we were very impressed with everything about living in a manufactured home. Like millions of consumers each year, we made the decision to purchase a manufactured home based on all of the “perceived advantages” previously outlined. Two factors that sealed the deal for us were finding an affordable space rent, and a safe community where we could raise our son. Ultimately, we selected Lincoln Center Mobile Home Park, a four star community in Cypress, California.
Unlike buying a conventional house, you cannot move into a manufactured home community simply because you qualify to purchase the real estate. Our purchase of a home was contingent upon our being approved to live in the community. Our financial statement and backgrounds were thoroughly checked by park management. Once we were “approved” by management, the lease was signed. All systems were go! Our dream of owning a more affordable home in Southern California had been achieved! Then, without warning, our “American Dream” became an unbelievable nightmare.
In less than a year after we purchased our manufactured home, the land lease for Lincoln Center was sold to Sierra Corporate Management, a property management division of Kort and Scott Financial Group. The space rent for residents was immediately raised 20 percent, except for the few owners who still had long-term leases. The cost to new buyers of homes in the park jumped overnight from $650 per month to $975. “Amenities” such as park monitors, who helped oversee the safety of our community, were eliminated. The residents of Lincoln Center were immediately up in arms over the excessive increase in their cost of living, and the dramatic decrease in the resale value of their homes. Of even greater concern was the very real potential for the park to be closed so that the land could be sold to developers to build condos or townhouses. Our “affordable” lifestyle was in serious jeopardy.
When I began searching the Internet about our plight, I was stunned to learn that since 1979 an ever increasing number of mobilehome parks across the nation have been closed. The reason for the mass closures is simple – redevelopment. The land beneath mobilehome parks is worth millions to landowners and developers. The tax revenue advantage to cities is a tempting reason to grant a Change of Use Permit for the land. Politicians have been convinced by developers that the only solution to the “housing crunch” is to change land use stipulations to allow for more homes to be built. On the surface this type of redevelopment scheme appears to be great for business and great for the economy. The truth is that thousands of people have been displaced through no fault of their own; many of them have actually been made homeless by this “sound business decision.”
Ask yourself what you would do if you received the bill for a 20 percent increase in your property taxes? What if your mortgage company sold your loan to a new lender, who then sent you a notice demanding 20 percent more per month for the privilege of living in your home? What if the law gave these companies the right to raise your costs every ninety days by any amount they felt the “market” would bear? Where are retired seniors living on pensions and Social Security going to get their hands on 20 percent more money each month? How can anyone survive this scenario for very long when the average income in Southern California last year increased a mere 12 percent?
Across the United States, residents trying to make ends meet on limited incomes are now forced to divert money previously used to buy food, and life saving medication, to pay their excessively high space rent. Many manufactured home owners have been forced to sell far below market value because new owners are unable to pay a mortgage, and the inflated space rents. Owners of older coaches must simply pack up and walk away because their home is too old to be sold or moved to another location. Others have simply abandoned their homes in despair. These homes have been snatched up by park owners and rented or resold. Where there are no rent relief ordinances in place to protect owners of manufactured homes, there is no deterrent against this type of abuse.
It’s easy to see that park owners, and the management companies who hold the leases on the land are in the power position. If residents pay the increasingly higher rent, the owner wins. If the residents default and abandon their homes, the park owner can buy their home in foreclosure, then sell it or rent it out – he wins again. Ultimately, if the mobile park can be proven to no longer be viable as a business for the landowner, he can petition local authorities for the property to be rezoned, and sell the land to developers. He wins big time!
The Internet is filled with information regarding the billions of dollars real estate investment companies like Kort and Scott Financial Group and Sam Zell’s company, Equity Lifestyle Properties, have earned at the expense of manufactured home owners. This new breed of mobile park investor freely admits it does not care about the hardship an excessive increase in rent may place on people. If residents don’t like the way the park is being managed or can no longer afford the rent, the corporate giants say that homeowners are free to sell their home and move.
Park owners and management companies declare that homeowners knew what they were getting into when they purchased their homes. This is only partially true. Living on leased land has always meant that the land owner or lease holder will increase the rent. This is an assumed risk the homeowner agrees to take by living in a park where they do not own the dirt beneath their home. What no one counted on, especially owners who purchase their homes 30 years ago, was a rent increase that leaves them with little or not options for saving the investment in their homes. Sadly, this important bit of information is never fully disclosed as condition of sale.
According to the philosopher Balzac, “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” The crime being committed in manufactured home communities across America today is a crime against humanity. Innocent people are being priced out of their homes by calculated corporate greed. Consumers everywhere are protected from excessive cost increases for utilities, property taxes, and apartment rents. Lemon Laws allow buyers to get a full refund on a defective vehicle. The State of California and the County of Orange have refused to enact any legislation to protect the manufactured homeowner from repeated, unregulated increases in space rent. This creative form of extortion faces residents living in almost every manufactured housing community in the nation. The heartbreaking reality – this crime is rarely illegal, but it is always immoral.
Editors Note: This paper is local to Cypress, Seal Beach, and other Orange County communities.