More than 40 mobile home parks provide affordable housing to thousands of residents in La Plata County. But those residents have little control over the long-term destiny of the land on which their homes sit. They could be displaced in a matter of months if the mobile home park were to be sold for redevelopment.
Faced with the possibility of redevelopment, residents of more than 200 mobile home parks across the country have organized themselves into co-ops to purchase the land where their homes sit and give themselves long-term housing security, said Mike Bullard with Resident Owned Communities USA. The nonprofit, also known as ROC, helps residents purchase parks.
La Plata County Assessor's Office data show 1,300 mobile homes in 44 parks across the county. The parks play an important role in providing affordable housing. For example, buyers can find a mobile home 10 minutes from downtown Durango for less than $100,000, said Lisa Bloomquist Palmer, executive director of HomesFund, a Durango-based nonprofit. By comparison, last year's median home price was $487,000 in Durango and $419,000 in unincorporated La Plata County.
The risk of a park being sold and redeveloped is likely low because many buyers of a mobile home park see the entire park as a good investment, Bloomquist Palmer said. But that doesn't eliminate the risk, she said.
"It is something people need to keep in mind when they are weighing the pros and cons," she said.
Durango resident Jan Hiemer, who owns a trailer with her son, Michael Wilson, at the Animas Park for Mobile Homes in north Durango, said she doesn't dwell on the possibility that the mobile home park could be sold and redeveloped, but she is interested in an alternative that wouldn't make her subject to the whims of someone else. She sometimes contemplates buying her own piece of property where she can place her home, with the assurance a third party can't drive up rental rates or sell the property.
"The only thing we can do is keep socking some money away," she said.
Hiemer helped her son buy the trailer in 2008. Owning an "alternative form of housing" has allowed her to stay in Durango and avoid pouring "every penny" into a rental apartment, she said.
While fears of redevelopment have not materialized for residents on Animas View Drive, it has happened before in Durango. In the early 2000s, residents of the 27-unit Canyon Club Trailer Park at the southern end of East Sixth Avenue were displaced when the property was redeveloped into townhomes.
The trend toward residents purchasing their own parks is a new phenomenon in Colorado. In fact, only two co-ops have formed to purchase their parks statewide.
Residents can organize a co-op around the time a mobile home park goes on the market, when fears of redevelopment loom.
That's what the residents of a mobile home park in Longmont did last year when they formed a co-op and closed on purchase of the park Feb. 1, said Michael King, president of the Longmont park's co-op board.
The park was listed for sale on the heels of several years of lot rent increases of $25 to $50 annually, King said. The ever-rising rent helped motivate residents to organize into a co-op, he said.
"Housing rental prices in Colorado are getting a little out of control," he said.
Residents of cooperative-owned parks typically see their rent go up as a result of the purchase, Bullard said. But after five years, residents in cooperative-owned parks see their lot rents fall below those of comparable commercial parks because co-op rents don't increase as quickly, he said.
"You are taking the profit margin out of the rent," he said.
At the Longmont park, lot rent was $600 before residents organized to buy the park. Rent is expected to jump to $700 per month as a result of the purchase, but residents expect that will be the final increase for a while, King said.
Before residents decide to purchase a park, ROC can provide park residents with a forgivable pre-purchase loan to hire independent experts to assess the park and its infrastructure, Bullard said. That way, residents have a better understanding of deficiencies and overall value of the park before a purchase.
After understanding how a purchase would increase rent, residents vote on whether to form a co-op. After the purchase, residents become part owners of the co-op and can sell their share in the co-op, if they ever decide to sell their home.
If residents decide to purchase a park, ROC will provide a loan for up to 110 percent of the property's value, he said.
To set up a co-op, residents pay a one-time membership fee of up to $1,000 per home, which is essentially the down payment on the park, Bullard said.
Mary Duvall, executive director of Thistle, the Colorado affiliate of ROC, said it requires about four months of intensive work on the part of residents, including weekly meetings, to set up a co-op. Keeping a group motivated to follow through with a purchase can be one of the biggest challenges of the process, she said.
"We are not doing real estate development; we are doing community development," she said.
For the residents of the Longmont park, organizing themselves was a bit challenging because not all residents spoke fluent English, and at the first meeting, the group didn't have the right system in place for translation, King said. But after that, the process went more smoothly.
Once residents purchase a park, Thistle will stay involved for 10 years, the lifetime of the loans residents have with ROC. After 10 years, residents have the option to privately refinance their loan or refinance with ROC.
During the first 10 years, Thistle will review a park's financial statements every month and coach the co-op's board, Duvall said. Once the park is paid off, residents have full control over what happens to lot-space rent, Duvall said.
While purchasing a park takes time, it can ensure residents have housing security and provide residents surety that if a co-op raises the rent, it will benefit the park - not a business owner. Parks also gain improved maintenance under co-op management, Duvall said.
"All of those are just huge," Duvall said.