Saturday, March 20, 2021

"What Happens When Investment Firms Acquire Trailer Parks"

 From The New Yorker, March 9:

The financial industry’s pursuit of profits from mobile-home communities is undermining one of the country’s largest sources of affordable housing.

One day in October, 2016, Carrie Presley was visiting her boyfriend, Ken Mills, when she received a phone call from a neighbor informing her that someone had just been shot outside her home. Presley lived with her seventeen-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, in a two-story clapboard house on Jackson Street, in the northern part of Dubuque, Iowa. The neighborhood was notorious for its street crime, and Presley, who was, as she put it, in “the housing community”—she received Section 8 housing vouchers—had grown used to the shootings and break-ins that punctuated life there. After talking to Cheyenne, who was in tears, Presley rode with Mills back to her house, where police were sweeping the perimeter of the property. As Presley recalled, Mills looked at her and said, “We’re not doing this anymore.” It was decided that Presley and Cheyenne would move in with Mills and his son Austin.

Mills, a long-haul truck driver and the father of four grown children, lived in a three-bedroom single-wide in the Table Mound Mobile Home Park, a quiet community of more than four hundred mobile homes arranged in a tidy grid. The homes in the park are not as portable as its name implies; they’ve been placed on foundations, and their hitches have been removed. From afar, they look a little like shipping containers sitting next to small rectangular lawns. In Iowa, park owners can choose whether to accept Section 8 vouchers—which are distributed to 5.2 million Americans—and many, including the owner of Table Mound, do not, citing the administrative burden. By moving, Presley would lose her government subsidy, and she and Cheyenne would have less space, but, as Presley told me, “I was sacrificing material goods for a sense of safety.” She and Cheyenne held a garage sale, and watched as their neighbors walked away with the kitchen table, a dresser, armoires, and most of their clothes.

In the U.S., approximately twenty million people—many of them senior citizens, veterans, and people with disabilities—live in mobile homes, which are also known as manufactured housing. Esther Sullivan, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Denver, and the author of the book “Manufactured Insecurity: Mobile Home Parks and Americans’ Tenuous Right to Place,” told me that mobile-home parks now compose one of the largest sources of nonsubsidized low-income housing in the country. “How important are they to our national housing stock? Unbelievably important,” Sullivan said. “At a time when we’ve cut federal support for affordable housing, manufactured housing has risen to fill that gap.” According to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there isn’t a single American state in which a person working full time for minimum wage can afford a one-bedroom apartment at the fair-market rent. Demand for subsidized housing far exceeds supply, and in many parts of the country mobile-home parks offer the most affordable private-market options.

In the past decade, as income inequality has risen, sophisticated investors have turned to mobile-home parks as a growing market. They see the parks as reliable sources of passive income—assets that generate steady returns and require little effort to maintain. Several of the world’s largest investment-services firms, such as the Blackstone Group, Apollo Global Management, and Stockbridge Capital Group, or the funds that they manage, have spent billions of dollars to buy mobile-home communities from independent owners. (A Blackstone spokesperson said, “We take great pride in operating our communities at the highest standard,” adding that Blackstone offers “leading hardship programs to support residents through challenging times.”) Some of these firms are eligible for subsidized loans, through the government entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In 2013, the Carlyle Group, a private-equity firm that’s now worth two hundred and forty-six billion dollars, began buying mobile-home parks, first in Florida and later in California, focussing on areas where technology companies had pushed up the cost of living. In 2016, Brookfield Asset Management, a Toronto-based real-estate investment conglomerate, acquired a hundred and thirty-five communities in thirteen states.

Residents of such parks can buy their mobile homes, but often they must rent the land that their homes sit on, and in many states they are excluded from the basic legal protections that cover tenants in rented houses or apartments, such as mandatory notice periods for rent increases and evictions. One sign that a large investment firm has taken over a neighborhood is a dramatic spike in lot rent. Once a home is stationed on a lot, it is not always possible to move it; if it is possible, doing so can cost as much as ten thousand dollars. Most buyers aren’t eligible for fifteen- or thirty-year fixed-rate mortgages, so many of them finance their homes with high-interest “chattel loans,” made against personal property. “The vulnerability of these residents is part of the business model,” Sullivan said. “This is a captive class of tenant.” A leader of an association for mobile-home owners in Washington State has compared life in a mobile-home park to “a feudal system.”

When I visited Table Mound, in February of 2020, Presley welcomed me into the cluttered kitchen of her home—her third in the park. The home, where she has lived since September, 2019, has two modest bedrooms, wall-to-wall beige carpeting, and a “God Bless America” sign on the kitchen wall. Presley is forty-nine, with a strong build, curly auburn hair, and black-framed glasses. She and Mills attended the same high school in Dubuque, but Presley, who said that she was a “troubled” teen-ager, didn’t graduate; in her twenties, she spent time in a women’s shelter, then moved into transitional housing, where she had her first child, Keenan. In 1994, she got married, and a few years later Cheyenne was born. Soon afterward, Presley and her husband attempted to set up a transportation company, but the marriage fell apart. “I lost and regained everything,” she said. Her relief on moving into the park had been immediate. On weekdays, Mills was usually away, but she no longer feared the walk to her door when she returned early in the morning from a shift at the bar where she worked. On weekends, she and Mills would play video games, cook, and go fishing. In the summer, residents barbecued while kids rode their bikes around. “You could sit outside and see the stars,” she told me. “You knew who your neighbors were.”

Whereas traditional homeownership can form the basis for intergenerational wealth, mobile homes depreciate in value, like cars or motorboats. Still, many of Presley’s neighbors had saved for years or used inheritances to buy their homes. Karla Krapfl, Presley’s second cousin, has lived in Table Mound for three decades with her husband, Dennis, an Army veteran. In 1993, they bought their current home new, and had it fitted with large windows, so that Krapfl could watch from the kitchen as their three boys played outside. Their sons are now grown; two served in the armed forces and the third is a controller at a local company. When I stopped by, Krapfl showed me around the house, which was decorated with quilts, porcelain animals, and silk flowers. Princess Diana plates from the Franklin Mint hung in a triangle in the master bedroom. Krapfl had enjoyed raising a family in Table Mound, and compared living in the park in those years to being on a military base. “Everybody knew everybody’s kids,” she said. “It was all very friendly.”........