Mobile home owners fear they may be priced out by rent hikes

By Anna Casey

Some unlikely advocates have emerged in the fight to lift a 1997 ban on rent control in Illinois – manufactured home owners who are upset with the increasing cost of their lot rents.

Terry Baker, 70, moved in to her tidy manufactured home in Urbana, Illinois, more than two decades ago when she was looking for a place of her own after a divorce. She liked that the community known as Wilson’s, on a cul-de-sac with mostly older residents, was quiet and well maintained. As someone living on a fixed income, the price also appealed to Baker.

“When I moved in here, my rent was $142 a month,” Baker, a retired home health care worker, said. “That included water, sewer and garbage. Where else was I going to live for that kind of money?”

While Baker owns her home, she does not own the land in the community where it sits. There are about 20 million people living in manufactured homes nationwide, according to The PEW Charitable Trusts.  Like many manufactured home owners, Baker enters into a land-lease agreement with a park owner. Two years ago, Baker’s community and about a dozen others in Champaign County were purchased by an out-of-state mobile home mogul, David Reynolds, who residents say has increased lot rents to the point many worry they could eventually be priced out.

“On a fixed income of $1,000 a month, where are you going to go?” Baker said.

Sitting at Baker’s kitchen table one October afternoon with her neighbor Char Pekoz, 74, the two pore over bills, letters and receipts from the company that bought their park in an attempt to piece together a timeline of how much their expenses have increased.

Neighbors Terry Baker (left) and Char Pekoz go over the changes in their monthly lot rental bills after their manufactured home community was sold to a Colorado company they say has raised prices. Photo Credit: Anna Casey/Illinois Public Media

 

“I am now starting to have more anxiety going to the mailbox at the end of the month to get the new bill,” said Pekoz, who is also retired, and purchased her manufactured home 30 years ago. “I am now hating this community.”

The management company that purchased Wilson’s, and 12 other parks in Champaign County, was RV Horizons, although it now operates under different names. David Reynolds is listed as President of RV Horizons on the mobile home park deeds, according to a review of property records by CU-CitizenAccess.

In February of 2018, Colorado-based RV Horizons sold its 12 mobile home parks in Champaign County to Mothership PropCo. David Reynolds was also listed as an agent on Mothership PropCo’s filings with the Colorado Secretary of State, indicating that Reynolds sold the properties to another company he was affiliated with for millions more than he had purchased the parks for, according to a CU-CitizenAccess review of county property sales.

Reynolds and his  business partner, multimillionaire Frank Rolfe, have built a mobile home empire by buying up “mom and pop” parks around the country and raising the rents on mostly low-income people. According to their website, Reynolds and his business partners have the fifth largest portfolio of mobile home properties in the country, with “over 280 parks in 32 states.” Rolfe and Reynolds also co-founded Mobile Home University, a “bootcamp” with three days of seminars that teaches students how to buy parks with the promise of a 15 to 40 percent return on their investment. The trainings cost about $2,000 to attend.

“If you have a 100-space mobile home park and raise the rent $50 per month, the increase in net cash flow is $60,000 per year, just in that one attack plan,” the Mobile Home University website states. A video on the site also describes how residents who work low-income jobs can handle rents up to $500 a month, and because mobile homes cost thousands of dollars to move, residents have little option but to stay.

Frank Rolfe and David Reynolds did not respond to Illinois Public Media’s requests for comment, but in a 2015 interview with The Guardian, Rolfe said he’s bringing the properties up to market value through rent increases. He also argued that if he didn’t buy up mobile home parks, the land could easily be turned into something else, leaving residents without a form of affordable housing.

Meanwhile, Terry Baker and Char Pekoz say rent and fees at their park have increased from $236 per month under the local owners to nearly $300 a month, a significant portion of their monthly income, after RV Horizons purchased the community. The Colorado-based management company also installed meters under each home in the park to measure water use, which had previously been included in the lot rental fee under local ownership.

The rent spikes inspired the two women, along with other manufactured home residents across Illinois who are part of a group called Manufactured Housing Action, to advocate for lifting a 1997 ban on rent control in the state.

Linda Reynolds (left) and Terry Baker (center) share their concerns about the rising cost of lot rents in manufactured home communities during an Illinois Senate Special Committee on Housing hearing at First Methodist Church of Urbana, Aug. 23, 2018. Photo Credit: Anna Casey/Illinois Public Media

Illinois State Senator Mattie Hunter, a Democrat from Chicago, sponsored legislation that would lift the 1997 Rent Control Preemption Act. The measure would also establish elected rent control boards around the state who would be tasked with putting in place “regulations concerning rent for households of specified income levels, including restrictions on increasing rent-controlled amounts,” the bill states.

Hunter is chairing the Senate Special Committee on Housing, which has held hearings around the state to hear from residents on the issue of rent control and affordable housing. The committee stopped in Urbana in August, and a majority of the approximately 80 attendees that gathered at First United Methodist Church of Urbana identified themselves as mobile home residents. Hunter said she and the other senators weren’t expecting such a large turnout from residents of manufactured home communities at the first hearing.

“I was so shocked by how the investors were really taking advantage of our senior citizens,” Hunter said. “They’re profiting big time off these guys, and I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.”

Hunter’s bill that would allow rent control has not advanced out of committee. She hopes to revive it in the next legislative session.

Pam Dempsey, a reporter with CU-CitizenAccess, contributed to this report. CU-CitizenAccess is a community online news and information project devoted to investigative and enterprise coverage of social, justice and economic issues in east central Illinois.