Colorado lawmakers weigh plan to protect mobile homes as unsubsidized affordable housing option

Heather Malone and her family were priced out of the apartment market in Golden 10 years ago, so they moved into a mobile home park.

Rent in the park, Golden Hills, was affordable. That allowed Malone to stay close to work, to keep her kids in the schools they loved and near the hiking trails they enjoyed on the weekends.

Everything changed last year when a California company bought Golden Hills. Malone soon learned that her rent would increase to $796 a month from $550 — a 45% leap.

Such a hike would be a problem for most renters, but mobile home owners face a unique dilemma: they own the structure but not the land, which means the solution to skyrocketing rent is not as simple as just moving somewhere else.

Now Malone is forced to think about getting another job — perhaps at a grocery store, to get extra cash and a discount on food. It would mean seeing her children less. Another rent increase, even a small one, could mean her family will need to go elsewhere.

“All the stress that comes with struggling financially,” Malone said, “we’re feeling it so hard right now.”

Malone’s experience in Golden has become increasingly common throughout Colorado, as corporations gobble up more mobile home parks and increase rents at rates that many cannot stomach.

It’s these stories that have prompted Colorado Democrats in the state Capitol to bring a bill that includes statewide rent stabilization for mobile home parks — a radical move for a legislature that just three years ago killed a bill that would have allowed local governments to cap rent increases.

But unsubsidized affordable housing is going extinct in Colorado, and lawmakers feel this year’s policy is necessary to preserve the largest source of “naturally occurring” affordability in the state.

“These situations are real,” said state Rep. Andrew Boesenecker, the Fort Collins Democrat championing the bill. “For residents, this is a tangible lived experience that impacts their ability to know they’ll be safely housed. Most of these folks buy these mobile homes thinking they’ll spend the rest of their days there.”

The bill, HB22-1287, includes a slew of other protections for mobile home owners and amounts to a new bill of rights for those residents. It would make it easier for them to purchase their parks, compel landlords to compensate residents if they decide to redevelop a park for other uses and for the first time give the attorney general authority to enforce protections.

Critics warn heavy-handed regulation could produce unintended consequences, causing park owners to sell their properties or kick out tenants to build more lucrative apartment buildings. Industry experts say the legislation, as drafted, would vault Colorado into the upper tier of states trying to preserve mobile home parks as an affordable option during a nationwide housing crisis.

“Bills like this could strengthen, could support and grow affordable housing stock for decades,” said Esther Sullivan, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Denver who has conducted extensive research on mobile home residents and parks in the United States. “This is that kind of opportunity.”

The fight over rent stabilization

HB 22-1287 is 54 pages long, but much of the attention and debate around it centers on one proposal: statewide rent stabilization that would cover the more than 700 mobile home parks and 46,000 mobile homes in Colorado.

This would be a radical new restriction on mobile home park landlords — some mom-and-pop owners, but also, increasingly, national corporations and private equity giants.

The proposed legislation would “prohibit a landlord from increasing rent on a mobile home lot by an amount that exceeds the greater of inflation or 3 percentage points in any 12-month period.” Currently, park owners can raise rent only once per year, but have no restrictions on how much they can charge.

Colorado would not be the first place to see rent stabilization for mobile homes – these statutes exist in nearly 100 California cities and counties –  but a statewide measure is exceedingly rare in the U.S.

Oregon in 2019 became the first to implement statewide rent control, but that law includes all housing, not just mobile home communities.

Democrats control both chambers of the Colorado legislature and decide what passes and fails. Some version of this bill is nearly assured to pass, but the big question is whether its more controversial and impactful provisions — capping rent increases, namely — will survive a coming onslaught of proposed amendments.

The speaker of the House, Denver Democrat Alec Garnett, stopped short of endorsing rent stabilization when asked about it Tuesday, though he did commend Boesenecker’s work on the issue. The bill doesn’t appear to be priority legislation in the Senate, where, as of this writing, it has no lead sponsor.

Fort Collins Democrat Joann Ginal had been set to lead the bill through the Senate, but on Tuesday she told The Denver Post she “had a little thinking to do” and that she was “not thrilled” with some aspects. By Wednesday her name was removed from the bill. She claimed she’s busy with other things and doesn’t have the capacity to shepherd HB22-1287.

But proponents won’t be willing to compromise much on rent stabilization as the bill moves through the Capitol. It is at the heart of this policy because housing advocates continually find soaring rent costs to be the biggest issue facing residents.

David Valleau, a housing attorney with the Colorado Poverty Law Project, says he has yet to speak to a single resident in Colorado who hasn’t faced issues with rent.

“Rent stabilization is huge,” he said. “It’s revolutionary in Colorado.”

There’s a big difference between mobile home owners and, say, apartment renters. Mobile home owners invest lots of money into their properties – not just through purchase, but through upgrades and maintenance – which makes relocation especially unappealing. Despite the name, mobile homes are rarely actually mobile.

That’s what gives park owners the latitude to continually increase rent – something the creators of Colorado’s Mobile Home University preach as one of their core teachings. Frank Rolfe, who runs the boot camp for prospective mobile home park buyers, has likened it to “a Waffle House where customers are chained to their booths.”

Given the equity — and lack of mobility — that these mobile home owners have, it “makes sense to me that there need to be protections in place so that mobile home owners won’t lose their property interests,” said Deborah Cantrell, a University of Colorado law professor who participated in stakeholder conversations surrounding the bill.

But those working in mobile home brokerage and an industry group representing park owners argue that the bill doesn’t address the root causes of the affordable housing crisis and could lead to landlords taking their business elsewhere. The housing lobby hailed the defeat of Colorado’s 2019 rent-control bill as a “tremendous victory,” and they’ll fight again this time.

“We’re strongly opposed to rent control,” said Tawny Peyton, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Home Association. “We feel it is not good policy, and additionally we feel it’s unsound economically. This stifles creation for affordable housing.”

The proposed legislation “seems to be discriminatory”, she said, as it singles out one type of property owner. The organization is consulting with its attorneys as it decides whether to challenge portions of the bill in court.

Jon Shay, a manufactured home broker in Colorado, sees park owners washing their hands of their investments and looking for new opportunities if this bill becomes law. The incentive structure will shift, he said.

“I think what’s going to happen is community owners will say, ‘this land that I own is worth more as an apartment building or office,’” Shay said. “It will lead to communities being shut down and redeveloped.”

Beyond rent stabilization

HB 22-1287 contains scores of other protections for mobile home owners.

One of the main focuses of the bill is helping give mobile home owners a better shot at purchasing their parks when they go for sale. The “opportunity to purchase” clause came into effect in 2020, but only three groups of residents — in Boulder, Durango and Leadville — have successfully bought their parks under the new law.

Why? It’s extremely difficult to secure millions in funding and organize a resident co-op in just 90 days, advocates and mobile home residents have said. Plus, they argue, some owners are negotiating in bad faith and seemingly make deals before alerting residents that their park would be for sale.

The proposed legislation would provide a “right of first refusal” for a public entity — such as a county or city, or a housing authority — working with a resident-owned community group. That means an owner selling a park would have to give the public entity first crack at making an offer before they take a deal with someone else. The bill would also double the amount of time (from 90 to 180 days) residents have to organize and make an offer.

“With a right of first refusal, it’s a much heftier ability to step in and preserve affordable housing,” said Michael Peirce, a mobile home owner in Boulder who worked with fellow residents to buy their Sans Souci park last year. “It doesn’t allow what we’ve been experiencing, which is landlords saying no without a discernible reason.”

Other notable pieces of the legislation include requiring landlords who change the use of the land where a mobile home park sits to compensate residents who would be displaced. Experts say it can cost upwards of $10,000 to move a mobile home – and some are too old to move at all.

The bill would also:

  • Allow the Colorado attorney general to investigate and enforce statutory provisions providing protections for mobile home owners
  • Allow local governments or nonprofits — in addition to residents — to file complaints with Colorado’s Mobile Home Oversight Program
  • Allow regulators to take immediate action in response to a complaint that “will cause immediate harm to mobile home owners”
  • Clarify language and obligations regarding “good faith” negotiations over potential sales
  • Run alongside a companion bill, not yet introduced, to create a $50 million fund to help residents buy mobile home parks

For people like Heather Malone, this legislation could be the difference between staying in the home they love, in the community they love, and being pushed out farther to the fringes.

“There are plenty of opportunities for real estate investors to make a nice profit in Colorado, but that profit should not come at the expense of the most marginalized populations — of actual people who live actual lives in the places they’re investing in,” she said.

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