STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. -- Jeff Morehead's cat slips through the small, square door carved into his wooden fence, a gateway from Morehead's mobile home lot to a serene landscape of blooming flowers and shade trees.
On the other side of the wall is the Yampa River Botanic Park, a public garden that hugs the edge of the river flowing through Steamboat Springs. Morehead passes through the people-sized door from his backyard for yoga in the gardens a few times a week. Other mornings, he treks to the top of Emerald Mountain, a steep, but short climb with a bird's-eye view of the resort town.
From up there, Morehead can peer down on the mobile home park where he has lived for 25 years. He knows he's lucky — bordered by the Yampa, Fish Creek and the botanic gardens — to live on land that he rents for $485 per month.
Lot rent at Fish Creek Mobile Home Park is controlled by its owner, the Yampa Valley Housing Authority, one of several government entities and nonprofits across Colorado that have entered the mobile home business to preserve affordable housing for their communities. It's a solution to the housing crisis that has emerged as the number of mobile-home parks shrinks and mom-and-pop owners sell out to developers or mobile home park investors.
Pitkin County, home to Aspen and some of the most expensive housing in the state, now owns four mobile home parks so the resort town's hotel and restaurant workers, as well as some city and county employees, have someplace to live. In Boulder, the city purchased a run-down mobile home park to avoid uprooting some of its most vulnerable, and most diverse, residents.
In Steamboat, leaders made the move to the buy the Fish Creek park from its former, private owner after watching what happened to another Steamboat mobile home park. That park, which sat behind the Vitamin Cottage at the edge of town, was purchased by a developer who forced everyone to move out. The recession of 2008 took its toll before the developer's plans for condominiums could take hold, so the land sat vacant for almost a decade.
"In the wake of that, our community sort of freaked out — all of our mobile home parks are going to get wiped out by investors," said Jason Peasley, executive director of Yampa Valley Housing Authority. "We thought, we will lose that form of affordable housing."
The housing authority was able to get a loan from the city to help fund the $3.2 million purchase of Fish Creek park.
Soon after buying it, officials realized they had "this ticking time bomb of infrastructure," Peasley said. The pipes, not much better than an irrigation system, were causing sewage backups in people's homes and officials feared that "worst-case scenario, we have an environmental disaster for the Yampa River, which is a huge asset to our town."
The housing authority got help from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority, which helps government entities with low-cost financing, to replace the water and sewer infrastructure.
Despite the unexpected expense, the model works, Peasley said. The housing authority charges just enough rent to break even.
Peasley wishes the authority could buy more parks, but said there isn't the political will. "The thing that's the trouble is that there is not much appetite to create new mobile home park zoning," he said. Across Colorado, existing mobile-home parks are more likely to close than a new one is to open.
The 68 homeowners at the Steamboat park must live in their homes — not use them as rentals — and they must live and work in Routt County, year-round. They cannot own any real estate in the county. The neighborhood began as an RV park in the 1960s; lot rent ranges from $450 to $500 per lot instead of the $800 to $900 at other nearby parks.
Morehead manages a cattle ranch in southern Routt County, and the $485 per month he pays in lot rent includes sewer, trash and snow removal. Morehead's trailer home, which was paid off years ago, now has a back patio with a built-in grill and a garage where he keeps his turquoise 1967 Chevy Cheville. His neighbors are restaurant and hotel workers, families with two working parents, and people with disabilities who do not work. The median income in the park is $28,000, based on a 2013 survey.
The manufactured homes in the park range from a Frankenstein model (a trailer with dilapidated additions sticking out in different directions) to homes that look more like traditional houses and are selling for upwards of $100,000. Part of the reason for the high price is that they come with the security of stable lot rent, a rarity at mobile-home parks.
"It provides the homeowners the security to invest in their homes and make it nicer," Peasley said. "These things are more or less permanent. Most of these are so old that if you attached a tractor to the chassis and pulled the chassis, the house would fall down."
WHEN RESIDENTS TAKE OWNERSHIP
Linda Biggs leans down and reaches under a low cluster of leaves and proudly pulls a ripe Anaheim chile pepper from her considerable backyard garden, where marigolds, tomatoes and a variety of herbs also approach their peak in the late-summer heat.
"This," she says, admiring the chile, "is why I want a 6-foot fence."
The mobile home she shares with her husband, Ray, borders a patch of woods where hungry deer like to roam and occasionally wreak havoc on adjacent gardens protected only by a low, sagging wire barrier. Under the rules that governed the Canyon Country park on the outskirts of Cañon City, a 3-foot fence was the maximum allowed — and hardly deterred the deer.
All that changed last December, when the park became Colorado's first to be sold to a different type of owners: The residents, aka the Rocky Mountain Homeowners Co-op.
Biggs and most of the other folks who live in the park's 28 units, along with the owners of another 20 mobile homes just down the road, in the Cedar Park community, banded together to create the Rocky Mountain Homeowners Co-op that lets them call the shots on everything from rent to rules. When residents have issues, they show up at a meeting of the elected co-op board. And they're heard.
"That's a big difference," says Biggs, who was elected treasurer in June, "instead of feeling like we're talking to a wall."
The switch to a resident-owned community — or ROC — made the parks part of an option that's gradually gaining traction in Colorado, and providing economic stability and a sense of self-determination. Another mobile-home park, the LMP Co-op In Longmont, closed on its purchase in February and already has benefited from a $300,000 grant from the city designed to stabilize rents at around $700 a month. Yet another sale to residents in Cañon City will close in November.
Both have sprung up with the help of ROC USA, a New Hampshire-based organization that facilitates such sales across the country. The cooperative model has been working for years in New Hampshire, which has long provided some of the strongest protections in the country for mobile home owners.
In 2008, the community loan fund that launched the sales spun off into ROC USA, which partners with local groups — Thistle, an affordable housing nonprofit in Boulder County, assisted with the Cañon City and Longmont deals — to help residents organize, purchase and run their communities.
In many cases, ROC USA finances the sales. The organization also commits to help guide the community for 10 years. That's the usual life of the initial mortgage on the park, although it's amortized over 30 years with the idea that sometime in that first 10-year span, the co-op will have built enough equity to refinance what remains of the loan at a better interest rate.
Rocky Mountain Homeowners Co-op bought its two parks for about $1.8 million. The Longmont co-op paid $3.2 million in a deal that covered 36 units.
But money isn't the biggest hurdle to creating resident-owned communities. It's opportunity.
"In most of the country, there's nothing to entice an owner to sell to residents over another commercial interest," says Mike Bullard, the New Hampshire-based communications and marketing manager for ROC USA, who recently visited the Colorado properties to offer marketing help.
New Hampshire, he adds, passed "opportunity to purchase" legislation that gives residents the right to match a purchase offer if the existing owner decides to sell. A handful of other states have similar legislation, and a few states have incentives for park owners to sell to residents, such as a capital-gains tax cut. But most states — including Colorado — have nothing, and organizations like ROC USA must network like any other potential buyer, searching for properties that may want to consider their option.
Every five years, ROC USA commissions an independent rent study of their communities to compare them to commercially owned communities in the same area. Although most resident-owned communities see an immediate rent increase to help pay for the sale, within five years nearly all have receded to market rate or below, Bullard says. The latest study found the average annual rent increase to be 0.86%, compared with an industry figure of 3.9%.
"If you extrapolate that over 5-10 years, that's dramatic," he adds. "When a co-op buys, profit is taken out of the equation. Moving forward, their rent goes toward paying off the loan, community expenses, property taxes. The rest they're budgeting for capital projects down the road — or immediately."
The Biggses saw their rent drop around $200 a month to $407 for the lot where they live in a trailer they purchased in 2015 for $13,500 — and now have paid off.
In Cañon City, it all began with a worker from Thistle hanging fliers on each unit broaching the possibility of resident ownership.
Some residents resisted the initial organizing efforts, reasoning that it all sounded too good to be true. Now, almost everyone is on board. Residents paid $300, payable in installments, to opt in. Those residents who don't want a share in the co-op pay $100 more per month in rent. (The Longmont residents paid $250 to opt in to their co-op.)
Down the road in Cedar Park, Chelsea Brassea has renewed hope for the future thanks to the success of organizing the co-op. She and her husband, John, had a second child since arriving in 2012, but their new circumstances now have her wondering if maybe they should just add on to their home here instead of looking for something bigger.
But there was no question that something needed to change.
"At first we wondered if all this was just a bunch of talk," she says. "Then we saw the changes."
For one thing, lot rental no longer fluctuated wildly among residents. All co-op members pay the same $407. Rules that prohibit kids from riding their bikes in the park were relaxed. Then came the news of the $600,000 grant from the state Department of Local Affairs that will improve the park's infrastructure.
"Things are about to improve," Brassea says, "in a big way."
BOULDER RESCUES PARK INSTEAD OF SHUTTING IT DOWN
The patched-up homes, gravel streets and roaming dogs of Ponderosa Mobile Home Park don't blend in with the north Boulder neighborhood. One trailer home with a family living inside hasn't had heat for two years. Another has 2-foot holes in the floor with a view of dirt. The lots are so crowded that roofs nearly touch, creating a fire hazard.
Contractors called to patch together the water, sewer and electrical system often walk away with their hands in the air — the liability too great to get involved.
The park, just across Broadway from Holiday, the hip affordable neighborhood developed by the city's housing authority, has enough code violations that authorities could shut it down. But the city is trying something else entirely.
Boulder purchased the park from its private owner in 2017, and through the help of Habitat for Humanity, is replacing dilapidated mobile homes with conventional two-story houses. Residents who choose to buy a Habitat home can use their equity from their mobile home as a down payment, get a low-interest loan for as much as they qualify, and have the option of taking out a silent mortgage on the rest. They would owe on the silent mortgage only if they sold their home.
A recent survey of the park's 60 residents found that a majority were interested in buying a Habitat house, while 18% said they wanted to stay in their mobile home. The city will allow current residents to stay in their mobile homes until they die, but no new mobile home residents — only Habitat homeowners — are allowed to move into the park.
The conventional homes, which range from 600 to 1,200 square feet, will cost from $111,000 to $190,000. The city's goal is that low-income families will pay no more than about $800 per month for their homes. The city won't charge lot rent for the Habitat homes. (Lot rent in the park now is $538, including utilities.)
Boulder attempted to buy the park twice before, but no agreement was reached. After the 2013 floods, when 6 inches of mud covered the ground in the 1950s-era, former RV park, a deal was struck. In the aftermath of the flood, Boulder city officials engaged with park residents and the owner through a disaster-recovery grant in order to find a solution that would make the place safe. Annexation to the city was required, which meant the owner would have had to upgrade the park infrastructure to the tune of $4.2 million.
Replacing the ramshackle mobile homes with new manufactured homes wasn't ideal because the lot sizes are too small and modern manufactured homes are larger, meaning fewer residents would fit in the park. Another idea to clear the homes and build an apartment complex also was nixed. When a mobile home park called Boulder Mobile Manor was scraped for another form of affordable housing, apartments, only a handful of the park's residents ended up living in them.
The Habitat homes were the best option, said Kurt Firnhaber, Boulder's director of housing services.
The city has been trying to solve problems in the park for 25 years, he said, noting that city council members through the years have "always had a place in their hearts for the manufactured-home communities." A mapping project showed that Boulder's remaining mobile-home parks are among the most racially diverse parts of the city. They're home to many Latino people and some who are living in the country illegally.
"The reason we come to work every day is to try to create affordable housing," Firnhaber said. "The purpose of government is to create equity. We provide affordable housing so we can have a diverse and equitable community."
Like Boulder, leaders in Aspen and Pitkin County stepped in as they saw the community's mobile-home parks eaten up by development.
"I think Pitkin County — because of the limited land available for affordable housing projects - had to capture what land was available and preserve it," Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper, who has lived in one of the county-owned parks for more than 30 years, told The Aspen Times. "We started this process so long ago and we recognized the issue early on so, therefore, we were able to step in before these parks were sold off."
Pitkin County paid $6.5 million in 2017 for a mobile home park with 40 lots. County commissioners are considering adding 20 more home sites to the park.
"Our basic fundamental philosophy is to preserve existing affordable employee housing," Clapper said. "Perhaps even more important is to preserve the communities those mobile home parks create."
Despite factors that have seen numbers shrink over the last several years, some housing experts maintain the mobile home alternative still holds promise for low-income residents as an unsubsidized, affordable alternative. But, they add, the arrangement requires closer oversight and serious reform.
"I think it holds great potential," said Lance George, director of research and information at the Housing Assistance Council, a nonprofit focused on affordable housing in rural communities. "But larger elements of the industry are still wedded to an outdated, outmoded system that does not serve consumers well."
For now, a once-ignored segment of the housing market finally appears to be getting renewed scrutiny that could determine whether mobile home communities can evolve into a viable part of the solution to an affordable housing crisis that only seems to grow more pronounced.
"The people that live in mobile home parks are either limited income, doing what they can, or in there to rebuild their lives," said Billy Bear Jarrett, one of the leaders of the Colorado Mobile Home Residents Alliance, a residents' rights union. "We have a commonality in that everybody needs help sometimes. And the first people you reach out to are your neighbors."