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Could Community Ownership Save Mobile Home Parks?

Cat Modlin-Jackson

Mobile home parks have been a source of affordable housing since the 1970s.

Now, these communities are starting to disappear as land values rise, developments crop up and the structures start to wither with age.  But a movement to preserve the neighborhoods is gaining traction across the state.

Credit Cat Modlin-Jackson
Captions: Patricia Rivera and Oscar Lobos with their daughter Violet and their dog Luna.

Patricia Rivera and Oscar Lobos put all of their savings into buying and fixing up their double wide in Ray’s Mobile Home Colony.  They planted a garden and painted the walls, Rivera says, and they like the close-knit community that’s nestled off Route 1 in Fairfax County.

When they learned about a proposed change to the county’s long-term land use along the corridor, they worried about the future of their neighborhood. Lobos says they’re scared they’ll be evicted.  He doesn't know where else his family would go.

Outside their home, Mary Paden is organizing residents of Ray’s and the adjacent Engleside Trailer Park. They want their community to stay put.

She acknowledges that real estate values are rising and it could be enticing for the owner to sell the land at some point, so she’s got another idea.  "The best solution that I see seems to be if they form a tenant’s association and get some funding or loans to purchase the park," she says.

Currently there are no resident-owned mobile home parks in the state, according to Jonathan Knopf at the Manufactured Home Community Coalition of Virginia.  "It really takes a confluence of a lot of different factors," Knopf admits.  Factors like financing, policy and coordination. He thinks the tide is turning, but there’s probably a ways to go before it happens in Virginia.

So if that doesn’t work at Ray’s and Engleside, Paden has another suggestion: "The second best thing is to get a nonprofit to buy it, which has happened in a number of places in Virginia."

Credit Cat Modlin-Jackson
The site of Southwood's phase one.

That includes Southwood Mobile Home Park.  When Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville purchased the property, many were concerned that developers would purchase the land and residents would be displaced. And for years the infrastructure has been crumbling, says CEO Dan Rosensweig.  "The trailers themselves are, although the residents put a lot of love and care into them, they’re falling apart."

He says redevelopment is necessary for everyone’s safety and long-term sustainability.

So, in 2017, the planning process began. Except, instead of the nonprofit making all the calls, residents have been the ones making a lot of the decisions about what kinds of housing will be built and where.

Rush Otis represents Habitat and has been working closely with the community.  "So we got together and really what a lot of this was about was us being transparent and sharing our knowledge and information because really that’s where power comes from." 

Credit Cat Modlin-Jackson
3D map of phase one at Southwood

Otis heads into a trailer next to a chicken coop. This is where everyone meets to make their plans. On a table, there’s a 3D map with painted blocks showing where new units will go."Making these wooden models that really represent the scale housing pieces allow for people to really feel like they can pick it up, move it around and make decisions," Otis says.

Later down the line, the trailers will be replaced with units like condos for seniors on a fixed income and townhomes. But the overall aim is to prevent displacement.

This year they broke ground on an empty part of the property. Meanwhile, tenants are getting financial coaching so they can buy one of the new homes or get rental support. And at some point?

Rosensweig: Our goal long term is to work with residents to help them develop the collective capacity to be leaders and owners in their own neighborhood and eventually to divest ourselves of any ownership stake.

The overhaul is expected to take years. In the meantime, the people who live here will continue to plan the future of Southwood.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.