As Vermont sees a growing number of mobile home parks go on the market, some residents are turning toward cooperative ownership to take over control of the properties.
The state typically has two or three mobile homes parks that go up for sale each year. But Jonathan Bond, director of the mobile home program at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, says there are currently eight mobile home parks changing hands, and he says he expects a handful of others will come on the market in the next few months.
Bond says that as some mobile home park owners age and look to get out of the business of running a park, they are putting the land up for sale, and it is creating an opportunity for the residents to take over ownership.
"For park residents, when a park comes up for sale, it is their opportunity for potentially a generation to be able to purchase the park and have more control than they would ever have otherwise," Bond says.
According to the most recent state report, there are 241 registered mobile home parks in Vermont, and 11 are currently cooperatively owned. Vermont has one of the strongest mobile home park laws in the country, and Bond helps the residents navigate the law.
Bond says when a landowner wants to sell a park, the law says residents have to be told before a sale goes through, and the residents also get about five months to organize and make an offer.
If the residents of a mobile home park want to try to buy the property, they typically come together to form a cooperative.
Under the cooperative model, the residents own the property and make decisions about everything from plowing to how much to charge for rent.
"It's a pretty radical concept, and the residents have to want this," says Bond. "It means that all of the residents have to come together and essentially run a business together, and most residents will jump at the opportunity of being able to control where the money is spent."
St. George Villa is a mobile home park about 20 minutes south of Burlington, and with 120 mobile homes, it is one of the largest parks in the state. On the Friday before the July Fourth holiday weekend, the residents there received notice that the park was going to be put up for sale.
Brenda Thibault moved to St. George Villa 23 years ago, and she says people there were pretty concerned with the sale news.
"At first I was nervous because if I was the owner of it I probably would level it and sell it for development," she says while walking though the park one recent afternoon. "But then I heard about our options."
Thibault says she previously never thought about cooperative ownership. But she, and the rest of the residents of St. George Villa, have been learning about the process over the past few months and the group is now moving ahead with a plan to purchase the property.
Thibault acknowledges that there is a stigma around living in a mobile home park — while she knows the public at large may not change the way they think about the parks, she says that inside the park, owning the land and knowing it is yours will make all the difference.
"I don't want the trailer park to end up on the news as 'riff-raff.' I don't want it to be 'that trailer trash place,'" she says. "As a co-op, when we have a say, we can kind of change that. We can clean it up — I mean, it's not bad anyways, but we can make it our own. We have good people that live here, and this is their goal and this is what they want."
The Cooperative Development Institute, or CDI, is a nonprofit that helps mobile home park residents work through the sale process.
CDI cooperative development specialist Sarah Martin says over the past six years the group helped seven parks in Vermont become co-ops, and she says there are four right now in the process.
Martin says when residents get notice that their park is going up for sale, it can create anxiety and uncertainty.
"A lot of time when a park comes up for sale, people don't really understand what that means," Martin says. "That uncertainty is very uncomfortable for some people and there's no way of them knowing what the next owner might be like."
Martin says at St. George Villa the residents have been excited about creating a cooperative. She says she's usually looking for a simple majority when the idea of cooperative ownership is first raised at a mobile home park — at the first meeting at St. George, she says almost 90 percent of the residents showed up.
"When we saw a ton of people show up, we're like, 'All right ... we gotta get going on this,'" Martin says, adding "to see that turnout is a huge thing."
Martin says the work at St. George is just getting underway, and it's too early to know if the deal will go through.
She says funding, for the most part, isn't an issue. There are groups that support affordable housing and who see the value in investing in resident-owned mobile home parks.
However sometimes the deal falls through, usually when too many upgrades are needed. But if the funding is available, and the residents get behind the plan, Martin says the option for cooperative ownership usually works.
Bond says in many communities, mobile home parks represent a long-range solution to Vermont's ongoing affordable housing crisis.
"Mobile homes, at their core, are affordable housing in a rural state," he says. "You do not want to necessarily build a large apartment building in some of our more rural communities. But having a mobile home park that's been there since the 1960s, you may want to maintain to help keep affordable housing in your community."