Happy Trailers

Colorado's last affordable housing is rolling down the road.

Jan Bach used to be the queen of the trailer park.
She's lived in a mobile home for the better part of two decades, and for much of that time she's worked as a trailer-park manager. Bach knows what it's like to own her own home but to have to pay rent for the piece of dirt that it sits on--as well as how managers can harass homeowner tenants. She also knows what most people think of the residents of mobile-home parks.

"They see us as Jerry Springer trailer trash," says Bach. "They think we're ignorant, uneducated and rude."

While Bach bristles at the stereotype, noting that most mobile-home owners are simply hardworking people or retirees seeking affordable housing in a city where the average home sells for over $211,000, she does accept the rude label--and worse--for the park's management. For years, Bach managed several local mobile-home parks, and she frankly describes herself as the tenants' "worst nightmare."

"I would listen to what people had to say, then tell them to kiss my butt," she remembers. "The residents hated my guts, every aspect of me."

From collecting rent to ordering tenants to repaint their homes or face eviction, Bach describes her management stint as one long trip through hell. And she casts herself as the main villain. "I'd change rules and regulations at a whim," she says. "I didn't allow blue homes in the park--I hate blue. No additions were allowed unless approved by me."

While Bach was the trailer park's major domo, she answered to the local businessmen who once controlled area mobile-home parks, owners whom she describes as one part robber baron and one part village idiot. She has tales of a dozen different owners who would tell her to evict people for no cause and who refused to spend money to maintain the park. She remembers a home burning to the ground because there wasn't enough pressure in the park's water mains to put out the fire, and she recalls one toupee-wearing owner who would drive potential investors around in a Cadillac.

"The owners just want to squeeze every nickel out of the park," says Bach. "People don't understand what it's like to own your own home and be dictated to by the managers."

But things have changed in the mobile-home world. Most of the local parks are now owned by huge national companies that report to Wall Street. Bach has switched sides, becoming an activist who works for the rights of mobile-home residents. And the parks themselves--once known for their timid population of elderly and disabled residents--are embroiled in controversy as retirees march on picket lines and hundreds of tenants sign petitions protesting steep rent hikes.

"People are scared to death," says Marie Jones, a 74-year-old resident of Mobile Gardens, at 62nd Avenue and Federal Boulevard. "Seniors have had to move because they can't afford the rent increases."

Jones says that the rent at Mobile Gardens, where she has lived since 1967, has climbed dramatically in recent years, soaring past the rate of inflation and the cost-of-living increases from Social Security. She says people are drawn to mobile homes as inexpensive housing, but they don't realize that they'll be at the mercy of the park owners. "It used to be affordable, but it's not anymore," she says. "I would never recommend that anybody buy a mobile home."

Residents like Jones believe that the owners are intentionally hiking rents to spur turnover and open up spaces for new mobile homes--those sold by companies with the same corporate ownership as the mobile-home park. While Colorado law prevents park owners from evicting residents without cause, there are no restrictions on rent increases.

"The little old lady in a single-wide--they want her to go," says mobile-home tenant activist Bob Helm. "They want to run her out so they can sell a new double-wide and pocket $20,000."

Helm and several other residents of Holiday Hills Village in Federal Heights have been picketing along West 92nd Avenue for months. He says some of the elderly women in the park must choose between eating and paying the rent. "Some of them don't come to our breakfast club because they can't spend the $3," says Helm.

Holiday Hills is a seniors-only park and, with more than 700 homes, one of the largest mobile-home communities in Colorado. Its winding roads and towering cottonwoods give Holiday Hills a quiet, pastoral air. The carefully tended lawns, potted geraniums and patio furniture on porches belie the stereotype of a trailer park. Residents keep an eye on their neighbors, and crime is rare. On weekends, many tenants can be found outside, working on their gardens or painting the siding on their homes.

In the 1970s and 1980s, dozens of mobile-home parks of varying size were built around the metro area, most of them in Adams County, which didn't object to the construction of new parks in unincorporated areas. The rents were affordable and the parks competed for residents. Today, there is a shortage of space because local governments have refused to approve the construction of new parks. The reason can be summed up in one vicious put-down: "trailer trash."

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