Happy Trailers

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."

Despite the fact that metro Denver is heading for a full-blown affordable-housing crisis, and mobile homes are substantially cheaper than traditional houses, elected officials say many of their constituents hate the idea of having a trailer park next door.

"There's still a view that mobile-home parks take down the value of surrounding property," says state senator Alice Nichol, whose district includes many of the parks in Adams County.

Insulting a home on wheels almost seems to be an American pastime. Who could forget James Carville's putdown of Bill Clinton accuser Paula Jones: "Drag a hundred dollars through a trailer park and there's no telling what you'll find."

Bach mentions a cartoon that ran in Westword last month that may illustrate exactly what mobile-home residents are up against. The comic by Mike Wartella announces that "there's a soap opera called 'life' playing right now in a double-wide trailer on the edge of town." A trailer is pictured on cement blocks with an outhouse and pickup truck nearby. The unsavory family in residence includes a boy who wants to hunt people instead of squirrels, a cigarette-sucking mother who is about to leave to join a UFO cult, a taxidermy-obsessed dad who stuffs grandpa, and a buxom daughter who takes up with a biker. In the last panel, the sheriff arrives and arrests the family, proclaiming, "Thank God we caught those cretins before they started to inbreed."

Looking at the cartoon, Bach notes her own passing resemblance to the trailer-park mother. "That could be me," she says sarcastically, "but I wouldn't have a man like that in my house."

But the cartoon is no laughing matter to people on fixed incomes struggling to keep a roof over their heads. Most mobile-home parks in Denver have trees, flowers and well-kept homes, but the stereotype makes it easy to dismiss the residents as impoverished yahoos.

"The community at large thinks we're drunken sluts with trucks in the front yard with a gun rack," says Bach. "Stop here for a good time."

Bach's own transformation from park manager into a volunteer resident advocate took place after her developmentally disabled daughter was born fourteen years ago. "When you're an oppressor, you think you know what's best for everyone," she says. "Then when you give birth to a child with special needs, you suddenly see what it's like to be oppressed. I had no idea how it felt to be treated like that. My daughter has no value in this society. She'll always live in poverty. That's why I'm doing this."

While many residents struggle to pay the rent, their lowly mobile homes have caught the eye of some of the richest people in the country.

Chicago billionaire Sam Zell, a real-estate mogul who is known for roaring around Chicago on an enormous Italian Ducati motorcycle, has invested heavily in the mobile-home-park industry. A real-estate trust controlled by Zell, Manufactured Home Communities Inc. (MHC), is one of the largest owners of mobile-home parks in the country, with 154 parks and 53,391 home sites in its portfolio. MHC owns ten parks in Colorado, including Holiday Hills in Federal Heights and Woodland Hills in Thornton.

In real-estate circles, Zell is known as a "grave dancer" for his uncanny ability to buy bankrupt properties and turn them around. Zell was savvy enough to buy up multiple office buildings around Denver in the early 1990s, just before the office market came roaring back. He once told the Chicago Sun-Times that "the best time to invest is when there is blood running in the streets."

Investors are keenly aware that the shortage of space for mobile homes has made the parks far more valuable. Earnings for mobile-home parks around the country have been growing by an estimated 10 percent a year, and MHC has been acquiring parks at a busy clip, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to expand its holdings.

Last year, MHC reported revenues of $194 million, with $35 million of that figure as profit. Other national companies with a presence in Colorado include Englewood-based Chateau Communities Inc., whose properties include Redwood Estates and Pine Lakes Ranch, as well as Affordable Residential Communities Inc., which bought twelve mobile-home parks along the Front Range last year for an estimated $75 million, including Mobile Gardens.

The picketing residents of Holiday Hills Village say they're being victimized by a corporate owner with a voracious appetite for profit. "Our rent went up 5.5 percent this year and my pension went up 1 percent," says Mel Siegel, a Holiday Hills retiree. "That's what we're fighting."

Most of the tenants at Holiday Hills pay $390 a month to rent their space, with additional charges for water and sewer service. Mobile-home owners also have to pay property taxes and utilities.

All of which adds up to a lot of money for people living on monthly Social Security checks. "We have a lot of widows trying to live on $500 to $600 a month," says activist Helm. "Management tells us it's not their problem that people didn't adequately prepare for their retirement. When I see what's being done to the widows, I say that's wrong; $20 a month makes a lot of difference to them."

Jones says her rent at Mobile Gardens was $325 per month last year and included water and sewer service. But management recently hiked the rent by $70--and added fees for water, sewer, and trash--boosting her total monthly payment by $125. Her Social Security check rose by just $18 this year.

"People simply cannot afford a $100-a-month rent increase," says Jones. "I live on Social Security and can't afford the rent increase. They know they can't evict you just because your home is a certain age, so they raise the rents to try to get rid of you. This is a situation that shouldn't happen to anyone."

While the owners of "stick houses" (a traditional home, in mobile-home-park parlance) can expect to see their homes grow in value over the years, mobile homes--especially the older ones--are often next to worthless. Most parks refuse to take homes that are much more than ten years old, and without a place to land, a mobile home is worth little more than a pile of scrap metal.

Jones has lived in a mobile home since the 1960s, when she was a single mother who worked for a Volkswagen dealership in Boulder. She couldn't afford an apartment but was able to buy a two-bedroom mobile home and secure a space in a local park for just $38 a month. In 1975 Jones paid $7,200 for the home she still lives in, and she liked living in a mobile well enough to continue into retirement. She says that for years the rent increases at local parks matched the rise in Social Security payments, which are tied to the inflation rate.

Helm says that many people are enticed into buying a mobile home because it seems so much cheaper than buying a house. "Going in it costs less," says Helm. "You can buy a double-wide for $60,000. Where can you buy a home in this area for that price?"

But people don't factor in the costs of renting a space, says Helm. "After you've been here a few years, you realize that by the time you make your house payment, rent and utilities, you're paying $800 or $900 per month. You could have a house for that much."

Helm moved into Holiday Hills several years ago because he thought it would be an economical arrangement for himself and his wife, as well as his two elderly parents. He considered buying a duplex, but decided that purchasing two mobile homes made more sense. He was also impressed by the large trees, lawns and flower beds in Holiday Hills.

"When I was taking care of Mom and Dad, it seemed like the better choice," he says. "In retrospect, I would have been better off to buy a duplex. It was a mistake moving here." (Earlier this month, Helm and his wife accepted an offer for their home from Holiday Hills and moved out. Many of their former neighbors believe that the park offered to buy them out because the management wanted to get rid of an outspoken critic. Helm says he had been threatened with eviction by the park this spring because he was "disturbing the decorum" by picketing at the main entrance, a charge the company denies.)

Like other park residents, Jones believes the company that owns the park needs to generate turnover so that its sales subsidiary can offer spaces to the purchasers of new mobile homes. "You have a company that owns the park, owns the sales company and a financing company," she says.

A new mobile home can cost from $40,000 to $100,000, and no one would buy one without a place to put it. Salespeople who work for the string of mobile-home outlets located along Federal Boulevard in Adams County are eager to assure prospective buyers that they have a space ready and waiting.

A young salesman extolled the virtues of mobile-home living for seniors recently at Mobile World, a sales company owned by ARC, which also owns the park where Jones lives.

"This is ideal for elderly people, because all they have to do is pay the rent. They don't have to worry about anything else," says the salesman. "Just last week I sold a home to a woman who bought her house in 1949 for $17,000 and sold it for $300,000. Now she has worry-free living."

The eager salesman notes that financing can be easily arranged through the company, and there are eleven spaces currently open at Thornton Mobile Estates--which just happens to be owned by ARC.

"This is a fabulous way of life for seniors," he adds.
The president of ARC, John Sprengle, insists that his company does provide a reasonably priced housing option for seniors, especially as housing costs soar in Colorado.

"For an independent senior citizen, this is one of the lower-cost housing alternatives," says Sprengle. "Even for those seniors with more income, many of them choose the lower-cost alternative so they'll have more discretionary income. Even at $400 rents, the payment on a new mobile home, plus rent, can be $200 to $400 less than the cost of buying a house."

Sprengle says his company is simply responding to the market by hiking rents at places like Mobile Gardens. "The former owner had kept the rents below market levels," says Sprengle. "We raised the rent effective in June. It was catching them up to current market rates."

Having the residents pay for sewage and water is fair, adds Sprengle. "It's a more equitable sharing of the costs," he says. "People are paying for what they use. Our experience is that water consumption goes down by 30 percent after meters are installed. When it's part of the rent, people aren't as careful." (In one indication of its sensitivity to criticism, ARC even has a list of tenants who will publicly praise the company.)

Ron Edmondson, senior vice president for the Rocky Mountain region of Zell's MHC, says rents in mobile-home parks have not risen any faster than apartment rents in the metro area. "Our industry is market-driven," says Edmondson, echoing Sprengle's sentiments. "When you compare how apartments have escalated, our product is still very competitive."

The picketers at Holiday Hills are part of a "vocal minority" of tenants, he claims. "We've been approached by a lot of residents who want to voice their support for us."

Nor has Holiday Hills ever pressured older residents to leave, says Edmondson. He describes Holiday Hills as MHC's "flagship community" in Colorado and says many residents support the company's effort to upgrade the homes in the park. "If we didn't set a high standard, you'd find residents not maintaining the pride of ownership," he adds.

Both the space crunch in mobile-home parks and the corresponding jump in rents can be traced to government policy, insists Sprengle. Rents in Denver-area parks are now among the highest in the country.

"While demand is increasing, the places where companies can put the homes are decreasing," he says. "There's a scarcity of supply. The biggest barrier is the inability of developers to get new development approved. There's a prejudice against this type of housing."

As they watch their rents escalate, many park residents feel helpless against their well-funded corporate landlords.

"I don't mind a guy like [Sam] Zell investing in office buildings, but he shouldn't mess around with people's homes and senior citizens," says Helm. "His business dealings are brutal. That's fine in business, but not with an 85-year-old lady. Anybody who's brutal with an elderly lady is a bum."

Kathi Williams, a former state legislator who serves on the Adams County Housing Authority, tried to get Sam Zell to talk about Holiday Hills two months ago.

Several members of the authority thought that a possible solution for the problems facing mobile-home owners would be for the authority to buy out a mobile-home park itself. If it could buy a park like Holiday Hills, Williams says, it would be able to freeze rents or even sell spaces to residents. "We could condominiumize the site," says Williams, who has worked for years as a real-estate broker. "Some could buy and the others would rent from the housing authority."

The housing authority offered what it thought was an attractive price for Holiday Hills: $60,000 per space. For 725 homes in the park, that comes to $43.5 million. Williams says the offer was generous, especially since it's more than the per-unit price that a typical apartment building sells for in the same area.

But an agent who contacted Zell on behalf of the authority didn't get far. "Zell basically just laughed and said, 'This number isn't even close,'" says Williams. "He said he wasn't interested. We felt like a little flea on a dog's back; we're a minor irritation to him."

Williams says Zell and the other park owners realize they control a limited supply of spaces that will only grow more valuable. The housing authority has approached other owners about buying them out and gotten the same response. "Not only does Sam Zell know he has a captive audience, so does every other park owner in the state," she says. "Basically, Zell knows there will be no more mobile home parks built in Colorado."

MHC's annual report to shareholders supports that contention, noting that the shortage of spaces is a bonus for park owners. "Adding to the investment appeal is the fact that there is a limited supply of high-quality manufactured-home communities and significant barriers to creating new ones," the report states. "Development costs are high and zoning approvals are difficult to obtain. These industry fundamentals make MHC's portfolio even more valuable."

Some states are more accepting than others, however. Florida, Arizona and California view manufactured housing as a legitimate option for affordable housing, while Colorado has been considerably more hostile. An estimated 100,000 people live in mobile homes in Colorado, but it's been years since local officials have allowed a large new park to be built anywhere near Denver.

Adams County officials say they already have far more mobile homes than any other part of the metro area, and they think it's time for the other counties to accommodate mobiles. "Adams County has done its fair share over the years," says county commissioner Elaine Valente. "One county shouldn't be expected to supply all that's needed."

Valente says she is aware that park residents are being exploited, but there is little the county can do to help. "Our hands are tied," she says. "There's nothing we can do about the rents. We have no control over the park owners."

In the past, the county was often seen as the place to go for anything that people in other parts of metro Denver didn't want, says Valente. Adams County and cities like Aurora, Thornton and Westminster have been trying to create more upper-end housing, in large part to end the traditional stereotype of the county as blue-collar and industrial. Denver and most of the other metro cities also discourage construction of new mobile-home parks.

Mobile-home parks don't fit into that new image, even if they're a source of affordable housing. And homeowners in every county don't want mobile homes anywhere near their houses. "People have a mindset about it," says Valente. "There are lovely mobile-home parks, but some from the past are rundown. It's a difficult thing."

Not only are elected officials balking at the construction of new parks, they may be actively seeking to close down the old ones.

Aurora's city council recently voted to outlaw the construction of new mobile-home parks around the former Fitzsimons Army Hospital, which is being transformed into a new site for the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. City officials hope to remake this part of Aurora into a high-end research campus, but residents of five mobile-home parks in the area fear it means getting rid of them.

"It's obvious they're trying to run us out," says Rose Knauber, who has lived in the Trailer Haven park near Fitzsimons for 43 years. "I don't know where they'll put the people who can't buy the fancy townhouses. Where are these people going to go?"

Unorganized and without political action committees or lobbyists to buy influence in the state legislature, most mobile-home residents have been politically invisible and have struggled to be heard.

But that may be changing. Dozens of park residents have formed a Mobile Home Park Tenants Association and begun meeting regularly at the Thornton Civic Center. They are trying to organize the residents of all the major parks in the metro area.

"The residents have had it," says Bach.
Representative Lois Tochtrop, who serves Federal Heights and a good part of Adams County, says she has been meeting with residents who are looking desperately for solutions to the problem. "We've got this big boom in Colorado, but it's passing a lot of people by," says Tochtrop. "Especially lower-income people who work in the service industry and live in parks like this."

Although many of the residents would like to see rent control in the parks, rent control is illegal in Colorado. And the state legislature has never been known for its concern for tenants in general: Colorado laws protecting tenants are among the weakest in the country. Tochtrop says she is having a hard time finding other lawmakers who share her concern for the rights of mobile-home owners.

"The other legislators need to get a push from their constituents," says Tochtrop, who defeated Kathi Williams in a close election last fall. "A grassroots groundswell is the best way to get things done."

Colorado's Mobile Home Park Act does provide limited protection for tenants. While it does nothing to restrict rent increases, the law prohibits evictions without cause and requires sixty days notice of rent hikes. It also prohibits park owners from reserving spaces for mobile homes purchased at dealerships linked to the park, although many residents say this happens anyway.

"The law states people can only be evicted for certain reasons," says Sherry Armstrong, executive director of the Conifer-based American Mobile Home Association, a national group that helps and informs mobile-home residents. "But there's a notion you can't fight against a big corporation, so a lot of eviction cases never get to court. The manager succeeds in intimidating people into moving out, even if there are no legal grounds to evict them."

Armstrong says many park residents who face eviction don't have the money to hire a lawyer--or simply don't realize they have rights under the law.

"We have people calling us when the park denies them a constitutional right," she says. "We have parks telling people they can't form a neighborhood watch committee. People really get taken advantage of."

Many mobile-home owners say the park management harasses them over the appearance of their homes and yards, telling them they have to repaint the home or replace the siding or replant a patch of grass.

"If I were to inspect my home as a manager, I would have said 'Mow, trim, paint and edge immediately,'" snickers Bach.

Some suspect this is a ploy to force people to move, but Sprengle says his company is simply trying to keep the park looking good. "We have standards with respect to the appearance of a home, and frankly they're pretty high standards," he says. "We're trying to upgrade the quality of these manufactured-housing communities."

Similarly, Sprengle says the rules that forbid the resale of an older home already in the park and prohibit people with older homes from moving in are intended to improve the image of the parks. However, he insists that residents with older homes who are already in the parks are not harassed into leaving.

Sprengle also claims that ARC is putting more money into maintenance of the parks than the former owners. Many of his tenants would disagree.

"We have no playground for the children--they play in the street," says Jones. "The water and sewer system has decayed."

Tired of rent hikes and endless hassles with absentee landlords, many mobile dwellers around the state are searching for alternatives. A group of mobile-home owners in Fort Collins is working with the city to create a park controlled by the residents.

"There would be more dignity if people owned the dirt under their homes," says Chuck Dehn, who has lived in Fort Collins's Harmony Park for three years.

Earlier this year, the homeowners association at Harmony Park, which is owned by ARC, sued the company. The suit alleged that ARC had failed to notify the homeowners--who were trying to buy the park--before acquiring it for $18.4 million last November. The suit also claimed that ARC had hiked rents by $55 per month and had shifted the cost of water, sewer and trash service onto the residents with the intention of forcing longtime tenants to leave. But the suit was dropped after ARC agreed to reduce the rent increase to $45.

Unlike metro Denver officials, Dehn says the city of Fort Collins has been receptive to the idea of building a new mobile-home park. His group is now seeking a site for the proposed park. They want to make it a "co-housing" project, meaning residents would share child care and gather periodically for community meals and other activities.

"This is the last frontier for affordable housing," says Dehn. "This is the last opportunity our children will have for a starter home."

For now, most frustrated park residents have only one real option: to move out. But without a place to put their homes, the homes are nearly worthless, and people who thought they were getting a great deal on housing are discovering they may have made a huge mistake.

They also have to deal with the persistent stereotypes that mobile-home dwellers are slovenly hillbillies on wheels. Ever since Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz played two hapless cross-country travelers who backed their thirty-foot home into their suburban relatives' house in the movie The Long, Long Trailer, those who call home a mobile have had to live with the suspicion that they're buffoons or worse.

"The stereotype of the old trailer camp is everywhere you look," says Armstrong. "It's ridiculous." (However, even trailers can be chic if you are rich or famous. Several Hollywood big shots--including Tim Burton and Tom Hanks--are now collecting vintage 1950s trailers, especially the legendary silver Spartans, which feature wood ceilings and interiors. Burton just purchased his third Spartan as a gift for his wife.)

Bach has been around mobile homes long enough to remember when the Federal Heights area was known as "tinsel town" because of the way the silver trailers glittered in the sun. Since then, the mobile-home industry has been working hard to change its image by coining the term "manufactured housing" and adding amenities like gourmet kitchens and Jacuzzis.

But even the owners of these fancy new homes are still tenants--they have to deal with leases, overbearing managers and, in many cases, distant corporate owners.

"At least when I was a jerk as a manager, they could pick up the phone and call the owner," says Bach. "You had an opportunity to air your grievance to somebody who wasn't nameless and faceless. Of course, then you might find out the reason I was a jerk was that the owner was a jerk.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers

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