Happy Trailers

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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."

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers

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