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Susan Murphy rakes leaves outside her home at Orchard Grove mobile home park in Boulder on Monday. City Council in September unanimously adopted a new ordinance that completed a pad rent stabilization analysis and mandates that information about the lot’s five-year rent increase history, fees and pet restrictions be provided to new tenants, among other facets. Council next month will consider a separate ordinance to make it easier for manufactured home residents to sell their homes. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
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When Jackie Massey decided to put her manufactured home in Boulder’s Vista Village on the market, park management came by for an inspection and presented a list of work that had to be done before she could sell.

While this can be costly and may slow the sale, it’s typical when selling a manufactured home in a park where a person owns the home but rents the land where the home sits. Massey said she spent $700 on a new porch. She rented a power washing machine to clean the outside of the home and hired help to paint the shed, remove fencing, repair three screens and clean up the yard.

But the real trouble, according to Massey’s complaint filed with Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs Mobile Home Park Oversight program, came after she sold her home on the day she planned to move out. She claims Vista Village park management tacked on even more work that had to be done, and none of the items were outlined in the original inspection report.

The Vista Village homeowners association noted challenges for residents can arise by virtue of the nature of manufactured and mobile home communities: the residents own their home, but not the land beneath them. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Harvey Miller, principal of the management company that operates Vista Village, and park manager Kathy Newland said they had yet to hear of or see this complaint and therefore did not feel comfortable commenting on it, but both said they doubted the validity of those claims.

“We have a very streamlined process. It’s a very well-oiled machine,” Miller said, later adding he’s yet to hear a truthful complaint about the process. “There’s usually two sides to any story. I think that, oftentimes, people fail to even investigate both sides.”

Still, it is experiences such as the one Massey described that inspired Boulder to begin drafting an ordinance that will be up for first reading in December with a public hearing scheduled for early 2021. If passed, the mobile home sales ordinance would amend existing code sections and provide clarity to protect homeowners’ right to sell.

Boulder first began working on a strategy to preserve manufactured housing stock in 2018 at the direction of Boulder City Council. The strategy designates accountability, affordability, community and viability as the principles meant to guide the city in decision making. It also created a city-focused work plan with specific actions to support infrastructure, pad rent stabilization, local enforcement and more.

As part of this, City Council in September unanimously adopted a new ordinance that completed a pad rent stabilization analysis. The ordinance also included a change that makes Boulder Municipal Court the new hearing body for local enforcement. Additionally, the ordinance includes a provision to provide language access for non-English speakers. It mandates that information about the lot’s five-year rent increase history, fees and pet restrictions be provided to new tenants and that all tenants must receive information about changes to lot dimensions with 60 days notice.

While in discussion with manufactured homeowners regarding that ordinance, Boulder Housing Planner Crystal Launder said multiple people pushed the city to consider a separate ordinance that would protect manufactured homeowners looking to sell.

“The process can be slowed down,” she said. “This would really establish more clarity around that process.”

More than 1,000 households live in Boulder’s four manufactured home communities: Vista Village, Orchard Grove, Mapleton and Boulder Meadows. Earlier this year, the fifth community, Ponderosa Mobile Home Park, was purchased by the city and will be redeveloped into a neighborhood of affordable, fixed-foundation homes.

In Boulder, where Loveland-based Information and Real Estate Services LLC reports that median home prices have soared to more than $1 million, manufactured homes offer a more affordable option. Although many local residents report steadily increasing pad rent, manufactured homes are typically the least expensive kind of housing available without a government subsidy, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute.

Orchard Grove resident Mark Robbins, who’s lived in the community for nearly four decades, said he believes that’s pushed Boulder City Council to work toward meaningful change.

“City Council has been very helpful and receptive to us because they realize that not just poor people, but middle-income people, are getting priced out of Boulder,” Robbins said. “Mobile homes are one of the last places where … a working person could afford to live in Boulder.”

“It’s the most affordable form of homeownership in the community,” Launder agreed. “Some owners enter that market and that’s their first step toward more traditional homeownership, and others live in the community for their whole lives.”

State and city efforts

Boulder is not the only entity that in recent years has enacted policy related to mobile homes. The past two years brought change at the state level as well, and Boulder mobile home owners and Boulder Rep. Edie Hooton played a big role in making it happen.

Among other things, the Mobile Home Park Oversight Program, which began in 2020 after the state Legislature approved an update to the Mobile Home Park Act, is tasked with conducting outreach and education on mobile home park laws, registering mobile home parks annually, receiving and investigating complaints and facilitating dispute resolution between mobile home owners and park landlords.

Although local affairs department spokesperson Brett McPherson said the state cannot provide information about specific complaints, he confirmed the oversight program has received 93 complaints since May 1 with 43 currently in investigation and dispute resolution. Because of COVID-19, the state is prioritizing complaints with a threat of eviction or an immediate or ongoing health or safety concern.

From Aimee Bove’s perspective, now is the time to learn the existing state law and understand how the state program operates.

At Bove Law Firm, she represents some 25 mobile home communities along the Front Range, including Boulder Meadows, and she was involved in drafting and providing feedback on the city ordinances and the state legislation. 

While Bove said she believes Boulder’s ordinances are well-intentioned, she would prefer the local ordinances slow down as the state legislation cuts its teeth.

“We need to give it time for the laws to settle,” she said.

In terms of the upcoming ordinance, which would shorten the time park management has to process applications and complete inspections, Miller said he wasn’t all that concerned about the effect on Vista Village.

“I don’t think it will have any impact because we do everything in a rapid manner,” Miller said.

Regardless, Bove fears it might have unintended consequences on park operators, and she wrote a letter to the city expressing those beliefs.

“The severity of the penalty is being placed on the community. It’s not actually going to make it better for everybody,” she said. “We don’t want to punish communities. We want to make communities better.”

Laurissa Vibhuti, who lives in Orchard Grove, works to build community in her park and to speak up for residents’ rights. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

A unique model

Mobile home communities have a unique dynamic that creates an inherent imbalance since people generally own the home but rent the land where it sits.

“The majority of mobile homes, once they’re sited in a place, never move, and yet the model persisted of renting the land and owning the home,” Robbins said, referencing the time when “trailer parks” actually accommodated people living in trailers who moved frequently.

The Mobile Home Park Act works to protect both interests in the unique structure, according to Bove.

Although no Vista Village resident was comfortable speaking on the record, the homeowners’ association did provide a statement, part of which spoke to the unusual nature of the model.

“It’s become almost a cliché by now, but it is so true: There can always be issues that arise when you own a home, but someone else owns the land beneath it. And importantly, beneath all the homes in a community,” the HOA wrote in an email.

‘Pockets of diversity’

While the communities in Boulder face many of the same challenges, they are not a monolith. Looking out the window of her Orchard Grove home, longtime resident Laurissa Vibhuti could point to multiple homes with varied perspectives and stories to tell. Vibhuti has been active in park politics but also in creating a sense of community among her neighbors.

“Any time you have any camaraderie and community with your neighbors you’re much stronger and safer,” she said. “It’s just all around a better place to live when everybody is connected.”

Vibhuti’s neighbor, Susan Murphy, agreed. She said the neighbors often work together, and it’s well-known when a particular resident has expertise in an area.

For example, Murphy is experienced in grant-writing, while Vibhuti is all about community building and Robbins knows about the laws and history.

“(It) seems like there’s a natural division of labor,” Murphy said. “People sort of taking their own interests, passions and talents and using them to be active in the park.”

Diversity is part of the draw for many. It’s what makes the communities special, and it’s also what made the September ordinance, which ensured translation services are available for residents, so vital.

“They’re just pockets of diversity that contribute to the broader community, economically and socially,” Launder said. 

In another example of how different the parks in Boulder can be, Orchard Grove residents have for years been organizing and speaking out. It can be time consuming, but for residents such as Vibhuti and Robbins, it’s important.

“If you have rights and you don’t stand up for them, you’re going to get run over,” Robbins said. “A lot of people in mobile home parks are still afraid to stand up for their rights. And if they don’t stand up for their rights, then they’re just going to get trod upon. That’s just the way the world is.”

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