Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Community-owned mobile parks keep eviction at bay. Can they work in North Carolina?

Residents formed the United Neighbors of Hiatt St. Mobile Homes Association after receiving an eviction letter. (Photo courtesy Siembra NC)

Although Southern states hold the largest share of manufactured housing (mobile homes) in the country, few communities are resident-owned, leaving them vulnerable to developers, and eviction.

This story was published in partnership with Enlace Latino NC.

Three years ago, Maggie Beiza stood in the Jamison Mobile Home Park in Greensboro, North Carolina, for the first time and marveled at the neatly manicured homes and neighborhood.

“Oh my god, it was perfect,” she said. Then, in Spanish, she added: “It’s such a peaceful community.” Beiza prefers to speak in Spanglish, emoting in the language that fits the situation best. 

As rental rates increased, Beiza and her family bounced around a few apartment complexes. But then in 2018, she and her husband bought a trailer for $7,000 and settled in the manicured mobile-home park on Hiatt Street, where it costs less than $300 a month to rent a plot of land. The affordability also gave the couple a sense of security: they could grow their family while saving money to buy a house in the future.

“This is the place we’ve lived the longest,” Beiza said. And her family had planned to spend a few more years there. But on July 12, residents of Jamison Park received a letter from the park’s owners, Family Properties, saying they had 75 days to vacate the premises. 

Mobile homes, in reality, are not very mobile at all and require steep, upfront costs to move. Greensboro’s alt-weekly newspaper Yes! Weekly recently reported that a Jamison Park resident estimated that the minimum cost of transportation, purchasing a lot, and hooking up power and water would be $46,000. 

Beiza said eviction never crossed her mind. She and the 18 families in the park — all Latinx immigrant families — are still shocked. Many of them have lived there for two decades. Beiza says most of her friends in the neighborhood are single mothers.

“I’ve spent many nights without sleep,” Beiza said.

Mobile homes and trailers, known as manufactured housing, are affordable for low-income communities, especially Latinx residents who live at or below the poverty level. Nationally, Hispanics represent about 13% of manufactured homeowners. In North Carolina, manufactured housing accounts for 13% of the housing stock.

“Mobile home parks have been a respite from many of these problems for thousands of families across the state,” said Kelly Morales, executive director of Siembra NC, a local nonprofit serving immigrant communities. “They are often inside of or close to city limits, they are family-friendly, give our people space to grow gardens, and often become small interdependent communities.”

Morales added that as many cities in North Carolina experience fast-paced growth, working people are increasingly forced to choose between proximity to work and affordability when looking for housing. 

“This issue is of course exacerbated for Black and Latinx North Carolinians who for various historical reasons have less access to generational wealth and financing options,” she said. 

As a solution, Morales and Siembra NC are helping Jamison Park residents purchase the park from Family Properties and become a resident-owned community. As organizers think through ways to navigate North Carolina’s maze of housing and zoning laws to help residents like Beiza, they’re looking to communities in Texas who’ve been successful at purchasing their mobile-home communities. 

Mike Bullard, communications director for ROC USA, an organization that supports resident-owned communities throughout the country, says the current mortgage market combined with differing state policies make it difficult to buy out a mobile-home park. Bullard says that the average cost of a community-owned park is $2.5 million; over the last 10 years it has steadily climbed to almost $3 million. 

But some states, like Colorado, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Oregon, and Vermont, have passed Opportunity to Purchase (OTP) policies, meaning that if an entity decides to sell a manufactured community, it is required to give residents the chance to match that offer and “negotiate good faith for them,” says Bullard.

“But in the majority of states there’s nothing like that,” he added. North Carolina, for example, has not passed any OTP legislation.

ROC USA has successfully supported 280 resident communities in 18 states throughout the purchasing process, with a total of 19,791 residents housed in neighborhoods they own themselves. The communities work through a limited equity or low-cost share co-op model with ROC USA lending up to 110% of the costs.

“There’s a very low financial entry to join the co-op,” Bullard said. “It’s meant to be accessible.” He also said that while advertised as a thirty-year loan, “the idea is after 10 years of resident ownership they have enough equity to refinance in the traditional real estate market where they can get a cheaper rate.”

Jamison Park residents are also up against local ordinances that give investment companies permission to swoop in. In June, the Greensboro zoning commission voted unanimously to rezone the area where Jamison Park is located, allowing Family Properties the option to sell to an investment company. A month later, Family Properties sent out the letter threatening to displace Hiatt St. residents. 

Residents formed the United Neighbors of Hiatt St. Mobile Homes Association after receiving that eviction letter in order to fight back.  When the association  marched to the Family Properties office in August, someone from the office unplugged the microphone, according to Siembra NC. On Aug. 24, United Neighbors sent a letter to Owl Roost Properties (ORP) — the company Siembra NC says is in talks to purchase Jamison Park from Family Properties — asking for a meeting to discuss purchasing the park. They have not received any response from ORP or Wass; neither responded to requests for comment from Southerly

In North Carolina, there’s also state law G.S. 160D-910, which allows local governments to regulate the location, appearance, and dimensions of mobile homes, also known as manufactured housing, but prohibits the total exclusion of manufactured housing from a jurisdiction. 

However, cities like Greensboro have rezoned from residential to conditional use to allow for investment firms and commercial property companies to purchase trailer parks — such as what happened in Jamison Park this summer. Additionally, these “zoning barriers,” as they’re called, give local government authority to require communities to uphold a set of standards that often edge them out of existence. These conditions are often subjective measures such as safety, quality, appearance, and how they might impact neighboring property values. 

OTP exists to combat these policies; however, there are policies that go even further. The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which exists in various cities in different provisional policies, has been used by residents and organizers as an anti-displacement tool. It gives tenants who rent in multi-family buildings or lease plots of land in mobile home parks advance notice that the landlord is planning to sell, and legally grants them the right of first purchase and the opportunity to match an offer. 

Southern states hold the largest share of manufactured housing in the country, however many jurisdictions in this region, including the entire state of North Carolina, don’t have the legal protection that gives mobile-home residents a chance to buy their communities when developers go after them. Still,  residents and community advocates have had some success, like PODER Emma in Asheville, a cooperative network of worker- and resident-owned co-ops that includes 44 units of permanent, affordable housing in Asheville’s Emma neighborhood. (PODER Emma co-op members chose not to speak to the media at this time.) 

And this summer, 45 families in Wake Forest were forced out of their mobile home park after the property owner sold it to Middleburg Properties to build a future mixed-use apartment community. The residents presented a case for purchasing the land, but eventually settled on Middleburg’s commitment to distribute $375,000 for their moving costs. Neighbors also set up a crowdfunding campaign. 

Siembra NC presented the buyout solution because a member of the organization, alongside ROC USA, had already helped organize a park in Austin, Texas, to become a resident-owned community in June 2020. It was an example of the power of community organizing, and a possible blueprint for other mobile-home parks across the South. 

“Models like ROC’s help people who otherwise might have a lot of trouble accessing affordable, permanent housing do it together and stay close to their jobs, in addition to remaining an integral part of our cities,” said Morales of Siembra NC. 

In a Texas trailer set up for weekly meetings, Esthela Garza and Blanca Vega sit at a conference table facing a Zoom call. Both mothers and grandmothers, Garza and Vega are also president and vice president of the Pasadena Trails Cooperative. Along with a total of 114 families,  they collectively purchased the mobile home park where they live in 2009, with the help of ROC USA.

“It was a blessing,” Garza said in Spanish over Zoom.

They explained how before the purchase, the families, majority Latinx, lived in constant trepidation over being accosted by new rules decided and enacted by the property manager without resident input. For example, teenage girls were often accused of loitering in their own yards. 

“We weren’t allowed to give our opinions about anything,” Vega said, “in a free country.”

“So we took the risk,” Garza said.

For the Pasadena Trails community, that risk paid off. Since 2009, each lot has stayed at a fixed monthly rental rate of $292. The neighbors meet weekly and at least 80% of them attend the annual daylong meeting where they vote on plans for the year. 

One of the first things the board wanted to tackle was stormwater management. Vega remembers the bus stop getting flooded as kids waited to get to school. They saved a portion of incoming rent payments to put in drainage systems and widen the entrance to the parks. Years down the road, when Hurricane Harvey pummeled Texas in 2017, the Pasadena Trails park came out unscathed and without any flooding. It freed the residents up to help other members of their larger community in the storm’s recovery process.  

Since then the community has also put in new street lamps. Both Garza and Vega’s adult daughters bought mobile homes and became co-op members as well. The residents communicate regularly through a Whatsapp group and make all decisions together at their in-person meetings, which have gone virtual during the pandemic.

Garza has been board president for nine years. Her advice to mobile home residents facing eviction is to research the cooperative model and align with a group like ROC USA. 

“People need to get active in order for things to change,” she said. “We always have a right to our opinion.”

“You live with this fear that you come home from work one day and see a note on the door that the community is for sale. Once the residents purchase it, they have a sense of security, is what I hear them say so often, that they can live there as long as they want to,” said Bullard of ROC USA.

“Homeownership in a commercially-owned community is half the American dream. You don’t have the benefits when you rent the land under your house,” Bullard added.

The Hiatt St. vecinos, as they are called among the community, have continued to increase strength in allyship and put pressure on the CEO of Family Properties through phone calls and letters to try to engage in a conversation that they hope will, ultimately, foster a deal so they can stay. 

Back on Hiatt St. in Greensboro, N.C., Beiza is encouraged by the potential opportunity to buy the park she lives in. 

“I had no idea you could do that as a community,” she said.

Victoria Bouloubasis covers the intersection of environmental issues and economic mobility in Latinx, immigrant, and refugee communities in North Carolina for Southerly and Enlace Latino NC. She is a journalist and filmmaker based in Durham.

This story was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.