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Resident-Owned Communities Intersect Housing and Climate Justice

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Thursday, May 4, 2023   

By Ray Levy Uyeda for Prism.
Broadcast version by Mike Moen for Minnesota News Connection reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration

Natividad Seefeld has tried to quit her role as co-op board president many times. As she heads into her 12th year in the volunteer position, the problem is that she’s too good at the job: managing the everyday and long-term infrastructure, community, and logistical needs of the Park Plaza Cooperative, a resident-owned manufactured housing community in Fridley, Minnesota, located 10 miles north of Minneapolis. 

Since purchasing the park from its previous owners in 2011, residents have improved roads and sewer systems, added more streetlights, implemented water meters at each home, and built a new tornado shelter that doubles as a community center, among other improvements. Until that year, residents had been at the mercy of the park’s owner to respond to infrastructure and environmental problems. The tornado shelter wasn’t easily accessible by wheelchair, neighbors kept to themselves, and residents struggled to tackle the increasingly challenging impacts of climate change. 

Across the country, residents of manufactured housing communities are entertaining the idea of cooperative housing—both as a way of wresting control of living conditions from absent owners and ensuring that their housing remains affordable. Manufactured homes are constructed in a factory and later placed on a plot of land. The average cost of a manufactured home, according to the U.S. Census, is between $57,300 and $108,500. 

Often referenced as the largest stock of affordable housing in the U.S.—18-22 million people live in manufactured housing across the country—it’s increasingly become untenable for fixed- and low-income residents. While residents largely own their own homes, they still pay what’s called a “lot rent” or a “lot fee” to the owners of a park for the land under their homes. This fee can cost up to $800 at some parks, where most often residents never see a return on their investment. 

“Manufactured housing [is] supposed to be the most affordable way to live right now,” Seefeld said. 

But at resident-owned communities, lot fees stay within the community and fund the projects that Seefeld has become so skilled with executing. Since going co-op in 2011, the park has only raised rent a handful of times. This past year, lot fees increased by $5 to fund the construction of new homes within the park’s boundaries. 

“All your money just evolves in a circle basically, to completely run your community day to day,” Seefeld said. 

Where housing justice and climate justice meet 

Manufactured home communities gained popularity in the U.S. during and after WWII; the housing units could be built easily and cheaply, while zoning regulations often pushed the homes to the outskirts of city centers. The idealized American Dream could be achieved with a lot less money.

Though many people may know the fabricated housing as “mobile” housing because it’s possible, in theory, to move the homes after they’re placed on a lot, it’s extremely difficult and costly to do so. Some homes, built in the 1960s or earlier, are just too old to move without damaging the structure, while other communities have rules about how old a home can be if it’s new to the park. 

Construction and safety standards were formalized in the mid-1970s with the National Manufactured Housing Construction and Safety Standards Act of 1974, which gave oversight authority to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 

While the majority of manufactured home residents nationwide are white, the lower-cost housing option is an increasingly desirable alternative for those who struggle against historical and ongoing forms of economic and housing discrimination

It’s also a form of homeownership that’s become increasingly tenuous in the wake of the 2008 mortgage lending crisis, as the gap between the very wealthy and poor grows, and as individual landlords hope to sell their parks and retire. More and more, private investors and corporations utilize government-backed loans with low interest rates to purchase manufactured home parks for tens of millions of dollars. According to the Financial Times, corporations have tuned into manufactured housing because there are fewer site-built rentable units to purchase that haven’t already been scooped up, not to mention that they have a 4% rate of return—about twice the average nationally for real estate. 

As the current cost of housing prevents most people from owning homes, more and more are looking to manufactured homes as a solution. This creates demand, and this demand makes parks appear like a worthwhile investment. Private companies that coach investors on the purchase of manufactured home communities boast how parks have a guaranteed longevity built into them: if a private investor-owner raises lot fees after their purchase, it’s well understood that because of the challenges baked into moving one’s home, most people have no choice but to remain. For those who decide to stay and face the threat of unaffordable 40-60% rent increases, eviction notices soon follow

Low- or fixed-income, Latinx, Indigenous, and elderly residents comprise a large and growing share of manufactured housing residents. The median household income for residents of manufactured housing who own their homes is $35,000—about half of the average income of site-built homes. The U.S. states with the highest share of manufactured homes are also those with the lowest per-capita income, like Mississippi, South Carolina, and Alabama

While the lower-cost housing option is a viable alternative for individuals who want to own their home but might not otherwise have the means to purchase one, low-income homes and manufactured housing specifically face unique climate challenges. In the West, residents of mobile home communities face outsized risk of wildfire. In the West and Southwest, drought and extreme heat are concerns, especially for residents on fixed incomes who can’t afford additional air conditioning. In the Southeast, hurricanes and flooding are ongoing threats, while Midwest residents contend with tornadoes

The challenges differ, but what remains the same is that the likelihood of severe wildfire, storms, and other weather events have increased dramatically in recent years due to the increase of the planet’s temperature. One analysis of 504 weather events found that 71% were made more intense because of human-caused climate change. Other research has found that climate change has caused more intense hurricanes to occur more frequently.

Residents of manufactured home communities in Florida live with the seasonal threat of hurricanes and the subsequent consequences of flooding and stormwater runoff. As NPR previously reported, residents are responsible for paying tens of thousands for home damages but remain powerless to address underlying systemic infrastructure needs that could help mitigate or prevent those damages. 

But the increasing frequency of major weather events is just part of the equation; there’s also the fact that manufactured homes aren’t anchored into the ground like a site-built home might be, meaning that the homes are physically less resistant to intense weather events. For instance, studies show that 40% of tornado-related deaths occur in manufactured housing communities. Then there’s the ownership element, where residents are typically responsible for the damages done to their homes. 

All forms of affordable housing nationwide are most at risk of coastal erosion, sea level rise, and flooding, meaning that low-income individuals are also those most likely to be affected by repeating and extreme weather events. This puts even more pressure on the stability of manufactured home communities.

One project, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is allowing researchers in New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont to evaluate the unique impacts that hurricanes and storms have on manufactured home communities. 

Sean Birkel, the lead investigator of the resiliency study, said that the one-year grant will help officials create a database of manufactured home communities to “network and communicate with one another” to share safety strategies. After Tropical Storm Irene devastated parts of the Northeast in 2011, state officials in Vermont saw how manufactured homes fared significantly worse than site-secured homes. Since that time, the state has invested millions of dollars through grants, trusts, and tax credits to ease the financial burden of manufactured homes residents. 

In the decade since Irene made landfall, Vermont has also made it a priority to map out where vulnerable communities sit. With this study, Birkel said that they might be able to prevent future destruction through better planning and communication with residents ahead of weather events. 

Collective ownership allows for self-determination 

Not all hope is lost in the face of increasingly devastating climate impacts. Some legislatures are responding to the growing call for resident power when it comes to turning their communities into co-ops. In recent years, states like New York and Colorado, along with major cities like Los Angeles, have passed what’s known as “opportunity to purchase” legislation, which allows tenants to organize and present an offer of purchase to the landlord. And with the help of organizations dedicated to resident ownership, the movement for tenant rights and climate justice has found a worthy middle point. 

Seefeld’s community was purchased with the help of a network facilitated by a New Hampshire-based organization called Resident Owned Communities USA, otherwise known as ROC USA. Since 2008, ROC USA has worked in 21 states to help 304 communities purchase their homes. ROC USA works with local affiliates, referred to as technical assistance providers, to train board members on cooperative leadership, bookkeeping, policy advocacy, and day-to-day maintenance. Seefeld helped start ROC USA’s resident association, which communicates resident needs and concerns to the organization. 

Mike Bullard, the vice president of communications for ROC USA, said that one of the main benefits residents retain is control—over rent, over infrastructure changes within the community, and of course, over one’s future by ensuring that the park won’t be bought by an investor. Bullard said that across the board, residential communities are raising their rents an average of 0.9% a year. 

In Seefeld’s community, residents of the Park Plaza Cooperative are excited about the adjustments they’ve made that allow them to get ahead of potential natural disasters, as with the construction of the new tornado shelter. But in other ways, resident-ownership simply means that they have the ability to respond quickly to climate pressures that are outside of their control. 

Take the influx of the invasive beetle species called the emerald ash borer, which burrows into trees and blocks the flow of nutrients throughout the trunk and branches. Insect-borne plant diseases are made worse because of climate change, and the emerald ash borer has killed more than 100 million trees nationwide. Cumulatively, that impacts a forest’s ability to sequester carbon. The Nature Conservancy estimates that insect and disease damage leads to the equivalent of an additional annual 50 million tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because of the lack of sequestration. 

At Park Plaza, 20 trees have been cut down because of an emerald ash borer infestation, and Seefeld said that residents have noticed how their homes are hotter in the summer and louder when the wind picks up. Just this year the damage has cost $20,000. 

Twenty miles south of Park Plaza in the Woodlawn Terrace Cooperative, a 53-unit, 5-acre park, board president Bev Adrian is working with city officials to increase park residency, thus increasing cooperative cash flow, which she hopes will enable the park to address its own infrastructure issues.

Woodlawn Terrace Cooperative is young in its resident ownership, having signed the paperwork on Dec. 30, 2021. The cooperative is a member of the ROC USA network, and Adrian sits on the advocacy and policy committee with ROC USA. In the year since accepting collective ownership, residents have conducted consistent water testing to manage the aging well water system. Adrian said that because of the homes’ condition, they’re not good candidates for solar panels, but she hopes to put in a community garden as well as some fruit trees.

The main task now is conducting outreach to immigrant and BIPOC residents in nearby Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, to advertise that cooperative homeownership is possible at Woodlawn Terrace and that the homes might be a more affordable alternative. 

At $100,000 per manufactured home, Adrian knew that the price point was restricting people earning minimum wage from considering the cooperative. She said that city officials in Richfield, Minnesota, approached her and offered to apply for a state grant that would help fund the installation of homes as well as offer grants of up to $20,000 for first-time homebuyers. The city is also helping to translate advertising and application materials into Spanish. 

Adrian hopes that these actions will make the cooperative “successful, and make it family friendly and more inviting.”

While the infrastructure changes residents are making to their communities once they assume ownership are, for all intents and purposes, climate adaptations, most residents wouldn’t say that climate change is the main motivating factor. The primary concern, residents said, is their daily quality of life, including building community. With collective ownership, residents talk to each other more frequently—they know each other’s names and families.

“I just can’t imagine not knowing all the people and being part of their lives and going to birthday parties and eating together and babysitting and you name it,” Seefeld said.

Ray Levy Uyeda wrote this article for Prism.

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