This story is the second in a two-part report on conditions at mobile home parks in the U.S. Read part one here.
If you had strolled one Saturday afternoon through the Park Plaza neighborhood in Fridley, Minn., you might have thought you were at just another block party. The residents were milling around a picnic buffet on folding tables on the street in front of their houses and the American flag. Kids were tossing beanbags and shouting. Neighbors were delivering Jell-O and marshmallow salad, and a pot of pork, cilantro and beans.
But this was not an ordinary picnic. Residents were celebrating the fifth anniversary of a major achievement that could inspire similar communities across the country: The day they began to take more control of their lives.
Park Plaza is a mobile home park, or what industry calls a manufactured housing community. Five years ago, the residents banded together, formed a nonprofit co-op and bought their entire neighborhood from the company that owned it. Today, these residents exert democratic control over almost 9 acres of prime suburbs, with 80 manufactured houses sited on them.
"It's pretty wild," says Carleton Dahl, one of the resident-owners, as he eats a hot dog. "Been a big change around here."
Picture a mobile home community, and your image might look like Park Plaza. Most homes are white, brown or gray rectangles, with aluminum siding and pickup trucks parked in front. Some homes are bordered with flowers. Others have piles of junk.
There are no precise figures, but the U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are more than 8 million manufactured houses across the country. Housing specialists say they're an important source of affordable housing.
"Where else could you live close to a city for this kind of money?" asks Natividad Seefeld, the elected (and unpaid) president of Park Plaza.
Minneapolis is less than half an hour away, yet a used two-bedroom manufactured house in Park Plaza recently sold for only $2,000.
"We've had people that've lived here 20-plus years," Seefeld says.
So the residents were stunned one day almost seven years ago when a letter showed up in their mailboxes from the park's owner, saying that he was considering selling Park Plaza.
Seefeld and other residents say they had never seen the owner. Now he was about to turn their world upside down.
That letter spotlights the main legal and financial drawback to living in most manufactured housing communities. When you buy a home there, you own the walls, roof and floor, but a private company or investor owns all the land under and around the house. Homeowners pay rent to keep their homes there. The company can sell the land and kick out the residents and their houses whenever it wants, except in a few states that have given residents legal rights to resist.
Typically, the companies that own mobile home parks also own the infrastructure, and the less money they spend maintaining it, the more profit they can make. Housing specialists say that's one of the main reasons why many manufactured home parks look worn down and scruffy — like Park Plaza did before they formed a co-op.
Residents showed me pictures of the old streets with potholes everywhere. Some were so big that kids would play in them after it rained. The water pipes were so old they would rupture a few times a year, and everybody would go without water — sometimes for days.
Still, residents were stunned that they might have to move. Many would have a tough time affording anyplace else. Some residents at Park Plaza work in electronic or machine tool factories sprinkled around the neighborhood. Some work in construction, or at the Target warehouse nearby, while others are retired or live on disability.
Despite being called mobile homes, manufactured houses are actually not very mobile: It costs thousands of dollars to move one. And that's too expensive for residents like Seefeld. She recently switched from driving a forklift to expediting shipping at a General Mills factory.
"Oh my God, I make $20,000 a year, if I'm lucky," Seefeld remembers thinking, as she kept staring at the park owner's letter warning he might sell. "Now, what?"
A multimillion-dollar solution
Then one week later, the residents received another letter inviting them to a meeting to learn how they could save their community. About 70 residents attended, sitting nervously in a room with thin carpets and bright fluorescent lights at the Fridley public library.
Kevin Walker, a community development specialist from the Northcountry Cooperative Foundation, stood up front and gave them surprising news: If they wanted, his organization would help them buy Park Plaza and run it democratically, for the good of the residents.
The foundation, based in Minneapolis, collaborates with ROC USA, a national network of development specialists. Since the late 1980s, ROC has led a legal and financial campaign to help residents take over almost 200 mobile home parks across the nation. As the meeting unfolded, Walker displayed a series of posters showing how the residents of Park Plaza could pull it off.
First, the Northcountry Foundation would help them form a co-op — every homeowner who wanted to join would chip in a membership fee, usually around $200. Next, they would elect a handful of their neighbors to a co-op board of directors. Then, Northcountry would help the co-op borrow enough money to buy Park Plaza.
When Walker put up the next poster, Seefeld recalls, residents were stunned.
"We had this big white sheet of paper in front of us, with $4.3 million written on this sheet of paper," she says. "Some of us are on disability, some of us are retired. Where are we going to come up with $4.3 million?"
Walker's next poster showed the answer: Mobile home parks are a profitable investment. For instance, the real estate company that owned Park Plaza received $400 a month rent from every household, generating almost $400,000 a year in income.
Walker told the residents that his foundation and ROC USA could likely help them get the huge loan they would need. After all, the federal government requires banks to invest in low-income housing.
One of the residents, Pat Streeter, says she was open to hearing Walker's idea, but didn't see how it could work. Park Plaza was such a fractured community, she says, that she hardly knew a single neighbor in that meeting room.
One of those neighbors, Mara Hernandez, remembers thinking: "I am janitor. I'm very afraid."
Seefeld says she was scared, too. But growing up had prepared her for this moment. As a kid, "we didn't know where the next meal was coming from," she says. "And that's not just hyperbole."
Her parents kept moving the family from rental to rental. "I think they were always trying to keep one step ahead of being evicted," she says.
They even lived in their station wagon for a while, next to a beach near Los Angeles.
Seefeld says as she listened to the meeting, she knew she could never move again. She stood and faced the crowd. She's less than 5 feet tall and often speaks in a quiet voice. But she has an intensity that grabs people.
"I said 'Close your eyes for a minute, and think, What would I do if they said I had to move today? But you have to take your house with you, too. Where are you going to put it? Where are you going to get the money to move it? What about your family? And say, 'Oh my gosh, I don't really have anywhere to go. I have nowhere to go.' Then you realize, I have to do it," she says.
And the residents did it: They voted that same night to form Park Plaza Cooperative. The banks lent them $4.3 million. And one year later, the residents bought their community.
Learning to build a community
I dropped by one evening as the board of directors was holding its monthly meeting in a chilly community garage.
Board members seated around a bare folding table tackled one agenda item after another: the status of the new, brighter street signs (almost ready); one resident's proposal to erect some American flags (passed); and the need to keep enough cash in certain co-op bank accounts.
In the process, they demonstrated how technical advisers from Northcountry Cooperative Foundation have been training them to run a multimillion-dollar community. ROC USA's contract with the residents requires them to get technical assistance, such as how to run a meeting using Robert's Rules of Order or how to manage finances, from a development agency like the foundation.
Meanwhile, the entire Park Plaza community has been learning to make decisions, too. All the co-op members can vote on major projects. They voted to increase the monthly rent, and then to spend several hundred thousand dollars of the income to help renovate the park. They voted to replace the old water pipes, so the community never goes without water. And they voted to resurface the streets. I didn't see a single pothole.
Residents say that as the co-op matures, it's building a sense of community.
"For instance, there's a neighbor down the street," says Streeter. "She grows vegetables in her garden, and she brought me a fresh head of broccoli, and said, 'Hi, I thought you'd like to have this.' "
And Streeter says when the neighbor got sick a year ago, she made soup and other food for her and her children. They're small gestures, but Streeter says nobody made them before Park Plaza went co-op. "I didn't know my neighbors enough to do that," she says.
Still, residents say that managing their own community does not bring nirvana. They still have neighbors like Rusty Welton.
"He probably won't talk to you," one of his neighbors said as I was looking for his house.
Welton had a reputation for being a grouch, one of the board members told me. His driveway used to be littered with his dog's feces. The board kept issuing violations against him, and warning that they could evict him for breaking the co-op rules.
But after I told Welton that I heard he's an Army veteran, he warmed up and agreed to talk. He showed me his two Purple Hearts; he got shot twice in the Vietnam War, and now he can barely walk. He showed me old photos of a handsome young man — himself — holding his M16 rifle next to a bunker made of sandbags.
But when I brought up Park Plaza, Welton shut off the conversation. "I don't want to be part of it at all," he said. He laughed derisively. "I'm sure the money ain't being managed properly."
Before I left his house, I asked Welton about the picnic coming up to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the co-op takeover. He scoffed. He wasn't going to waste his time going, he said.
And that highlights another problem at Park Plaza: When a co-op has members who don't take part, a handful of others tend to do everything themselves.
Like Seefeld. A few days before the fifth anniversary celebration, she got sick with such bad laryngitis that at times she could hardly talk. Yet one moment she was mowing a community lawn, then climbing a 12-foot ladder to replace a light in the community garage, then driving to Target to buy all the food for the picnic.
Some residents say Seefeld has become both a victim and a cause of a thorny problem, which is common in organizations. She gets so impatient to get things done that she often does them herself — not just chores, but making important decisions. Meanwhile, residents see her take charge, so they don't volunteer to help.
"You have to remember, this is new to us, running our own community," she says. "It's going to take time for people to get involved." Then Seefeld adds, more quietly, that there's another reason she gets impatient. She has a rare brain cancer that's likely incurable.
"I try not to think about the fact that I have cancer, because you could just drown in it and not want to live," she says. "Right now I have a lot to do. I got the infrastructure done for our community, and there's still so much more. We need a playground for the kids, because they have no place to play." She pauses and wipes her tears. Taking over this community has given her life a new mission. "Sometimes you come in the park and you come when the sun's coming down, and you think to yourself, 'I wish I could just give a big, giant hug around the entire community.' And say, 'Look you guys, we did it. We finally did it.' "
"We are like a big family"
It's Saturday afternoon. The party for the fifth anniversary of the co-op takeover is underway. Co-op member Maria Ortiz watches the action from beside the cake and brownies table. She says she's never seen a manufactured housing park like Park Plaza.
"Everybody has a voice," she says. "You own a little piece of where you live, you know? So it feels like we are like a big family."
Just before I leave, a surprise guest shows up — Welton, driving his red mobility scooter. And then he mingles, asking another co-op member where she lives.
"I'm going to stop by and say hi to you one day, OK?" he says, flashing a big smile.
I needle him and suggest he's taking a baby step toward being part of this community. Welton laughs. "You must be confusing me with somebody else, man."
NPR's Jani Actman and Riley Beggin contributed research to this story.