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Residents of North Austin mobile home park now own the land they live on

Monday, June 1, 2020 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

A parade of cars, horns honking, rolled slowly through a mobile home park in North Austin Saturday evening. The drivers, the majority of whom live in the neighborhood, had written words and phrases in Spanish on their windows: “Felicidades, “Sí se pudo” and “Es tu comunidad.”

Congratulations. Yes, we could. It’s your community.

Residents of the North Lamar Mobile Home Park celebrated, as best they could during a pandemic, a deal finalized Friday to buy the land their homes sit on from owners who once threatened to raise rents and evict them if they couldn’t pay.

With a mixture of money from various lenders, including the city of Austin and a national organization for cooperative housing, residents agreed to a $7.15 million loan in order to purchase the 69-lot community from two prominent mobile home investors, Frank Rolfe and Dave Reynolds. Nearly all the residents are low-income, making less than $60,000 for a family of four.

AUSTIN, TX. May 30, 2020. A parade winds through North Lamar Mobile Home Park as residents celebrate their ownership change from landlords to cooperative housing. Michael Minasi / KUT

“I am so happy to be a part of this community,” Roberto Sanchez, who has lived at the property for 20 years, said in Spanish through tears and a bullhorn after he finished leading the parade of cars. Sanchez said the fight had been a long one, a culmination of roughly five years of work with organizers and lawyers.

Rolfe, one of the investors, said he was glad the purchase was done.

“Now it’s their property. Now they can raise the rent, they can deal with the capital,” he said Sunday. “We do congratulate them on buying it.”

In 2015, residents said soon after buying the community, the owners began raising rents and utility fees, threatening to evict tenants who could not pay. Rolfe told KUT the park was in such bad shape that rental increases were needed to make repairs. Residents began organizing with City Council Member Greg Casar’s office and the group BASTA (Building and Strengthening Tenant Action).

“We started this struggle because of the way they treated us renters,” Sanchez, who serves as president of the board of residents, Asociación de Residentes de North Lamar, added in a press release. “We were being stepped on because we are a low-income community and they thought we would not fight back. … That’s why we organized.”

AUSTIN, TX. May 30, 2020. Roberto Sanchez, board member and and resident of North Lamar Mobile Home Park, participates in a celebratory parade marking the ownership change from landlords to cooperative housing. Michael Minasi / KUT

In doing so, residents prevailed against some of the largest mobile home park owners in the country and an industry that’s increasingly being controlled by corporate giants.

Rolfe and Reynolds offer classes on how to invest in mobile home parks through their organization Mobile Home University, which advertises an opportunity to “learn to buy, operate, turnaround & sell mobile home parks.” In 2017, the organization reportedly held one of its classes in downtown Austin and some residents of the North Lamar park showed up to protest.

When the mobile home park went on the market in December, residents began putting together a budget and applying for loans, including one from the city. When the pandemic started, residents and organizers met via Zoom and had to find ways to physically distance while signing documents, some of which required “wet” signatures, meaning residents could not sign them virtually.

Organizers said in a statement they hope the North Lamar community inspires other residents of mobile home parks in Austin.

“Hopefully, this sale sparks a larger movement,” Shoshana Krieger, project director of BASTA, said in a statement.

AUSTIN, TX. May 30, 2020. A parade winds through North Lamar Mobile Home Park as residents celebrate their ownership change from landlords to cooperative housing. Michael Minasi / KUT

Over the past decade, several mobile home parks in Austin have been redeveloped, pushing some mobile home owners outside the city. As a result, the city has lost several affordable housing options; a 2014 study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau calculated that urban renters living in mobile homes pay roughly $300 less in monthly rent than tenants living in homes or apartments built on-site.

“You all are the most important thing we have in this community, in the city of Austin,” Casar told residents in Spanish on Saturday. “You are working families that care for each other’s children.”

By signing on to the loan to purchase their neighborhood, the residents also agreed to hike their own rent from $585 to $630 a month. The increase includes money for various infrastructure repairs, including street lighting and drainage. Sanchez called this the end of one fight and the beginning of another.

“We have a lot of projects,” Sanchez said Saturday. “In order to carry on, we have to start a new fight.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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