Trailer parks a risky refuge for RVs

An increasingly common sight: RVs tucked among house trailers in “mobile home communities.”

As the U.S. housing crisis continues unabated, forcing growing numbers of low-income people into RVs as their housing of last resort, the question of where to park all those vehicles has become ever more confounding. Some end up on the streets, of course, and some in those RV campgrounds that have long-term sites available. But a significant if uncounted number end up in trailer courts, which superficially appear to provide a perfect fit.

Yet that security is increasingly illusory, as mobile home communities are being squeezed like never before. Just in the past couple of weeks, for example, the Holiday Park in Minot, ND, told its residents their lot rents were being increased by $400 a month, while residents of several mobile home parks in Mercer County, WV, were told to expect a near-doubling of their rents, by as much as $525. But at least they still have a place to live: residents of Lesley’s Mobile Home Park in Riverdale, UT, have started getting eviction notices months ahead of a May, 2023 planned redevelopment of the property.

One explanation for such jarring developments is the growing appetite for trailer parks among institutional investors, who swept up 23% of all park sales in the past two years, doubling their acquisitions from the prior two-year period. Blackstone, the Carlyle Group, Apollo Global Management, Stockbridge Capital Group and Brookfield Asset Management are just some of the major “investors,” who invariably follow-up on their purchases with major rate increases–or by razing their newly acquired real estate to make way for more profitable uses.

Some of this can be chalked up as the inevitable, if deplorable, result of market economics. An extraordinarily large number of mobile home parks, for example, are located in once-rural areas that over the past 40 or 50 years have been engulfed by urban sprawl, transforming land of marginal value into real estate gold. But sprinkled among those flinty-eyed opportunists with big checkbooks and an unquestioning belief in “highest, best use” is a more loathsome creature, the unalloyed bottom-feeder who not only sucks his prey dry of anything of value, but also welshes on his debts and other obligations.

A leading example of such predatory capitalism is Alden Global Capital, co-founded by Randall Smith, which for more than a decade has feasted on the bones of scores of community newspapers. Its depredations have spanned the American journalistic landscape, from the Hartford Courant (the country’s oldest daily) to the Chicago Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Denver Post and the Oakland Tribune–to mention only a few of its victims. Its initial modus operandi was to gut newsrooms by laying off staff, even as it raised ad and subscription rates. More recently, however, and as comprehensively reported by Julie Reynolds Martinez and by the News Guild, it has resorted to simply not paying its bills and walking away from leases after falling a year or more in arrears.

Newspapers have been in terminal decline for at least 15 or 20 years, making them–like an aging gazelle spotted by a a pack of hyenas–an irresistible target for the Aldens of the world. It’s therefore noteworthy, as also reported by Martinez, that Randall Smith has now become transfixed by . . . mobile home parks. Working under a variety of limited liability corporate names, Smith has acquired approximately 20 such parks in North Carolina and a publicly untallied number elsewhere. And as might be expected from someone with his track record, his first step upon making each acquisition is an immediate rent increase, backed by eviction threats.

Residents of North Carolina’s Big Oaks Mobile Home Park, for example, received a 90-day notice of a rent increase that in at least some cases jumped 60%, from $440 a month to almost $700. Similarly, and at the other end of the country, residents at the Ridgewood Mobile Home Park in Orange County, CA, another Smith-acquired property, were notified early this summer that their rents were being hiked by up to 40%. Adding insult to injury, the notices were all in English, even though nearly all the Ridgewood households speak only Spanish.

While on one level it doesn’t matter which investor is putting the squeeze on a captive client base–a 40% rent increase may be equally intolerable regardless of who’s pocketing it–on another level it can matter a great deal. Sam Zell or Blackstone may be out for every last nickel, but Alden Global Capital and Randall Smith will take every last nickel while turning their properties into cesspools and garbage dumps. They’ve done it with newspapers, which once might have blown the whistle on such predatory behavior, and they’re doing it now with the last places some people have to live.

That’s bad news for RVers looking for safe harbor in a mobile home park, who face the unenviable task–if they’re going to be prudent–of attempting to pierce the corporate veil to find out who actually owns a property. Failing to do so, however, may mean even more heartache down the road for people who’ve already had more than their fair share.

[Full disclosure: I was for about a decade an employee of the News Guild and had a front-row view of Alden’s rapacity. It has gotten only worse since then.]

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Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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