Trailer Park Ploys
On a bright May afternoon, the mood is celebratory at the North Lamar Community Mobile Home Park in Austin. Dozens of residents in the 69-trailer neighborhood have gathered next to the home of Margarita and Roberto Sanchez. Kids hold signs reading: “Where else will we go?” and “La dignidad del pueblo no se vende” (“The dignity of the community is not for sale”) beneath a banner for the Asociación de Residentes de North Lamar. In this closely-bound community, families get together regularly for birthday parties and weekend barbecue, but this is probably the first time they’ve celebrated a lawsuit.
With reporters assembled, Roberto, the president of the newly formed association, explains that the neighborhood group isn’t backing down from an escalating dispute with the new owners of the park. That day the association had sued the landlords for allegedly violating leases by abruptly increasing rents and threatening tenants with eviction. In a small victory for the association, the court had issued a temporary injunction blocking the evictions.
“For me, living with fear is not living in peace,” Sanchez told the crowd. “What I’m seeking for this community is a community of peace, of justice, because that’s how we’ve lived in the time that I’ve been here.”
In April, the new landlords, millionaire trailer park mogul Frank Rolfe and his partner Dave Reynolds, had mailed notices that rent would be raised from $390 to $450. On top of that, residents would now have to pay for their own water and sewage, up to $170 extra per month. Some families were looking at an instant 50 percent hike. Additional fees were tacked on to monthly statements, including $50 for tenants with more than two cars. Residents began talking to each other: What about the previous leases they had signed in November 2014? They hadn’t expired, so why should they sign new ones? But management was adamant: Sign the new lease or face eviction. The agreement was in English and many residents speak only Spanish. Several residents signed out of fear; others refused. Many received pink slips notifying them they had 72 hours to vacate.
More than an obscure tenant-landlord dispute, the residents of this Austin trailer park had unwittingly become antagonists in a booming industry that makes money off people with nowhere else to go.
What’s happening at the North Lamar park is not an isolated case. The park’s influential new owners are the architects of a ruthless business model of purchasing mobile home parks and then squeezing the tenants with rent and utility hikes and new fees. The method seems to work particularly well in fast-growing places like Austin, where affordable housing is increasingly scarce and working-class families have few options.
The two jointly own 170 properties nationwide, including several in Texas, making them the eighth largest mobile home park owners in the country, according to their website.
Rolfe and Reynolds are perhaps best known for co-founding the online Mobile Home University, where wannabe trailer-preneurs are offered a seemingly airtight formula for successfully buying and operating mobile home parks. The university offers a 3-day “immersion event,” the Mobile Home Park Boot Camp, for $2,499, where future trailer park moguls visit properties and are assured generous returns on park investments.
Investors at the “university” are taught to raise the rent on their newly bought properties — just not too much. Five hundred dollars per month is the “sweet spot,” according to a boot camp newsletter. That’s apparently not enough to bankrupt people working minimum-wage jobs or cause them to flee. After all, it’s not cheap to leave if you own your mobile home, as many do in the North Lamar park. Moving a mobile home costs up to $5,000, and most people, it seems, prefer to absorb rent hikes rather than cede their property to the park owner. “We’re like a Waffle House where everyone is chained to the booths,” Rolfe once told Bloomberg in a now infamous quote.
Property owners like Rolfe and Reynolds bet on tenants not keeping track of paperwork, not knowing when to seek legal help, not organizing to fight back, their critics argue. They take advantage of residents’ less-than-mobile situations to push them to the brink of their budgets. What’s unusual about the North Lamar park is that residents are challenging their comfortable investment model by fighting back.
“A lot of people say I’m crazy, that they’ll evict us, but better to leave walking than on your knees,” said Margarita at the first association meeting.
Rolfe believes that he and Reynolds have been roped into “part of some Austin political agenda that we know nothing about and want nothing to do with.” He dismisses all claims of leases being violated. The majority of renters at the park, Rolfe said, are on month-to-month leases and the new agreements were sent only to those people, not to residents who had signed year-long leases back in 2014.
“Anytime the price of anything goes up, people don’t like it,” he said, comparing the raising of the rent in the park to a recent price hike in his cable bill. “People have been paying hugely below-market rents for years and years. Now we’re portrayed as the bad guy for simply bringing them up to lowest market rent.”
Rolfe and Reynolds added the North Lamar property to their growing empire in January 2015, purchasing it through one of their many corporate entities, NL Austin MHP, and managing it through another, RV Horizons. That same month RV Horizons sent residents a letter, announcing the purchase and promising to “make this the best manufactured home community in Austin.”
Within months, RV Horizons had raised the rent and transferred payment of all utilities to residents. No improvements were made to the park, but Rolfe described how he hired a company to clear out dumpsters of debris that had accumulated over the years. “We’re a little disappointed,” Rolfe said, “because we thought we were the heroes of the park, bringing it back to life.”
But the neighborhood is far from lifeless. Longtime residents have built a close community — the first association meeting was packed with at least 50 people — and the neighborhood is small enough that everyone seems to know each other. Most are working-class and from Mexico. It’s a quiet community, with lots of trees, which is unexpected given that it’s wedged between a car dealership and an indoor archery range and lies a stone’s throw from a freeway. Rolfe admits he’s “never stepped foot in the park.”
A hands-off approach is one of the selling points Rolfe uses with potential investors. He and Reynolds outsource all the day-to-day work of running the park to local co-investors who in turn outsource the work to local managers. That’s the case with the North Lamar park, where Stathis Edel, a graduate of the Mobile Home Park Boot Camp, is the park’s Austin contact. When asked about Edel’s role, Rolfe described him as a “co-investor,” but refused to go into more detail.
Edel declined an interview but in a Mobile Home University radio interview he describes how he left behind his career in the tech industry — he founded “Keeping Track,” a company dedicated to the “stealth monitoring” of employees’ online activities — to live off his mobile home park investments. Owning just a small number of mobile home parks has given him “the flexibility and the freedom to travel a lot more and do other things,” he told Rolfe in the interview.
Edel and his wife own a few properties in Texas, where they’ve put into action the Mobile Home University directives: raise rent, transfer utilities, let the profits roll in. He also runs YourPark.com, which advertises his properties alongside those of Rolfe and Reynolds.
“A housing community is only as good the people in it,” the site reads. “With that in mind, we do everything we can to foster a sense of security and good neighborliness in our communities. We’ve found that taking a proactive approach to management makes everyone feel more personally invested.”
But such high-minded notions are nowhere to be found in the trailer parks. Consider, for example, the Lamplighter Park in San Marcos, which is advertised on YourPark and managed by RV Horizons. Rolfe and Reynolds’ San Marcos MHP purchased the park in December 2014, though the actual trailers are owned by an independent third party. A few months later, residents of the 29-home community were suddenly facing the same financial buzzsaw as the North Lamar folks.
Located just off I-35 near the Blanco River, the park was swamped by the Memorial Day flooding in May. When I visited in June, the curbs of nearby apartment complexes were piled with moldering carpet and damaged furniture. Residents at Lamplighter complained of their own park’s overflowing dumpsters and damage to their homes.
In January 2013, Leticia and Arturo Almanza moved into a two-bedroom trailer at Lamplighter with their three daughters. Until May, their rent was $640 a month, all the couple could afford on their modest wages. Arturo works in construction and Leticia has a temporary job as a custodian at nearby Texas State University. Then, in June, RV Horizons circulated new leases: The rent was going up to $690 and the tenants would pay for utilities. The owners even tacked on a new $40 fee for unmowed lawns.
In late July, the landlords came up with a new deal: The tenants could either buy the trailers or face steep new rents. They want $3,000 for the Almanza trailer, according to the lease, and $425 a month in lot fees thereafter. If they don’t buy, RV Horizons plans to charge the family $1,075 a month — an amount the Almanzas say is outrageous given the dilapidated state of their home.
The trailer leaks like a colander. The roof of the shower is covered in mold, which Leticia worries is making her kids sick. Water from the showerhead drains through a crack in the floor and then runs beneath the trailer and down her driveway. Whenever it rains, she uses a bucket in her bedroom to catch water from a leaky ceiling. She’s complained to management several times but nothing gets fixed. If she and Arturo buy the trailer, management has informed them that they will be financially responsible for all repairs.
Neighbors Melody and Juan, who preferred not to have their last name in print, are also frustrated by the rent hike and the lack of repairs to their trailer. They’ve lived at Lamplighter for four years in a two-bedroom trailer with their eight children. Melody takes care of her ailing mother at a nearby apartment complex during the day and Juan is self-employed. Standing in her living room, Melody looks around and asks, “Why would I want to buy this?”
During the May floods, water seeped in through their doorway and a roof vent, buckling the floor in several places. Management replaced the floors in mid-June, but they didn’t patch up the leaking doorway or replace the missing wall paneling in her children’s bedroom. Nor have they repaired a gap, several feet long, between the wall and the kitchen floor that opens onto the ground beneath the trailer. Melody said the roaches are out of control.
“That’s why they want to sell to us — so they don’t have to do anything,” Juan said. He believes that if they buy the home, the park owners would raise the lot fees again and they’d be stuck. “A lot of things have been changing around here. Who knows how much they’ll be charging next month,” he said.
They’d been paying RV Horizons $575 in rent only to have their rate increased to $640 in June. Melody pointed out that all the neighbors appear to be paying different rents. Juan said he’s spoken with five other families at the park, most of whom don’t speak English, about refusing to pay rent to protest the new charges. “We’ve tried to do something,” he said, “but people are leaving.”
Leticia pointed out an empty trailer across the street, which she said was vacated last month by its occupants after they learned of the rent increase. Broken glass and trash litters the lawn.
While many of the residents of Lamplighter look for a way out, its owners dream of a different kind of flight.
“Now that we’re fortunate enough to have a park or two under our belts — I mean, that’s really the ultimate goal for us — we can basically just take off, we’re not grounded,” said Edel in his radio interview. “No, it’s not world domination. It’s to be more lazy and to go do a little bit more vacationing with all of our kids and go to Greece.”
As of July, Rolfe and Reynolds haven’t enforced the eviction notices at the North Lamar park, even though the injunction expired back in May. But the residents might be in for a tedious legal struggle. Lawyers are looking at each of the 69 properties on a case-by-case basis, determining who signed a yearlong lease in 2014 and who was on a month-to-month arrangement. Further complicating the situation is the fact that some residents signed the new leases and others didn’t.
Robert Doggett, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid who is representing the North Lamar residents, said that Rolfe and Reynolds “have generally said in response to the case, ‘We’ll honor all existing leases.’ It’s a nice block statement, but that gets down to lot by lot — each person has slightly different circumstances.”
The residents’ association has continued to meet during the deluge of storms in May, and an alternative solution to their landlord problem has been thrown around: Why can’t the residents just buy the property themselves and do away with the onerous fees and the prospect of perpetual rent increases? The land alone is valued at over $1 million, but the community, if they are able to purchase it, are considering forming a cooperative. Why let an outsider with no ties to your community come in and determine the fate of your home and family when you could buy the land yourself?
Meanwhile, residents are hopeful. “I have faith in God that the owner’s heart will soften, and that he will be just,” said Perez. “More than anything, he has to meet everyone and know that we don’t have anything against him.”
Rolfe, though, said he has no intention of coming to Austin to meet the residents. He owns a lot of parks and it’s just not feasible. “The story’s done, it’s over,” he said. He doesn’t understand why the North Lamar park was ever in the news. “We don’t get it,” he said. “We didn’t get it from day one. We still don’t get it.”
Spanish translation by Chris Ledesma and Kena Piña.