By Cory Dawson
For months, a cloud of uncertainty has hung over residents of two mobile home parks that are set to be sold — either to an unknown company, or the residents themselves.
Since they learned during the summer that their parks are up for sale by their longtime owner, residents of both the St. George Villa and Sunset Lake Villa in Hinesburg have been working to come up with enough money to buy their parks. They’ve also formed cooperatives to manage the sale process and, perhaps one day, the parks.
“Right after that happened, I think I had 21 or 22 voicemails from people inside the park,” said state Rep. Jessica Brumsted, D-Shelburne, whose district includes the St. George park.
A state law allows mobile home residents time make an offer on the parks, Brumsted said, but they need at least 51 percent of the mobile home owners in the park to agree.
Brumsted and a park resident went door to door explaining to residents what is happening to their park and urging them to come to a meeting where the residents were to start work on forming a cooperative.
Nearly every owner in the park came to the initial meeting, said Jonathan Bond, director of the mobile home program at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity
“I have never seen more people come to the first meeting about their park sale,” Bond said.
The Hinesburg park has 56 homes; the St. George park has 120.
After months of work organizing and finding financing from housing organizations such as the Cooperative Development Institute and Resident Owned Communities, the residents came up with the $6 million to offer owner Mark Kaufman.
Now Kaufman is considering both the residents’ offer and another from an out-of-state mobile home management company that is offering nearly $1 million more, he said. Kaufman declined to identify the company to VTDigger, but he did give a rough timeline for a decision.
“Don’t hold me to this, but approximately within the next 30 days,” Kaufman said on Dec. 22.
Kaufman’s late father, Mortimer, owned and managed the parks for decades. Kaufman said he is not in a position to manage the parks after his father died last year.
Bond said that the additional higher offer has made residents anxious about what will happen next.
“It looks like they fell short,” Bond said. “There’s nothing preventing the owner from selling to the highest bidder. I mean, the law is not trying to take away the rights of the owner, it just makes sure the residents get a fair shake.”
There are over 241 mobile home parks in Vermont, and 11 of them are cooperatively owned, according to the most recent state report.
CVOEO’s mobile home program has been around for 30 years, Bond said. Its main role is supporting the residents’ organizing and keeping them apprised of their rights under Vermont law.
The program also helps with communications and dispelling rumors, Bond said.
For example, when residents first heard their parks were being put up for sale, a rumor spread that the parks were going to close. State housing officials, park leaders and others worked to explain that people were not going to be kicked out of their homes, Bond said. “Under state law it’s clear that a park can close, but it’s a process,” he said.
It would take up to 18 months for a park to close, Bond explained. Kaufman emphasized that closing is not his intention. “They should not have concerns that they will have to relocate,” Kaufman said.
Still, anxiety is real and that hung over the communities through the holidays.
“There are a lot of residents here who are on fixed incomes, who are retired, widowed, widowers, disability,” said Lisa Hodgkins, 50, treasurer of the cooperative at the St. George park. “Because everything is up in the air, it’s not quite the same holiday feeling this year.”
Hodgkins’ sister is Sandra Jarvis, 54, who also lives at the St. George park and is the cooperative’s secretary.
They said people are worried about their expenses increasing. Most residents own their homes but pay rent on their lots. In 2017, monthly lot rents were $385 in both parks, but that increases this year to $400 per month, they said. State law gives residents certain rights to challenge a rent increase should it grow by 1 percent or more over the U.S. Consumer Price Index for urban consumers, according to a CVOEO guide for mobile home owners.
Looking ahead, both said they see advantages to the new organizational model if it can remain in place. A cooperative is a chance to form a more democratic community, Hodgkins said. For example, she added, residents would be able to address problems with their neighbors instead of a far-away company. They could make and change park rules as they see fit.
“Nobody knows better than the residents what needs to be addressed,” she said.
For now though, the worst part of the sale process is the fear of the unknown.
“It’s like you’re hanging. Like you’re treading water,” Hodgkins said.