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In 2012, a small audience of real estate investors gathered in a conference room in Colorado to learn about a lucrative opportunity.

M.H.U. CLIP: We’ll be together the next 3 days with just one goal and that’s to make everyone here a confident mobile home park investor. So we’re going to show you how to find properties, negotiate ‘em, renegotiate ‘em, finance ‘em…

That’s Frank Rolfe, co-owner of Mobile Home University.

M.H.U. CLIP: … do due diligence on’em, how to properly buy them, close on them, turn them around and operate them — and even sell them.

ROLFE: It’s kind of college-styled, about 30 hours in length, where we teach them everything from finding mobile home parks to evaluating them and running them. 

Eleven years ago, capitalists weren’t clamoring to own mobile home parks. That has changed. Today, investors are cashing in on one of America’s biggest, and most vulnerable, affordable housing markets.

ROLFE: When I bought Glad Haven, my very first eviction was a veteran who had severe mental problems. Very nice individual, but didn’t have her act together in a big way and hadn’t paid rent in months. And I then had to evict her for nonpayment — I had to do something. 

For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: Mobile Home Parks.

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At the dawn of the automobile industry in the 1920s, trailers were toys for the rich — a way to travel the country in luxury. That changed during World War II, when the federal government bought tens of thousands of trailers and used them to create permanent housing communities for factory workers. After the war, dedicated mobile home communities were built to house returning veterans. Over the years, many of these early residents migrated to the growing suburbs. And mobile homes parks — or trailer parks, as they became known — gained a reputation as an inexpensive, last-resort housing option for low-income Americans.

Today, there are around 43,000 mobile home parks in the U.S., home to 22 million residents. That’s a little more than 6 percent of the nation’s entire housing stock. The majority of these parks have historically been owned by mom-and-pop operators, who typically keep rents low and don’t do much maintenance. But that began to shift when people like Frank Rolfe came around.

ROLFE: When I got into it, you were really embarrassed to say you actually owned a mobile home park.

Rolfe didn’t start his business career with mobile home parks. In 1996, he was running a billboard company in Dallas.

ROLFE: When you’re in the billboard business, you’re constantly looking at zoning maps, because you can only build billboards in certain zonings. And I noticed over the years that the most infrequent zoning I ever saw was MH, or mobile home. So I knew, as an economics major, the whole concept of supply and demand. I knew if the zoning was extremely restricted, there must be something valuable to it.

He bought his first park in Texas for $400,000, with a $10,000 down payment.

ROLFE: Everyone — friends, family — they all criticized the basic concept. Many were concerned it would lead me to be, you know, physically attacked or robbed or all kinds of wild ideas, mainly based on the stigma they had from watching perhaps too much television or movies with mobile home parks depicted in them.

Rolfe is one of the five largest mobile home park owners in the U.S. His firm owns more than 250 parks across 25 states — enough lots for 31,000 mobile homes. He parlayed his success into Mobile Home University, which teaches other people how to invest in the industry.

ROLFE: If you look at the top 100 owners of mobile home parks in the U.S., about a third of those all started with our class.

Rolfe says that broader interest in mobile home park investing really took off in the years following the 2008 housing crisis.

ROLFE: You had the Great Recession. And you also had interest rates drop basically to zero. So you had a lot of people looking for alternative investing that did well in recessions, and there were very few things that did. But one that appeared on people’s radar was mobile home parks.

Paul Bradley has noticed this shift, too.

Paul BRADLEY: When I first started attending national trade shows: older white guys by and large. Today, it’s a lot of young men and women, brightly dressed in very expensive shoes, that predominate the trade show.

Growing up in New Hampshire, Bradley had family members who lived in mobile homes. Today, he’s the president of ROC USA, — which stands for Resident-Owned Communities. It’s a nonprofit that represents mobile home park residents. He says there’s a reason mobile home parks are appealing to investors. When you acquire one, you’re buying land. And the residents might own their homes, but they don’t own the land the homes are sitting on.

Turns out, most mobile homes aren’t very mobile at all. They can cost thousands of dollars to move, and 90 percent of them are installed once and never relocated. That gives park owners a lot of power to raise rents at will.

BRADLEY: You know, if I lived in an apartment across the street from an apartment that’s $200 less, of the same quality, I can easily, at the end of my lease, move across the street. In a manufactured home, you cannot easily move across the street, even though the affordability may be that much better. In the words of the industry, these are cash cows. This is what, you know, Frank Rolfe of Mobile Home University refers to as like owning a Waffle House with your customer chained to the booth.

Since Frank Rolfe and his students began investing in mobile home parks, park residents have been feeling the squeeze. According to data from the real estate firm Northmarq, between 2010 and 2021 the average monthly rent on a lot in a mobile home park went up from $382 to $593 — a 55 percent increase. That’s significantly more than the increase in rent on apartments. In some cases, new owners have doubled or tripled rents after purchasing parks.

Cheryl STREBERGER: There is no limit to how much they can raise the lot rent. There’s nothing — nothing in Michigan whatsoever.

Cheryl Streberger is a retired nurse. She lives in a mobile home park in Grand BlanK, Michigan, with her mom. Her parents bought their home for $25,000 in 2007. For years, the lot rent went up $10 per year. But when new owners took over the property, it jumped up $39 per month.

STREBERGER: Today the lot rent has gone up to $645 a month. And that’s not including the fees, the water, the sewer, the trash. We just got the August bill, and it’s $735. It’s a lot for her because all she has — she has a very small pension from my dad, and she has just her Social Security. That’s it. She has a lot of medications that she has to purchase. And, you know, that $39 could go towards a medication or, you know, something for her. Not lot rent.

For residents like Streberger and her mom, every dollar counts. According to Bradley, the median household income for homeowners in a mobile home park is $35,000 — about half that of the median American household. But Frank Rolfe says rent hikes are justified when you look at the bigger picture.

ROLFE: There are people out there right now who have not raised their rents in 20 years — and we’ve bought parks like that. Well, you know, going in, people are going to be mighty unhappy because the rent has been frozen in time. By far the majority are perfectly happy paying the higher rent as you’re making the improvements. Because they never dreamed of living in the world’s cheapest property — they just wanted to live in a nice place. The first thing that most mobile home parks lack is they have terrible street appeal. A typical entry is going to run you at least $10,000 to $30,000 for the entry. Roads can easily run you anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 just on a 100-space property. If you have to replace water or sewer lines, you’re probably talking somewhere in the three or $400,000 range, all the way up to a million. It’s not uncommon out on a park with lots of trees to spend 50- to over $100,000 in removing dead limbs and trees. You’re also trying to reignite their pride of ownership. So once you, for example, put a nice entry in, and a nice office, and fix the streets, at some point people start getting their self-respect back. Because in many of these properties, by living there, they feel inferior because it’s in such poor condition.

Cheryl Streberger confirms that, as well as raising the rent, the new owners at her mobile home park have taken pretty good care of the place.

STREBERGER: When you first drive in to the right of coming into the park, they have the clubhouse, which is nicely decorated outside. The aesthetics look great. We have a pool. There’s a little playground for the kids.

But that’s not always the case.

Blazer ROBERTS: We have a lot of disabled elderly people here. We got families just starting off. And then we got people, you know, that probably lost a lot during Covid and just needed something to start over with, and this is all they had to go to. And that would be me. I lost everything during that time, and I honestly had no choice. 

That’s coming up.

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For Blaer Roberts, living in a mobile home park was a last resort. After more than a decade working as a chef, he ran into health issues and had to dial back his expenses. He bought his home at a park in Warren, Michigan, just outside of Detroit, for $3,000 in 2020, so he could live closer to family. And he claims that his problems there began almost immediately.

ROBERTS: I bought my home and received no title. Probably like half of the people in here. They can’t find our title, so they say. 

After he moved in, the park was bought by an investment firm. The rent he paid for his lot went up. But he says the increase did not come with many meaningful improvements.

ROBERTS: A month after, my neighbor came over and said, “Hey, man, you got a whole bunch of sewage outside your house.” Raw sewage that I found out was the main sewage over here. It’s everyone from a few lots down on mine. So every time that they flush the toilet, it comes up. I done picked up hypodermic needles. We have bad streets, no sidewalk. It’s bad here, man.

Both Roberts and the city of Warren have initiated litigation against the owner of the park where he lives. The case is ongoing and the city declined to comment on it. Roberts says the legal action has led to some improvements. But he still doesn’t feel it’s a safe environment for his kids to visit.

ROBERTS: My oldest, her mother won’t even let her come here. She doesn’t want my daughter in these living conditions.

CROCKETT: Would you say that for you as a resident, this has been a good investment?

ROBERTS: This has literally been the worst place I’ve been. I shouldn’t have never came here. The stress, the mental wear and tear it has on you, them not caring.

In a promotional video for Mobile Home University, Frank Rolfe boasts about the returns he gets on his parks.

CREUniversity CLIP: You only rent the land when you own a mobile home park, so there’s no toilets to fix or issues like that. And the customers are relatively easy to please. They’re just happy to have a roof over their head. So basically, mobile home and mobile home parks equal money. And the returns are very high: normally 15 percent to 40 percent cash on cash.

But for the people who buy mobile homes to live in — people like Blaer Roberts and Cheryl Streberger — the returns aren’t so hot. If you own a traditional home, you own the land it’s on. That land is a scarce resource, which is why traditional homes appreciate at 3 to 5 percent a year on average. But if you own a mobile home, all you own is the physical structure, which depreciates in value over time. It’s more like owning a car than a house.

The typical price for a single-wide — a home that is between 500 and 1,300 square feet — is around $73,000 new. Used, that same unit will go for $10,000 to $25,000. And when residents move out and try to sell their homes to the park, they’re sometimes offered a fraction of that.

STREBERGER: Some of the other folks in other parks have told me that they try to sell theirs and the park offered them like $2,500. And I’m like, “Oh, my gosh.” That’s like — you know, that’s nothing.

Park owners like Rolfe want nothing to do with the mobile homes themselves. They know that the true value of their investment is the land.

ROLFE: We’re in the parking lot business. So we try not to own any of the homes. All we own are the roads, the utility lines, and the common area structures and the common area land.

BRADLEY: A resident owned community is a cooperative. So homeowners get together on a one-member/one-share/one-vote rule. They can set up their own corporation and buy the land from that corporate investor. They still retain ownership of their home, just like they did before. But now they have one share in the corporation that owns the land beneath their homes.

These efforts are financed in partnership with philanthropies like the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Today, around 1,000 of the nation’s 43,000 mobile parks are resident-owned.

BRADLEY: The economic benefits are substantial and grow over time. So first, co-ops have been enjoying lot rents, on average, $50 below market after five years of ownership, and $100 per year below market after ten years of ownership.

Bradley also says that homes in resident-owned communities sell for an average of 16 percent more than homes in investor-owned parks.

BRADLEY: So that’s equity, and that’s real money in the pockets of low-income families. You know, for us, our North Star starts with landownership because it’s hard to build anything on top of land that’s owned by a profit-motivated landlord.

ROLFE: I would say you’ve got at least a couple hundred a year that are town down for redevelopment and virtually none built.

Even so, park owners like Rolfe still have faith in the business model.

ROLFE: Of all the industries out there in America, it’s probably the only one I have confidence in, because it combines housing with being contrarian. And I’m a pessimist by nature. So I like things that do better when things are bad.

Paul Bradley has heard that sentiment before. Most recently, at an airport after a trade show. He started talking to a park owner about recent closures, and the industry’s growing affordability crisis. The owner gave him a knowing look.

BRADLEY: And then he gets a grin on his face and says, “But the profits are just too good.”

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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley, and mixed by Jeremy Johnston and Greg Rippin. We had additional help from Lyric Bowditch and Daniel Moritz-Rabson.

ROBERTS: I mean, it’s like a fracture. You break your arm, you can’t put a Band-Aid on it to fix it. That’s impossible.

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  • Paul Bradley, president of ROC USA.
  • Blaer Roberts, former chef and mobile home resident.
  • Frank Rolfe, co-owner of Mobile Home University.
  • Cheryl Streberger, retired nurse and mobile home resident.


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