Chesterfield Mobile Home Park Could Be a ‘Model’ for Revitalization
By Keyris Manzanares and Mark Robinson
On a hot summer evening, Alvaro and Rebecca Hernandez tend to their bountiful garden.
Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers fill the plots around the Hernandez home at Bermuda Estates, a manufactured housing community in Chesterfield County. Like the Hernandez’s garden, the neighborhood is flourishing, too, thanks to long-awaited investment and new nonprofit ownership that has committed to working with residents on the park’s revival.
“I feel happy and proud to be able to give my family a home, and to be given the opportunity to live here, and to feel the support of the people who come to offer us housing without being afraid to say they are going to evict me or raise the rent every year,” Alvaro Hernandez said in an interview.
Hernandez, who has lived in the community for 12 years, said it wasn’t always this way.
Bermuda Estates is tucked just off a busy section of U.S. Route 1 in Chester. A single road runs through the middle of the park, and about 50 homes are arranged on either side of it. Latino families live in the majority of them. Most, like the Hernandez’s, own their homes but pay rent to a landlord for the ground on which they sit.
Compared to traditional stick-built houses, mobile homes can offer an affordable opportunity for home ownership in a region and state where those are increasingly rare. But the chance to build equity comes with the arrangement that means your investment is subject to potential rent increases and a landlord’s maintenance of the surrounding property.
For years, Bermuda Estates was plagued by poor infrastructure, aging homes in need of critical repairs and a park owner who didn’t adequately maintain the property.
Chesterfield County administrators knew conditions at the park were poor and in some cases unsafe, but they also knew residents weren’t to blame, said Dan Cohen, Chesterfield’s director of community enhancement.
“The county was always in a difficult position about what to do with [Bermuda Estates], because on one hand, they knew that it would like to have the units fixed,” Cohen said. “On the other hand, they wanted to make sure that folks wouldn’t be displaced.”
Chesterfield’s code enforcement arm repeatedly cited the park’s former owner for violations, in what Cohen described as a concerted effort to pressure them to sell the property. Eventually, it worked.
But then came another challenge: What if the next owner didn’t fix things, either?
As the county’s pressure campaign came to a head, investment firms around the country were snapping up mobile home parks at a rapid pace. Some, like Six-0-Five Village Mobile Home Park in Louisa County, saw rents rise dramatically after being bought by an investment firm linked to a hedge fund.
It’s unclear how many mobile home parks across Virginia have been affected by the trend, but an analysis of CoStar sales data by the Manufactured Home Community Coalition of Virginia found that 84% of parks in the state that sold in the past five years were purchased by out-of-state buyers.
Fortunately, Cohen said, Project:HOMES was interested in Bermuda Estates and able to broker a deal. The Central Virginia nonprofit is known for its affordable housing development, home weatherization and repair programs. It closed on the property for $1.95 million in September 2020.
After purchasing Bermuda Estates
Its team began meeting with residents and assessing their most pressing needs. The first order of business was building trust, said Madeline Petrie, Project:HOMES’ director of mission advancement.
“Not only did we want to provide high-quality housing, but we wanted to also undergo a thorough community engagement process, so that we could really fully understand the needs of the community members and provide amenities and resources that match those needs,” Petrie said.
The nonprofit made a promise: It would make repairs without displacing families from their homes — and without hiking rents. To do that, it raised $4.2 million, including $800,000 from Chesterfield County, according to Petrie.
Project:HOMES repaved the community’s lone road and added a turnaround at the end, eliminating the need for children to catch the school bus on busy U.S. Route 1. It also addressed badly needed sewage repairs.
A home-by-home assessment of major repairs has taken place, said Zack Miller, the nonprofit’s director of housing innovation. He is overseeing renovation of the park’s existing housing.
In addition to fixing the existing homes, Miller has led the design and construction of a custom-built manufactured home — complete with a conditioned crawl space, HardiePlank siding and a front porch.
Unit by unit, Project:HOMES will replace the park’s existing structures with the custom-built ones. Six new units will be wheeled into the park by the end of the year.
“Since we took over the park, the No. 1 thing we wanted to do is bring some better replacement units into the park for those that want and need them,” Miller said.
Residents can purchase one of the new homes for between $25,000 and $35,000 — about one-quarter of what it would typically cost to buy and install a new unit, Miller said. The nonprofit was able to effectively subsidize the sale price to residents, who are the only ones eligible to purchase the new units, through its fundraising efforts.
Even with the improvements, the park’s lot rent remains unchanged: Petrie said residents pay $483 per month.
Democratic State Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, whose district includes parts of Chesterfield County, said the community’s revitalization should be duplicated at other parks to preserve what is the only unsubsidized form of deeply affordable housing.
She proposed a new state law earlier this year that would have incentivized mobile home park owners to sell to a nonprofit by providing a tax credit. A Senate committee did not take action on the measure, though lawmakers are expected to weigh it again during the upcoming session.
“I think what we’ve done here in Chesterfield County has provided a very important example,” Hashmi said. “We’ve also created the pathway for other organizations and other localities to move forward using the kind of partnership and collaboration that we’ve seen in Bermuda Estates, using that as a template, as a model that others can replicate.”
In addition to the housing and infrastructure upgrades, Project:HOMES built a new community center, which houses the nonprofit’s on-site management and maintenance staff. The center hosts events, like a weekly class for English-language learners, and will soon have a new playground for children living in the park.
Park management also hired a full-time Spanish-speaking community liaison and established a resident leadership council, which Alvaro Hernandez joined.
“[Project:HOMES] has done a lot of work,” he said. “We are very happy about that. They are not just interested in coming and collecting the rent.”
He beams with pride when talking about his community.
“I have that great privilege of feeling my house is a home, because here is my family,” Hernandez said. “We are a family.”
Mark Robinson is a Richmond, Virginia-based journalist with more than a decade of experience.
Co-published with VPM News.