Louisa Mobile Home Residents Living in ‘Precarious Position’
By Keyris Manzanares and Mark Robinson
The trailer that Gabino Felipe owns at Six-0-Five Village Mobile Home Park is one of the only places his family can afford to live in Louisa County.
But Felipe might soon be priced out of the place he has called home for the past six years, as a nationwide trend threatens one of Virginia’s most affordable remaining sources of housing. Pending lawsuits could stave off a steep rent hike that residents allege violated their lease terms and state law. But a ruling in their favor later this month might only win temporary relief.
“It’s sad to be in this situation because you don’t know what to do, because this is where [my] family lives,” said Felipe, who leads a resident organization that he helped form in response to the rent hike.
He added later: “I have nowhere to go. And that’s hard not only for me, but for a lot of people who have kids [here]. There are mothers who live with their children in the trailers, and that is very difficult.”
Felipe, 46, was born in Mexico and makes a living repairing machinery in a factory. In an interview, he said he was one of the Six-0-Five’s earliest Spanish-speaking homeowners. Now, according to him, Latino residents make up the majority of the community. He shares his trailer with his sister and a niece.
Their community is in the town of Mineral, about an hour northwest of Richmond and 30 minutes outside of Charlottesville. It has about 100 homes situated around a rutted grid of roads that residents said are long overdue for repaving and drainage repairs.
During the pandemic, the mobile home park’s longtime owner sold it to Homes of America LLC, a New Jersey-based company linked to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. The $3.7-million sale, which included Six-0-Five and another mobile home park in Caroline County, closed in 2021, per a public notice on the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development’s website.
Homes of America has rapidly bought mobile home parks across the country in the past few years, including one in Southwest Virginia. Like other investment firms that have taken an interest in mobile home parks, its purchases have been followed by rent increases that housing advocates said seek to squeeze profits from residents caught in a unique bind.
Many mobile home park residents own their trailers, like Felipe, but rent the ground on which those homes sit. In return for paying lot rent to a landlord, mobile homeowners rely on that landlord to maintain the park and infrastructure.
In December, Six-0-Five’s management tried to raise lot rents by more than 40%. The increase would have meant Felipe’s monthly rent payment increased from $445 to $625.
A ‘precarious position’
While trailers are referred to as mobile, that is seldom true in practice, due to the age of the structures and how costly it is to relocate them. Tenants are faced with a choice: Shell out higher rent or leave the home they’ve poured thousands into buying and maintaining.
“Living in one of these manufactured home communities is a very precarious position to be in, because, especially if you’re a homeowner, you’ve invested thousands and thousands of dollars, like your life savings,” said Gustavo Espinosa, a community organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, who has worked with Six-0-Five Village residents.
“The landlord can just not renew your lease or they can offer you a lease that’s impossible for you to pay, and you have to leave,” Espinosa said. “Because the trailers are more or less stuck, you would lose that investment unless you could sell it.”
The Manufactured Home Community Coalition of Virginia, a nonprofit that focuses on issues affecting residents of mobile home communities, said that investment firms — like the one that bought Six-0-Five Village — are driving the trend.
While there are no official statistics on the number of parks purchased by hedge funds around the state, an MHCCV analysis of sales data found that 84% of Virginia mobile home parks that sold in the past five years were purchased by out-of-state buyers.
For families at Six-0-Five living on modest or fixed incomes, there are few, if any, other housing options nearby for $445 per month.
In Louisa County, the rent for a two-bedroom apartment the size of Felipe’s trailer would cost $1,300 — almost three times as much as he currently pays. In Richmond or Charlottesville, it would cost close to four times as much, according to rental data from CoStar.
Even so, Felipe said some residents had no choice but to move on, leaving some of the park’s homes abandoned.
Felipe doesn’t want to move. Faced with the prospect of the 40% rent hike, he and other residents organized and eventually sought help from the Legal Aid Justice Center. Its attorneys tried to broker a meeting with park management to air residents’ concerns, to no avail, said Victoria Horrock, a senior supervising attorney with the organization.
Horrock is representing Felipe and 14 of his neighbors in lawsuits filed earlier this year. They accuse Six-0-Five’s owners of instituting the rent increase in the middle of their respective leases and without giving residents the 60-day notice required by state law.
Horrock said the legal action was a last resort.
“These folks organized on their own and have really shown a lot of solidarity in the face of this outside, faceless company coming in and trying to wring all this money out of this park and folks who really don’t have it,” Horrock said.
Even after the lawsuits were filed, Felipe and other residents have continued to receive harassing messages from the park’s on-site manager about rent, according to messages reviewed by VPM News. Some threatened eviction, Horrock said.
Residents have also been hit with what they allege are illegal late fees stemming from their refusal to pay the rent increase.
The park’s management also sent a letter encouraging residents struggling to pay the rent to sell their homes. One resident, Georgina Gonzalez Gomez, said she isn’t interested in selling.
“This letter was sent to me a month ago,” Gomez said. “It tells us that if we no longer want to live here, and we cannot pay the $625 [in rent], that we can sell the trailer back to [management], but that they will come to examine the trailer’s conditions, and depending on how it looks, give us the price.”
Questions relayed through Homes of America’s attorney — William Johnson, of Scott Kroner PLC — were not answered by publication.
However, in August the company sent a statement via Johnson that read, in part: “Since purchasing Six-0-Five two years ago, [management] has renovated homes across the community, while also catching up on years of deferred maintenance inherited from previous ownership, including spending considerable resources to alleviate long neglected water issues.”
The statement also noted Six-0-Five Village management had replaced mailboxes at the entranceway and trimmed trees for safety. It said the company looks “forward to continuing to work with the residents and surrounding community” to improve the park.
The lawsuits are scheduled for trial in Louisa General District Court on Sept. 28.
Horrock said she is hopeful a settlement can be reached beforehand. But even if there is one, Felipe and other residents are bracing for the rent to go up no matter what.
Management has already said they plan to levy a rent increase when leases turn over.
Mark Robinson is a Richmond, Virginia-based journalist with more than a decade of experience.
Co-published with VPM News.