Grinnell, Iowa resident Alisa Schroeder lives in Willows Mobile Home Community, a manufactured housing site recently bought by a national company called Impact Communities.
She’s a financially struggling single mom of an autistic son. Her brother, who has paranoid schizophrenia, earlier this year moved out of the same community because he couldn’t keep up with the nearly 70 percent rise in rent prices imposed by the new owners, formerly known as RV Horizons, despite already owning his manufactured home.
A few months ago, Schroeder said that she herself was subject to intimidation by the new Impact Communities — a tactic commonly used against Iowa’s 136 manufactured housing communities owned by out-of-state companies, including 38 acquired since 2018.
When Schroeder accidentally wrote 36 cents in change on her rent check when it was supposed to be 63 cents, she got it returned to her and an eviction notification — which was only dropped after she cried to her landlord. But she still had to pay a $50 late fee.
“All because I messed up. I did mess up, it was my fault, I transposed those numbers,” Schroeder said. “So I had to pay my lot rent plus a $50 late fee and they stopped the three-day eviction notice. And all because of a little mix-up like that.”
According to the Iowa State Association of Counties, there are at least 550 manufactured housing communities across the state. Polk, Linn and Black Hawk counties have the most out-of-state owners.
Fear of predatory companies taking advantage of the lack of protections mobile home residents see in Iowa is what led Schroeder to speak up, along with over a dozen similar residents from manufactured communities in North Liberty, Iowa City and Dubuque, among others throughout the state.
“We just want to live a good life. We want the same things everybody else does … We have so many members of our community that want to say something,” she said, but noted they are fearful they’ll get eviction notices if they lean against the new owners.
Schroeder even expressed worry that she might be stepping too far by addressing the panel of half a dozen legislators that gathered at the Statehouse on Saturday. They have been meeting before preparing companion bills set to be introduced in the Republican-controlled House and Senate chambers on Jan. 13 when the 2020 session opens.
Sen. Zach Wahls (D- Coralville) led the gathering, held on Saturday in the Iowa Supreme Court chambers and told Schroeder, “We’re not gonna let them kick you out,” as she tearfully left her spot at the microphone.
Impact Communities also owns the Table Mound Mobile Home Park in Dubuque County, who brought a big group down to the Iowa Statehouse, supporting each other by wearing purple shirts saying ‘Table Mound Neighborhood Strong.’ Residents living in Utah-based corporation Havenpark Capital Partners’ mobile home parks also came to Iowa’s capital in large numbers.
Late in the 2019 session, the Iowa Senate unanimously approved a bill that would have required manufactured housing park owners to have a “good cause” to evict residents and give a 180-day notice of rent increases. Only two months’ notice is required under current law.
The legislation died at the very end of session in the Iowa House while the chamber was rushing to adopt other measures, but legislators at Saturday’s hearing seemed to understand how perilous the state’s lack of support for manufactured homeowners was for Iowa’s affordable housing stock.
“This is the first red flag that’s being raised here in Iowa, actually not the first, but one of the first, that we have a total lack of affordable housing. Both in rural Iowa and in urban Iowa. Everywhere we have a lack of affordable housing,” Sen. Claire Celsi, (D-West Des Moines) said. “In Seattle and San Jose, it’s people sleeping in tents on streets. Here it’s people getting kicked out of manufactured housing places … We’re not creating enough opportunities for affordable housing across the board in our state.”
Sen. Tony Bisignao (D-Des Moines), said Iowa has dealt with the same issues of fairness and renters’ rights for 30 years since he’s been in the Legislature.
“This isn’t something that just emerged in the last hour of the session last year,” Bisignao said. “Someone has their hair on fire, and that’s these out-of-state owners who came in and are abusing Iowans, and that’s why it became critical last year. And now, it is going to be dealt with, which it could have been dealt with over the past 30 years.”
Nearly two-thirds of the way through the public hearing, Jodie McDougal, a lawyer representing the Iowa Manufactured Housing Association, of which and Impact Communities and Havenpark are active members, spoke about the “realities” of owning a manufactured housing community.
“It’s really important that we have all the information on all of the realities so that we can do what I think everyone wants, which is to maintain a good source of affordable housing that’s needed in Iowa,” McDougal said. “In particular, we don’t want these homes, these communities to go to developers who are going to take it away and close it down and turn it into apartment complexes or commercial.”
The association was involved with the issue’s rise at the end of session last year. Bisignao said he’s concerned about the lack of transparency the group had during the process, saying he’ll push for the reformed rights of manufactured housing residents this year.
“When the council says that they’re in discussion with Legislators, I was on the subcommittee, that brought that to the final hours of session last year. And no one has contacted me from the Manufactured Housing Association for their council,” Bisignao said, and that he interprets that to mean is that this issue is being approached through leadership.
“It’s special interests going to leadership, and that’s not going to happen this year. We’re going to make this an issue,” he said.
Manufactured housing residents in the audience then directed their qualms to the Iowa Manufactured Housing Association.
“How can you sleep at night?” one woman proclaimed from a folding chair near the edge of the overflowing room.
by Isabella Murray