Iowa City mobile home residents protest skyrocketing rent

Residents of mobile home parks across Iowa came together to lobby legislators for homeowners' rights in 2019 at the Iowa State Capitol. (Courtesy Candi Evans, Iowa Manufactured Home Residents Network)

By Amie Rivers

October 23, 2023

When Judy McKillip and her husband neared retirement 24 years ago, they bought a mobile home in Iowa City’s Modern Manor and found a close-knit community.

“It was good to stay among friends,” McKillip said. “We played cards together, we bowled together. It was a good group of us all together.”

She said Modern Manor’s owners kept the lot rents reasonable for residents on fixed incomes, and were timely about upkeep. Even after McKillip’s husband died nine years ago, it still felt like home.

“It was the nicest place around here—very pretty, always neat,” she said.

When Havenpark Communities bought the park, McKillip remembers them telling residents that not much would change.

“There’s nothing better than the feeling of coming home to a community you enjoy living in,” Havenpark Communities‘ website says. “Our goal is to provide that for our residents.”

But residents of mobile home parks that have been bought in recent years by Havenpark say their communities have become much less enjoyable, with services like mowing and snow removal taken away, and lot rent prices jacked up quickly.

At Modern Manor, McKillip—now 81—has dealt with multiple rent increases she can’t afford on her Social Security insurance check. Havenpark doesn’t mow her grass or shovel her sidewalk like the previous owners did, and a burned-out streetlight has made her street pitch black for the last two weeks.

“[Havenpark] said, ‘Well, if you don’t like your rent, move.’ Well, they bought the five nicest ones in Iowa City,” McKillip said.

And if she wanted to move the home she owns, it would cost thousands—if, that is, she can even find a place to move it to. Some parks, residents say, only accept newer homes.

“You don’t just back up your car and pull these babies out,” she said.

Housing crisis hits mobile home parks

Mobile homes—or manufactured homes or trailers—are one of the last ways in the United States that low-income residents can afford to buy their own home, with payments in the hundreds of dollars per month, not thousands.

But such parks in the last few years have become targets for private equity and investment companies, which have steadily bought up previously family-owned parks to profit from them, raising rents along the way.

It’s called real estate financialization, and it’s happening in many sectors of real estate. A handful of wealthy investors increasingly has gained control of more and more of the total housing stock in the US, according to a MinnPost article from 2021.

One outcome of this is it’s harder to actually buy a home these days: Single-family homes, previously bought and sold by individual families, are increasingly bought by wealthy investors and then rented out for far more.

And mobile home parks are no longer immune: Rents are rising at places Havenpark owns in Iowa, both residents and Havenpark confirmed.

“Residents at some Iowa parks did receive notice of rent increases over the past several months, though still keeping rents below market rate,” a Havenpark spokesperson told Starting Line, saying those increases were “reinvested into the parks … to enhance residents’ experience and increase home and resale values.”

Sarah Furnish, who has lived in Lake Ridge Estates in Johnson County for the past 13 years, said her experience has not been enhanced. Park security guards, a staple at Lake Ridge, are now gone; trash and recycling pick-up was cut in half; and “almost no one answers the phone” at the manager’s office.

Yet rents keep rising: Her own rose $150 in the past two years, where previously lot rent went up $5 per year.

“For people on Social Security or disability, they made plans to be able to stay in their home on the low income they know they were going to have,” Furnish said. “Those people (are) going to be forced out.”

Raising rents, slashing services

Havenpark Communities, previously known as Havenpark Capital Partners, is a Utah-based company that owns five mobile home parks in eastern Iowa, another in Waukee, and others in the Midwest.

Golfview Mobile Home Park in North Liberty was one of the first in Johnson County to be bought by the company. Candi Evans, a resident of Golfview, said the previous park owners did basic maintenance like regular mowing of common areas, litter pickup, and replacing burnt-out streetlights.

This year, Evans said Havenpark didn’t mow common areas for months, litter pickup wasn’t done at all, and streetlights weren’t being replaced.

“The safety of the parks has greatly diminished,” she said. “Areas of the park are pitch black at night!”

Iowa City mobile home residents protest skyrocketing rent

The home of Candi Evans, in Golfview Mobile Home Park in North Liberty. (Photo courtesy of Evans)

In a statement, Havenpark disputed that it was not replacing streetlights, except in the case of “several solar-powered streetlights” in parts of some parks, installed by a former owner, “that are not working as well as anticipated in the Iowa climate.” The company said it would be replacing those solar lights “in the coming year.”

But Havenpark did not dispute that it had removed lawn care services.

“It is standard in Iowa City and the state of Iowa for residents to care for and mow their own lawns,” the company said. “After purchasing these communities, Havenpark changed the services provided to reflect that market norm.”

Residents say that may be common for homeowners who own the land under their homes, but mobile homeowners pay lot rent expect mowing and other services in exchange.

“That’s all we’re getting from them is a place to set the home on; that’s it,” Furnish said. “These people do not care at all … They have investors they have to pay.”

Taking action to save affordable housing

Those were some of the reasons Evans co-founded the Iowa Manufactured Home Residents Network, which advocates for residents’ concerns through regular meetings and public action, as well as advocating for legislation and a tenants’ bill of rights.

“Residents are suffering and communities are being torn apart,” the group says on its site. “We need lawmakers to restore basic fairness to both sides, ensure manufactured home residents have rights at least as strong as those of other renters, and preserve affordable housing for Iowa’s future.”

They’re holding a Know Your Rights forum for mobile home residents on Tuesday, Oct. 24 at 6 p.m. at the Johnson County Fairgrounds, where residents along with Iowa Legal Aid will be on hand to discuss problems and potential solutions.

Iowa City mobile home residents protest skyrocketing rent

That group is also part of the larger Johnson County Affordable Housing Coalition, which advocates for solutions.

“People with lower and moderate incomes are most disadvantaged by our housing system,” the group says on its site. “And the problem is growing more significant, as rents and home prices steadily rise while incomes stay the same.”

Escucha Mi Voz, which advocates for new Iowans, was instrumental in passing new code changes that could help build more affordable housing in Iowa City.

And it’s not just Johnson County: On Tuesday, Oct. 24, there will be a Town Hall for Housing Justice in Davenport from the Quad Cities Tenant Alliance, formed in the aftermath of the building collapse in downtown Davenport that killed three and displaced dozens.

The problem is much larger than just Havenpark, Furnish said.

“Every single park is more expensive now,” she said. “There’s other corporations like this that are buying parks, but they’re all the same kind of corporate profit model where they have to make a profit to pay investors. … These people don’t care about anybody but themselves.”

  • Amie Rivers

    Amie Rivers is Starting Line's community editor, labor reporter and newsletter snarker-in-chief. Previously, she was an award-winning journalist at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier; now, she very much enjoys making TikToks and memes. Send all story tips and pet photos to [email protected] and sign up for our newsletter here.

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