The Inclusive Economy
"Everybody Has a Voice": Transforming Niche Ideas into Thriving Communities
By Andrea Levere on 02/10/2017 @ 10:00 AM
In late December, NPR’s “All Things Considered” featured a two-part series on life in manufactured home communities.
In the first segment, NPR Correspondent Daniel Zwerdling walked listeners through life in the Syringa Mobile Home Park in Moscow, Idaho. The families who have lived in Syringa for decades remember the “good old days,” but those memories have faded, Zwerdling notes. Squalid conditions and unscrupulous practices by the community’s owner have left residents without running water or fully functioning sewage systems, while roads in the community have become almost impassible due to disrepair.
For residents of Park Plaza in Fridley, Minnesota, Syringa would be almost unrecognizable. As Zwerdling explains in the second segment in the NPR series, Park Plaza is a thriving community. Families in the community—just 30 minutes from Minneapolis—have a great deal of pride in their mobile home park. Although their homes may be modest, residents enjoy life in Park Plaza, in part because of the amenities it offers, but mostly because they feel like the other members of their community are family.
Ultimately, the contrast between Syringa and Park Plaza is Zwerdling’s powerful way of illustrating the potential of resident ownership in manufactured home communities. Unlike its Idaho counterpart, Park Plaza is owned by the residents who live there. But this wasn’t always the case. Park Plaza residents established a cooperative with help from the Northcountry Cooperative Foundation, working in partnership with a national social venture, ROC USA, which guided the residents through the daunting process of purchasing their community when it was put up for sale and at risk of being redeveloped. Beyond the residents’ ability to continue calling Park Plaza home, the result of their purchase is that they have say in all aspects of community life—something the folks in Syringa don’t enjoy.
Indeed, Zwerdling tells a compelling story, but perhaps even more compelling is how the idea of resident ownership came into being in the first place, and how it has taken off into a nationwide, full-scale approach to helping families live better lives.
In Paul’s home state of New Hampshire, folks have seen manufactured houses as an opportunity for affordable homeownership for decades. But manufactured homes carry many risks that their site-built counterparts do not, one of which is that the residents typically own their home but not the land underneath it. If the owner of the land decides it is more lucrative to sell that land to a developer, the residents are left with few options. Typically, residents can pay to move their homes (which, contrary to popular belief are far from “mobile”) to a new site, or they can abandon their homes altogether. If homeowners are forced into the latter of these “choices,” they not only walk away from their homes—they walk away from the stability and security they enjoyed as homeowners.
In 1984, after seeing one community after another go up for sale or face closure, the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund—which would soon become Paul’s employer, acted on a powerful idea: What if the people who owned their homes could also own the land in their community, much like owners of condominiums own a portion of their buildings? One transaction led to another, and today, the Loan Fund has converted 25% of the manufactured housing communities in the state—without ever losing a penny. After working almost 20 years in New Hampshire, Paul decided to take resident ownership to scale nationally, and launched ROC USA® in 2008.
Today, ROC USA provides financing, technical assistance and a range of support services to residents of manufactured home communities who want—or need—to purchase their parks. ROC USA’s network of Certified Technical Assistance Providers, which includes nonprofit organizations like the Northcountry Cooperative Foundation, helps owners navigate the process of securing financing, negotiating sales prices, establishing homeowners’ cooperatives and more. ROC USA and its Network is one of two social ventures in CFED’s Innovations in Manufactured Homes (I’M HOME) Network. Next Step is a social venture focused on delivering new energy-efficient manufactured homes “done right.” I’M HOME’s national partners also include other value-add organizations like Rebuilding Together and policy experts like the National Consumer Law Center. These I’M HOME National Partners are the leading nonprofits focused on leveraging the benefits of the country’s largest stock of unsubsidized affordable housing.
In all, the resident-ownership model has transformed from a niche idea in New Hampshire into a major game-changer for vulnerable families in states like Minnesota, Washington and everywhere in between. For families feeling the despair that comes with the possibility of losing their homes and their very livelihoods, the opportunity to purchase a community and establish a cooperative transforms this loss into hope, pride and security. ROC USA has proven that with thoughtful partnership and abundant patience, a small idea can blossom into now 200 thriving communities and 12,000 homeowners.