ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. Trailer parks have an image problem. There are nice ones, of course, but the stereotype is more rundown, rusty mobile homes perched on the outskirts of town or out in the country. Millions of Americans live in these communities and struggle to get ahead.
New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein has the story of a small nonprofit called ROC USA. It tries to make life better for trailer park residents.
DAN GORENSTEIN, BYLINE: Every morning, Judy Stoddard picks herself up out of bed and drives to Boston, Monday through Friday.
JUDY STODDARD: And I do the back roads, which gets me there in an hour and 40 minutes.
GORENSTEIN: Judy is 71 years old.
STODDARD: I'm exhausted when I get there. I'm exhausted when I come home.
GORENSTEIN: She drives those back roads for a reason.
STODDARD: I don't see well. My vision isn't as good.
GORENSTEIN: That's an understatement; she can't see out of one eye. But as long as her rent keeps creeping up, she keeps going back to work.
STODDARD: I can't retire. I want to keep my house. And I've put a lot of work in this house. I don't want to lose it.
GORENSTEIN: Judy's caught in this vice grip that's familiar to nearly three million Americans. They own their mobile home, but rent the land underneath. See, despite the name, these homes aren't mobile, so if the current owner lets the park deteriorate or a new owner decides to build a grocery store on the land, people like Judy Stoddard could wind up losing the home they live in and the financial investment they've made.
Owning the home and renting the land also makes it nearly impossible to build equity like any other homeowner. ROC USA's mission - the reason they exist - is to ensure that people in mobile home parks are treated like homeowners everywhere else.
PAUL BRADLEY: This is worth looking at, over here on the wall.
GORENSTEIN: ROC USA president, Paul Bradley, has framed up this quote in his office.
BRADLEY: A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock pile when somebody contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind.
GORENSTEIN: That's how it is for Bradley Mobile Home Parks. He sees what few others do. One, he believes parks are an important part of the nation's affordable housing stock, especially out in the country. And, two, because lots of residents already own homes, they're in a position to profit.
What Bradley's group does is help people form a co-op when a park comes up for sale. If the co-op's bid is accepted, ROC finances the deal and - poof - these tenants are transformed into homeowners with control over the land beneath their feet.
BRADLEY: Since we launched in 2008, ROC USA has helped 2,200 homeowners in 35 communities purchase their parks and gain economic security.
GORENSTEIN: ROC's work in 2012 is projected to more than double over last year. That means helping some 1,000 families, including Judy Stoddard. Bradley wants to triple that.
BRADLEY: We are dead serious about scaling our impact.
GORENSTEIN: Scaling our impact is Bradley's way of saying he's not satisfied being some niche artisan goat cheese producer. This guy wants to be Kraft.
BRADLEY: I want resident ownership to be available to every homeowner group in the country that wants to buy their community.
GORENSTEIN: ROC USA has a long way to get there. Today, there are an estimated 50,000 mobile home parks nationwide. Bradley says about 1,000 are currently resident-owned co-ops, so a lot of his time is taken up hunting for investors and Bradley's had success with backing from foundations like Ford, Rockefeller and Calvert.
But ROC wants to tap more than the social investor class. Bradley wants profit-hungry Wall Street types, people with deep pockets.
DAN LETENDRE: We met Paul Bradley and the team and concluded that they've got a great business model and a great opportunity.
GORENSTEIN: That's Dan Letendre with Bank of America. Bank of America has put $13 million into ROC and Letendre believes resident-owned mobile home parks could be a big business, but it's going to take time. The banker says most major investors don't carry community organizing outfits in their portfolios.
LETENDRE: Investors tend to invest in things that they know. In the end, this will work when investors look at the track record and conclude: I can lend ROC USA money. I can invest in ROC USA and I can get a good, safe, attractive return and get my capital back.
GORENSTEIN: Bradley takes all that to heart. As he knocks on doors, he opens with ROC's track record.
BRADLEY: On over $200 million worth of total lending, not a single lender has lost a single dollar over the course of the last 30 years.
GORENSTEIN: When it comes to the people who own the parks, the potential sellers, most of them have never heard of Paul Bradley or ROC USA's seemingly impressive track record, but when they do, George Allen, an Indianapolis-based owner, says most of them are open-minded. What trips some up, says Allen, is the idea that their tenants will become owners.
GEORGE ALLEN: Because they have to take them to small claims court, often, to get their money because they've got to go and mow the grass because they don't take enough responsibility to mow their own grass. In other words, when you have - when you deal with those kind of things every day, day and day, the idea of thinking that these people, that generally are incapable, being in charge of their own destiny.
GORENSTEIN: The issue Allen raises might be ROC USA's biggest challenge: the notion that these people aren't capable of helping themselves. What's interesting about what ROC is doing is that by changing the rules of the game, these people have a chance to prove skeptics wrong.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)
GORENSTEIN: Gary Thulin used to have a nickname for his 1967 single-wide.
GARY THULIN: The dump.
GORENSTEIN: Gary lives with his wife in Breezy Acres, a small New Hampshire park that went co-op back in 1991.
THULIN: We did have mold problems. The roof did leak. We were ill all the time. We had pails to catch the rainwater. It was horrible.
GORENSTEIN: About two years ago, the couple locked down a $50,000 loan - no small feat for a guy with almost no credit. But the nonprofit lender understands and, most important, trusts this co-op model. So the couple bought themselves a brand new three bedroom mobile home, putting it right where the dump had sat.
THULIN: The first thing I wanted to do was invite some people over for coffee. For a long time, 20 years, couldn't ever do that. I was embarrassed about my home. Boy, I got out of jail, man. I got out of jail.
GORENSTEIN: Finally, the 70 year old feels set up. Changing the economic model changes everything. It means a guy who's chased money forever can rest. Gary says he has something now that he's never known before.
THULIN: I really can have my own place and be a respectable part of a community and we were never allowed to do that before, people in my situation. And I'm not a second class citizen anymore and I'll be damned if we're going to be thought that way. I'm a citizen and a part of a community.
GORENSTEIN: Gary says stability used to be a dream. Now, he says, he and his wife could sell their home, pay off the loan and walk away with ten grand. When ROC USA's Paul Bradley dreams, he dreams of Gary Thulin, lots and lots of Gary Thulins.
For NPR News, I'm Dan Gorenstein in Concord, New Hampshire.