ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now we continue our look at manufactured housing communities, or mobile home parks. There are tens of thousands of them across the U.S. In most cases, private investors own the land that the homes sit on. As we told you yesterday, these investors don't always take care of the property.
Well, today, NPR's Daniel Zwerdling takes us to a mobile home community in Minnesota where residents confronted with that problem took matters into their own hands.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: One, two, three...
DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: This is a big day at Park Plaza in Fridley, Minn., and it could inspire mobile home parks across the country.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We have pistachio salad. We have pasta salad. We have beans.
ZWERDLING: The residents have set up a picnic buffet in front of the park's office and the American flag, and they're celebrating the fifth anniversary of the day they started taking control of their lives. Paulette Durrah is eating a hotdog. She says, we know what the outside world calls us.
PAULETTE DURRAH: People refer to you as trailer park trash, and they kind of sneer at you.
ZWERDLING: So listen to this. Five years ago, Durrah and the other residents banded together and formed Park Plaza co-op, and they bought this entire neighborhood from the company that owned it. So now these residents have democratic control over almost nine acres with 80 manufactured houses. Meet Carlton Dahl. He's got a vote.
What's it like to be a part owner of your own $4 million business, your community?
CARLTON DAHL: Wow, it's pretty wild - been a big change around here.
ZWERDLING: Picture a mobile home community, and it might be Park Plaza - lots of aluminum siding and pickup trucks. Some homes are bordered with flowers. Others have piles of junk. A few days before the celebration, the co-op's president took me on a tour.
NATIVIDAD SEEFELD: So we're going to go around this way.
ZWERDLING: The president's name is Natividad Seefeld. She works in the shipping department at a General Mills factory. She's under five feet tall. She's always moving.
SEEFELD: Hi, Marissa. How are you?
ZWERDLING: Surveys estimate there are up to 50,000 manufactured housing communities across the country. Seefeld says, where else could you live close to a city for this kind of money? Minneapolis is less than a half hour drive away, and you can buy a used two-bedroom house in Park Plaza for $2,000. I'll repeat that - $2,000.
SEEFELD: We've had people that have lived here 20-plus years.
ZWERDLING: So the residents were stunned one day almost seven years ago when a letter showed up in their mailbox that basically said...
SEEFELD: Your park's going to be sold, your community.
ZWERDLING: The owner was planning to sell Park Plaza. And that letter spotlighted the main problem with manufactured housing parks across the country. When you buy a home there, you own the walls and the roof, yes. But a private company or investor owns the land. You have to pay them rent to keep your house there, and they can sell the land and kick you out.
SEEFELD: This is an owner sending us a letter that we had never met before, we've never seen on the property.
ZWERDLING: It's not as if everybody loved Park Plaza. It was kind of dumpy. Typically the companies that own mobile home parks also own the infrastructure, and the less money they spend maintaining it, the more profit they can make.
So at Park Plaza, there were potholes everywhere. The water pipes were so old they'd rupture a few times a year, and everybody would go without water, sometimes for days. But residents like Seefeld couldn't afford to move.
SEEFELD: I make 20,000 a year if I'm lucky. Now what?
ZWERDLING: And one week later, the residents got another letter, and that one said, please come to a meeting at the local library, and we'll show how you can save your community. Around 70 residents showed up, and a man named Kevin Walker started his pitch.
KEVIN WALKER: We said, you have an opportunity to purchase the community, and we can work with you to get this done.
ZWERDLING: Walker works with the Northcountry Cooperative Foundation in Minneapolis. They collaborate with a network of development specialists called ROC USA. ROC has helped residents take over almost 200 mobile home parks since the late 1980s. Walker told the residents, if you want to take over Park Plaza, we'll help you form a co-op.
WALKER: There's a number of people that say, what's a co-op?
ZWERDLING: So Walker explained. Every resident who wants to join will pay a membership fee, usually around $200. Next, you'll elect some of your neighbors to a co-op board of directors. Then we'll help your co-op borrow money to buy Park Plaza. At this point, somebody raised their hand. How much money are we talking about? And Seefeld freaked out.
SEEFELD: We had this big, white sheet of paper in front of us with $4.3 million written on this sheet of paper. We're common folk. Some of us are on disability. Some of us are retired. Where are we going to come up with $4.3 million?
ZWERDLING: Well, it turns out that mobile home parks are a profitable investment. For instance, the real estate company that owned Park Plaza got $400 a month rent from every household. That's almost $400,000 a year. Yes, the residents' co-op would need a huge loan, but the foundation and ROC USA could help them get it. After all, the government requires banks to invest in low-income housing.
A resident named Mara Hernandez sat listening to all this, and she was thinking, me - I'm a janitor.
Were you afraid of becoming one of the owners?
MARA HERNANDEZ: Yes, I'm very afraid.
ZWERDLING: Natividad Seefeld says she was scared, too, but in a way, growing up had prepared her for this moment. When she was a kid, her family moved from rental to rental. They lived in their station wagon for a while near Los Angeles.
SEEFELD: Every day, my mother cooked food and made homemade tortillas. My dad had made a little stove with - what do you call those little cans of...
SEEFELD: Yes, those little cans. I can remember that smell like if it was yesterday. We even spent Easter in the car. My grandpa - he brought us all Easter baskets in brown paper bags and brought them in the night while we were sleeping.
ZWERDLING: Seefeld says as she sat there in the library, she knew; I'm not moving again. She stood up and faced the crowd.
SEEFELD: I said, close your eyes for a minute, and think, what would I do if they said I had to move today, but you have to take your house with you, too? Where are you going to put it? Where are you going to get the money to move it? What about your family? And say, oh, my gosh, I don't really have anywhere to go. I have nowhere to go. Then you realize, I have to do it.
ZWERDLING: And the residents did it. They voted that same night to form Park Plaza Cooperative. Sure enough, banks lent them $4.3 million. And one year later, they bought their community.
SEEFELD: All right, so we're going to get started. And let's see here.
ZWERDLING: One night recently, the co-op board of directors started their monthly meeting. Seefeld is president. There's no pay.
SEEFELD: OK, can we get a motion to approve the agenda?
PAT STREETER: I make a motion we approve the agenda.
ZWERDLING: A resident named Pat Streeter is vice president.
STREETER: All in favor?
ZWERDLING: Since the residents formed their co-op, the local foundation has been training the board. For instance, how do you use Robert's Rules of Order?
STREETER: OK, the motion passes.
ZWERDLING: How do you manage finances?
STREETER: So we want to bring our cash on hand up to the amount - my phone is driving me nuts. I'm sorry. The amount we want to have on hand above the $93,000 is - let me do this one more time.
ZWERDLING: And the whole community is learning how to run a business.
STREETER: OK, can I hear a motion to adjourn?
ZWERDLING: All the residents get to vote on major projects. They still pay rent every month, and they voted to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of it to renovate the park. They've replaced the old water pipes, so these days, the community never goes without water. They resurfaced the streets. I didn't see a single pothole. Still, residents say that managing their own community does not bring nirvana. They still have neighbors like Rusty Welton.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
ZWERDLING: Hi, my name is Daniel Zwerdling. I'm a reporter with...
RUSTY WELTON: Shut up. Get back. Come on. Get back.
ZWERDLING: I think he said that to his dog, not me. People told me Rusty Welton is nasty.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
WELTON: Shut up.
ZWERDLING: In any case, I told Welton I heard he's an Army veteran, and he warmed up. He showed me his two Purple Hearts. He got shot twice in the Vietnam War. Now he can barely walk. He showed me old photos.
WELTON: And this is the gun. I was on guard duty, and I was guarding that gun.
ZWERDLING: But Welton did not want to talk about Park Plaza. He said, I don't care about the co-op. I don't care about voting.
You don't want to be part of deciding how to spend the money?
WELTON: No, I don't want to be part of it at all. I'm sure the money ain't being managed properly.
ZWERDLING: Before I left his house, I asked Welton about the celebration coming up.
Five years since they bought Park Plaza - are you going to go?
WELTON: No, I ain't going to eat that [expletive].
ZWERDLING: And that highlights another problem at Park Plaza. When a co-op has members like Welton who don't take part, a few others tend to do everything themselves.
SEEFELD: OK, it's time to mow.
ZWERDLING: So one morning recently, who's mowing a community lawn - Natividad Seefeld.
I don't get something. This is supposed to be a - oh, thank you. This is supposed to be a democracy. Why aren't - why can't you get somebody else to mow?
SEEFELD: Because I like to do it.
ZWERDLING: Some residents say Seefeld has become both a victim and a cause of a thorny problem, and it's a common problem in organizations. She gets so impatient to get things done that she often does them herself. Meanwhile, residents see her take charge, so they don't volunteer to help.
I asked Seefeld about this one morning, and she said, look; this is new to everybody - running our own community. More people are starting to pitch in. Then she said there's another reason she gets so impatient. She has brain cancer.
SEEFELD: I try not to think about the fact that I have cancer because you could just drown in it and not want to live. Right now, I have a lot to do. I got the infrastructure done for our community, and there's still so much more. We need a playground for the kids - yeah.
ZWERDLING: It's Saturday afternoon. The fifth anniversary is underway. Seefeld - who else? - has bought a game that kids are playing in the street. A resident named Maria Ortiz has brought over a pot of beans. She says she's never seen a manufactured housing park like Park Plaza.
MARIA ORTIZ: Everybody has a voice. You own a little bit of a piece of where you live, you know?
ZWERDLING: Just before I leave, guess who shows up?
It's the man who doesn't want to take part. Rusty Welton has driven to the picnic on his red mobility scooter, and he's mingling.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I'm going to leave the cake here.
WELTON: What house do you live in?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Twelve-thirteen.
WELTON: I'm going to stop by and say hi to you one day, OK?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah.
ZWERDLING: So I think the fact that Rusty Welton has showed up here and is spending so much time here - this might mean that you're taking a baby step toward being part of this community.
WELTON: You must have me confused with somebody else, Man (laughter).
ZWERDLING: Rusty Welton, member of the Park Plaza manufactured housing co-op in Fridley, Minn. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.
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