Editor’s note: This project is the result of an ambitious, first-of-its-kind collaboration between The Durango Herald, The Colorado Sun and more than a dozen Colorado news organizations. Newspaper, online, radio and wire service journalists fanned out across the state to focus on the evolving landscape for mobile homes – Colorado’s largest source of unsubsidized, affordable housing.
Durango resident Dave Bray has lived in the mobile home park on Animas View Drive for more than 30 years, but in the next year, he plans to move out of town because of rising lot rent.
“There’s a lot of us that would like to live and die here. ... We are getting priced right out of our hometown,” Bray said.
Bray, a handyman, and his wife paid $1,100 per month to the park this summer for lot rent, and some utilities, including water and sewer – almost enough to pay the mortgage on a $200,000 house. But in Durango, where the median home price is almost $500,000, that’s simply not enough to enter the housing market. The Brays plan to leave the park this year in search of a more affordable town, such as Rifle.
“That’s Durango. ... You either dig in or move out,” Bray said.
Mobile homes are one of the last options for affordable housing in La Plata County. But as lot rents rise – some as much as 50% to 100% during the past few years – even Durango’s middle class is finding it difficult to make ends meet. Some see the rent increases as evidence Durango is losing affordable housing for retirees and middle class residents and becoming more like wealthy resort communities, such as Aspen or Vail.
A full database detailing rent prices for the county’s 45 mobile home parks, which contain about 1,300 homes, is not available.
The federal government classifies residents spending more than 30% of their monthly income on housing as “cost-burdened.” That means a single person earning a minimum wage of $11.10 an hour should pay no more than $577 per month – or be considered cost-burdened.
HomesFund, a Durango-area nonprofit that provides home loans, started a new assistance program last year to help buyers interested in manufactured homes. But few homebuyers have qualified for the loans, in part, because high lot rents, combined with mortgage payments, have made them financially ineligible for a loan, said Lisa Bloomquist Palmer, executive director of the Durango nonprofit.
“Lot rents are really the factor that’s diminishing the affordability of manufactured housing communities,” Bloomquist Palmer said.
The loan assistance program was created because getting a loan for a mobile home can be difficult. Mobile homes are not considered real estate; rather, they are classified as personal property, like a car.
But manufactured housing may be the preferred option for some residents who don’t want to rent.
“Even if it’s not an asset that’s increasing in value, it’s still yours,” she said.
The median price for a stick-built home in Durango in the second quarter of 2019 was $485,000, according to the Durango Area Association of Realtors.
The median price for a manufactured home countywide, without land, was $41,075 in the second quarter, according to DAAR.
However, buyers attracted to the low price of manufactured homes often cannot afford to buy their own property and live at the mercy of landlords, who can increase lot rents or redevelop the property.
Judy Gerhardt moved into the Animas View Drive park six years ago and has seen her monthly lot rent rise from $350 to $700, excluding utilities.
Most of those increases occurred under corporate ownership, Gerhardt said.
“When you don’t have to see a human face-to-face, it’s easier to use them for a profit,” she said.
Local owners Ted and Wilma Cooper sold the park in 2015 for $7.7 million to MHP Funds, which boasts “the fifth-largest mobile home park portfolio in the country” – 28,000 lots in 280 parks in 32 states. Residents say the park has been sold several times since 2015 and is now owned by Strive Communities, which has a Denver-area address. Strive owns and operates 100 manufactured housing communities in 15 states.
In another park under corporate ownership, Apache Mobile Home Park in west Durango, resident William Reynolds said lot rent has increased from $420 to $630 per month in 3½ years.
He considers the rent in Apache, a park with about 50 homes, reasonable compared with other La Plata County parks. But despite the rent increases, faulty sewage pipes haven’t been fixed. Every winter, the sewage backs up into yards and homes on the lower end of the park, he said.
“I had to replace the floor in my unit four times over nine years,” he said.
In the past, sewage has covered the floor of his bathroom, hallway and kitchen, he said.
Instead of fixing the sewage lines, companies simply sell the park, he said.
County records show the park is owned by Colorado company RV Horizons, the sixth-largest chain of mobile home parks in the country. RV Horizons did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Apache Mobile Home Park resident Jack Mayberry said he pays $1,130 per month to rent the home and the lot.
“It’s a good deal for what I have,” he said.
But he considers it only a matter of time before the park is redeveloped.
“Eventually, they are going to doze this and build condos,” Mayberry said.
Not everyone considers redevelopment to be inevitable.
A resident in the Animas View Drive park plans to organize residents to petition the city to prohibit redevelopment. The resident asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from park owners.
“I know there are a lot of people who can’t afford to live anywhere else; this is why we are here,” she said.
Former Animas View Drive park resident Tim Walker, an electrician, left the park four years ago because even though he is a skilled tradesman, the high cost of housing and living prevented him from building up savings.
“It’s a completely twisted economy there. ... What should be good earning power, it didn’t give me any traction,” he said.
He is now living in Iowa in a stick-built home he bought for $65,000. His monthly mortgage payments are $460 per month, he said.
“I liked Durango, but it’s not a town for working people,” he said.