By Neil Johnson - May 24, 2022



A Minnesota nonprofit group is eyeing Rock County as a possible site to build a new mobile home park that ultimately would be collectively owned and operated by those who would live in the park.

Northcountry Cooperative Foundation, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based affordable housing nonprofit, confirmed this week it plans to analyze the real estate and labor markets in Rock and Green counties to learn if it might be viable to build a 25- to 50-unit mobile home park that would be sold to residents by unit and owned by the residents as a cooperative.

The idea of housing collectives is not new, but in Wisconsin, a new mobile home park has not been built since the 1990s, said Soren Stevenson, Northcountry’s head of real estate development.

Stevenson said his nonprofit has spent years rehabbing hundreds of decrepit, existing mobile homes and mobile home parks in Minnesota and selling the properties as collectives that would be owned by individual residents of the parks.

It has worked on a few such projects in Wisconsin, including in Kenosha and La Crosse.

But southern Wisconsin could be the first place in the place in the U.S. the company has ever tried to build new mobile homes on vacant land. Stevenson said his company has not identified a definite spot on the map for the project, but in the coming months the group plans to reach out to local governments, including municipal planning divisions, to probe the idea as part of a $30,000 study the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation has awarded Northcountry.

Some municipalities Northcountry is eyeing as possible locations for a mobile home cooperative include Janesville and Beloit in Rock County and Monroe in Green County, Stevenson said.

The grant for the study is through a program the WEDC is running to help nonprofits launch cooperative partnerships in Wisconsin. Other area recipients include a Whitewater group that seeks to raise funding and support for a fresh grocery cooperative.

In an interview, Stevenson said that across the Midwest, the heyday of many privately owned mobile home parks has long past. That’s in part because many of the parks now have absentee landlords rather than live-in, private owners that operate the parks.

Stevenson said some private equity firms and other investor groups have bought up a large share of U.S. mobile home parks with an aim to wring profits from the aging facilities without reinvesting much money for maintenance.

That has led to parks becoming decrepit with massive upswings in rents and fees, pushing them out of the realm of affordability for residents who expect properties they pay on to be maintained.

This trend has accompanied steady increases in the average cost of existing homes. The median home price in Rock County last month hit $215,000, a nearly 30% uptick since 2020. Some rent analysts and local nonprofit advocates say rents in Rock County have recently marched up from an average of $800 or $900 a month to as much as $1,300 per month.

“There’s a lack of affordable rentals, and there’s a lack of affordable ownership opportunities, period,” Stevenson said.

“What we’re seeing across rural areas and small towns in Wisconsin, there’s no option for people to buy a home for less than $200,000 or $300,000. That’s not necessarily affordable to an entry-level buyer or a working person.”

Under a cooperative mobile home park model, a group of residents would pay a developer a calculated price for ownership of individual mobile home units, including what it would cost to lay in new infrastructure, utilities and the price of construction of a new home.

Typically, residents of mobile home parks lease their properties or pay fees to an ownership that is expected to cover maintenance costs. Under the model Northcountry would use here, residents would be owners of the units and, collectively, the park itself.

They would govern the park with an elected board of residents, similar to a homeowner’s association.

Northcountry typically helps owners secure mortgages through Community Development Financial Institutions, lenders who are typically willing to give home loans to demographics that traditional mortgage lenders don’t reach, Stevenson said.

Stevenson said some styles of homes his nonprofit are researching are about the size of standard, single-wide mobile homes, although designs for the homes can include attached garages or facades that make the structures seem less trailerlike and more like traditional ranch-style homes.

“They look more like a home in any old subdivision … but they’re vastly less expensive than a regular, site-built home,” he said.

Stevenson said his company’s study could take months, and it would involve meeting with local officials who might be skeptical about the prospect of mobile home parks—a segment of the housing market that in recent years has become maligned.

He believes that some negative perceptions and public prejudices over mobile home parks are changing. That might be because of two main factors: cost and the human need for shelter.

“The terms ‘white trash’ and ‘trailer trash’ have been the last derogatory terms people think they can continue to say and not be publicly shamed by saying it. But I think people are kind of realizing maybe ‘white trash’ isn’t such a nice thing to say,” Stevenson said.

“People of all incomes and wealth are looking around going, ‘I can’t afford the type of house that my parents or my grandparents could afford, and what’s going on with that?’'

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