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At mobile home parks, a battle brews between residents and corporate owners on rents

Ed and Rose Bartok marvel at how well their lilac bush is growing in the front yard of their home at the Miller’s Woods and River Bend Manufactured home community in Athol.
Jesse Costa
Ed and Rose Bartok marvel at how well their lilac bush is growing in the front yard of their home at the Miller’s Woods and River Bend Manufactured home community in Athol.

At a mobile home park in Athol, about 70 miles west of Boston, a brook runs behind Ed and Rose Bartok’s home. Their regular visitors include deer, bears — even bobcats. Sometimes their son drops by to play a hand of cards.

Mobile home parks can be ideal for retirees who still want the suburban lifestyle with a single-family home, minus much of the work maintaining the land. The Bartoks bought their 1,400- square-foot place in 2016, after both retired from the Air Force and they sold a house in Templeton. The home is brand new and paid in full, and it’s not really mobile. Unlike the old versions — up on jacks with exposed trailer hitches — this is a modern house, anchored to a foundation.

“We’re very, very happy,” Ed Bartok said, showing off the garden and bird feeders adorning their backyard. “We love this little house.”

One of the best things, Bartok said, is the price.

But a controversial state law governing prices for mobile home lots has led to a big-stakes battle, pitting park residents against owners. Under the decades-old law, owners must charge all residents the same rent, rather than raising rates for newcomers. Some park owners argue the rule threatens the model of manufactured housing communities, while many residents say price uniformity keeps the housing affordable.

Ed and Rose Bartok take stock in their raised bed garden in the backyard of their home at the Miller’s Woods and River Bend Manufactured home community in Athol. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Ed and Rose Bartok take stock in their raised bed garden in the backyard of their home at the Miller’s Woods and River Bend Manufactured home community in Athol. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“The state has been talking a lot about affordable housing,” Bartok said. “Well, how about manufactured homes?”

When the Bartoks first moved into the Athol park in 2016, their monthly rent was around $650. They soon learned some of their neighbors were paying hundreds less — apparently in violation of the law requiring uniform prices.

“No one has twice the lot that someone else has,” Bartok said. “We all get water and trash [removal] and taxes … We should all be paying the same.”

The Bartoks have teamed up with a resident of a Middleborough park to sue their common owner: Hometown America. The Chicago-based company’s portfolio includes six parks in Massachusetts and 80 across the country, in addition to parks in Australia. The plaintiffs hope to add hundreds more current and former residents to their suit.

Price ‘discrimination’

The lawsuit is the second the company has faced in the state over so-called price discrimination. In a case decided in 2020, Blake v. Hometown America, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that state law requires uniform rents at mobile home parks. Even so, Hometown continues to fight the matter — making its case in the courts and pursuing a solution in the Legislature.

“We think the SJC’s ruling is contrary to common sense and decades of practice, and it cannot be implemented without creating a slew of problems,” said Hometown attorney Lisa Goodheart, speaking before state lawmakers in 2021.

The company says when it began buying parks in Massachusetts, it left existing rent structures in place, and charged higher market-based rents to new arrivals. Despite the high court’s ruling, Hometown argues it should be able to charge a new couple moving in more than a senior who’s lived at a park for many years.

So Hometown is now trying to change the law.

Executives of the company declined to be interviewed. They referred a reporter to the Manufactured Housing Institute, a lobbying group. The institute’s chief executive, Lesli Gooch, argues there’s an unintended consequence of forcing parks to charge everybody equally.

“This idea, while good on its face: ‘Isn’t that nice? Everybody pays the same rent,’ it does impact the ability to manage the community over time in a way that is going to keep it … somewhere that’s desirable to live.”

Gooch said Massachusetts is an outlier for not allowing owners to set higher, market-based rents for newcomers. She said a handful of other states require increases to be uniform, but don’t require all residents be charged the same amount.

For Hometown, there’s big money at stake. In court filings, the company claims at the Middleborough park alone, it could lose $81 million in rents over two decades if it can’t charge new residents more.

Marketing professor Eric Dolansky, at Brock University in Canada, says charging different prices for the same product is typical of many businesses. “This is going to sound bad, but you want to extract as much money from customers as a pool as you can,” Dolansky said.

But should price discrimination be allowed in the housing market? He said it’s one thing when people are willing to pay extra for tickets to a ball game, or to hail an Uber during rush hour. Ethical questions can arise, Dolansky said, when you’re talking about a basic human need.

“The government will step in where they feel that, for example, there may be predatory practices, in situations where it is something that is needed by everyone,” he said. “People need a place to live.”

Advocates for park owners say the ability to charge different rents would protect the people who can least afford to pay. Raising everybody’s rent equally could have devastating consequences for residents who might have nowhere else to go if they were priced out of a park.

While Hometown is a national player, some small, local park owners also complain the price uniformity rule hurts them.

A bill on Beacon Hill

Hometown America has shown it’s ready to spend a lot to do away with the current rent system in this state, and not just on lawyers locked in years of litigation, but on lobbyists — and a politician in Quincy. State records show Hometown has shelled out more than $300,000 to lobbyists registered in Massachusetts since 2021. That’s on top of at least $3,000 in donations by company executives to state Rep. Tackey Chan, campaign finance records show.

The Quincy Democrat is the lone sponsor of a House bill that would end rent uniformity. And if it passes, the lawsuit against Hometown could go away, along with $30 million in potential damages.

Chan is perhaps an unlikely ally to the owners: there are no mobile home parks in his district. Yet he’s filed the bill for the last four sessions, and in March it emerged from the housing committee.

Chan’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In 2021, he told the Legislature’s housing committee his bill aims to fix contract issues created by the rent uniformity requirement.

“They’re requiring that all contracts for lease of use of individual segments be essentially simultaneous, regardless of time of signing a contract,” he said. “The bill I filed tries to address that issue — to bring manufactured housing agreements into current contract laws.”

Paula Faye, a resident and activist at the Hometown America park in Middleborough, said she’s hopeful Chan’s latest effort will fail. But she said there’s a bigger problem at play: out-of-town investors buying up mobile home parks in Massachusetts and trying to change state law.

“At some point the Commonwealth is going to realize the amount of money that is being taken from their residents to support corporations that are only in it for the bottom line,” Faye said.

Paula Faye lives at Oak Point Community, a manufactured housing park in Middleborough. (Simón Rios/WBUR)
Paula Faye lives at Oak Point Community, a manufactured housing park in Middleborough. (Simón Rios/WBUR)

For Faye, there’s another problem.

Hometown’s majority investor is a public pension fund from the other side of the country. The Washington State Investment Board — a fund for state retirees — controls 87% of the private company through a real estate fund, according to a spokesperson for the fund.

Faye feels that amounts to public sector retirees burning their counterparts thousands of miles away. Many of the people that live here “are former school teachers, former police and fire — municipal government workers,” she said. “Is that necessarily fair?”

A spokesperson for the pension fund told WBUR it does not comment on specific investments within the fund’s portfolio. Nor would Hometown comment on its connection to the pension fund.

The company said it’s invested here to provide quality housing at affordable prices. But that will be harder to do, according to Hometown, if it’s barred from raising rents the way it sees fit.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2024 WBUR

Simón Rios
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