Saratoga County’s mobile home parks – a sign of an affordable housing crisis – Albany Times Union

BALLSTON SPA — Two years ago, Chris Wheeler sank all his savings into buying a mobile home. He settled in, ready to live out his days in a small, shady 16-lot park near Saratoga Lake.

But his comfort came with a caveat. Wheeler, like most mobile home park  residents, could lay claim to his home and everything in it. But not the land it sits on. 

Thus, when the landowner sold the property to someone who wants to use it for a boat storage facility last spring, Wheeler was faced with a problem he didn’t anticipate. He’d have to move. 

“We can’t afford it,” said the former firefighter. “This is the difficult part, affordable housing is disappearing. It’s just going away. How are we are going to live? I didn’t go to Harvard. I don’t have a million dollars in the bank. We can’t afford $1,000 a month mortgage so, instead, I have to afford a $1,400 a month in rent. That’s mind-blowing to me.”

Wheeler’s problem highlights the scarcity of  affordable housing in  Saratoga County, one of the fastest-growing counties in New York. According to 2020 U.S. census figures, the county had the second-highest growth rate for new housing construction of any New York county, with an 11 percent increase over the past decade.

Moreover, the county also has one of the widest income gaps in the nation. In 2019, the Economic Policy Institute found Saratoga County ranked 28th in income inequality of more than 3,000 U.S counties, just three spaces below San Francisco. Statewide, Saratoga County ranked behind Manhattan and Westchester County. 

This is in contrast with another Saratoga County statistic: It is home to more mobile home parks than any county in the state.

The state Homes and Community Renewal agency, which tracks such parks, says the county in 2019 had a total of 105 parks with 6,566 available homes. That’s 8% of the state’s entire inventory of manufactured homes. Dutchess County is second with 88 parks, but nearly half as many homes, only 3,726. Statewide, in 2019, there were 1,811 parks with 83,929 homes.

Affordable housing advocate Cheryl Hage Perez says Saratoga County’s appeal to developers threatens mobile home parks, which account for the bulk of the county’s affordable housing stock.

“They are very critical,” Perez, executive director of the Veteran’s and Community Housing Coalition, said. “There is a lack of affordable housing for veterans, service workers and for lower-income residents. Mobile homes are a big part of the county’s affordable housing.”

And, she added, while there are “highly competitive” state grants available to build more affordable apartments, there is not a lot of help for those who live in manufactured home parks.

That’s changing, however. Homes and Community Renewal acknowledges that maintaining such housing stock throughout the state is essential. For the last few years, the agency has been strengthening protections for residents of manufactured homes, a term the industry prefers to mobile homes.

“It’s a very large stock of affordable housing in New York that serves very low income residents,” said Dina Levy, senior vice president of homeownership and community development at the state’s Homes and Community Renewal. “But there has been a national trend with private investors, big private investors, looking to acquire this housing stock. There is a lot of concern about this and the State has taken bold steps to enhance legal protections for residents in these parks, as well as investing resources to promote alternatives that lead to long term affordability and housing stability.”

First, here’s a bit of mobile home history.

Many longtime officials and residents of Saratoga County say they really don’t know how the parks became so prolific. However, they have theories, mainly that land was cheap and there was no zoning. Others have said that Milton, which has the most manufactured home parks in the county, attracted more parks to accommodate the nearby U.S. Naval Support Activity base in Saratoga Springs. 

In a 2019 Florida National Public Radio interview,  Tim Sheahan, former president of the Manufactured Home Owners Association, said that mobile home parks took root after World War II on campgrounds as a place for veterans to settle. He said the parks flourished in the 1960s and 1970s as affordable housing for senior citizens and young families in rural areas. 

Sheahan also said they were profitable for investors, with a better rate of return than apartments as only grounds maintenance was required. 

“Investors are finding a decent risk/reward metric when it comes to rate of return,” Sheahan said at the time.

With homes affordability – and problems

What lures tenants to buy a manufactured home is the cost. Residents interviewed for this story said a used mobile home might sell for as little as $20,000 — resulting in manageable monthly mortgage payments. On top of the mortgage, however, residents in a manufactured home park must also pay rent on the land the home sits on, which can run into several hundreds of dollars a month.

“I purchased my home for about $30,000 in 2005,” said Malta Gardens resident Kristina Hardy Allen. “I was given a monthly payment estimate of $250 per month. But because of my lack of credit, I was forced into a 12-year loan for $487 per month. My lot rent was $475. Now my rent is $622. It’s rough.”

Despite paying rent on the land, a manufactured homeowner has no control over the conditions of the park.

A longtime resident of Hammond Lane Mobile Home Park in Gansevoort said she bought her home in 1997 because she was tired of renting apartments and Hammond Lane was  a “meticulous, beautiful park with was no riff-raff.”

But the resident, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said  the park changed hands and  the new landlord, Richard Woodcock, has let the park “go downhill.” She says trees, the responsibility of the landowner, crash down on buildings and block roads, and abandoned homes are left to rot and become a haven for wild animals.

“If I could move my home, I would and get out of here,” she said. However, because she has put additions on to her home, moving it is not an option. “I’m stuck,” she said.

She also complained that when there is a problem at the park, the owner won’t take phone calls. He will only respond to emails.

Woodcock argued he is responsive and that the park is nice. 

“I think what you got there is a disgruntled tenant,” Woodcock said. “They are unfair and trying to cause trouble.”

However, he agreed he feels development pressures, getting calls “all the time” from people who want to build on his land. But he said he had no intention to sell.

“Then again, I’m 63,” he said. “I have rental properties in Saratoga as well and I don’t have the complaints I do have in the park.”

Frustration with park living is heightened by infrastructure issues. Sewer and water hookups can freeze or disconnect, causing disputes about who is responsible, the homeowner or the landowners. 

In the town of Malta, a Facebook page for residents of Malta Gardens, the county’s largest park with 406 manufactured homes, churns with a familiar refrain: “Who has water?” This frequent complaint at the park dates back years, including a stretch in 2018 when there was a water main break and residents went without water for four days.

“It’s one of our main issues,” said Allen who manages the community’s Facebook page. “The management doesn’t put money back into the infrastructure. We have been here since 2006 and things have only gotten worse.” 

She blames the owner, Solomon Organization, a large entity that owns rental properties in the Capital Region and across multiple states. She said Solomon doesn’t keep up with the roads and hasn’t fixed streetlights, leaving some areas of the road dangerous for pedestrians and children.

 Solomon disputes that, saying it has poured millions into infrastructure since 2018 and said water is sufficient through its well system that is fully compliant with the state Department of Health.

Solomon spokesman Ron Simonici sent a long statement on the water problems, tasking homeowners with the responsibility of making sure their water line hookups don’t freeze.

“The only disruption of water service at Malta Gardens in at least the last 6 months, and probably much longer, was in early November, due to maintenance on a device that triggers replenishment of water levels in our wells,” Simonici said. “Water service was interrupted for four hours. We have no individual maintenance requests for water service issues from mobile homeowners, although there is the possibility that their units required maintenance performed by the homeowners themselves, consistent with their role in maintaining their homes.”

He also said the streetlights are maintained regularly and the roads, the basketball court and driveways have been repaved.

Still, all of the residents who were interviewed said they would relocate their homes if they could. But that’s impossible, despite the “mobile” moniker.

“Mobile homes aren’t mobile,” Allen said. “You can’t just hitch a truck to it and move it out. Also, most parks won’t accept you if your home is older. You can’t even go into a park.”

Homes and Community Renewal does requires manufactured home park owners to provide residents with a $15,000 stipend if residents are forced to move when the land is transferred to a new owner.

In addition, it requires that residents have the right of first refusal for a sale of the park. But if a new owner agrees to not evict tenants for five years, then the land transfer to the new owner can go through even if the residents can gather the funds to buy it.

That was the case with Wheeler’s park, Saratoga Lakeview Mobile Home Park.

Even though residents came up with the $650,000 to match the buyer’s deal, they lost out because the new owner promised to not evict anyone for five years.

Residents at Kayadeross Acres did manage to  purchase their park outright. The Milton park, formerly known as Creek and Pines Mobile Home Community, became a resident-owned co-op with help from the state and ROC USA, a New Hampshire nonprofit devoted to preserving affordable housing. Residents are members, for a one-time fee of $200. Their monthly lot rent goes into a pool to maintain the park. Residents say that former issues, like anemic water pressure and poor roads, have been resolved.

Still, Kayadeross Acres remains the only resident-owned park in Saratoga County.

Seeking more protections

Advocates for homeowners like organizer Yvonne Maldonado of Manufactured Housing Action said more protections are needed. Her organization is pressing to change state laws with the help of state Sen. James Skoufis (D-Newburgh) and state Assemblywoman Didi Barrett (D-Hudson). She said, at the very least, New York law should allow the residents the right of first refusal to purchase their park’s land, regardless of  how long a prospective buyer promises to maintain it as the land as a park.

“It’s a loophole that needs to be closed,” she said.

The state also prohibits manufactured home park owners from raising site rent more than 3% annually. By law, however, the landowner can legally raise it as high as 6 percent if he or she demonstrates hardship in a local court.

Maldonado says she wants park owners to show proof of hardship to residents as well, not just the courts.

“If they increase it over 3 percent, the community should have the right to the legal documents,” Maldonado said. “Right now, they are not giving it, so nobody knows if the rent increase is legal or not. We have a lot of seniors, veterans, low-income families, working families in these parks who think it’s a perfect place to live and then they find out they are wrong. Park owners are making it unaffordable by raising the rent every year.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul is paying attention too. In her 2022 budget address, the Democrat proposed $5 million for the Manufactured Home Advantage Program to fund loans and grants for the acquisition, demolition or replacement and/or repair of mobile or manufactured homes and mobile/manufactured home parks.

Back at Saratoga Lakeview Mobile Home Park, Wheeler, who has suffered four heart attacks, has decided to go back to work with hopes of starting anew. He currently returned to work at Quaker Springs Fire Department and took a second job at Walmart. 

“It was against doctor’s orders to go back to work,” Wheeler said. “I don’t know how long I can do it. The stress level is so high. But I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know where I’m going to go.”