Thu April 26, 2012
Concord Nonprofit Banking on Trailer Parks
When you hear ‘trailer park’ lots of people often think tornadoes, or…trailer trash.
Other than that, mobile home parks are ignored, really...just invisible. But actually millions of Americans live in these communities nationwide. Where most people see little of value, the Concord-based ROC USA sees hope for the American dream.
Gorenstein (DG): Every morning Judy Stoddard picks herself up out of bed and drives to Boston.
Monday through Friday.
Stoddard: “And I do the back roads which gets me there in an hour and 40 minutes.”
DG: Judy is 71 years old.
Stoddard: “I’m exhausted when I get there, I’m exhausted when I get home.”
DG: She drives those back roads for a reason.
Stoddard: “I don’t see well. My vision isn’t as good.”
DG: That’s an understatement...she can’t see out of one eye.
But as long as her rent keeps creeping up, she keeps going back to work.
Stoddard: “I can’t retire. I want to keep my house. I put a lot of work in this house. I don’t want to lose it.”
DG: Judy is caught in this vice-grip that’s familiar to nearly 3 million Americans; they own their mobile home, but rent the land underneath.
That makes it nearly impossible for people like Stoddard to build equity like other homeowners.
ROC USA’s mission – the reason they exist – is to ensure that people in mobile home parks are treated like homeowners everywhere else.
ROC USA President Paul Bradley has framed up this quote in his office.
Bradley: “A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock pile when somebody contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind.”
DG: That’s how it is for Bradley and mobile home parks...he sees what few others do.
One, he believes parks are an important part of the nation’s affordable housing stock, especially out in the country.
And two, because lots of residents already own homes, they’re in a position to profit.
What Bradley’s group does is help people form a coop when a park comes up for sale.
If the coop’s bid is accepted, ROC finances the deal.
And poof, these ‘tenants’ are transformed into ‘homeowners’ with control over the land beneath their feet.
Bradley: “Since we launched in 2008, ROC USA has helped 2200 homeowners in 35 communities purchase their parks and gain economic security.”
DG: ROC’s work in 2012 is projected to more than double over last year; that means helping some 1000 families... Judy Stoddard.
Bradley wants to triple that.
Bradley: “We are dead serious about scaling our impact.”
DG: ‘Scaling our impact’ is Bradley’s way of saying he’s not satisfied being some niche artisan goat cheese producer.
This guy wants to be Kraft.
Bradley: “I want resident ownership to be available to every homeowner group in the country that wants to buy their community.”
DG: ROC USA has a long way to get there.
Today, there are an estimated 50,000 mobile home parks nationwide.
Bradley says about 1000 are currently resident owned coops.
So a lot of his time is taken up hunting for investors.
And Bradley’s had success – with backing from foundations like Ford, Rockefeller and Calvert.
But ROC wants to tap more than the social investor class, Bradley wants profit hungry Wall Street types....people with deep pockets
Letendre: “We met Paul and the team and concluded they have a great business model and a great opportunity.”
DG: That’s Dan Letendre with Bank of America.
Bank of America has put $13 million dollars into ROC.
Letendre believes resident owned mobile home parks could become a big business.
But it’s going to take time.
The banker says most major investors don’t carry community organizing outfits in their portfolios.
Letendre: “Investors tend to invest in things they know. In the end, this will work when investors look at the track record of ROC…and conclude, I can invest in ROC and I can get a good safe, attractive return, and get my capital back.”
DG: Bradley takes that to heart.
As he knocks on doors, he opens with ROC’s track record.
Bradley: “On over $200 m worth of total lending to communities, not a single lender has lost a single dollar over the course of the last 30 years.”
DG: When it comes to the people who own the parks – the potential sellers - most of them have never heard of Paul Bradley or ROC USA’s seemingly impressive track record.
But when they do, George Allen, an Indianapolis-based owner, says most of them are open-minded.
What trips some up, says Allen, is the idea that their tenants will become owners.
Allen: “Because they have to take them to small claims court often to get their money, because they have to mow their grass, because they don’t take enough responsibility to mow their own grass....they go around and tell them to get the dog in the house and stop letting it crap all over everyone else’s lawn. In other words, when you deal with this every day, day and day, the idea of thinking that these people, generally are incapable of being in charge of their own destiny, you know.”
DG: The issue Allen raises might be ROC USA’s biggest challenge.
The notion that these people aren’t capable of helping themselves.
What’s interesting about what ROC is doing is that by changing the rules of the game; these people have a chance to prove skeptics wrong.
Gary Thuline used to have a nickname for his 1967 single-wide home.
Thuline: “The Dump.”
DG: Gary lives with his wife in Breezy Acres, a small New Hampshire park that went coop back in 1991.
Thuline: “We did have mold problems. The roof did leak. We were ill all the time. We had pails to catch the rain water. It was horrible.”
DG: About two years ago, the couple locked down a $50,000 dollar loan, no small feat for a guy with almost no credit.
But the non-profit lender understands and most importantly trusts this coop model.
So the couple bought themselves a brand new 3-bedroom mobile home, putting it right where the ‘Dump’ had sat.
Thuline: “The first thing I wanted to do was invite people over for a cup of coffee…For a long, 20 years. I was afraid to, I was embarrassed…I was embarrassed about my own home. I got out of jail, man. I got out of jail.”
DG: Finally, the 70 year old feels set up.
By changing the economic model – Gary’s got more control – and that changes everything.
It means a guy whose chased money forever, can rest.
Gary says he feels something he’s never known before.
Thuline: “I really can have my own place and be a respectable part of community. We were never allowed to do that before, people living in my environment. I’m not a second class citizen anymore. And my wife…we are not second class citizens anymore. And I’ll be damned if we are going to be thought that way. We won’t allow it.”
DG: Gary says stability used to be a dream.
Now, he says he and his wife could sell their home, pay off the loan, and walk away with $10,000.
When ROC USA’s Paul Bradley dreams, he dreams of Gary Thuline…lots and lots of Gary Thulines.