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Portsmouth Mobile Home Residents Buy The Land They Live On, A Growing N.H. Trend

Jason Moon for NHPR
Ward's Park in Portsmouth

Residents of a mobile home park in Portsmouth recently purchased the land they’ve been living on for decades. This park joins a growing number of other mobile home communities to do the same. When Kathy Ireland received a letter last year that said the mobile-home park she lives in was being sold, she wasn’t quite sure how to take it.

  “We were like ‘what is going on?’ It was shocking," says Ireland. "It was just horrifying to find out that we might not have a home in a few months."

Ireland lives in Ward’s Park, a 15-unit mobile-home park just a few miles from downtown Portsmouth. The park has been here for decades, and so have most of the homes.

“Very old-school, retro kinda look to them," says Ireland. "This one is mine, it’s from 1957.”

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR
Kathy Ireland in her kitchen.

Like most mobile-home residents in New Hampshire, Ireland lived in a kind of real-estate paradox – she owned her home but rented the ground beneath it. And an owner can always sell the land to someone who doesn’t want a mobile home park there. That’s why residents were so worried -- like Carol Giglio, who has lived in Ward’s Park for 20 years.

“None of these can be moved probably, they’re all older mobile homes," says Giglio. "And we have a Great Dane, so that would make it even harder to rent a place.”

But mobile-home residents in this situation do have an option. New Hampshire is one of only a handful of states with a so-called right-to-purchase law, which gives residents 60 days to match the offer on a park. The owner can still choose whether or not to accept the offer, but the law says they have to consider it.

But scrounging up the money to buy a mobile-home park in two months can be tough. “Most residents that live in manufactured housing are low-to-moderate income folks,” says Tara Reardon with the non-profit New Hampshire Community Loan Fund.

One of the Community Loan Fund's programs offers loans and training for residents who want to buy their own park.

We had to set up committees; we had to contact snow-removal companies, trash removal companies; we had to have all these engineers come in and test the ground -- we were busy.

Over the past three decades they’ve helped 119 mobile-home parks in New Hampshire convert to resident-owned communities. Five more are in varying stages of that transition right now.

Reardon says resident-owned mobile-home parks are at least part of the answer to New Hampshire’s lack of affordable housing.  

“The average price for a manufactured house in the state of New Hampshire is $60,000," says Reardon. "And the average price for a stick-built house is $270,000. So it’s obvious that it’s a way more affordable housing.”

The Community Fund's loans come with lots of education and training. That’s because buying your own mobile-home park is a complicated business. The residents of Ward’s Park found that out when they organized into the Woodbury Cooperative last year. Resident Jo Ann Paradis was elected Vice President.

“We had to set up committees; we had to contact snow-removal companies, trash removal companies; we had to have all these engineers come in and test the ground – we were busy,” says Paradis.

The Woodbury Coop includes members from every household. And beginning last year they started meeting weekly. But because none of their homes were big enough to fit everyone inside, they met in a two-car garage on the edge of the property.

“Sometimes there’d be a table and sometimes we’d just sit around a heater in the middle and freeze our rumps off,” says Ireland.

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR
Residents used this garage as a meeting place.

Ireland says neighbors got to know each other in a way they hadn’t before -- especially when it came to what owning the park would mean for their personal finances.

“When we talked about the pricing, it got personal for some of us," says Ireland. "Like, can you really afford to go to that 550 a month?”

The lot rent for each home was $240. To buy the park, they would each have mortgage payments of $550 -- more than double. But the residents here are quick to point out that $550 a month is still a really good deal in Portsmouth, where the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment last year was more than $1300.

In March, the residents of the Woodbury Co-op decided they could live with that math, and the previous owner accepted their offer.

But even with the sale finalized, Paradis says the real work is just beginning.

“That part is over now. Now we’ve got to run the park," says Paradis. "We’ve got to make policy, we’ve got to make sure the contracts are fulfilled, I mean basically we are now on our own.”

Residents here say that’s both exciting and daunting. But either way they say, it’s better than leaving.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.
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