Oct 25, 2023 - Real Estate

Richmond's new affordable housing idea: Reimagining mobile home parks

One of the six units that has been replaced so far at Bermuda Estates. Photo: Karri Peifer/Axios

Just over three years ago, Bermuda Estates mobile home park in Chesterfield desperately needed repairs. It was filled with aging trailers and neglected infrastructure.

  • Today it's a community in bloom, with a newly paved main road and dotted with cheerful front porches on some of the new homes, backyard vegetable gardens and proud residents eager to show off their flower beds.

What's happening: Project:HOMES, a Richmond-based affordable housing nonprofit, purchased the park in 2020 through a unique partnership with Chesterfield County with the goal of keeping residents in their homes and keeping those homes affordable.

Why it matters: The 46-unit mobile home park just off Jeff Davis Highway in deep Chesterfield County might just be part of the answer to the region's affordable housing crisis.

Zoom in: For years, basic community maintenance issues — street lights, water service and trash pickup — were ignored at Bermuda Estates. The county was aware of the poor conditions and regularly issued citations to the property owner, but little improved for the community of around 170 people, as VPM reported.

"It was a trash dump," longtime Bermuda Estates resident Tammy Cutrell tells Axios.

  • Residents say the only time they heard from the landlord was through a court summons, usually issued for minor infractions or questionable late fees.
  • "People were in fear of being kicked out," Madeline Petrie with Project:HOMES tells Axios.
Bermuda Estates before Project:HOMES took over. Image: Courtesy of Project:HOMES

Cutrell, like many of the other 170 residents of Bermuda Estates and most mobile park residents in general, owns her home, but pays rent for the lot it sits on.

  • With the constant threat of eviction, residents who could afford improvements on their aging homes had little incentive to make them.

The big picture: It's a scene playing out in mobile home parks across the country, especially in recent years as private investment companies snap them up, AP reported last year.

  • The playbook is often to raise the rent and start slapping residents with fees, knowing most of them can't afford the thousands it would cost to move their units.
  • Since 2015, about a fifth of all mobile parks in the country have been bought by private investment firms who see them as cash cows.
  • In one 100-unit park in Louisa, residents were hit with monthly lot rent increases of over 40% and monthly recurring fees after a private equity firm purchased it late last year, per the Times-Dispatch.
One of the many gardens at Bermuda Estates. Photo: Karri Peifer/Axios

At Bermuda Estates, the county and Project:Homes saw an opportunity to do things differently.

  • With Project:HOMES on board as a buyer, the county ramped up its code violations to pressure the owner to sell.

Project:HOMES bought the park in September 2020 for $1.95 million and met with residents to hear their needs.

  • The nonprofit, with additional funding from other local organizations, began replacing the oldest homes with new, energy-efficient units, available for any existing resident (and only existing residents) to purchase for around $25,000 — a deeply subsidized price.
  • For those who wanted to keep their existing homes, Project:HOMES made repairs, donated air conditioning units in the summer, and space heaters in the winter. It agreed to keep the lot rent fixed at $483 per month.
  • Chesterfield kicked in $200,000 in federal funding, plus another $40,000 from a code violation settlement with the previous owner, to cover new lighting, updates to water and sewage systems, and road repairs.
Every new home gets a driveway. This one is being installed for a new resident. Photo: Karri Peifer/Axios

So far, six of the 46 mobile units have been replaced with new, 1,000-square-foot, three-bedroom, one-bath homes. Thirteen residents are on a waiting list for new ones.

But Project:HOMES' investment went beyond buying and maintaining the park and its units.

  • The nonprofit built a community center where it hosts financial planning workshops, ESL classes (the majority of the residents are Spanish-speaking), movie nights, fitness classes and holiday parties.
  • A playground — about 40% of the residents are children — is in the works and a community coordinator, Claudia Guerrero, is on-site weekdays.
About 40% of the residents are children — and the community is all decked out for Halloween. Photo: Karri Peifer/Axios

The community center gives residents a place to meet and get to know each other, Cutrell says. One of her neighbors taught her to grow a vegetable garden. The center is making her healthier. It's making her better.

  • "I thank God for them every day," she says.

What they're saying: "This is just an example that when you invest in a community they respond," Guerrero tells Axios.

  • "We started a spark. They did the rest."
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