Democratic presidential candidates stumping in Iowa don’t have far to look for an example of how hard it is for Americans to find — and keep — affordable housing.
At least five candidates — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Julian Castro — are expressing concern about rent hikes of up to nearly 70 percent for residents of several Iowa mobile home parks.
Are presidential contenders weighing in on hyperlocal issues like mobile home rents in Iowa just to win endorsements and votes leading up to the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses? Maybe, residents said. But the hardships facing low-income Iowans trying to find decent, reliable housing highlight a nationwide problem.
“The more politicians we can get on our side, the better,” said Don Lund, president of the Golfview Mobile Home Park neighbors association and a resident of the North Liberty park since 1997. “We need to change the law, and we can’t do it without politicians behind us.”
‘BIGGEST CHALLENGE’ FACED ACROSS NATION
The shortage of affordable housing is seen as a boon to some investors.
“With over 20 percent of Americans trying to live on $20,000 per year or less, the demand for mobile homes has never been higher — and the big winners are the owners of the mobile home parks in which those customers reside,” according to Mobile Home University, which offers books, courses and online forums for owners or prospective owners on topics including how to raise mobile home rents.
More than 100 mobile home parks have closed nationally in recent years, with residents of some parks in rapidly growing suburbs being pushed out so landowners can develop apartments or strip malls, the National Consumer Law Center reported in 2015.
Havenpark Capital, a Utah-based real estate investment firm, recently bought four Iowa mobile home parks and told residents of rent increases ranging from 28 percent at Sunrise Village in Iowa City to 69 percent at Midwest Country Estates in Waukee.
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After meeting with Golfview residents, Havenpark lowered an expected 58 percent increase July 1 to a 33 percent hike next spring, Lund said. But the company told residents rents will continue to rise 3 to 5 percent a year after, which isn’t sustainable for Lund, 65, who has a disability and isn’t able to work full time.
Lund pays $285 a month in rent to park the 80-foot mobile home he owns at Golfview. Rent would rise to $380 a month in April, he said.
“I’ve overcome a lot of challenges,” Lund said. “This is one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever had. I can’t be richer or smarter or change the rules.”
Candidates PROPOSING RELIEF FOR OWNERS
Changing the rules is what some Democratic presidential candidates are proposing.
Harris and Booker, U.S. senators from California and New Jersey, respectively, have proposed refundable tax credits for renters paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing.
Harris made her pitch in an April opinion piece published in the Des Moines Register.
Booker says the median credit for a qualifying Iowa family under his plan would be $3,400 a year. He talked about the tax credit in a May 30 press call, answering a Gazette question about the mobile home park rent increases.
“Iowans have brought this issue up to me,” Booker said, adding he talked with state Rep. Kenan Judge, D-Waukee, about it on a recent trip to Iowa. “We have a lot of levers in our housing proposal to get states to be more active in providing affordable housing in their communities.”
Booker’s 2020 Housing Plan offers mobile home park owners a 75 percent tax credit on the sale of the park if they sell the land to a resident-owned cooperative. Members of Congress have proposed the Manufactured Housing Community Sustainability Act, which includes such a tax credit, but it so far has not gained traction.
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The National Consumer Law Center, which advocates for mobile home residents, said tax incentives can be helpful but what work better are laws requiring owners to work with resident associations to see if they want to buy the land. Iowa is among 31 states that offer no protection for mobile home residents if their parks are sold, the law center reported.
State Rep. Amy Nielsen, D-North Liberty, this spring proposed an amendment to a manufactured housing bill in the Iowa Legislature that would have given mobile home park residents greater notice of rent increases and justification for why the hike is needed. House Republicans would not allow the amendment to be considered.
Candi Evans, Golfview neighbors association vice president, said she’s started researching how other mobile home resident groups have worked with cities or nonprofits to buy mobile home parks. “It’s an option we’re ready to travel down the road and consider,” she said.
Talking with companies, residents
Warren, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, sent a letter last month to Havenpark Capital and seven other companies that own mobile home parks seeking details about median income of residents, rent increases and profits reported to company shareholders. Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, who represents Iowa’s 2nd District, also signed the Havenpark letter.
Loebsack spokesman Joe Hand said Wednesday they have not yet heard back from Havenpark, but the deadline is Tuesday.
Havenpark Capital, responding Wednesday to a Gazette request, said it still is reviewing the letter.
The company said it plans to remain the long-term owners of Golfview mobile home park, but is “willing to consider a resident-submitted offer assuming that offer takes into account the property’s fair market value” and other investments already made there.
In terms of other communications from presidential candidates, staff for Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, called Lund to talk about the rent increases, Lund said.
Castro, former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary, announced Wednesday he will host a housing roundtable Friday at Midwest Country Estates in Waukee.
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