Neighbor by neighbor, the news spread earlier this month through Suburban Village.
A $23 million sale of the mobile home park in North Chesterfield and its roughly 220 households was in the works. Soon, a new landlord would control the ground beneath their homes. The news sent a shock wave through the predominantly Latino community.
First word of the sale came via a legally required notice placed in residents’ mailboxes. Many had difficulty deciphering its legalese; it was sent in English despite the large contingent of Spanish-speaking residents. Some misinterpreted it as a notice to vacate, and thought their families had to pack up and leave. Others’ minds turned to the chance of rising costs they could not afford, the prospect of uprooting their lives.
“I didn’t sleep for two days,” said Mayra Prera, a 40-year-old single mother who has lived in the neighborhood tucked off Midlothian Turnpike for nine years. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to lose everything, and I have my two children. Where am I going to go live?”
Chesterfield County has a shortage of 2,080 homes for renters making less than 50% of the region’s median income, according to the Partnership for Housing Affordability’s regional housing framework. With limited options, some families and elderly residents who live on razor-thin budgets turn to manufactured housing communities, or trailer parks. Often, they own the home itself but pay rent to a landlord for the lot. The arrangement costs hundreds less on a monthly basis than other housing throughout the region.
With its 220-plus lots, Suburban Village is the third-largest manufactured home park in Chesterfield and one of its most sought-after. Utilities are covered in the monthly rent residents pay — less than $500 per month for some, depending on household size. For families with children, the draw is the neighborhood’s coveted school zones: Bon Air Elementary, Robious Middle and James River High.
On a recent evening, smoke rose from backyard grills. Its aroma carried through the labyrinth of corrugated metal and vinyl-sided homes, adorned with shrubs and vegetable gardens, lawn ornaments and the spare trampoline or above-ground pool. Children rode bikes on patched asphalt streets that double as their playgrounds and courts for pick-up basketball games until sundown.
Rents have crept up there in recent years, but residents say improvements, like better lighting and road repairs, have not followed. At the same time, Latino residents say existing management has not enforced rules equally, nor has it been responsive to complaints or requests they make.
Faced with the impending sale, about 25 Latino residents gathered last week next to the mailboxes near the park’s entrance. While stressful, the transition poses an opportunity, they agreed. The meeting was the first step toward the formation of a new tenants association to represent their collective wishes. They hope it will signal to whoever is buying the park that their voices matter.
“If in the future, with the new owner, if something happens, we have to be together,” Prera said.
Prera immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala as a teenager to find work that could pay for her widowed mother’s medical and living expenses. Now, she paints houses six days a week to support her two daughters, 19 and 11. The eldest is studying civil engineering at Old Dominion University, she said, beaming with pride.
Prera spends what little free time and extra money she has fixing up the manufactured home she bought in the park last fall for $37,000.
Demand for the trailers is so high that residents say they typically sell the same day a for-sale sign is posted out front. Suburban Village’s owner for the past 35 years, Jack Cullather, said he hasn’t had a vacancy in over a decade.
The 28-acre property, which the county assesses at $9.4 million, could change hands before the end of the summer, said Harrison Bell, who is representing Cullather in the transaction. Bell declined to name the prospective buyer, citing an ongoing due diligence period and a nondisclosure agreement.
Cullather, 79, said the potential buyer is an out-of-state group that operates more than 100 other parks around the country. He said he received 35 letters of interest after advertising Suburban Village for sale, and countless unsolicited offers even before then. Between the frequent overtures and his age, he said he decided it was time to sell.
“Everybody wants these things right now,” he said. “It’s the hottest real estate going.”
Drawn by the minimal overhead and steady rental income, investment groups have bought mobile home parks across the country from independent owners like Cullather over the last decade. Both he and Bell said the new owner plans to continue operating Suburban Village as one.
The assurance comforted some residents; most still worry about rising costs.
“Just holding our breath,” said Cindy Steely, who has lived in the park since the early 2000s. “I hope [rents] don’t increase too much, because everything else is going up. I just don’t want to see it hurt the people here.”
A brochure Bell’s realty firm circulated touts the property as a savvy investment with potential to turn bigger profits in the short-term. It poses projected revenue scenarios that hinge on annual rent increases beginning in the first year and sub-metering utilities so individual homeowners pay for their own usage.
“This provides incredible upside to the buyer as the rents are below market and this expense can be easily absorbed,” the brochure states.
Joe Ciszek, a housing attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said those changes would jeopardize residents’ quality of life and housing stability.
“I definitely am concerned that those rising costs couldn’t be absorbed by everyone in the community and those who are on a fixed income or otherwise have vulnerabilities would be the first to lose out,” he said.
A survey of 54 mobile home parks throughout central Virginia found more than half of households that live in one depend on some form of public assistance, like Social Security benefits or food stamps, according to a 2016 report released by the Manufactured Home Community Coalition of Virginia. A quarter spent more than half their monthly income on housing, the survey found.
The homes at Suburban Village are owner-occupied. Many are mobile in name only because of their age or condition. Those that are movable would cost thousands to relocate. If their owners could clear the mechanical and financial hurdles, they would encounter a logistical one: County zoning restricts where they’re allowed, and most mobile home parks are at, or near, capacity.
Put another way, residents who remain once the new owners take over may have to choose between shouldering rent increases or selling their homes and entering a rental market with few, if any, options for comparably priced housing in the county or region.
For Debbie Moseley, a 62-year-old retiree who lives on a fixed income, even a modest hike in rent would mean skipping doctors’ appointments or deferring repairs. She already spends more than half of her monthly Social Security check on her housing.
“At $493 a month, I don’t know where else I could live,” Moseley said.
She paid $14,000 for the dark green trailer on a corner lot in Suburban Village after losing her home in the Great Recession. At first, she worried about living there, because of her own preconceptions, she said. But over time, she has grown to love the community and the way people look out for one another there.
“When this came,” she said, holding up the notice, “I realized there ain’t nowhere else I’d rather be.”