KILLINGWORTH — Residents at the Beechwood Manufactured Home Park say that rising rents and deferred maintenance have placed an undue burden on elderly residents, and are asking local officials to provide them with a forum to challenge the park owners, Sun Communities.
Jackie Vece, president of the social club at Beechwood, said her rent has gone up about $60 per month in the last five years, but that $40 of the increase happened in the last two years, when Sun took over.
Vece, who is 63, said that while that may not seem like a big increase, it has a large impact for elderly residents.
“Most of us are on fixed incomes. We’re a 55-plus community,” said Vece.
Sun Communities, which owns 661 mobile home, RV and marina properties across the U.S, took over the Beechwood Community when it acquired Jensen’s, the properties’ Connecticut-based former owner, in 2019. Bill Joyce, another resident of the community, said that when Sun took over the mobile home park, initially the rent increases were in line with the yearly increases from the former owner. But in 2022, rents increased 4.8 percent, to $481 per month, according to a chart provided by Joyce. This was nearly double the 2.6 percent rent increase in 2021.
It’s one example of an increasing phenomenon of large investment firms buying up mobile home parks nationwide. Many times, these purchases are followed by rent increases that leave tenants with little recourse. Because mobile homes, despite the name, can’t be transported, leaving one behind means that a tenant loses the value of their house. This makes it nearly impossible for mobile home owners to move from one place to another in a way that a renter could move apartments.
“Mobile homes are not actually mobile. It’s a really misleading term,” explained Raphael Podolsky, an attorney with Connecticut Legal Services, Inc. “They are called mobile homes because you get them there on a flatbed truck or the equivalent. But once they’re there, the wheels are removed. They’re put on a foundation. They’re tethered to the ground.”
Podolsky said that because most towns don’t zone for Mobile Home Parks, there hasn’t been much development of new parks. This means that residents who face high rent increases don’t have anywhere else they can go, and leaving or selling their homes would mean losing their largest investment. He said that while state laws have tried to equalize the balance of power between residents and the companies that run the mobile park, they haven’t succeeded completely at doing so.
“They can’t literally take your home, but they can create a situation in which you have almost no choice except to abandon your home,” said Podolsky.
Both Vece and Joyce said that members of their community had had to return to work in order to afford the increased rents.
“People in their mid-seventies had to go back to work just to pay the bills,” said Joyce, who is 65. “Some ladies had to go back to cleaning houses, some working in grocery stores or fast food restaurants just to make ends meet. And it breaks my heart.”
“As close as I could get to home”
Rents are not the only home-related expense that residents in these communities face. When Vece moved into Beechwood five years ago, she purchased her home, a 1220 sq. ft. 2-bedroom, 2-bath, for $157,000. Then, she had to get a mortgage for the house, which she said was difficult because banks are reluctant to give mortgages for manufactured homes. She ended up taking a mortgage with a 6.5 percent interest rate. Between her mortgage, taxes and rent on the land, she was paying about $1,300 per month.
Vece grew up on the shoreline, in Clinton, and wanted to retire there. But the cost of living on the shoreline was high. Beechwood was a place she could afford.
“This was coming home for me. This was as close as I could get to home,” she said.
Although Vece is no longer paying a mortgage, she said she was afraid that next year’s rent increases would be even higher because of the rising inflation rates.
Nancy Gorski, first selectman in Killingworth and a Republican, said that the availability of low income housing in Killingworth was “limited,” and senior housing non-existent. She said that since she was elected in November, residents in Beechwood had been coming to her with concerns about the rents. Gorski said that she, too, noticed that the rents seemed to increase alongside inflation rates.
“If the rate of inflation is their bellwether, these poor people are looking at a 7.6% increase,” said Gorski, noting that the average homeowner in Killingworth pays $6,000 a year in taxes. “They go in there thinking that they can afford it, but then everything goes up after that.”
In a call with investors on July 26, Sun Communities CEO Gary Shiffman said that the company has historically used rent increases to offset the effects of inflation on the company.
“In over 90% of our Manufactured Housing portfolio, we were able to increase annual rents by [the Consumer Price Index] or greater. As a result, we can pass through rent increases annually to mitigate the impact of inflation,” said Shiffman.
According to the earnings call, Sun Communities reported $814 million in revenue in the second quarter of 2022, an increase of 35 percent from the same time period last year. The company did not provide responses to emailed questions from CT Examiner by the time this article was published.
Beechwood is not the only Sun Communities park being hit with high rent increases. Dave Delohery, President of the CT Manufactured Homeowners Alliance who lives in a Sun Communities-owned park in Southington, said that rents in the park went up almost 5 percent under Sun.
“We had the biggest increase in anybody’s memory,” said Delohery, who is also an appointee to the Mobile Manufactured Home Advisory Council at the state Department of Consumer Protection.
Delohery said that he generally likes the community where he lives — he said it’s nicer than many others. But he said he, like Vece, is apprehensive about what the current rent increases could mean for the future. He said that based on the increases that have happened so far, the residents could have to pay rents of over $600 per month in the next 3-5 years.
“That’s something that we’re concerned about, especially since they also seem to be cutting back services whenever they can,” said Delohery. “Knowing what has been happening in other parts of the state, we’re concerned about where they might be going in the future.”
In addition to the rents, Joyce and Vece told CT Examiner that the company has not provided maintenance upkeep. Vece told CT Examiner that while under the previous owner, the park had four maintenance people, they now have one maintenance person for about 300 properties.
The two biggest concerns, according to Joyce, are retaining walls and septic systems. According to a petition being passed out to residents, the company has refused to build the walls even when structural engineers have told the resident it was the only way to address the runoff. The petition said that improper pumping of the septic systems has caused damage in some homes, which residents then have to pay to repair. It also noted other drainage issues.
“Residents have houses that are sinking because of improper water drainage. Flooding continually occurs in the community, which leads to health issues of standing water and insects, as well as damage to property,” reads the petition.
“An unbiased and fair process”
Podolsky said there are only a few avenues for Connecticut mobile home residents who want to fight increasing rents. They can try to use the judicial system, either in eviction court or by suing the company outright, but noted that this is risky for renters.
“It’s rolling the dice … that the judge thinks this rent increase is really, really unfair, really excessive. And the problem is, you don’t know until after your case is over whether the judge is going to agree with you or not,” said Podolsky.
The best option, he said, are fair rent commissions — a board of people who listen to tenant complaints about rent increases, and ultimately rule whether or not the increase is fair.
“They become very important because they do have the capacity to do rollbacks of rent increases or to limit rent increases,” he said.
Last April, the legislature passed a law requiring municipalities with a population of over 25,000 to establish a fair rent commission. Killingworth’s population doesn’t require it to have such a commission under the law, but local and state politicians are working to establish a fair rent commission in the town.
Gorski said that she was in the process of working to form a commission in Killingworth. She said she was waiting on the town attorney to draft an ordinance which would then go to the Board of Selectmen. After the Board of Selectmen approves the ordinance, the proposal would go to a town meeting. Gorski said the commission could be established as early as September.
The commission would be made up of volunteers, and Gorski said she is already “putting out feelers.” She said she was particularly interested in people who have a legal background. The commission would have to include both tenants and landlords as members.
State Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, said that she felt a fair rent commission would be beneficial to residents in the community.
“They really can sort of help create an unbiased and fair process for groups of citizens to sort of air their grievances about whatever comes forward,” said Cohen.
Both Cohen and State Rep. Christine Goupil, D-Clinton, noted that the fair rent commission would work with both the property owner and the homeowner to come up with a solution to any issues.
“It really is a mediative process. It’s not a litigatory process. So it benefits, I think, both parties, the tenants and the landlords to be able to have an objective conversation with some people who can help mediate it and come to a resolution so that nobody is going to court and expending money that they don’t have,” said Goupil.
But Vece said she’s worried about the extent of the fair rent commission’s ability to address the rent increases.
“Part of what the fair rent commission says is that [the rent increase] has to be an aggressive and egregious amount for us to fight it. And I’m not sure that Sun would say it was an aggressive or an egregious amount,” said Vece.
Gorski said she was aware of this concern — particularly since one of the mobile parks in Clinton, Evergreen Springs, had higher rent rates. But she said the difference was that Beechwood, unlike Evergreen Springs, was a community specifically for people ages 55+.
Vece said that what she would like to see is a law similar to the one passed in New York State in 2019 that limits increases on rents in mobile home parks, an option that Delohery and Podolsky also brought up.
Podolsky said that some people have also been pushing for stronger enforcement of maintenance at parks by the state Department of Consumer Protection, which is responsible for investigating complaints about mobile home parks and enforcing state regulations.
Delohery said that a group of residents at his mobile home park in Southington have petitioned the town to start a fair rent commission in Southington.
But while he has concerns about the future rents, Delohery said that Sun Communities was by no means the “worst actor.” He said there were other investment companies that had bought mobile home communities that offered fewer amenities to the residents and demanded even higher rents. He noted that Beechwood had a pool and a “clubhouse” available for residents to use. The clubhouse includes a small library, a pool table, a kitchen, and a room for hosting events.
“We have nice lifestyles,” said Delohery. “We’re just concerned that we’re going to get priced out of that lifestyle.”
This story has been edited to include additional comments by Gorski regarding the unavailability of senior housing in Killingworth