POCASSET — Bill Lytle, a retired machine operator who refuses to let health problems slow him down, has his mobile home set up just the way he likes it.
His guest bedroom is welcoming for his sister or the fishing buddies who visit when the stripers are running. He’d love more counter space, but he’s pleased with the gas stove he swapped out for the old electric one. When he works outside in his greenhouse, he’s thinking about his tomatoes and the beets he’s planting for fall, and not the abandoned trailer next door, its windows boarded, its silver husk filthy.
“This is our slice of heaven,” Lytle, 69, said on a recent afternoon, as he toured his mobile home park with a Globe reporter and a few neighbors.
“The vultures want it!” Jim McSharry, 61, a retired trucker, called out in response. “But they’re not going to get it.”
The midday sun beat down on the group, but no one seemed to care. They were focused on something even more intense: their legal battle against Crown Communities LLC, a Wyoming-based firm that owns and operates 17 other mobile home parks, and is trying to buy their scratch of land in Pocasset.
It’s a fight playing out across the country as big money investors increasingly see there are profits to be made off the backs of the financially vulnerable. In Pocasset, homeowners fear if Crown buys their park, they’ll lose control over their own destinies.
Manufactured homes, which averaged $123,000 new last year, up considerably from pre-pandemic levels, are among the most affordable nonsubsidized housing left — often among the only choices for people living on the edge financially. But a generation of “mom and pop” operators are selling to investors, who have discovered how easy it is to cash in on people who have little recourse.
Each fight is ugly in its own way, and in Pocasset, where residents have organized to try to buy the park themselves for $3.8 million, they say Crown has waged a campaign to break their coalition with a mix of scare tactics and enticements, some of them downright insulting.
“They are trying to buy us out with stupid things like $50 gift cards,” said Al MacDonald, 73, a retired general contractor who does handyman work. He recalled a winter day when Crown representatives came to the park to woo residents.
“A couple of gals banged the daylights out of doors so people would answer,” he said.
In letters to homeowners viewed by the Globe, Crown dangled what it calls the “Crown Guarantee,” which among other things, promises a rent freeze for two years and a home remodeling credit worth up to $5,000 if they support Crown (and the company is successful in its quest to buy the park).
Crown also sought to make the case that siding with the residents who want to buy would be a mistake. With its resources and experience, Crown intends to make improvements that would make the park a “nicer place to live,” the firm said in the letters.
“Please be aware that whatever the perceived benefits of having an association of tenants running the park, this ultimately puts you at risk of being told what to do by other residents in the park who may themselves not be financially responsible,” one letter sent to residents read.
“We have concluded that there are approximately $1,000,000 of improvements that need to be done to the park,” another letter read. “A question to ask is, ‘who is going to do all this hard work’? The new Association, which is really the current tenants?”
The tug-of-war is heading to Barnstable Superior Court on Aug. 15, where Crown is suing both the homeowners association that formed to buy the mobile home park and the current owner, claiming that Crown is the rightful buyer.
Citing the pending litigation, Crown declined to comment.
One of Crown’s leaders is Heath M. Biddlecome, who ran afoul of the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly defrauding investors, many elderly, in a fund to invest in mobile home parks. The agency alleged he diverted nearly half of the almost $10 million raised and used it for day trading. Biddlecome settled with the SEC without admitting or denying wrongdoing in 2011. Another Crown official is — as his New York Times wedding announcement noted — a great-grandson of Godfrey Lowell Cabot the famed Boston industrialist.
Mobile homes represent only about 6 percent of the occupied housing stock in the United States, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but they occupy a big space in the popular imagination. They star in movies, TV shows, and news stories about destructive tornadoes and hurricanes. Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter lived in a mobile home in “Raising Arizona.” The Cowboy Junkies, Eminem, the country star Toby Keith have all crooned about them.
“Grab a six pack and a lawn chair there’s a tornado coming,” Keith sang in the upbeat 2010 song “Trailerhood.”
An estimated 40 percent of mobile homes in the United States are in mobile home parks. But despite their high profile, many people don’t know perhaps the single most important thing about life in the vast majority of these communities: The residents may own their homes, but — crucially — they only rent the land on which the homes sit.
And while mobile homes were once in fact mobile, allowing people to haul them from park to park with relative ease, they are not today — a fact that works to the advantage of investors. Even if you can do it without damaging the home — not an easy feat — moving one can cost up to $15,000, according to one expert, so their owners are pretty much stuck where they live.
“What we have is a captive class of our lowest-income homeowners,” said sociologist Esther Sullivan, author of “Manufactured Insecurity: Mobile Home Parks and Americans’ Tenuous Right to Place.”.
“Landlords can raise rents and tack on fees upon fees and fail to maintain the property, with the knowledge that the homeowner can’t go anywhere,” she said. “Their biggest asset is installed on land they don’t own and they can’t afford to move it.”
That fact is a big selling point for investors looking to profit off the financially vulnerable.
A website for Mobile Home University, which runs boot camps for aspiring park tycoons, puts it like this: “Virtually no tenants can ever afford to move. As a result, the revenues of mobile home parks are unbelievably stable.”
That adds up to tremendous leverage over park residents, or, as the Center for Public Integrity put it in a headline on a 2015 report about one of the biggest players in the space: “Warren Buffet’s mobile home empire preys on the poor,” referring to lending practices at the time by Clayton Homes, which is owned by Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway.
Here’s what residents in investor-owned parks are up against, according to Andrew Danforth, a cooperative financial consultant with the Cooperative Development Institute, a nonprofit that helps residents own and run their own parks.
As of several years ago, Danforth said, rents for homes in investor-owned parks were increasing 4 percent a year on average — some notably higher— compared with 0.9 percent in parks owned by their residents.
“With apartment rents going up sharply nationwide, rents in [investor-owned] parks will see similar increases,” he said.
Life is made even harder for many mobile-home owners in this way: Around 42 percent of manufactured home purchase loans are “chattel” loans, which generally have higher interest rates and fewer consumer protections than mortgages, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Most people who live in The Park at Pocasset are “low” or “very low” income, Danforth said.
Right off Barlows Landing Road, and 36 acres big, the park is home to about 170 people — mainly retirees, blue-collar workers, people with disabilities, families with children, Danforth said.
Well-cared for homes with cheerful “welcome” signs and shaded porches share the neighborhood with derelict properties. An old mattress has been abandoned here, a front door boarded shut there. The park has 123 lots, with 81 occupied homes and 22 vacant, many for over a decade, Danforth said.
The Park at Pocasset is less than a 10-minute drive from lovely Wings Neck, where the homes have important driveways, multimillion-dollar views of Buzzards Bay, and the lush hydrangeas of the 1 percent.
But at the mobile home park, the $520-a-month price is right for people like Robin Harris, who works three jobs — cleaning houses, caring for an elderly man, and helping out at a market. “I really, really, love my place,” she said.
A single woman in her 50s, Harris worries that if Crown buys the park, she’ll be forced out of a place she’s made her own with an ornamental orange tree and hanging plants in the yard and a cozy fireplace in her living room, and into a cruel housing market.
“Out there,” she said, the rent she pays now “gets you something junky.”
Harris said she is being threatened with eviction by the current owner over repairs she made to her deck, which she alleges is part of a pattern of harassment to convince her and other residents to abandon their fight and speed the sale of the park.
The park’s owner, Philip Austin, and his attorney, did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Pocasset’s particularly desirable location has made the park a “bullseye,” said Danforth, the founder of the New England Resident-Owned Communities program at CDI.
Walking around the park with a Globe reporter on that hot recent day, he gestured to a few unassuming mobile homes and said Crown could replace them with short-term rental units. “They could get $1,400 per week or more.
“Why rent a lot for $520 a month when you can get that tenant out, rehab the home, or buy a new manufactured home, and rent it out for 20 weeks a year,” he said.
A few mobile home parks have closed in Massachusetts in recent years for retail or other development, but it can cost a lot to close a park, Danforth explained in an e-mail to the Globe. “Two year notice to residents, potentially having to buy and remove every home. They are generally worth more as communities. And since the homes are inexpensive, [the] numbers of homes in existing parks are growing.”
Austin had struck a deal to sell the park to Crown Communities in November 2019 for $3.8 million.
But here’s what the homeowners who want to buy their community are banking on: Massachusetts is one of a few states with a law that gives homeowners in mobile home parks the right of first refusal if their community goes up for sale and they can meet certain requirements. Key among those requirements is that 51 percent or more of the residents want to buy the park.
By law, once they have been notified of an offer by an outside party, the residents have 45 days to exercise their statutory right of first refusal.
That notification came in November 2019, when Austin alerted the community of the P&S with Crown Communities.
And the scramble was on: The residents began to educate themselves about such a huge undertaking; they formed an association, began organizing among neighbors, and worked with ROC USA, a nonprofit social venture that has helped hundreds of mobile home associations secure financing to buy their parks.
On Dec. 30, 2019, with enough signatures to meet the 51 percent threshold, the group’s attorney, Thomas W. Aylesworth, says, the association submitted its own offer to Austin.
“We’re just little people who are trying to have some control over our lives,” said Justine Shorey, 66, president of the Pocasset Park Association.
Back when he helped prepare residents for the purchase, Danforth estimated their monthly housing costs would roughly be the same, but instead of paying rent, they would be paying off a loan. The delays in closing the deal, as well as the litigation, he noted, could add some costs to that.
Moreover, beyond a one-time $100 membership fee, Danforth said, any increases would only reflect actual costs, as opposed to padding the profits of a landlord. And, with more than 40 new homes expected to open in the park in the next few years, the monthly costs could even go down or remain steady for many years.
Massachusetts has some of the strongest legal protections for residents of manufactured homes, and because of this, speculative investment isn’t as big a problem as it is in states with weaker protections, said George George W. McCarthy, chief executive of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
A tally by Nora Gosselin, a market development and acquisitions specialist with the Cooperative Development Institute, found there are 51 parks that have been converted to resident ownership in the state, 28 since 2010 with the support of her organization.
But Crown, which is currently closing in on ownership of an additional four parks, wasn’t giving up. And indeed, it was successful in convincing a number of residents to switch allegiances. But how many? That figure is at the crux of the lawsuit, and while it would seem to have a straightforward answer, the litigation says otherwise.
Among the allegations made by one side or the other: People were misinformed when they signed their support for the residents to purchase the park or were coerced into rescinding those signatures, or some signatures shouldn’t count at all because the signers aren’t owners of homes in the park or don’t have rights to a tenancy in the park.
With the trial looming, and a recent legal victory by Crown over another group of mobile home residents in Easton, the group walking around with a Globe reporter in mid-July was on edge.
During the tour, a man they did not recognize rode by on a bike, twice. He seemed friendly, but McSharry, who worked in protective services for the Globe more than 15 years ago, wasn’t buying it.
“He’s probably a spy,” he said.