Mon. Dec 6th, 2021

CAÑON CITY — Growing up in rural Michigan, Dawn Ketcham didn’t think much of mobile home parks and the people who lived there.

“I thought they were trailer trash,” she said.

Then Ketcham moved into the Central Manufactured Home Community, a tight-knit park in Cañon City where neighbors bake each other fresh banana bread, watch their grandkids and chat easily on their porches.

These people weren’t trailer trash, Ketcham realized — just everyday folks who couldn’t afford $450,000 mortgages in other parts of town.

And for her first eight years, life was good. Until RV Horizons-Impact Communities, a Cedaredge-based company, bought the park.

Suddenly, rent started rising. With a degenerative back condition that leaves her unable to work, Ketcham is slowly losing any wiggle room on her $800-a-month disability budget.

A pipe issue left standing water in her yard for months, attracting mice and gnats that flew into her mouth every time she brushed her teeth. Sewage backed up into her bathtub.

“They’re just money-hungry little (expletive),” Ketcham said. “I’m not renting property, just a small little piece of land.”

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Crews work on the water lines at Central Manufactured Home Community in Cañon City on Aug. 30, 2021.

Residents say this is life at a mobile home park run by RV Horizons-Impact Communities, a company on Colorado’s Western Slope that stakes its claim as the fifth-largest owner of mobile home parks in the United States. Lawsuits, compliance complaints and protests against the company are piling up — and state regulators are taking notice.

As of mid-August, there were open complaints filed to the state’s new Mobile Home Oversight Program at eight of RV Horizons-Impact Communities’ 18 Colorado parks, according to state data. Regulators, meanwhile, recently subpoenaed records from one of the owners regarding sewage, water and tree issues at an Eckert mobile home park.

This is par for the course for David Reynolds and Frank Rolfe, residents in their mobile home parks say. The pair, along with owning RV Horizons-Impact Communities, run a training course on the Front Range on how to get rich in mobile home park ownership.

At Mobile Home University, the owners teach attendees to increase rents “relentlessly” because mobile home owners — contrary to their name — generally can’t afford to move. Remove amenities such as pools or playgrounds. Say goodbye to laundry rooms or vending machines.

“Affordable Housing is the hottest arena in commercial real estate right now,” their website states prominently. “With over 20% 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.”

While Reynolds and Rolfe profit off their parks, people like Ketcham are paying more than $500 out of an $800-a-month fixed income to rent the land beneath her Cañon City mobile home. Earlier this summer, the water went out for six days at homes throughout the park, forcing elderly and disabled residents to lug their own water from across the park. Toilets sat unflushed.

“This is one of our country’s primary methods of low-income homeownership,” said Esther Sullivan, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Denver, who wrote a book on manufactured housing. “It is incredibly important not just as a source of affordable shelter, but also as a route to the American dream of homeownership for those of less means.”

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Gary Breed, left, and Steve Breed talks after lunch at Gary’s home at Central Manufactured Home Community in Cañon City on Aug. 30, 2021. The brothers are upset with the owners after space rent recently increased, and they are having issues with the water lines.

Mobile Home University 

Reynolds and Rolfe have not been shy about how they make their money — and they set up Mobile Home University to teach others how to follow in their footsteps.

Company representatives declined multiple interview requests from The Denver Post as well as a request to attend a recent three-day seminar. But a review of past interviews, as well as the company’s own blog, sheds light on how these two individuals think about the mobile home industry and the residents who reside in their parks.

Early on, Rolfe said he assumed that virtually everyone who lived in a mobile home was a “drug addict, a hooker, and just the scum of the earth,” the mobile home park owner said in a 2016 interview, according to The New Yorker. He later came to realize, the profile notes, that just because the tenants were poor didn’t mean they were “dangerous” or “stupid.”

Reynolds and Rolfe say they own the fifth-largest number of mobile home parks in the country, though it’s unclear how many they actually own. On their website, the owners at various times say they own 170 parks across 20 states, 250 parks in 25 states, and 280 communities across nearly 30 states.

Eighteen of those parks are in Colorado, across a wide swath of the Western Slope, the Four Corners and the Front Range.

The first thing they do after they buy a park? Raise rent. Then they raise it again, the owners say on their website.

“Many investors are able to retire or meet their financial objectives with just one mobile home park,” reads one post on the Mobile Home University website. “Here’s an example: If you have a 100-space mobile home park and raise the rent $50 per month, the increase in net cash flow is $60,000 per year, just in that one attack plan.”

Mobile home parks are unique beasts in the American housing scene because people often own the homes they live in. They don’t, however, usually own the land on which their homes sit. That belongs to the park owners.

Owners should keep raising rents, Rolfe preaches, because mobile homes are not, in fact, very mobile.

“What I’ve found, and, again, just as a heartless person, is that… the customers are stuck there,” Rolfe says in one Mobile Home University video. “They don’t have any option. They can’t afford to move the trailer. They don’t have three grand.”

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Some of the residents are upset with the owners of Central Manufactured Home Community in Cañon City, pictured on Aug. 30, 2021. Space rent recently increased, and some residents are having issues with water.

After increasing rents, Rolfe and Reynolds shut down any amenities that might cost them extra money, such as pools.

“We don’t like amenities of any kind,” Rolfe told a Mobile Home University class, according to a 2014 New York Times profile.

John Oliver, the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” skewered Rolfe and Reynolds on a 2019 episode, saying the pair served as a prime example of just “how cynical and predatory the (mobile home) industry can be.”

Sullivan, the CU Denver mobile home housing expert, attended a Mobile Home University seminar while researching her 2018 book “Manufactured Insecurity: Mobile Home Parks and Americans’ Tenuous Right to Place.”

Many of the attendees were people who used to work at places like Goldman Sachs, she said, searching for that golden goose investment opportunity.

The talks were “rife with stereotypes of who these (residents) are,” Sullivan said. “Frank Rolfe is such a colorful character because he’s willing to say what other people think, but know better than to say.”

Sullivan lived in mobile home parks for two years before writing her book, and as she left the conference, she couldn’t help but think about the significant money she spent to attend.

“I just kept thinking about how I paid $2,000 to listen to these people talk about these residents like they’re another piece of their passive-income puzzle,” Sullivan said. “This is everything to the people in these homes. This is their American dream.”

AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Gov. Jared Polis speaks at the Carriage House of the Governor’s Residence at Boettcher Mansion in Denver on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020.

Complaints mounting

In 2019 and 2020, Gov. Jared Polis signed into law two pieces of legislation aimed at shoring up protections for residents of the state’s 721 mobile home parks.

The legislation also led to the formation of the Mobile Home Park Oversight Program, which gave tenants and landlords a place to mediate disputes without going to court, as well as enforcement measures for state regulators to nudge bad actors in the right direction.

There were 10 open complaints across eight RV Horizons-Impact Communities’ properties in Colorado as of Friday, state records show, including multiple complaints at parks in Eckert, Cañon City and Grand Junction.

Open complaints are not public record, but residents at some of these parks detailed to The Post their frustration and anger over constant water outages, sewage backups, lack of tree maintenance and alarming rent increases that have many thinking about where they may go when they can’t afford to rent the land beneath their homes.

Ketcham, who settled a lawsuit against RV Horizons in June, remembers buying crates of tiles to pave a walkway to the front of her home shortly after the new owners bought their park. The crates sat neatly in front of her mobile home when Ketcham received a knock on her door.

The park’s then-manager had three tickets bearing fines in hand for the crates, saying “they looked unsightly,” Ketcham said.

“You have two hours,” Ketcham remembers being told. “If you don’t pay, we’re evicting you.”

Ketcham said she couldn’t comment on the settlement, but in a complaint filed in July 2020 in Fremont County Court, she alleged that park owners also failed for months to address a defective water line. The issue resulted in standing water and “lead to repeated infestations” in Ketcham’s home, according to the lawsuit.

RV Horizons also repeatedly charged her “above and beyond the contractually agreed upon amounts called for in the lease,” she alleged.

The rent hikes in Cañon City have been consistent with Rolfe and Reynolds’ strategy: Raise rent as often as you can.

Before RV Horizons-Impact Communities brought the park three years ago, residents remember paying $285 a month. Now it’s up to $507 — and homeowners are bracing for another hike this fall. That 78% increase dwarfs the 11.8% increase in rent for the average one-bedroom home in Fremont County between 2018 and 2021, according to rentdata.org.

Nate and Melissa Webb have a ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Nate and Melissa Webb have a ditch outside their home in Central Manufactured Home Community in Cañon City, pictured on Aug. 30, 2021. They say the ditch has been like this for weeks after crew worked on the water lines.

For Shelli Wilson, who lives across the road from Ketcham in the same mobile home park, that rent number is becoming untenable. She makes $800 a month in disability pay and can’t work due to back issues she sustained while doing home health care work eight years ago.

“I barely make it,” she said. “If it keeps going up, I’m gonna be homeless. Unless I’m able to sell the trailer — but that leaves me to go where and do what?”

Nate and Melissa Webb still have two open trenches in their yard more than six weeks after plumbing issues under their mobile home left half the park without water for a week. Nate Webb, who hasn’t been able to work in a decade due to a rare connective tissue disorder, spent three hours one day helping dig one of the holes after being told the plumbers wouldn’t fix it until they could access the problem.

“I was in pain for two weeks after that,” he said Monday near his home, using a cane for support. The couple and their two children survive off only Melissa’s disability claim since Nate has been unable to get money for his condition.

One of the trenches on Monday still had water sitting in it, and feral cats are now able to crawl into the home through the open hole, Nate Webb said. The couple has since seen bed bugs.

“My daughter can’t play in the yard,” he said. “(The owners) know about it, and they’re deciding not to do anything.”

Janet Grover, the Cañon City park’s manager, said all-new pipes are coming into the park shortly but “everything takes forever in mobile homes.”

Across Colorado, residents at RV Horizons-Impact-owned parks have made similar complaints to state mobile home regulators. In August, state regulators subpoenaed Reynolds for records involving sewer tank, tree maintenance and water system issues at an Eckert mobile home park, according to documents reviewed by The Post.

In Durango, residents in 2019 said rent increased from $420 to $630 per month in just over three years at the Apache Mobile Home Park, which is also owned by RV Horizons-Impact Communities. Homeowners there told the Durango Herald that faulty sewage pipes don’t get fixed, so every winter, the sewage backs up into yards, bathrooms and kitchens across the park.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Shelli Wilson talks to her neighbor on the phone at her home in Central Manufactured Home Community in Cañon City on Aug. 30, 2021. Wilson along with a few other residents in the community are upset with the owners after space rent recently increased, and they are having issues with the water lines.

Problems outside Colorado

But issues at parks owned by RV Horizons-Impact Communities extend far beyond Colorado’s borders.

Residents of an Austin mobile home park sued RV Horizons in 2015 over what they called illegal evictions. Those residents ultimately bought the park from Rolfe and Reynolds after years of legal action, protests and organizing efforts.