Jay Raines got a notice in his mailbox one day last year that the entire Missoula mobile home court he lives in had been sold to a mysterious new owner, a Limited Liability Corporation based in California.
The LLC's registered agent is Jim Mosier, a managing partner at Grove Ventures Real Estate. The company's website says "Grove Ventures is a private real estate investment firm focused on multi-family and manufactured housing communities in high-growth regions of the Western United States."
At the bottom of the company's homepage, "cash flow generation" is listed, along with "appreciation," "tax benefits" and "capital preservation."
Raines subsequently got a notice his lot rent was being raised by $100 a month, which is an extra $1,200 a year. The only extra improvement the new property managers have added is more garbage service.
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Raines relies on disability benefits from the Social Security Administration, meaning he's on a fixed income, and the lot rent increase was more than the cost-of-living-adjustment increase to his disability payments.
"That's a big increase," he remembers thinking.
As private equity firms snap up mobile home parks and apartment complexes in Montana, raising rents in the process, more and more people are being pushed toward and into homelessness or less stable housing.
Raines has lived in Sherwood Court in the Westside neighborhood near the corner of Broadway and Russell for the past eight years. The local owner, Bill Johnson, wrote in the letter to all the residents that they had decided "it was time for someone else to take the reins" after 30-plus years.
"A lot of these people live on disability," Raines said, referring to the dozens of residents in the trailer court. "My neighbor rents and she works at Walmart. I think she's been there for at least 10 years, and she is planning on moving to Billings."
Raines is upset that the previous owner didn't give the residents enough notice that it was being sold. If they had enough time, it's possible that they could have pooled their money and made a matching offer to buy the entire court through what's known as a Resident-Owned Community. Trailer court residents in other parks in Missoula and Montana have bought the land underneath their courts and then formed a cooperative.
"We could have gone around and gotten some kind of coalition going so we could have purchased it, if we had been notified," Raines said.
A bill proposed in the Montana Legislature this past session, HB 429, would have required that the residents of parks with more than 50 units be given a 60-day notice if the property was being sold. That would give them time to perhaps form a cooperative. It would also have required property owners to review counter-offers from a residents' association. The bill, sponsored by Rep. George Nikolakakos, R-Great Falls, died in the house.
Cindy Newman is a resident of the Highwoods Trailer Park in Great Falls. In November of 2019, her trailer park was bought by Havenpark Capital Partners, a private equity firm that has been criticized for drastic lot rent increases as it snaps up mobile home parks across the country. The company also bought Golden Park trailer court in Billings and several other mobile home courts in Montana.
"Three years ago you could rent a lot in either Highwoods or Golden Meadows for $283 a month," Newman said. "Now Golden Meadows is $749 a month and it's $700 here. It just really exceeds what people have the ability to pay."
Newman felt her only option was to go to the Legislature this year and try to get some of the pro-tenant bills passed. She supported House Bill 889, which is a "Mobile Home Tenant Bill of Rights."
The bill was introduced by Rep. Jonathan Karlen, a Democrat representing the Frenchtown and Huson areas west of Missoula. Among other provisions, the bill would ban mobile home park owners from instituting month-to-month lease agreements and instead would require year-long leases unless a month-to-month lease agreement is mutually agreed upon. The bill passed the Legislature and is awaiting a signature from Gianforte to become law.
“We are here today because our communities are under threat,” Newman told a House committee when the bill was being considered. “Real estate investors have seized on the vulnerability of homeowners who own homes but rent the land. They have built a highly profitable business model that relies on our limited mobility to squeeze large profits out of moderate-income residents."
Newman believes outside investors have worsened the affordability crisis for people in what used to be the most affordable homes in Montana.
"Under this model, we residents are suffering greatly and are reaching out in crisis," she said. "Lot rents for our homes are going up drastically. Under new corporate owners, utilities are being decoupled, maintenance is worsening. We now live with fear and uncertainty.”
Both Raines and Newman say that residents of mobile home parks are at great risk of becoming homeless when lot rents are raised drastically. That's because many residents are on fixed incomes, and because there's nowhere for older mobile home owners to move their trailers. Often, mobile home parks are full, or the trailer is too old to move safely or meet the requirements of a new park.
Raines said most of the people in Sherwood Court have trailers that wouldn't stand up to being moved.
"I could not afford the thousands of dollars that it would take to move this and I actually bought my wheels and axels," he said. "Most of these people don't have wheels and axles and they would have to rent them as well as getting the truck to move it. Plus you have to jack it up and put it on said wheels."
According to the Manufactured Housing Institute, more than 22 million people in the U.S. live in these types of homes.
"In many parts of the U.S., homes like these are the least expensive kind of housing available without a government subsidy," the Institute's website states.
In 2022, an Oregon company purchased the El-Mar Trailer Village in Missoula and subsequently raised the lot rents by $100 per month. Dori Jenkens and her husband David had lived in the court for 34 years.
"We're more concerned about the elderly people living here that are on fixed incomes and people that will be forced to move out," Dori Jenkins told the Missoulian at the time. "This is a community here. A lot of people have been living here for decades and there's nowhere to move their trailers."
Outside investors have their eye on Montana, and Missoula is an especially hot market. It's not limited to trailer parks.
In 2022, a Colorado investment firm called Brinkman Real Estate bought the 171-unit Brooklyn West Apartments on Mullan Road.
"This is a highly attractive market," said Brett Silverstein, a Brinkman executive.
"We've seen tremendous success with our other assets in the state and Missoula has all the fundamentals that support real estate investment," said company CEO Kevin Brinkman.
Raines, the Sherwood Court resident, is now fearing that if rent keeps going up he may join the ranks of the untold numbers of homeless individuals in Montana. It could have been different if he and all the residents had a chance to come up with an offer.
"We had no opportunity," he said.
For Newman, the threat of out-of-state investors looking to make a profit off the backs of trailer park residents in Montana is a crisis.
"These private equity firms have a huge impact on the lives of homeowners due to rent gouging, retaliation and harassment," she said. "They train new managers to be bullies. Their main goal is to pretty much keep us quiet and get us to pay up and shut up."
She said that her time at the Legislature was frustrating, especially because of the short amount of time given to public commenters on every bill.
"We were given two minutes to save our homes," she said, "and our homes are really truly at risk."
Up next in this series: How a "wealth tax" in Portland, Oregon pays the wages of a street beautification team of homeless or formerly homeless individuals.
David Erickson is the business reporter for the Missoulian.
In this Series
Nowhere to go: Montana's affordable housing crisis
Nowhere to go: Montana's affordable housing crisis
Nowhere to go: Mobile home residents face rising rents
Nowhere to go: The efforts to address the homeless crisis in one large city
- 6 updates