Boulder’s mobile home parks, in many ways the last bastion of affordable housing in the city, are not immune to the rapidly increasing prices and property taxes plaguing the rest of the real estate market. The median mobile home now costs $72,000, according to city documents.
Lot rents are rising fast, too, outpacing gains in apartment prices. Residents fear gentrification as retired doctors and professors move in, their empty trailers eroding community spirit and pushing out the seniors and low-income earners who once exclusively called the parks home.
“If this doesn’t work,” said one unnamed resident quoted in staff’s notes to city council, “I can’t live in Boulder.”
Mobile homes do remain the city’s most attainable housing option, by far. Sale prices range from $35,000 to $135,700 — a small fraction of the nearly $1 million-median for a single-family home. Residents enjoy having a small yard or garden and no shared walls.
Lot rents, too, ranging from $725 to $800 per month, are cheaper than a typical two-bedroom apartment ($1,417 in January, according to Apartment List). But they’re getting expensive faster. Average market-rate lot rent increase 4.2% per year in Boulder, according to city staff, versus 4% a year for two-bedroom apartments.
City leaders want to preserve mobile homes as an affordable option. To that end, council on Tuesday discussed its strategy to do so, as well as ways to expand protections for residents and tackle an expansive and expensive infrastructure problem.
With the exception of a portion of Thistle-owned Mapleton Mobile Home Park, sewer and water systems are all a half-century old at the four parks within city limits, constructed between 1961 and 1970. The homes themselves are woefully energy-inefficient, some lacking heat and pushing the limits of habitability.
Recently, a series of burst pipes left Orchard Grove residents without water for nearly a week. Although property owners and a plumbing contractor testified that the system is only halfway through its useful life, council members remain skeptical. The incident was the fourth water main break at the property since 2015.
Staff has recommended five workplan items for council to address the most serious challenges for residents. They include:
Colorado bans rent control, but one idea being floated is that Boulder could pursue voluntary caps with property owners in exchange for city services.
There are several options to bring things up to code. The city could insert a Warranty of Habitability into mobile home leases, which requires landlords to ensure basic standards in their parks. Boulder could also provide financial incentives for upgrades — or do the repairs themselves, in exchange for caps on rent increases or permanent affordability.
That would avert one of the biggest concerns: that major repairs will result in higher rents for the city’s most vulnerable residents.
“There is a tension between maintaining affordability while upgrading infrastructure,” staff noted in a council memo. “Rent has to go up to support community maintenance and increased materials costs making these communities less and less affordable.”
Where Boulder would get the money for infrastructure repairs is unclear; costs and funding options were not discussed in the council packet. Councilwoman Mary Young has repeatedly suggested the use of Opportunity Funds to pay for needed upgrades.
Staff suggested conducting an analysis on ways to add solar to mobile homes, or the development of an incentive program to encourage the replacement of older homes with newer, more efficient models; perhaps even net zero trailers.
Land use code changes
Boulder in 1985 created a zoning district just for mobile home parks. While that helps preserve them from redevelopment, some of the setback requirements make it difficult to replace older homes with newer, larger models. Changes to a site often require a trip to the Board of Zoning Adjustments, which itself requires a level of “real estate sophistication” typically not possessed by the general public, staff said.
The MH zone also prohibits permanent foundations. A review of the land use codes could allow different types of housing in MH zones; for instance, small, 3D-printed fixed-foundation homes, tiny homes, or container homes. Changes could also be made to allow mobile homes in other zoning districts.
A city licensing program would allow Boulder to have more oversight and enforcement of its rules, theoretically providing better protections for tenants.
Boulder already has more protections than many places. In addition to the MH zoning, a 2015 city ordinance limited park owners from prohibiting the sale of pre-1976 mobile homes, which were subject to different standards. The law also mandated that tree removal was the responsibility of property owners, not residents.
A right to privacy and protections against retaliation were also passed into law, as well as mandatory mediation between tenants and landlords. Since that time, $50,000 annually has been dispensed from a city-created legal services fund for mobile home community residents.
Boulder also provides grants of up to $10,000 for mobile home remodeling. Residents, in their feedback to city staff, suggested that amount be raised.
Whatever eventual fixes are pursed, staff noted it won’t be cheap or easy. “The city will need to expend a lot of money to maintain affordability,” they said.
Boulder is hoping that some of the issues will be tackled at the state level, where efforts are underway to overturn Colorado’s ban on rent control. That would give the city authority to address lot rents at manufactured housing communities.
In case that push fails — landlords have fought hard against Democrat-led initiatives in the past — council instructed staff to research other ways to keep rents from rising too fast and too high.
When it came to the five workplan suggestions, council honed in on rent stabilization, infrastructure and licensing as the top priorities.
“Those are the basics,” said councilman Sam Weaver.
Weaver and councilwoman Lisa Morzel suggested that, as the city research possible infrastructure improvements, it also look at water metering for mobile homes, so that residents know what they are paying for. There have been issues in the past around over or improper billing, and residents have complained about the lack of transparency.
Accountability was a buzzword of the night. Staff did not include it in a list of guiding principles, feeling it was inherent to the whole process. Some council members pushed for it to be added.
“People feel like they pay their rent, they pay their mortgage at their homes,” said Morzel. “They have certain expectations. If we’re not going to hold owners or managers accountable, where are people supposed to go?”
A city licensing program would provide the most opportunity for Boulder to assert its influence over park owners. Two suggestions are that posted communications be available in Spanish; that was not done during Orchard Grove’s recent crisis, Morzel noted. Councilman Aaron Brockett suggested a specific ordinance to tackle that piece as well.
“We need to send the message to our residents that we have their backs,” said Jones. “And to (park) owners that we expect more.”
City Attorney Tom Carr said that a licensing program could be researched and brought back to council while current members are still in power. Staff plans to return July 16 with specific actions for leaders to consider.
Author’s note: This article has been updated to include comments from Tuesday’s meeting. For a Twitter thread of the discussion, click here.
A snapshot of Boulder’s mobile home parks:
Four parks in city limits, 1,300 homes, 2.8% of city stock
Columbine, Ponderosa, San Lazaro and Table Mesa Village outside city limits but eligible for annexation
Boulder Meadows: 1970; 633 homes (514 owned; 119 rented) 26% pre-1976
Mapleton: 1961; 135 owner-occupied homes (120 permanently affordable) 61% pre-1976
Mapleton is owned affordable housing provider Thistle, and governed by a resident-led homeowners association.
Orchard Grove: 1963; 216 owner-occupied homes; 69% pre-1976
Vista Village: 1968; 302 owner-occupied homes; 29% pre-1976
$72K in rental assistance from EFFA to Orchard Grove, Boulder Meadows and Vista Village in 2018
Boulder Affordable Housing Research Initiative (BAHRI) has begun surveying residents to understand who lives there. But anecdotal evidence suggests the parks are “disproportionately serving families, service workers, retirees, people on fixed incomes, undocumented households, and a greater ethnic mix than found in other neighborhoods with detached homes.”
Median price: $72,000. Current homes for sale from $35K to $135,700
Lot rents $725-$800 average
Mapleton: $531 for market-rate lots; $365 to $472 for affordable units. Also, annual increases cannot exceed $50
Average market-rate lot rent increases 4.2% per year
Mapleton average annual increases: .8%