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Judy Stoddard, 71, lives in Carver, Mass., but every weekday morning, she picks herself up out of bed and drives to Boston.
"I do the back roads, which gets me there in an hour and 40 minutes," Stoddard says. "I'm exhausted when I get there. I'm exhausted when I come home."
Stoddard drives those back roads for a reason — she can't see out of one eye. But as long as her rent keeps creeping up, she keeps going back to work.
"I can't retire. I want to keep my house. I put a lot of work in this house. I don't want to lose it," she says.
Stoddard is caught in a vise grip that's familiar to nearly 3 million Americans — they own their mobile home, but rent the land underneath. Despite the name, these homes aren't actually mobile. So if the current owner lets the park deteriorate, or a new owner decides to build a grocery store on the land, people like Stoddard could wind up losing the home they live in and the financial investment they've made.
Owning the home and renting the land also makes it nearly impossible to build equity like other homeowners do. But Concord, N.H.-based nonprofit ROC USA is out to change that. Their mission is to ensure that people in mobile home parks are treated like regular homeowners.
Where most people see little of value, ROC USA sees hope for the American dream.
Seeing 'A Cathedral'
"A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock pile when somebody contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind." That's the quote ROC USA President Paul Bradley has hanging in his office.
When it comes to mobile home parks, Bradley sees what few others do: He believes the parks are an important part of the nation's affordable housing stock, especially out in the countryside. And because lots of residents already own homes, he believes they're in a position to profit.
What Bradley's group does is help people form a co-op when a park comes up for sale. If the co-op's bid is accepted, ROC USA finances the deal, and just like that, tenants are transformed into homeowners with control over the land beneath their feet.
"Since we launched in 2008, ROC USA has helped 2,200 homeowners in 35 communities purchase their parks and gain economic security," Bradley says.
ROC USA's work in 2012 is projected to more than double over 2011 — that means helping some 1,000 families, including Judy Stoddard. Bradley is aiming to triple that.
"We are dead serious about scaling our impact," he says. In other words, Bradley isn't satisfied with being a niche artisan goat cheese producer — he wants to be Kraft.
"I want resident ownership to be available to every homeowner group in the country that wants to buy their community," he says.
But ROC USA has a long way to go before they get there. Today, there are an estimated 50,000 mobile home parks nationwide. According to Bradley, about 1,000 are currently resident-owned co-ops.
Bradley spends a lot of time hunting for investors, and he's had some success. ROC USA now has backing from foundations like Ford, Rockefeller and Calvert. But Bradley wants to tap more than just the social investor class. He's got his eye on profit-hungry Wall Street types — people with deep pockets. Bank of America has already put $13 million into ROC USA.
"We met Paul Bradley and the team, and concluded that they've got a great business model and a great opportunity," says Bank of America's Dan Letendre. Letendre believes resident-owned mobile home parks could become a big business — but it's going to take time.
The banker says most major investors don't carry community organizing outfits in their portfolios.
"Investors tend to invest in things that they know. In the end, this will work when investors look at the track record and conclude, 'I can lend ROC USA money. I can invest in ROC USA, and I can get a good, safe, attractive return and get my capital back,' " Letendre says.
That's no secret to Bradley. When he knocks on investor doors, he opens with ROC USA's track record.
"On over $200 million worth of total lending, not a single lender has lost a single dollar over the course of the last 30 years," he says. That includes co-op lending from ROC USA, New Hampshire banks, federal agencies and commercial lenders.
'In Charge Of Their Own Destiny'
When it comes to the people who own the parks — the potential sellers — most of them have never heard of Bradley or ROC USA's seemingly impressive track record. But when they do, George Allen, an Indianapolis-based owner, says most of them are open-minded. According to Allen, what trips some up is the idea that their tenants will become owners.
"Because [park owners] have to take [tenants] to small claims court often to get their money; because [owners have] to go and mow the grass because [tenants] don't take enough responsibility to mow their own grass. [Owners] go around and tell [tenants] to get the dog into the house and stop letting it crap all over everybody else's lawn," he says.
According to Allen, dealing with these problems day in and day out can perpetuate "the idea ... that these people, generally, are incapable of being in charge of their own destiny."
Overcoming that notion may be ROC USA's biggest challenge. But by changing the rules of the game, Bradley's organization is giving "these people" a chance to prove the skeptics wrong.
'I'm Not A Second-Class Citizen Anymore'
Gary Thulin used to have a nickname for his 1967 single-wide home — "The Dump." Thulin lives with his wife in Breezy Acres, a small New Hampshire park that went co-op back in 1991.
"We did have mold problems. The roof did leak. We were ill all the time. We had pails to catch the rainwater. It was horrible," he says.
About two years ago, the couple locked down a $50,000 loan. It was no small feat for a guy with almost no credit, but the nonprofit lender he worked with understands and, most importantly, trusts the co-op model. So the couple bought themselves a brand new three-bedroom mobile home, putting it right where The Dump used to be.
"The first thing I wanted to do was invite some people over for a cup of coffee," Thulin says. "For a long time, 20 years, I couldn't ever do that. I was embarrassed about my home. I got out of jail, man. I got out of jail."
Finally, the 70-year-old feels set up. Changing the economic model has changed everything. It means a guy who has always chased after money can finally rest. Thulin says he has something now that he's never known before.
"I really can have my own place and be a respectable part of a community. And we were never allowed to do that before, people in my situation," he says. "I'm not a second-class citizen anymore. And I'll be damned if we are going to be thought [of] that way. I'm a citizen and a part of a community."
Thulin says he used to dream of stability. Now, he and his wife could sell their home, pay off the loan and still walk away with $10,000.
ROC USA's Paul Bradley says that when he dreams, he dreams of Gary Thulin — lots and lots of Gary Thulins.