The new Project Homes mobile home prototype that is currently serving as an office. (Christie Marra)
By Christie Marra
Claudia Guerrero Barrera enjoys her role as community engagement specialist for Virginia-based housing nonprofit project:HOMES, spending afternoons sitting around a kitchen table, drinking coffee, and chatting with women in the Bermuda Estates neighborhood of Chesterfield.
They discuss their relief at having persuaded the county to place a school bus to stop in their newly paved cul-de-sac, so the children no longer have to wait on a busy strip of Route 1. They nibble on homemade treats, sharing plans for parties they’ll have at the community center once it is finished.
Less than two years ago, Claudia had never heard of Bermuda Estates Mobile Home Park, and the Bermuda Estates residents she now shares easy chatter with were at that time fearful of being forced out of their homes. The owner, J&J Equities, LLC, was selling the park, and the prospective buyer planned to redevelop the land and build townhomes. This meant the nearly 40 families living at Bermuda Estates would be displaced, their homes, meticulously tended rose gardens and memories plowed under to make way for new homes that would not be affordable to them.
Like most mobile home park residents across Virginia, the majority of families at Bermuda Estates earn less than 60% of the area median income, which is less than $60,000 per year for a family of four. But a rare collaboration changed the course of events at Bermuda Estates.
Chesterfield County government and project:HOMES worked together to chill the developer’s desire to buy the park; the county emphasized the cost of repairing the homes to bring them into code compliance and the non-profit offered significantly more than the private investor.
Thanks to donors’ interest in the future of Bermuda Estates, and the willingness of their lender to provide acquisition financing despite the significant improvements the park needed, project:HOMES purchased Bermuda Estates in September 2020. As Madeline Petrie, project:HOMES’ Director of Mission Advancement, noted, “Purchasing a (mobile home) park wasn’t in our strategic plan, but it fits into our mission: Improving lives by improving homes.”
Project:HOMES’ approach to improving the lives of Bermuda Estates families has been slower and more resident-centered than the approach often taken by the for-profit companies that have been eagerly buying up mobile home parks in Virginia and across the nation. Instead of immediately developing a plan to raise lot rent and shifting the cost of all utilities onto the residents, project:HOMES engaged a consultant to help them ascertain the residents’ needs and priorities and, most importantly, to build trust.
“We went into this knowing we weren’t going to raise lot rent orchange any rules until we built trust with the residents,” explained Lee Householder, Executive Director of project:HOMES. Part of that trust-building included making sure all residents could access their leases and park rules easily, so these were provided to each resident in English and Spanish. And project:HOMES hired Guerrero Barrera as their bilingual community engagement specialist. “We feel safer because we know if we have any issues, we just go to Claudia,” one resident said.
Building trust also required repairing a park that had suffered decades of neglect. “I administered repairs to over half of the homes in the park with funds that had been granted and donated specifically for that purpose,” Zack Miller, project:HOMES Director of Housing Innovation, said. Miller is also overseeing the infrastructure repairs, which began shortly after project:HOMES purchased the park with addressing the uneven roads, failing sewer system and dangerously overgrown trees. “You have a patchwork of improvements made over the decades, about which there may or may not be records,” Miller said. For example, “Dominion had no information about the lights in the park. The previous owner had been getting free power for decades.”
Installing additional street lights is on the list of improvements project:HOMES plans to make, along with installing fencing between the park and neighboring Skateland roller rink, building a covered bus stop for the children, expanding and renovating the community center and creating a playground.
The benefits of nonprofit ownership to Bermuda Estates and its residents haven’t gone unnoticed by Dan Cohen, Director of Community Enhancement for Chesterfield County. Cohen supported project:HOMES’ acquisition of the park by ramping up pressure on the prior owner about his multiple code violations and helping provide Community Development Block Grant funding, which flows from the federal government, for the purchase. “Bermuda Estates is a model,” Cohen said. “You have an owner who sees more than profits, who has compassion for the folks who live there and who wants to make a difference, to keep improving the park.”Cohen would like to see more nonprofits purchase parks in Chesterfield.
Recent legislative efforts to incentivize mobile home park owners to sell to nonprofits failed to reach the governor’s desk during the last General Assembly session. House Bill 1578, introduced by Delegate Paul Krizek, and Senate Bill 922, introduced by Senator Ghazala Hashmi, would have provided a tax credit to owners who sold their mobile home parks to housing nonprofits such as project:HOMES. Although both bills died in their respective subcommittees, there was talk of creating a new grant fund for nonprofit acquisition of parks in the budget. But with little likelihood of fattening up the amendments enacted through the “skinny” budget on April 12, it’s unlikely that such a fund will be established this year.
Until these or similar measures are put into place, Bermuda Estates may be the only nonprofit-owned mobile home park in central Virginia, joining East End Mobile Home Park in Manassas (purchased by Catholics for Housing in 2018,) and Southwood Mobile Home Park in Albemarle (bought by Habitat for Humanity in 2007) as the only nonprofit-owned parks in Virginia. And the ownership of Bermuda Estates may yet change, as project:HOMES is openly interested in selling the park to its residents once they have finished stabilizing it. But the residents do not seem interested in a change that would take the nonprofit out of the park.
“God bless project:HOMES,” said long-time resident Bonnie Newton, who was the first to purchase a new, energy efficient home built by project:HOMES, financed with a low-interest loan from Habitat for Humanity and sold to Newton for well below market rate, thanks to a subsidy obtained through grants and donations. “God Bless them and bless the people that’s helping them.”
Christie Marra has been an attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center since 2004 and before that worked at legal aids in Richmond and far southwest Virginia. Currently, she focuses on the rights of renters and of residents of mobile home parks, and on efforts to expand homeownership opportunities for previously excluded communities.
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