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Street Talk

Some Think It Is A Brilliant Idea

Steve Russell works for North Central Planning and Development, he is the executive director.  North Central is based in Winona and is one of 10 planning district organizations throughout the state. These districts have been in place since the late 1960s and their reason for existence is “created to aid business and the local community in the areas of planning, economic and community development, job training, social services, transportation, data processing and gerontology.” 

That is not saying North Central is a one stop shopping help for all city and county advice and assistance, but they cover a lot. Steve is a regular visitor to the Valley, both on a professional level in working with the city, county, and Main Street and on a personal level for entertainment. He’s a big fan of the Valley’s food and music scene. He has noted the positive changes and transition going on here in the last decade.

This coming Friday, Feb. 17, at 9 a.m. at the Water Valley courthouse, Steve will be in town to discuss planning possibilities with the Yalobusha Board of Supervisors. You should attend. It would be important to be there. Not sure if the Oxonian Golden Wing guys or their older surrogates will be there, they were not at the standing room only city council meeting last Tuesday evening. It is too bad this coming meeting Friday is held at time when most folks here are working hard.  

So is this trailer park thing just a situation where some Oxford guys see a zoning loophole to drop in a high-profit, low-value housing operation on our doorstep? One of the Golden Wing guys told friends here that this project was for his retirement. The irony is the project will depreciate the value of surrounding real estate that might be the retirement nest egg for a lot of Vallians. But those issues seem a local problem and the bigger issue is what do we do for housing in general and what does that say about us. Sometimes an outside perspective is good, take this article from another newspaper. 

The Guardian is one of oldest and most read papers in the English speaking world. It’s a paper started by middle class merchants in 1821 and a paper that has a consistent economic angle. 

In May of 2015 the Guardian ran this article: America’s Trailer Parks: the residents may be poor but the owners are getting rich. It’s an unusual, but potentially lucrative investment: billionaire Warren Buffet is heavily invested, and his and others’ success is prompting ordinary people to attend Mobile Home University, a ‘boot camp’ in trailer park ownership.

The number one rule is stated twice, once in the classroom and once on the bus: “Don’t make fun of the residents.” Welcome to Mobile Home University, a three-day, $2,000 ‘boot camp’ that teaches people from across the US how to make a fortune by buying up trailer parks.

Trailer parks are big and profitable business-particularly after hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost their homes in the financial crisis created a huge demand for affordable housing. According to the US Census figures, more than 20 million people, or 6% of the population, live in trailer parks.

It is a market than has not been lost on some of the country’s richest and most high profile investors. Sam Zell’s Equity LifeStyle Properties (ELS) is the largest mobile home park owner in America, with controlling interests in nearly 140,000 parks. In 2014, ELS made $777 million in revenue, helping boost Zell’s near $5 billion fortune.

Warren Buffett, the nation’s second richest man with a $72 billion dollar fortune, owns the biggest mobile home manufacturer in the US, Clayton Homes, and the two biggest mobile home lenders, 21st Mortgage Corp. and Vanderbilt Mortgage and Finance Company. Buffet’s trailer park investments will feature heavily in his annual meeting this weekend, which will be attended by more than 40,000 shareholders in Omaha.

Such success is prompting ordinary people with little or no experience to try and follow in their footsteps. On a bright Saturday morning, under the Floridian sun, Frank Rolfe, the multimillionaire co-founder of Mobile Home University who is the nation’s 10th biggest trailer park owner, conducts a tour of parks around Orlando, Florida. A busload of hopefuls, ranging in age from early 20s to late 70s, hangs on his every word.

As the tour approaches its first stop, Rolfe repeats a warning which earlier flashed on to a screen in a conference room of the Orlando airport Hyatt hotel: “When we are on the property, don’t make fun of the residents, or say things that can get us in trouble or offend anyone. I once had a bank come to a mobile home park and say in front of my manager, ‘Only a white trash idiot would live in a trailer.’”

Then comes a second, more unexpected warning: “Now guys, I’ve got to tell you this park, I believe, is a sex offender park. Everyone in here is a sex offender. I could be wrong, we’re going to find out, but I think that’s the deal on this one. So stay together as a herd.”

He’s not wrong. Signs say at the entrance to Lake Shore Village, on the northeastern outskirts of Orlando, warn: “Adults only. No children.” The park is described on the owner’s business card as “sex offender housing” and “habitat for offenders.”

On the forecourt the owner, Lori Lee, tells Rolfe’s students she dedicated the park to sex offenders 20 years ago and has not looked back.

“We were a family park when we first started. About 20 years ago, I couldn’t get on the property because a drug dealer had separated from his girlfriend in the park across the street….and there was a long line of cars because she was undercutting her boyfriend.”

Lee, 70, says she was advised that if she took in sex offenders the drug dealers would leave. “So, I started taking in sex offenders, and I have a very clean property. Sex offenders are watched by the news media, the TV, the sheriff’s department, probation, the department of corrections….so when they are in there, the drug dealers and other people don’t like to be around.”

Sex offenders have been good for Lee financially, with park occupancy running at “1,000%”. She rents trailers pad spots for about $325 a month. The trailers are either owned by the tenant or rented from a third party. Many trailers are divided in three bedrooms, for which tenants are charged $500 a month per room.

Lee claims she was once offered $5 million for Lake Shore Park, which is home to about 50 trailers.

“Last year I bought a park down the street, got rid of all the families, the drug dealers, the prostitutes, and brought in convicted felons. And then I bought the property across the way,” she says. “Once you’re into it and making money it’s easy to say, ‘One more, one more’.”

She has an eye on a fourth park, “but then I’m through. I’m 70 years old and I don’t want anymore.”

Asked by an eager investor how regularly tenants leave her park, Lee says: “When they die. They stay forever, they have no place to go.”

Lee’s strategy impresses Rolfe’s students.

“I thought it was a brilliant idea, brilliant, “ says Mitch Huhem, who is looking to buy a trailer park with his wife, Deborah. “These people need a place to live, and they don’t want to mess around. They’ve got to live somewhere, so you combine them in a certain place. The don’t go out to hurt people. I think it’s a community service, because if not they will be in your neighborhood. Now they’re all in one place, you can watch them all in one place. And they pay well and won’t mess things up. I mean, why would you not? I think it’s a brilliant idea.”

This about the halfway point on the Guardian article, I’ll put the second half in next week.

Let me repeat again for the fourth time that this effort to halt this trailer park is not directed against the people who would possibly live there. It is like the three little pigs, only the third pig was smart enough to have a brick house, the big bad wolf blew the first two weakly built houses down. All people should have houses like the third pig. We as a town want better housing in general. This stop the trailer invasion effort is directed at the nearly silent Oxford would be developers who have their own financial interests first and foremost. Frankly I have trouble imagining that four young men who are a medical professional and three seemingly upstanding businessmen would think that trailer park ownership is a great idea. There’s something dark and disturbing about that level of cynicism at that age, the betting on a poorer America for a higher return. I can’t imagine advising my own son, who is just slightly younger than these four men that the way to wealth is via low value, high-density marginal housing. I’d tell him to go do volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity and learn how to build simple houses and understand people’s needs. Then invest in something worthwhile and lasting. The Golden Wing Oxford guys mentality, because of their age, distresses me, as for the last eight years as Main Street director, I’ve work with many people who are the same age as these men (early 30s). To a person they have all wanted to be an integral part of the community, to fix and make better, to add lasting value to a place, to be an engaged part of the economic engine, and be part of the change in making Water Valley a better place for all us. 

This trailer park does none of that.  In fact it signifies a loser’s solution. It will be a constant signifier and not for the owners living large in Oxford, but we the residents in the Valley. That we are a trailer park town. No this park won’t take one bit of shine off of Oxford’s economic rise. But it will negatively signify our economic future and tag us as much as one fallen in building on Main Street tagged the whole town as “derelict.”

For all will see for decades to come the Valley’s creative solution to housing is acres upon acres of trailers behind our grocery store. Pathetic

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