At first glance, The Highwoods in Great Falls may look like just about any other manufactured home community in Montana. But what separates it from most of the others is how much it costs to live in the complex. It’s something that has one longtime resident waging a battle with an out of state company.
Cindy Newman has lived in the Highwoods Manufactured Home Community for 20 years. She owns the home but rents the lot. And with the community under new ownership, she says residency for her and the other tenants, mostly senior citizens on fixed incomes, may be in jeopardy.
“We don’t know if the next increase is going to force us out of our homes,” said Newman. She says when Utah based Havenpark Capital unknowingly came in last November and took over, her lot rent was $283 a month. In January it was $337. Her last bill was $362. She doesn’t expect the increases to stop there.
“I’m expecting our increase to $450 any day,” said Newman. “We know that’s inevitable because they have a four-year track record in 10 other states.”
Cindy says for comparison, rents were raised by just $117 dollars a month in the 20 years before Havenpark took over. Cindy says paying $500 a month isn’t out of the question.
Havenpark did not want to be interviewed on camera for this story, but spokesperson Josh Weiss told MTN communities like the Highwoods are “market rent” properties and rents are based on other housing options nearby, typically half that of a two-bedroom apartment in most markets.
Weiss added that the company must account for the significant costs of providing professional management, capital improvements, rising fixed costs such as property taxes, payroll, insurance, maintenance, and other operating costs.
Weiss said for years rent fees at the Highwoods have been far below comparable communities and that when Haven Park took over, they did raise the monthly rent by $47. He said there has been no rent increase during the second year, but residents are now paying $8 a month for garbage removal as well as extra for water and sewer depending on usage.
Weiss added that Havenpark also invested in and completed around $400,000 worth of tree work, road work, and general landscaping within the past year. He says those types of community improvement projects boost the value of residents’ homes since the community where the homes are located is now nicer, with better amenities, landscaping, and infrastructure.
Weiss went on to say the company’s eventual long-term goal is to get prices in line with normal market rates of comparable properties within the greater area. He says once the community reaches that point, they would expect any additional annual increases would stay in line with the greater area, and thus any increase will seem less impactful to residents dollar-wise.
Havenpark also owns Countryside Village in Great Falls as well as communities in Billings and Kalispell.
Cindy says Havenpark’s Treasure State footprint affects more than 1,400 Montanans. She says it's not just a massive rent increase adding to the bill, but extra fees. Cindy says customers are now helping foot the bill for water meters on properties. “The water meters they’ve installed are read by satellite and then sent to the office and then they charge us an additional administrative fee to bill us for the water we’ve always paid for in our lot rent,” said Newman.
Havenpark says installing water meters is a common practice to monitor leaks and overuse. Weiss told MTN the company has found residents prefer paying for their own usage, rather than a hidden blanket fee added to the monthly rent. Weiss told MTN that nationwide, it’s standard practice among Manufactured Home Communities that utilities are paid by the person who uses them.
Along with other concerned manufactured homeowners through a Zoom meeting, Cindy made an appeal to Enterprise Community Partners who through their subsidiary, Bellwether Enterprises, funds Havenpark and claims to be an affordable housing advocate.
“We just let them know you’ve got a fox in the henhouse and they’re going against everything you stand for,” said Newman.
The group also asked Enterprise to send Havenpark a letter demanding support for justified rent increases, fair evictions, and residents’ ability to buy their own communities.
Cindy says the Enterprise CEO told them they should work on passing legislation. “It’s a type of thing that really gives capitalism a bad name,” said MT State Senator Brian Hoven, R-Great Falls. “I’m appalled by what they’re doing.”
Hoven says affordable housing is in the public interest and says he’ll push for a law allowing residents, as a co-operative, to purchase their community.
“Havenpark would receive their investment, plus a bit of a profit because they would have to purchase it for the market value,” said Hoven. “I really believe that if push came to shove, we could fit this under the eminent domain laws.”
Legislation is expected to be sponsored by Billings Democratic Senator Margie MacDonald, who must first overcome an election day challenge from Republican Chris Friedel.
Fifteen Montana manufactured home communities are already resident-owned. The Montana Housing Coalition, which advocates for affordable housing, is working on legislation that would give manufactured home community residents an opportunity to at least make an offer to buy their community. While that won’t help Cindy and her Highwoods neighbors now, it could be beneficial in the future.
“But if we have the opportunity to purchase in Montana, the next time Highwoods or any other community is sold, the residents will have the opportunity to know it’s for sale and to be able to make an offer,” said Sheila Rice, chairman of the Montana Housing Coalition Board.
Cindy says Havenpark is notorious for raising rental fees in other states like Montana that do have rental restrictions.
The company has also drawn attention on Capitol Hill. Last year, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) visited an Iowa mobile home park with similar concerns about rent hikes.
Cindy says Havenpark has been unsympathetic at a bad time, while the nation is in the middle of a pandemic. “So they are unscrupulous and they have been completely unresponsive to any tenants requests for information, request for leases,” said Newman.
“The rent increase and the fee increases have just really been astronomical and it's going to price some of those people out of a home,” said Hoven.
A disability forced Cindy to take early retirement from a job with Benefis Health System. She says if laws don’t change, she will have to go back to work, just to pay the rent. “The reason that I’m on this quest is literally to save my home because with what they’re charging, I'll lose my home,” said Newman.