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The Fight for Affordable Housing Unites People in Manufactured Homes Across Racial and Geographic Barriers

Owners want Wall Street out of the manufactured home market.

Manufactured homeowner activists from 11 states meet in Austin, Texas, on December 1, 2017, to protest Mobile Home University, a boot camp on profit-making for prospective corporate investors. (Photo courtesy of MHAction)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now nearly a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 96th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Kevin Borden, the executive director of Manufactured Housing Action (MHAction), a nationwide constituency-based group. MHAction works to empower manufactured homeowners, which is the new terminology for folks who live in trailer parks. Borden discusses the group’s latest action in Texas and how the need for affordable housing unites people across racial and geographic barriers.

Sarah Jaffe: We are talking on Friday; you just got done with an action down in Texas. Tell us about that and what was going on there.

Kevin Borden: When you think about manufactured housing as a housing sector, there are millions of folks who live in manufactured housing communities — again, formerly known as trailer parks — in a number of states across the country. Given that we are still completely enveloped in a housing crisis, all of us in a number of states are still scrambling around trying to find affordable housing. These communities have provided a pretty good affordable housing spot for a number of families on fixed incomes, and low-income workers and immigrant families.

What has been happening in this particular real estate sector for the last 15-20 years is a number of corporate disasters; either publicly traded companies on Wall Street or private equity investors … right now [are] like, “Oh my gosh, everybody is looking for affordable housing options. Here is one of the options that is out there and if people get pushed out of urban cores, as gentrification escalates, this is where folks are landing. So, now is the time to make a lot of money on these communities.” So, investors come in and they buy out the communities. They escalate rents, they just create a complete predatory equity scheme on families that is causing massive amount of heartache for families.

We formulated our organization as a response to that, so we could figure out how we could protect them…. The fifth-biggest corporate owner of these communities is a company called RV Horizons. It is run by … two white guys: Frank Rolfe and Dave Reynolds. They are in Austin today and they run a school that they call Mobile Home University. They bill it as a boot camp for prospective corporate investors, how to purchase manufactured home communities and how to make a heck of a profit on them.

The New York Times Magazine covered them a couple of years ago. We are here today because one of the communities that they haven’t treated the nicest is located right outside of Austin in North Lamar. Folks, mostly immigrant families … have been organizing for better conditions. We have been working with them and working with a number of other communities that this company RV Horizons owns in a number of other states.

We decided to come to Austin and have an interaction with their Mobile Home University to really tease out that this is not a good business model. The fact that they are spreading the gospel about this business model and charging investors $2,500 to learn their lessons: We need to shine some light on this, because we need these communities to be around. We need the families that live in these communities not to be exploited, and so we are drawing attention to this growing business model.

How did it go?

It went well. We had about 50 folks from 11 different states there, manufactured homeowners from a number of different states across the country. They were meeting at a hotel, so we went to their hotel and took over the lobby…. We also had a group of homeowners that went in to confront Frank Rolfe and ask him for a meeting. I think it is time for him to really sit down with folks in a number of states and meet with people face to face and go over these concerns.

The other item that we wanted to raise … [was] this university is slated to be coming to a number of other cities in 2018. So, we also want to put a message out there that this business model is not welcome in any city or town. It went as well as could be expected, and I would say they heard our point clearly. Then … we came outside and had a short press conference, which Austin City Council member Greg Casar spoke at. He is an up-and-coming elected official that works here in Austin on a number of different issues around immigration, around housing. It was a good time.

Talk a little bit about the different communities you have been working with on this project. I know we are talking about Lamar, Texas. I spoke to one of your members from Utah a while back. Talk about what it has been like to try to bring these different communities spread across the country together.

That has been super fun and challenging at the same time. Our theory of change is to really have a very light staff model. There [are] just two of us on paid staff right now. We feel that we are trying to really innovate with organizing methods where we do outreach using online tools — Facebook, email — to pull people into the organization and then hold community learning calls with the folks that are facing these issues. Then we … move to what we call the Leadership Cross-Training Program, where we are having community leaders that live in these communities play the role of organizers. They go around to other communities in their states and to other states…. Our number one hope to start is, “Let’s get these homeowners stitched together and working on campaigns in a couple of different ways.”

One is just having them work on … more corporate accountability campaigns. So, is there a similar owner that is behaving poorly that is operating across state lines? Just to draw attention to the issue. We help to boost local policy campaigns. For instance, in Northern California, we worked with a group of senior women who passed a countywide rent stabilization initiative to keep rents in check.

Then, the third thing that is really important to us is, we don’t want to be a myopically focused housing organization…. You have these other interests in your life. So, the other thing that we also try to do is, along the way, sprinkle in some political education around expansion and protection of Social Security, economic inequality issues. That is everything from the current tax bill to other issues.

I think the other thing that we are trying to figure out is how to make sure it is very leadership-driven, because given these communities are located in ex-urban and in rural parts of [the US], it would just be unbelievably costly to staff it out with a paid organizer model. Our other hope is that we are really helping to build out the overall progressive ecosystem in geographies where we clearly need to build more.

One of the things that struck me when I first heard about your work was that you are bringing together diverse groups of people together with people in the city — like when you had folks who were members of MHAction who came to New York for the Goldman Sachs protest. In other cases, you have some of these mobile home communities that are overwhelmingly white, some of them that are overwhelmingly immigrant. How has it been, putting people in contact with folks that maybe they don’t talk to and work with on a regular basis?

On some level, what we try to do is just trust that … at the end of the day, I still want to believe that, generally, people are good. What we have to do is trust folks to find opportunities where we can put folks in a room together to see: “Where are moments that there may be some shared fate that they can be working through together?”

As much as possible, we really are trying to work with amazing organizations like [Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Action] and New York Communities for Change and organizations like that, to basically take a gander using the housing lens. We really haven’t figured out how to unpackage what happened in terms of housing since 2008. We really haven’t reimagined what it needs to look like as a country, and as I look back on 2008, I am like, “There is still this big corporate move happening.” Blackstone is now [the US’s] biggest landlord…. Can we truly use this moment to build the multi-geographic, multiracial movement that has housing as a frame? Because everybody should have a roof over their head. And how can we stitch folks together within certain states or across the country to really win some stuff for our folks?

It is not flowers and roses every week; it is tough. We have to unpackage and deal with language barrier issues, with inherent privilege around race but, I do feel like, at the end of the day, one of the best ways to move through that is getting people in the same room together and trusting them to work through it. That is really how we want to think about the work. It seems like it has been working as well as it can. Our leaders really see that the communities of color leadership in groups like New York Communities for Change — they see them as their brothers and sisters now. Any time we ask them, “Hey! New York Communities for Change is doing this action …?” MHAction leaders are like, “Yes, we are down. We will do anything for them.” I think that is part of what we are trying to figure out with these other organizations.

We have had so many conversations about rural versus urban in this last year, and not a lot of concrete movement on how to think about that. The fact that the same sort of process is happening in manufactured home parks as is happening in neighborhoods in Brooklyn is a way to bring people together.

It seems to be a good lens for that, to figure it out, for sure.

When did it get started?

MHAction was originally incubated at the Center for Community Change. I was on staff there and was kicking around some ideas back in 2012…. There was an opportunity at the Center for Community Change to test out the project. We started it in 2012. Once we branded it MHAction and built a list of supporters of about 14,000 people, it became clear that the leadership team was starting to have [its] own identity. They started to work and win some campaigns. It just seemed like an opportune moment to lift out on our own. On May 1 of last year … we went out on our own and became our own entity. We are doing it as a stand-alone organization now.

We are talking on the day that the Republicans are voting to pass this massive pile of tax cuts for rich people in the Senate. I am wondering, as you are having this action, you are thinking about what it has really meant in concrete terms for very, very rich people to control the life options of everybody else. What are you thinking and what are your members thinking about the tax cuts and about what comes next as this administration proves to us what it is all about?

I feel like our folks are very clear about what this really means. It is loosening up more cash for the wealthiest in our country to continue to gobble up different sectors of our economy that make it harder and harder for folks to get by. My sense, from having one-on-one conversations with folks is, folks are smart. They see this tax bill for what it is. It is going to make their lives harder and it is going to get more cash and capital in the pockets of folks like Frank Rolfe and Dave Reynolds, like Sam Zell, who is a multibillionaire that owns the largest publicly traded company that owns manufactured home communities across the country. It is going to be a windfall for him.

Our folks definitely see the direct connection between this tax bill and how it can continue to exacerbate the situation that many families face. Our folks also completely understand that when we start to decimate our public coffers in this way — with these bizarre tax bills that are based on failed trickle-down economics — they have seen firsthand what that means. A lot of seniors know; they are on Social Security, they know that it is going to get harder for them to survive. Folks who are on disability know that then the fight is around [Social Security Disability Insurance] to make sure that is funded. It is going to get harder….

How can people keep up with you and MHAction’s work?

Of course, like every organization, we have a webpage: Facebook is one of our go-to methods on how we keep folks up to speed and attracted into the organization…. Facebook allows us to connect with people that are all facing this corporate global takeover … the corporate consolidation of their communities. Those are the two main ways that people can connect with us.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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