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Manufactured homeowners rally against rent gouging

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(The Center Square) – The growing trend of large corporations imposing exorbitant rent increases after acquiring manufactured home communities is limiting affordable housing options and threatening the financial security of those on fixed incomes – especially seniors.

That’s why a coalition of communities in Pennsylvania is advocating for legislation that would protect residents from this practice.

Manufactured homes are built in factories and assembled on-site. They are unique in that residents own the home, but not the land they occupy.

After their community was sold to Kingsley Management in Provo, Utah in 2022, the residents of Douglass Village in Berks County – a 55+ community consisting of 332 homes – took action when they learned the state’s Manufactured Home Community Rights Act, or Act 261, restricts raising rent more than once annually but does not limit the amount.

Residents formed a Rent Issues Committee and brought the matter to the attention of Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Reading, who crafted Senate Bill 861 – legislation that would amend Act 261 by creating a cap on yearly land rent increases.

Additionally, House Bill 805, introduced by Rep. Liz Hanbidge, D-Blue Bell, would require six months’ notice of a proposed rent increase and allow tenants to present their case to a magisterial judge if the proposed increase is above inflation.

Rep. Mark Gillen, R-Reading, recently attended a meeting at Douglass Village. He told The Center Square he was greeted by a number of his constituents who are on fixed incomes and concerned by large rent increases – including “disabled veterans and frail elderly individuals.”

Their manufactured homes are not on wheels, and therefore prohibitively expensive to move, said Gillen, adding that it soon became apparent to him that “those in attendance were trying to hold onto their American dream.”

“I am pleased to support them in any way I can to buttress their reasonable request for relief from annual land rental increases like the 13% rise in 2022,” he said.

The residents also established a growing coalition of communities throughout the state, have formed subcommittees and are planning to visit legislators in Harrisburg within the next few months.

Bob Besecker, co-chair of the committee, told The Center Square his rent has increased by $75 a month in each of the last two years.

He said they are watching a class action suit filed in Chicago federal court in which Kingsley Management is named as one of 10 defendants. According to the complaint, the defendants are accused of price fixing and other violations of the federal antitrust law known as the Sherman Act.

The lawsuit, Besecker said, does not affect the pending bills as it is not proof of wrongdoing; however, they urge the state’s legislators to take it into consideration because it points to the real need for legislation to control the increases.

In 2020, Kingsley Management was involved in a Colorado settlement resulting in the company returning $146,000 in wrongly held security deposits and improperly collected attorney fees to residents of a mobile home park.

Besecker said residents suddenly had their security deposits returned about a year and a half ago, which made sense after he recently stumbled upon the settlement information.

An article he wrote for the village explains how their most vulnerable residents are impacted.

In 2017, Donna Bucelli and her husband, Nick, moved to Douglass Village. They made friends and enjoyed the easier lifestyle without stairs and yardwork. Then, in 2021, Nick passed away.

At the time, Bucelli was financially stable. The lot rent was affordable and annual increases were minimal and manageable, but that all changed when Kingsley Management bought the village. She understands rents increase but worries she can no longer afford to live there under the new ownership.

“As a widow, Social Security only goes so far,” she said.

For elderly citizens who have invested their life savings in manufactured homes, Besecker said, the consequences of unaffordable rents are deeply personal.

“Many are forced to make sacrifices in other areas of their lives, cutting back on essential expenses like healthcare and nutrition,” he said. “Some face the heart-wrenching decision of selling their homes.”

Besecker hopes to expand the coalition from the existing eight communities and establish better communication between them. PA Manufactured Housing Issues, the Facebook page he established for the cause, gives other communities an avenue to reach out.

He said communities may feel at ease because they have not been impacted, but that could change quickly, adding, “We were fine too, until the wheels came off the wagon.”

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