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AUSTIN, Texas — Just north of downtown Austin, tucked behind a car dealership off a freeway, sits the North Lamar Mobile Home Park. For decades, the trailer park has been a home for many Latino families, most of them immigrants. The community is small, close-knit and usually quiet. But on this October night, the residents are celebrating, with chants of “Sí, se puede” echoing through the park. After a bitter fight to remain in their homes, the 70 families that live in North Lamar have scored a victory.
“It’s a strong community, a community that has many principles, a community that is full of values,” said Roberto Sanchez, the president of the North Lamar Residents Association. “And although we’re poor, that doesn’t mean we’re stupid.”
Austin is booming. More than 100 people move there each day, and gentrification can be seen on every corner. And places like the North Lamar Mobile Home Park have become some of the last affordable places to live in the city.
“All the 16 years I've lived here, everything was fine. We had no problems, absolutely nothing,” Sanchez said. “Then it started changing.”
Mobile home owners may own their trailers but not the land beneath them. This year, RV Horizons purchased North Lamar. One of the first actions of the new management was a rent hike, bringing the monthly cost from $380 per month to $450. Residents were also told they had to pay for water and sewage separately, adding $150 a month. With new fees for such things as having more than two cars or more than four people living in a home, residents in North Lamar say, they were looking at a monthly housing cost of close to $800 per month.
“We were frightened,” said Margarita Sanchez, who is married to Roberto Sanchez. “We were all frightened because we didn’t know how we were going to get so much money to pay that much every month.”
Like many families here, the Sanchezes, who came to the U.S. from Mexico, took jobs in cleaning and construction to put their four kids through school. Their eldest is a county fireman, one attends the University of Texas, and two are in high school.
“One time, someone asked me if this humble house was my American dream,” Margarita Sanchez said. “My American dream is actually the education of my children.”
For the Sanchez family, North Lamar has been a springboard to a better life for their children. But after more than a decade of living here, they refused to pay the new rent and were among several residents to find a notice on their doors. They had to come up with the money in 72 hours or face eviction.
“I know that the rent goes up every day, especially in Austin,” Roberto Sanchez said. “But this is also a low-income community, and it also has to be affordable for us.”
The park is owned by Dave Reynolds and Frank Rolfe, who aren’t your average landlords; they are a new breed of real estate mogul and are among the largest mobile home park owners in the country, owning and operating about 170 parks nationwide. Since getting into the business in the 1990s, they’ve become multimillionaires.
Rolfe told America Tonight he raises rents on about 70 percent of newly purchased mobile home parks and adds utility fees. He says the money often goes to property improvements, with North Lamar being a typical example.
Besides raising the rents to what he says is market value and making improvements, Rolfe’s rules include a new code of conduct for residents.
“We call it ‘no pay, no stay,’ so if you don’t play by the rules of the park and if you don’t pay your rent, then you have to go,” he said. “When you have no rules, they go crazy because they have no boundaries.”
‘I know that the rent goes up every day, especially in Austin. But this is also a low-income community, and it also has to be affordable for us.’
president, North Lamar Residents Association
Rolfe’s tactics and his choice of words have angered many. He once told Bloomberg News that owning a mobile home park is like owning “a Waffle House where everyone is chained to the booths.” As he explained, mobile homes aren’t actually all that mobile. It can cost as much as $5,000 to move a trailer.
With 20 million people across the country living in mobile homes, Rolfe called the model the most stable cash flow business there is. But when asked if he could sympathize with the residents who are fighting for rents to stay low, he didn’t hesitate to defend his business practices.
“I can sympathize with them, except for the fact that they were getting a phenomenal free ride for all that time,” he said. “That’s the way you have to look at it, because that’s just the fact.”
Alleging that their existing leases were broken, the residents of North Lamar decided to fight back. They formed a residents’ association, with Roberto Sanchez becoming its president. And with the help of a Legal Aid attorney, they sued the new owners in May, claiming they breached existing contracts with the rent hikes.
“It wasn’t surprising to me at all,” said Greg Casar, the city councilman for North Lamar. “It’s the effects of an urbanizing city and landlords who put together business practices potentially just ripping apart a community that had established itself and was doing really well in a city that it’s really hard to do well in when you’re a working-class person.”
To be sure the new contracts aren’t imposed illegally on residents with yearlong agreements, Rolfe decided to hold off on the leases and evictions until January. But the Sanchezes and their neighbors are already planning their next move, hoping to form a tenants’ cooperative and buy the park themselves.
Rolfe told America Tonight he would be more than happy to sell the park, eager to get North Lamar off his hands. It’s a small victory, but for the residents who just months ago thought they might lose their homes, it’s one worth celebrating.
“If I’m going to get kicked out and have to stop living here, I’ll do so fighting,” Margarita Sanchez said. “I have a saying that goes like this, ‘It’s better to go out standing than on your knees.’”