Web Exclusive: Frank Rolfe says he’s saving mobile home parks. Critics disagree.

The Mobile Home University founder insists mobile homes are less in danger of going extinct thanks to his business model.

Fifty MHAction members gather in Austin, Texas to protest Mobile Home University, a program they say spreads a predatory business model. CREDIT MHACTION

On the homepage of the Mobile Home University (MHU) website, a four-minute introduction video gives a sales pitch for ambitious entrepreneurs looking to buy a manufactured housing park (MHP). 

“Basically, nobody can ever move their home out of your park, and occupancy is always high,” says Frank Rolfe, MHU co-founder and owner of more than 250 communities across 25 states, during a voice-over. “Mobile home parks equal money.”

Today, the MHU brand offers $2,000 courses, on-site boot camps, podcasts, books, articles and more on how to generate a profit by running mobile home parks. 

Critics of the university point to a series of controversial quotes — he once told Bloomberg that living in one of his communities is like being in “a Waffle House where the customers are chained to the booth,” for example — as proof Mr. Rolfe willingly profits off and accelerates the residents’ discomfort. However, he disputes the meaning behind these quotes, saying they are cherry-picked and result from speaking publicly for 20 years.

Large, out-of-state corporations have come under fire in recent years for buying MHPs in Iowa. Havenpark Communities has bought at least half a dozen communities in the Corridor since 2019.

In a wide-ranging interview with the CBJ, the real estate tycoon, often credited with helping popularize the MHP trend that impacts many Iowans, explained his business practices in the manufactured housing industry. 

On his responsibility as owner

Since unsuspecting residents cannot foresee when a random corporation will buy a park and hike rents, do MHP owners have a moral obligation to support tenants that can’t afford the price increases, particularly when they likely can’t afford to live elsewhere?

Frank Rolfe

“These are people who don’t like change,” said Mr. Rolfe. “That’s what their argument is. ‘I like the McDonald’s value meal at 99 cents, and they’ve taken it away from me, and I’m mad.’ But everything in life changes… In other words, if someone can’t afford to live there because times change and time marches on, how is it their [the park owner’s] issue? It’s a parking lot.”

Mr. Rolfe says the country’s housing crisis is larger than one mobile home park owner.

“I’m not going to say in any way it’s not a big issue that in the housing crisis there are many people — not just in mobile home parks but in everything — that are in a terrible position,” he said. “So if we’ve got a resident who is on disability payments for only $700 a month, lot rent is $280 a month under mom-and-pop owners and the market rate [for these homes] is $600, that’s a very difficult situation. I don’t know how anyone would navigate that.” He calls the issue a “government failing” and says many government assistance programs are sold out.

“Mobile home park owners are put in this incredibly hard position where market forces and park survival and bringing parks back to life requires a certain rent,” he said. “I don’t know how you bridge the gap.”

“We’re not supposed to be a social justice institution,” he added.

[Read more about how corporations utilize low-risk loans from Fannie Mae to purchase manufactured housing parks]

On eviction

In Iowa, landlords don’t have to fulfill a ‘for cause requirement’ when evicting a mobile homeowner. There are limited protections surrounding eviction compared to other types of homeowners, said Assistant Attorney General Ben Bellus. 

“I had a case years ago where my client got evicted because she wouldn’t have coffee with a woman running a mobile home park one Saturday because my client wanted to spend time with her kid,” said Mr. Bellus. “There was nothing to be done about that because as long as they don’t say what they’re doing, they just give you a notice and you have to move…as long as you aren’t in the written lease period.”

Mr. Rolfe argues it doesn’t make sense for landlords to frequently hand out eviction notices because it is too financially costly for the owner once you add together the lost rent checks, attorney fees and legal costs of abandonment proceedings.

“If you lose a customer, it costs about $10,000, so we don’t want to lose anyone,” he explained. To keep occupancy rates up, Mr. Rolfe has done 220 organic moves since 2020 — where he will pay the full cost of moving fees for residents of other parks to move to communities he owns — that he estimates to have cost him $1.3 million.

Havenpark says, in addition to making their organic moves, their eviction rate in Iowa is less than 1%, which is below the MHP industry average.

But Alex Kornya, litigation director for Iowa Legal Aid, says eviction is “quick and easy in Iowa if you know the rules,” and eviction cases are still common in his work.

“You have the home sitting on the lot that usually has some resale value, and most people after an eviction are not going to be able to recover the home,” said Mr. Kornya. “In most cases, they are gaining the home which the lot can resell. After charging a down payment, they’re not only making money off a new renter, but they have now also made money as a seller.”

He says evictions were increasing in Iowa until the pandemic and that the only thing stopping “a rising tide of evictions” in the state were federal stimulus checks and rent moratoriums, according to Legal Aid internal data combined with numbers from Eviction Lab at Princeton.

On redevelopment

In May 2019, Iowa City Council approved a rezoning of 73 acres near Forest View Mobile Home Court for a $200 million project by Blackbird Investments and North Dubuque LLC, which would displace trailer park residents but give them first consideration for replacement manufactured housing on the site, as well as relocation assistance.

Despite residents being excited by the outcome (and council member John Thomas recently calling it a “visionary project’), the plan was delayed — and eventually abandoned — for financial reasons, leaving the remaining residents stuck in a rapidly decaying trailer park with their housing future in limbo.

“Your typical mobile home is a perfectly sized tract for a Home Depot or apartment complex,” says Mr. Rolfe, pointing out the difficulty in fending off developers looking to mass evict entire communities for other profitable business ventures. He says higher rents, or market-rate rents, are critical in ensuring MHPs do not go extinct – and rarely are new MHPs approved by local governments these days.

“I don’t know how high [rent] would have to be, but when you look at mom-and-pop’s rents, the U.S. average is $280 a month,” he added. “That’s a suicide mission for that piece of land to stay a park.” Mr. Rolfe said most mobile home parks run by mom-and-pop owners are in bad condition and need professional management.

Mr. Rolfe also questioned why residents who can’t afford higher rents don’t sell their homes instead abandoning the property or waiting to receive eviction notices.

“What happens is that, for some reason, a lot of these residents who I read about in different stories, they never attack the problem in the early stages and then sell it off,” he said.

For many residents, selling a mobile home (that depreciates over time similar to a car), is not a reasonable option for families with nowhere else to go, which gives a lot of power to park owners, says Mr. Kornya.

“People have a lot of money sunk into the homes that they bought,” he explained. “They have so much more to lose than a typical tenant. Many times our clients have purchased the actual home that sits on the lot with one-time money that they may never see again. Maybe they had a small inheritance or they are receiving Social Security disability and they got a lump sum back award after a successful appeal. They don’t really have the capacity to make another go at it and start over again.”

The argument surrounding the redevelopment problem is not strong enough to justify the business practices MHP owners employ either, he said.

“Whether or not redevelopment is a danger, I think, is probably pretty situational,” said Mr. Kornya. “Is the solution then to simply hasten the end by creating a financially unsustainable situation? Are they better off losing their home to a company like Havenpark or losing their home through redevelopment?”