News item: People from more than 5,600 New Hampshire households, most of them low-income, have created affordable housing for themselves.
Quite an accomplishment, wouldn’t you say?
The strategy they’ve used takes courage, faith in the future, and faith in themselves. It results in housing that is stable and safe, and that helps them save money and build assets. It also results in improved neighborhoods and greater civic participation. And it generates property tax dollars for each of the 64 New Hampshire towns and cities where it is located.
They’re called resident-owned manufactured-housing communities, and last month, a community in Derry became New Hampshire’s 100th.
Resident-owned communities are sprinkled around the southwest corner of the state: Base Hill Cooperative in Keene, Well Hill Cooperative in Alstead, Greenville Estates Tenants Cooperative in Greenville, Oak Hill Acres Cooperative in Hinsdale, Duval’s and Forest Park Tenants Association cooperatives in Jaffrey, Monadnock Tenants Cooperative in Rindge, Pine Grove MHP and View Point cooperatives in Swanzey, and Elm Street, New Beginning and South Parrish Road cooperatives in Winchester.
New Hampshire’s first resident-owned community was created in Meredith in 1984. The elderly owners of a 13-home trailer park needed to sell it because they couldn’t keep up with the maintenance. At the time, real estate prices near Lake Winnipesaukee were sky-high as land was snapped up for condos and vacation homes. The park’s long-time residents knew exactly what would happen if it was sold.
“Most of us just figured we’d be thrown out, so we were looking for solutions — moving, buying something else, renting somewhere, just hanging in and hoping for the best,” one resident told a reporter.
A couple of residents looked into buying the park themselves, but they didn’t have the personal credit, or down payment, for a loan. Remembering there’s strength in numbers, they organized the other residents into a cooperative and approached the banks as a group.
The banks still weren’t persuaded. Three said they wouldn’t lend to a cooperative. Two said that even as a cooperative, the families didn’t have sufficient credit. Then there was the group’s total lack of management experience, low incomes, and a leaky septic system that needed costly repairs. Few lenders thought that a newly formed group of volunteers could manage such an enterprise without bankrupting it.
But over the past 27 years, they’ve proven otherwise.
The Meredith group had been assisted by a graduate student who needed a community development project to complete her master’s degree. Her professors connected her with a brand-new organization, the N.H. Community Loan Fund, which connected with the Sisters of Mercy, who wanted to put the money in their retirement fund to a good purpose. This project was the perfect fit.
It would be 21/2 years before the next park in New Hampshire. converted to resident ownership, but then the idea concept exploded. Thirty-five parks converted in the next 10 years, and 46 in the decade after that.
In 27 years, not one of these communities has failed. Not one has been sold back to an outside company or investor.
Through the years, trailers evolved into mobile homes, which became today’s not-so-mobile manufactured homes. Today’s manufactured homes are built in factories to federal standards, are set on pads and foundations that are built to last, and cost very little to live in. These quality homes have become an important source of housing for young families, downsizing seniors and families with low incomes.
In many rural communities where rental apartments are scarce, manufactured homes are the best, and often the only, affordable housing.
Although some resident cooperatives buy their communities to avoid displacement, as did the Meredith residents, most want to control the fees they pay to rent their lots (most residents in manufactured housing parks own their homes, but rent the land beneath them). Some also want to repair aging roads, electric or water systems.
The largest of the resident-owned communities are multi-million-dollar enterprises, but they are run democratically by elected boards of directors and annual member meetings. Several graduates of the Community Loan Fund’s “boot camp” for new co-ops and/or annual leadership training have since been elected or appointed to serve in their town’s government.
A lesson from all this: When people have the right tools (fair loans, training and technical assistance) at the right time, they can take control of their lives and change the course of their lives. Land renters become owners. Residents become leaders. And neighborhoods become communities, in the best senses of the word.
Craig Welch is Vice President for Housing at the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund.