Over the past four decades, private equity has become a powerful, and malignant, force in our daily lives. In our May+June 2022 issue, Mother Jones investigates the vulture capitalists chewing up and spitting out American businesses, the politicians enabling them, and the everyday people fighting back. Find the full package here.
In September 2018, Peggy Kuhn returned from a four-day mountain biking trip to her home in Sans Souci park, a 62-plot stretch of land south of Boulder, Colorado, where mobile homes have been set up since at least the 1950s, only to find her neighbors “crying and screaming.” Usually an oasis of sorts, the nearly 11-acre, cottonwood-lined property at the foot of the Rockies had radically changed.
Just before she left, a private equity–backed firm had bought the park, and residents soon found blue bags hanging on their doorknobs, containing packages outlining a fresh set of rules. Tenants were not to “wander on the streets of the community” after 9 p.m. Children were not to play in the roads. “Unsightly” or overgrown lawns were prohibited. While Kuhn was away, landscapers hired by the park’s new owners had started cutting down residents’ rosebushes, lilac trees, and wildflower gardens. Before, Sans Souci was a “poor people’s paradise,” one resident said, where neighbors greeted each other as they passed by. But now everything that gave the community character, from people’s yard statues to the multicolored paint on their homes, had to go.
“It felt like we were under military occupation,” said Michael Peirce, president of the community’s homeowners association. For weeks, he told me, landscaping trucks prowled the grounds, their yellow emergency blinkers flashing.
On top of the fear of eviction for failing to comply with rules they never agreed to, residents faced another challenge: roughly 12 percent rent increases. Based on its actions, Peirce said, the owner’s attitude seemed to be, “If you can’t pay it, somebody else can, and so too bad if you’re going to lose your home that you’ve been in for 20 years.”
Sans Souci residents told me they believed the park had been purchased by RV Horizons, a company whose owners were notorious for purchasing mobile home parks across the country and jacking up rents. But RV Horizons’ lawyer insists it did not buy or manage the community. On paper, the owner was an asset of private equity giant TPG Capital, named Mothership JV (later Strive Communities). The shell game of private equity was so baffling that residents could barely figure out who bought their property.
Mobile homes, legally called manufactured homes, make up about 6 percent of the nation’s housing stock. On average, they cost less than half the price per square foot of traditional homes. Amid an affordable-housing crisis, they provide shelter to 22 million Americans at prices that are hard to beat. In 2018, a studio apartment in Boulder County could rent for well over $1,000. Meanwhile, Sans Souci residents were paying $480 to rent a lot.
Across the country, private equity firms are buying trailer parks from mom and pop owners and raising rents and fees. In most places, this has led residents to pony up or move. But it didn’t take long after the Sans Souci takeover for the community’s 80-odd residents to spring into action—and resist. They formed a homeowners association, and, aided by pro bono legal help, sent a letter to RV Horizons (although it still denies owning the park) outlining rules they believed violated the state’s Mobile Home Park Act.
That law forbids ordinances that don’t expressly promote the safety and convenience of homeowners, and requires landlords to notify tenants of changes in property ownership. But, until recently, enforcement depended on tenants willing to take landlords to court, which most cannot afford to do. Sans Souci’s pluck was rewarded: Strive rescinded the rules before the tenants could escalate. Still, rent hikes remained.
Thanks in part to pressure from Sans Souci residents, the Colorado state legislature passed three laws over the next two years expanding the rights of mobile home park tenants. One, passed in 2019, established a way for tenants to resolve conflicts with their landlords through arbitration, rather than going to court. Another requires that landlords planning to sell a park give tenants the opportunity to purchase.
A few days before Christmas in 2020, the owner announced its intention to sell, and Sans Souci quickly incorporated as a cooperative and made an offer. By June 2021, it became one of the first Colorado communities to take advantage of the revised law. For $3.3 million, the land beneath their homes was theirs. (Former Strive CEO Keith Gee said in a statement that the company was committed to responsibly managing the community and, along with TPG, “worked with Sans Souci residents throughout the sale process.”)
Then came the hard work of operating a housing co-op. Sans Souci, which means “no worries” in French, was not so lucky. It had to raise rents to $750, up from $606 before the purchase. (This was later cut to $730.) Peirce, a former adjunct philosophy professor at the University of Colorado, now works full time as president of the co-op. On a single afternoon, his to-do list included writing a contract for an engineer to address a springtime flooding problem; contacting FEMA about repairing a water system damaged in the freeze that followed the Marshall Fire; and appealing a property tax assessment. “It has been hard, it has been time-consuming, and the residents here are burning out on the amount of work,” he said.
But unlike a private equity–backed firm, the residents of Sans Souci are motivated to keep current residents in their homes. About a third are seniors, many of whom are on fixed income, Kuhn said, and the co-op board makes it a priority to make sure they have access to assistance like the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. And gone are the days of arbitrary rules. “It’s an air of excitement that we own the park,” she said. “We can make decisions and vote on stuff, and there’s not this dictatorship over us and raising our rents and not improving.” The residents are even planning to start a community garden.