A few dozen protesters gathered in downtown Austin on Friday and marched down East Fifth Street and into the Westin hotel, where a class on investing in mobile home parks was reportedly being held.
The protesters, dressed in graduation caps and gowns, held signs calling for justice and a "diploma" from Colorado-based Mobile Home University for "unethical investment and mismanagement."
In 2015, the company that hosts these classes, RV Horizons, bought the North Lamar Community Mobile Home Park, where protester Jennifer Salazar has lived for about 10 years.
Salazar said residents there have faced rising rents, lax security and overall mismanagement since the property was sold. As a result, they formed a neighborhood association and sued the new landlords.
“It’s just very ironic that they would want to teach their business, if that’s what you want to call it, to other individuals who would be abusing their community the same way that they are,” Salazar said.
On its website, Mobile Home University calls affordable housing the “hottest arena in commercial real estate right now.” Co-founder Frank Rolfe was surprised to learn about the protest and called the effort misguided.
“I mean, the mobile park industry is extremely misunderstood,” he said, “which is evidenced by the fact that … people would protest an event that just educates people on the industry, which makes no sense.”
Mobile Home University holds about eight training sessions a year across the U.S. Rolfe estimated that about 25 percent of the people who attend end up investing.
He said when his company bought the North Lamar park, it was in bad shape. It raised the monthly rent from about $390 to $450, he said, to keep pace with rising operating costs. (Residents said additional fees were tacked onto their monthly bills, too.)
Rolfe said if it weren’t for investors like him, many mobile home communities would probably be redeveloped into something more expensive.
Austin City Council Member Greg Casar, who represents the area where the North Lamar park is located, said he sees things differently. At the protest, he noted that most of the residents in the neighborhood are low-income families. If a new landlord decides to increase fees, they don’t have many other housing options.
“I believe that these residents could band together and invest in their property themselves and get rid of exploitative landlords and instead, like other homeowners, take on the responsibility of maintaining the park,” he said.