As mobile home owners fight rising housing costs, some of them have hit upon a solution that also helps in the fight against climate change: banding together and buying the land underneath their homes.
This model of collective ownership, also called resident-owned cooperatives or ROCs, is on the rise in the United States, Grist reports. The number of mobile homes attached to a resident-owned cooperative grew from just over 200 in 2000 to more than 15,000 in 2019, according to a 2022 study from researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell University, and MIT.
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When residents own the land, they can move more quickly to upgrade infrastructure. And that’s where climate change comes in. Renewables—especially solar—work uniquely well with these types of places, said Kevin Jones, director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at the Vermont Law and Graduate School.
“There’s nothing more perfect than these resident-owned communities because they already have a cooperative structure and, generally, commonly own the piece of land,” said Jones. “[They] are just kind of natural communities to be able to bring the benefits of solar to more low- to moderate-income people.”
Mobile home parks—often a misnomer, because many homes are anchored to the ground—house more than 22 million Americans and provide a vital form of housing amidst a nationwide housing crisis.
Often, private landlords will delay vital upgrades but continue to collect lot rents, which pay not for the actual property which the resident could rent or own but for the land underneath it. This can result in a system where many owners invest thousands of dollars to pay off their home, but are still beholden to the park owner for lot rents and other fees.
The problem of displacement has been exacerbated in the past decades by private equity’s foray into mobile home park ownership, which often leads to higher increases for rent, utilities, and other fees while conditions either stay mostly the same or worsen.
U.S. non-profits like ROCUSA have been essential in providing communities with resources such as low- or interest-free loans, grants, and the essential planning knowledge needed to create a co-op.
The organization does more than help individual co-ops, Grist writes: it also helps connect people in a vast network of co-ops so they can share resources and knowledge. This process can help immensely when considering, for example, the prolonged process of acquiring a permit for a solar array, or which contractors to use to install home heat pumps.
Ronald Palmer knows all about the process of installing solar in a co-op. As board president for Lakeville Village in Geneseo, New York, he helped his community navigate the lengthy process. It was one of the first solar projects in the upstate town, with a population around 7,000 people.
That community, which comprises 50 homes for people 55 and older, has had a solar array for just over two years now. It doesn’t just help Lakeville Village residents, but also local businesses and other sites.
A large majority of these co-ops are concentrated in the U.S. Northeast and Pacific Northwest. One of the reasons for the high numbers in states like New Hampshire is access to state-specific resources, Jones said.
“The Northeast, you know, clearly is an area where there’s a lot of interest in solar,” he said. “We don’t necessarily have the best solar resource in the country, but we have generally good public policies toward solar.”
This allows communities in those areas, including people who live in resident-owned mobile home co-ops, to gain access to the resources they need to install solar.
In New Hampshire, ROC-NH helps connect co-ops with state resources and helps prioritize the needs of co-op members. Those needs are usually related to financial stability, ROC-NH Vice President Sarah Marchant told Grist.
“Our goal when talking about community solar with residential communities is not just to reduce their carbon footprint,” she said. “The way this works is it has to reduce their costs and reduce their bills as well.”
This is vital for communities where members might be working two or three different jobs just to stay afloat, Marchant said.
While the process of forming a co-op and investing in climate-friendly projects is time-consuming, there are many benefits.
In South Texas, a resident-owned cooperative called Pasadena Trails, located just outside Houston, found a solution to chronic flooding. The predominantly Latino community installed drainage systems, which helped significantly when Hurricane Harvey hit and drenched the Houston area in 60 inches of rain. In the wake of Harvey, Pasadena Trails fared better in comparison to neighbouring areas.
Back in New York state, the residents of Lakeville Village are pleased with a solar project that reflects the values of the older residents, most of whom are grandparents. For them, the installation was their way of taking care of their own and ensuring a small step in the right direction for future generations.
”We want to reduce our carbon footprint, and one of our concerns was for our grandchildren and their children,” said Palmer. “And we saw this as a way of contributing to that and being responsible grandparents.”