Kalispell mobile-home residents buy their park

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Residents of the Morning Star mobile-home park in Kalispell recently purchased the park to become a resident-owned community. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Residents of Morning Star mobile-home park in Kalispell have purchased their park for $1.55 million through a resident-owned community loan program that enables them to keep their lot rent affordable and have control over the property in perpetuity.

Morning Star Community Homes is the second resident-owned community in Kalispell — and the 202nd such community in the United States. It has 41 mobile homes and is located on South Woodland Drive, next to Green Acres, which became the first resident-owned community in the Flathead Valley six years ago.

When Morning Star owner Tim Ohler decided to sell the mobile home park, he contacted NeighborWorks Montana about creating a resident-owned community, said Danielle Maiden, a cooperative housing specialist with NeighborWorks.

“The owner knew about Green Acres and when he got ready to sell he reached out to us,” Maiden said. “We came in and knocked on doors and told them what we could offer.”

The biggest advantage of a resident-owned community is that it gives residents control over their housing future and keeps the lot rent affordable, she said.

Resident ownership provides rent stability, control over maintenance and repairs and the security of knowing the community will not be closed.

To establish a resident-owned community, a minimum of 60 percent of the mobile-home park residents create their own nonprofit organization. ROC USA, based in New Hampshire, provided the 30-year loan, while NeighborWorks provided a secondary loan and offers technical assistance over a 10-year period.

“We have a special structure [that] makes it so their down payment is membership in the cooperative,” Maiden said. “It’s a really amazing program.”

There is a $100 one-time membership fee to belong to the resident-owned community that is refunded when a mobile-home owner moves out of the community. Incoming residents will be required to belong to the community.

Members set the lot rent, and if a large maintenance project needs to be funded, members vote whether to raise the lot rent to cover the expense.

“The beauty is it really secures them having a home,” Maiden said. “This keeps things affordable in perpetuity. It gives them pride of ownership. It’s really security in the long run for their housing.

“It’s really amazing what it does for residents, how empowering it is for them,” she added.

The Flathead Valley, which struggles to provide affordable housing, is one of NeighborWorks Montana’s priority areas, Maiden said. The organization strives to facilitate the purchase of two resident-owned communities each year in Montana.

Its first successful project was with homeowners in Mountain Springs Villa in Red Lodge. There are now eight resident-owned communities in Montana. Others include two in Missoula, two in Great Falls and one in Pablo.

Tom Tornow, a Whitefish attorney who provided the legal assistance with the Morning Star acquisition, said he sees the potential for resident-owned communities in Whitefish, where the lack of affordable housing has reached a critical level.

“We’ve lost two of our largest mobile-home parks in the last few years,” said Tornow, who chairs the Whitefish Affordable Workforce Housing Task Force. “It’s a real blow to the affordable housing in our community.”

In 2006 the 55 mobile-home owners in the Greenwood Trailer Court, many of them senior citizens, were forced to leave the trailer court when the property owner decided to put the 12-acre site up for sale. Eleven years later the property is vacant land, and still for sale.

Lot rent in resident-owned communities are 17 percent, or about $86 per month lower than the market lot-rent rate, according to NeighborWorks. Almost 14 percent of homes in Montana are manufactured, nearly twice the national average. Of those homes, 76 percent are owner-occupied.

The resident-ownership model was developed 30 years ago by the New Hampshire community Loan Fund, which has helped more than 100 mobile-home communities in that state become resident-owned. ROC USA was created in 2008 to make the model available nationwide.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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