When Ken Erwin first heard about efforts this past summer among his fellow homeowners to purchase their Golden mobile home park, he counted himself skeptical.

Golden Hills’ new cooperative members weren’t business people, he thought. They don’t know how to run a park.

After the park’s owners rebuffed the residents twice in their attempt to buy Golden Hills, they ended up selling to Harmony Communities, a California-based corporation that operates 33 parks across the western U.S.

Erwin, who managed Golden Hills under its previous owner for more than two decades, thought Harmony would be solid owners, a company that billed itself as “family oriented,” he said.

But when Harmony approached him to stay on, Erwin said they offered him one-quarter of his pay (a Harmony representative denied the accusation). They wouldn’t keep on his maintenance man who’s been by his side for decades. All the while, Harmony is raising rents 50% beginning in February and has instituted a host of new rules that regulate everything from the awnings on mobile homes to the size of dogs residents can own.

And just a month after closing on its purchase of the park, Harmony offered to sell Golden Hills to its residents — at a significantly higher price than the company just paid for it, residents say.

All the changes have led Erwin to change his tune. He’s now all for residents buying the park.

“All corporations end up being greedy,” Erwin said.

Golden Hills is just one example of what can happen when corporations buy mobile home parks from mom-and-pop owners, who by and large kept rents affordable as red-hot real estate markets sent rents soaring in metro Denver and cities across the country.

The playbook by now is familiar, housing experts say: Corporations come in, raise rents immediately and often, while instituting rules and regulations that many residents feel are onerous and over-the-top.

Now Golden Hills homeowners are scrambling for the third time this year, hoping to scrape together enough funding to purchase their park as their corporate-owned future comes into focus.

“People are pretty overwhelmed and confused and concerned,” said Joyce Tanner, president of the Golden Hills resident co-op.

“We believe in charging a fair market rent”

State lawmakers, seeking to give mobile home residents stronger protections, added an “opportunity to purchase” clause in their revised Mobile Home Park Act, which Gov. Jared Polis signed into law last year.

The provision’s intent was to help these homeowners buy the parks in which they lived, giving them more control over lot rent, rules and the community some have called home for decades. Thus far, however, only two groups of residents have successfully purchased their parks since the law went into effect, with a third set to close on a deal this month.

Tanner and the rest of the Golden Hills community were hoping to be one of the few success stories.

After their park went up for sale over the summer, residents quickly formed a cooperative and partnered with a Boulder-based nonprofit organization, Thistle, to come up with funding.

Residents submitted two offers — including a $3.725 million bid that was at or above asking price — but were rejected both times. Their attorneys alleged that the owners broke a new Colorado law requiring mobile home park owners to negotiate in good faith.

Instead, the owners sold to Harmony Communities.

The company is run by Matthew Davies, who said in a June interview with Authority Magazine that “(w)e pride ourselves on maintaining and expanding the affordable housing stock under our control.”

“Seeing people experience homeownership for the first time never gets tiring,” Davies said in the interview.

Davies told the magazine that he’s a “huge fan of Charles Koch’s ideas of freedom and ‘good profit.’” Koch, a libertarian billionaire and one of America’s richest men, has poured tens of millions into conservative causes and candidates over the years, and his foundation bankrolled legal groups leading the court battle to eliminate prohibitions against tenant evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Guardian reported in May.

Residents of a Harmony-owned park in Fresno County, California, sued the company last year for allegedly denying reasonable accommodations to a disabled resident, locking residents out of their laundry facility and continuously threatening evictions for small-time violations like leaving household items on their porches.

Soon after Harmony took over Golden Hills in November, residents received a notice informing them that their rent would be increasing to $795 — a nearly 50% hike for some community members.

“We apologize for the size of the increase but it is necessary to help us fund upcoming maintenance projects,” a company representative told residents in the notice, noting that the money would go toward installing new water lines and roads in the park. “We want you to know that the increase in rent will be well spent, and we have big plans for the community.”

David Valleau, a housing attorney with the Colorado Poverty Law Project who is representing Golden Hills, says he takes these statements “with a huge grain of salt.”

“There’s all this positive attitude and I rarely see this happen,” he said. “It’s all just about profit.”

George Antypas, Harmony Communities’ regional manager, defended the rent increase, saying in a statement that median home prices in Golden are almost $800,000, while the average manufactured housing rents in the city exceed $900 a month. The $795 rent is still more than $100 below that, he said.

“We believe in charging a fair market rent,” Antypas said in the statement.

The company is only aware of one tenant on a fixed income living in the park, Antypas said, but Erwin believes there are about 13 people that fit that description.

“If there are others that are concerned,” Antypas said, “we absolutely want to work with them.”

Erwin can feel the change since the new owners took over. A recent storm blew a large tree branch on top of someone’s trailer, and, in the past, Erwin would have taken his chainsaw and removed it himself. Instead, it just sat there, waiting for the new owners to find the right person to do the job.

The former manager wasn’t just a manager — he was also a neighbor. Erwin would drive tenants to the doctor or pick up groceries for those who couldn’t manage it themselves. If he didn’t see someone doing their normal routines, he’d knock on their door to make sure everything was alright.

The new owners made it clear that this wasn’t what they wanted in a manager, Erwin said.

“Maybe it was above and beyond and we shouldn’t have done it,” he said. “But dang it, what’s this world about if we don’t do things like that for other people?”

Antypas, in an email, said the company takes park maintenance seriously, but unlike the old owners, they call in experts for critical infrastructure and beautification projects — such as gas systems, plumbing and landscaping.

“When we begin managing a new community, we conduct a thorough assessment of skills and abilities of employees, and if supplementation or adjustments are warranted to get the job done right and well, we make that call,” he said.

As Erwin debated staying on under the new management, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the company simply didn’t care about the people living there.

“You can tell they have no heart or feeling about their fellow man who makes less than them,” Erwin said. “If you can’t compete with them in dollars and cents, we have no use for you.”

“There’s no guarantees”

Last week, a few dozen residents crowded into a meeting room in the Golden Community Center to talk about the future.

After Harmony took ownership, there’s been a flurry of activity. Along with the rent-increase notice, the company sent homeowners a new “rules and regulations” document that Golden Hills’ attorneys believe resembles more of a lease.

Awnings must be made of an approved metal. Residents are barred from owning animals more than 15 inches tall, and they cannot be left in a yard — even if there’s a fence. Guests cannot be parolees or felons.

“They might be aware that residents are not required to sign a new lease,” Valleau said. “The rules and regulations effectively amend your lease. I’d argue that’s unlawful. It’s a guise to get around the rule.”

Residents in the community also were itching to learn more about the park’s potential sale — again.

The same day Harmony closed on Golden Hills, the company reached out to ROC USA, a nonprofit organization that helps mobile homeowners buy their parks, and expressed a willingness to re-engage with residents to purchase the park, said Andy Kadlec, program director for Thistle, which works with ROC USA to facilitate Colorado purchasing efforts.

Antypas said in a statement that Thistle had expressed an interest in purchasing the park from the new owners, “who in turn agreed to consider an offer and sent a notice out to residents pursuant to Colorado law. In other words, there are no outside buyers or potential buyers involved.”

Those involved would not divulge how much Harmony was seeking, but said the asking price had increased significantly over the $3.7 million the company paid for Golden Hills a few months ago.

Ann Norton, an attorney representing Golden Hills, asked the two dozen residents in attendance to raise their hands if they wanted the co-op to pursue avenues to purchase the park. Most hands in the room shot up.

“There’s no guarantees the funds will be there,” Norton told the group. “I don’t wanna get people’s hopes up — we’ve gone down this road before.”

Tanner, the co-op president, said they would be talking to Golden city officials, as well as the state, to see if there’s funding available to help with the purchase, or to defray the cost of any rent hikes they would have to impose if they were successful.

“I’ll be honest, it’s a challenge right now,” Janet Maccubbin, Golden’s new affordable housing policy coordinator, told the residents. “There’s more demand than resources.”

Tanner understands it won’t be easy to get the money needed to buy the park, but she’s opting for optimism.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “I would regret not giving this all we’ve got.”

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