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Spiking rent hits Hopkinton housing park hard, prompts N.H. bill

  • Jean Lightfoot in talks front of her residence at 186 Deer Path Road in Hopkinton. Nothing about her home looks like a manufactured home, and she added on a porch in the back. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • William Vaughn stands in his residentce at 55 Meadows Drive in Hopkinton. Vaughn lives on a fixed income and has a small second mortgage. “I don’t mind people making money,” he said. “It’s a business, this is a business, I understand that. But enough is enough. Where is this going to end? Eventually where are they going to go – $1000?” GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Bill Vaughn stands in front of his residence at 55 Meadows Drive in Hopkinton. Vaughn lives on a fixed income and has a small second mortgage. “I don’t mind people making money,” he said. “It’s a business, this is a business, I understand that. But enough is enough.” GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • William Vaughn stands in his residentce at 55 Meadows Drive in Hopkinton. Vaughn lives on a fixed income and has a small second mortgage. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jean Lightfoot stands in the living room of her residence at 186 Deer Path Road in Hopkinton. Nothing about her home looks like a manufactured home and she added on a porch in the back. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Wednesday, February 07, 2018

It took work, but Bill Vaughn built himself a dream house. Years of upgrades – from windows to flooring – and thousands of dollars later, the manufactured home Vaughn bought in Hopkinton in 2005 is now a point of pride.

These days, keeping it is the bigger problem.

For years, lot rent on the land underneath the house has been slowly climbing, part of a recent spike for tenants across the housing park, the Meadows of Hopkinton. In 2005, rent was around $340 per month, Vaughn said. This year, the monthly rate has hit $550. That’s a $30 hike from 2017’s rate; $60 higher than 2016’s.

For Vaughn, a retiree and Social Security recipient, the increases hit harder every year. This year, Vaughn faces a $120 monthly budget for food. That means a freezer full of ready-made meals and deliberations over the smallest spontaneous purchases.

It’s only a matter of time before the costs catch up to him, Vaughn said. But today, after years of verbal appeals to his landlord – including an unsuccessful arbitration process in 2011 – Vaughn said he has little left to do but seethe.

“Let’s put it this way: If I knew what I knew today (in 2005), I would have never moved into this park,” he said.

He isn’t alone; of the around 70 residents of the park, all have experienced the same increases, and few are aware of existing arbitration processes to negotiate them, Vaughn and others say. Stuck in homes that are difficult to move or sell, many feel stuck even if they want to leave.

This week, David Luneau, who represents Hopkinton in the New Hampshire House, is proposing a fix: an optional review of any potentially unfair rent increases before a state board. House Bill 1715 would empower the state’s board of manufactured housing with the authority to review, deny and modify any rent increase brought by petition, and override or change it as it sees fit.

Landlords say it would tie their ability to make business decisions and respond to an ever-tightening market for housing. But tenants say it could be the last-ditch avenue to settle grievances and make concerns heard.

The squeeze

For the residents of The Meadows, the squeeze is felt in different ways.

Jean Lightfoot moved in a decade ago. Supported by a government pension from a career at the Nevada attorney general’s office, Lightfoot has an easier financial situation than others. But the rent hikes the past few years have still been sharp, and neighbors on fixed incomes, Lightfoot says, have been hit hard.

“You notice the money runs out a little bit faster each month,” she said.

Residents say the yearly changes have fluctuated wildly. From 2012 to 2014, rent didn’t rise at all, hovering at $460. Then it jumped by $90, to its present level, over the same length of time.

David Price, the park’s landlord, said he understands the concern. But all increases were made in response to economic pressures, he said. To start, Hopkinton taxes – comparatively high for the region – have increased over the years. Then, the town considered a $30 million bond for a school facility project ahead of its fall deliberative session. Anticipating its passage, Price raised the rents.

But that warrant article was ultimately rescinded last month and the bond now has no chance of moving forward, residents are quick to point out. And the recent increases don’t align with the increase in the park’s taxes as listed in town records, Vaughn points out.

Responding to the concerns, Price said the hikes are also partly to make up for money lost during a tax spike in 2014, when tax rates climbed 21 percent.

“I understand where they’re coming from,” he said of the tenants. But, he added, “We’re running a business – we gotta make money.”

The bill

Whatever the objections, Luneau said the review process in his bill could ensure both sides start negotiations on an equal plane. The legislation includes exceptions for rent increases as a result of repairs, capital improvements, utility costs and taxes.

“What (the bill) seeks to do is provide a little bit of balance when it comes to the property interest of both the park owners ... and the property rights of the tenants,” he said at a hearing Tuesday.

It’s an ambitious legislative proposal, with historical pitfalls. Previous bills seeking similar review have died swiftly, under concerns that the moves amount to rent controls that could rupture the free market.

Elliot Berry, Housing Project Director at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, knows the argument as well as any; he’s pressed for decades for rent reviews, running up against the same barriers year after year. But to Berry and other supporters, the unique nature of the manufactured housing park – the difficulty of resale, the often-rapid asset depreciation – create a much different economic situation.

“There’s such an extraordinary disparity in bargaining power once someone goes into a park, I don’t know how someone can say that free-market principles are operating,” he said.

Or, as Sen Dan Feltes, D-Concord, a co-sponsor of the bill, argued Tuesday: “The simple fact is this: You can’t just pick up and move your manufactured housing at a moment’s notice if you get hit with an arbitrary and unreasonable rental increase by the park owner. You just can’t do that.”

The landlords’ side

Still, landlords are digging in. At Tuesday’s hearing, Jim Bianco, an attorney for the New Hampshire Manufactured Housing Association, said the bill was draconian and counterproductive. More direct means of dialogue between landlord and tenant should be established before decisions are made, he said.

Instead, Bianco is advocating for an existing system that the association already maintains: the Manufacture Housing Consumer Action Program – MCAP. That program allows tenants to initiate a review with the association provided that 51 percent of tenants sign a petition. Critics say it’s rarely employed in practice; Bianco counters that it could be expanded, and that it yields success when it is used.

“We don’t need to go to court,” he said. “We don’t need the extra cost. We don’t need the extra delay. What we have is New Hampshire people solving New Hampshire problems the way it should be: around the table.”

And the bill faces a separate front of opposition: the manufacturing housing board itself. Members of the nine-member group, who already arbitrate non-rent related tenant disputes, say they simply don’t have the resources to handle the extra load.

“I think it would be a tremendous burden on the board, and I think that is the consensus of the board members,” said Mark Tay, the board’s chairman.

For Vaughn, the problem isn’t his landlord’s desire for profit.

“I don’t mind people making money,” he said. “It’s a business, this is a business, I understand that.”

It’s the lack of control, he said – or any meaningful outlet – as the rents continue to rise.

“Enough is enough,” he said. “Where is this going to end?”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitt er at
@edewittNH.)