Some land of their own

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Residents of the Ev-Mar Mobile Village in Savage want to take homeownership to a new level: the ground.

For months, community members have worked to purchase the land on which their manufactured homes rest in order to establish a cooperative -- a trend spreading in states such as New Hampshire, Florida and California. About 1,000 such communities operate nationwide in which residents own shares and participate in the property management.

The Ev-Mar residents are scrambling to set up a community association and arrange financing for the almost 7-acre property, which has about 30 homes on it, with slots for up to 40. If the plan works out, "we'll actually be landowners," said Liz Evans, who moved into a double-wide trailer with her family last year.

"If we can get past what we see on the outside," said her husband, Kalvin Evans, "what we can have here is an awesome community."

But the heirs to the property, who have been hashing out its ownership in court since 1997, have other plans. They are seeking to sell it and have submitted a rezoning proposal to the county to allow townhouses to be built there instead, which would make the land more valuable.

For families like the Evanses, manufactured housing -- an industry term for homes constructed in a factory and transported to another site -- has been the affordable answer in high-rent areas such as Howard County. But the residents of Ev-Mar face a problem shared by homeowners nationwide who have found that if the park owner decides to sell, their mobile homes are mobile in name only.

When three mobile home parks closed on the median strip of North Laurel in 2001, residents struggled to find slots in other communities. Many of the homes were too old to move to the few open slots remaining in county parks or did not meet requirements.

"When you have that kind of disparity in land value, it makes it very difficult to find either a nice piece or any piece of property," said Lowell Cochran, executive director of the Manufactured Housing Institute of Maryland.

Furthermore, many mobile home owners discover that if the park closes, they have few legal protections.

Only a handful of states require park owners to pay into a dislocation fund to help residents move or grant them the right of first refusal to purchase the property themselves, said Clarence Cook, president of the Manufactured Homeowners Association of America.

In Maryland, owners must give residents a year's notice before closing, said Rebecca Bowman, assistant state attorney general in the consumer protection division. In addition, state law requires that owners submit plans for alternative locations for residents along with applications to change the use of the land, she said.

The pitfalls have not hindered the increasing popularity of mobile homes. The billion-dollar mobile home industry grew out of the travel trailers that tourists and migrant workers hitched to their cars starting in the 1920s, according to a Ford Foundation report. More permanent structures were built after World War II, and the industry boomed during the 1960s and 1970s.

Experts say manufactured housing can be a viable option for those who can't afford to purchase land. Residents typically purchase the home and pay monthly ground rent.

Today, business is booming, especially in the South. A third of the housing built in the United States is manufactured, industry officials say -- constructed at a factory to either HUD or local standards. More than 41,000 units are in Maryland, representing almost 2 percent of the state's housing, according to the 2000 census.

In Howard, there are about 1,800 mobile homes, most clustered within the U.S. 1 corridor between Interstate 95 and the county's border with Anne Arundel. In a county like Howard, where the average price of a single-family home is more than $300,000, mobile homes "represent some of the most affordable housing," said county housing director Leonard S. Vaughan.

It was the right answer for the Evans family, who used to pay $1,200 a month to rent a three-bedroom townhouse across the street from Ev-Mar.

Liz Evans and her husband loved the community, with its easy access to the local library, the Little Patuxent River and historic Savage Mill. But as large, upscale developments such as Emerson and Stone Lake went up nearby, so did the rent -- to $1,450.

Liz Evans said she knew "if we're ever going to get out of debt, we're going to have to do something really unorthodox."

So the family, with four children ages 1 to 7, moved into a three-bedroom, two-bath double-wide trailer in December. It came with window treatments, a large master bath with a recessed bathtub and a big-screen TV. The lot rent and payment on the house total $1,175.

"We know we can at least have some sort of equity," she said, because the home can be resold.

But land for mobile home parks may become increasingly scarce as Howard evolves.

"The value of the land, particularly in that golden triangle of Baltimore to Annapolis to D.C., has skyrocketed," said Cochran of the Manufactured Housing Institute of Maryland.

The uncertainty of the situation spurred Vince Patrick's interest. He was able to relocate to Ev-Mar after living in North Laurel for more than 20 years. Patrick now spearheads the cooperative drive.

He and the other residents hope that operating the park themselves will allow them to lower the ground rent and roll the funds into the maintenance of the park. Patrick said he believes there are significant benefits to forming a co-op. Mobile homes, if placed on leased land, depreciate in value the way a car would. Buying shares in a co-op would allow residents to build equity, as well as stabilize ground rents.

Ev-Mar is named after two sisters, Evelyn and Marie, who married John and Henry Meyn, respectively. The two couples lived in a house together and operated the mobile home park, originally serving the seasonal workers at Freestate, a nearby harness racing track that closed in the 1990s.

Marie, Evelyn and Henry Meyn all died within months of each other in 1997. Since then, the residents say, the park has suffered under poor management while the legal disputes were sorted out.

Last year, the heirs, some of whom live as far away as Canada, agreed to sell the property and divide the proceeds, said Allan J. Gibber, attorney for J. Timothy Matlack, personal representative for the estate of Evelyn Meyn.

"They have no real interest in operating a trailer park. They want their share in the estate," Gibber said.

He said no minimum bid had been set for the two parcels, which are assessed at $845,300, nor is there a final date when decisions will be made.

As required by law, the rezoning proposal states that current residents would be given a year to move and they "envision the ability to find relocation sites" within other parks in the county.

Still, the idea of moving terrifies Diana L. Stoaks. The 40-year-old waitress said she exhausted her resources when her husband died.

"If they told me I had to go," she said, "I'd sit here until they'd bulldozed the place down."

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