AUGUSTA — Most of the residents of Deer Ridge Mobile Home Park will tell you the 13-unit park is not in the best shape, with a potholed road off North Belfast Avenue leading to a tightly-packed cluster of mostly older mobile homes, some with their siding falling off.

It may not look like much, yet.

But it’s all theirs.

Earlier this month the residents joined together to form a cooperative, with the help of multiple nonprofit organizations, and purchased the park together. They became the fourth such resident-owned mobile home community in Maine, taking control of, and responsibility for, the park they call home.

“We’re all low-income, we know what it’s like to live in apartments… when you own your own home, you’re going to work harder on it,” said Donna Dennis, 56, a two-year resident of the park and vice president of the new co-op’s five-member board of directors, all residents. “You should be able to be proud of where you live. I’m extremely proud we own it.”

The new co-op of residents, who already owned their own mobile homes in the park, and were renting only their lots, closed on the property Feb. 10, with assistance from Cooperative Development Institute, a technical assistance provider with the Resident Owned Community USA Network. The network is a national non-profit organization that works to help residents of mobile home communities form cooperatives and buy their communities. Some funding came from Genesis Community Loan Fund, a nonprofit that provides low-interest loans to help provide affordable housing.

Jessica Pooley, a cooperative development specialist with Cooperative Development Institute, said the organization had learned of the park and thought it might be a candidate to become resident-owned. So she went to see it for herself.

“I drove through the park to look at it and when I left, I cried,” Pooley said. “And I don’t do that. I was wondering, how am I going to sell this, to get others to help, knowing, it was so run-down, it was going to be a money pit.”

She said the fact the park had such a large parcel of undeveloped land attached to it made it a more attractive spot, as the land could be used to expand the park and provide additional affordable housing in Augusta. As it is now, the existing mobile homes are squeezed onto just two acres of a roughly 60-acre, largely undeveloped lot.

She started knocking on doors, and found residents, if initially skeptical, who were willing to talk about the idea. One of the first she met was Beverly Chase, 64, a 20-year resident of the park who is now secretary of the board, and whose unit in the park is home to her and nine others, mostly family members,

“I was skeptical at first, we couldn’t believe somebody would want to help poor people like that,” Chase said of her initial reaction to meeting Pooley, without whom, she said, they never would have been able to take ownership of the park.

FORMER OWNERS

The park was previously owned and operated by Homeworkers Organized for More Employment, or HOME, an Orland-based nonprofit group that creates employment for, and provides services to, low income individuals and families and the associated St. Francis Community, which got involved in the early 1990s, according to Lawrence Reichard, assistant director of HOME Co-op. The organization stepped in after Maine State Housing Authority asked if it would be interested in running it after, the city condemned it because the septic system was overflowing and the private owner at the time couldn’t afford to fix it, Reichard said.

HOME, too, tried to create a co-op of residents to own the Augusta park, and started forming one that never really became a functional co-op, according to Chase and Reichard. So, instead, HOME bought and ran the park.

Chase said residents, at the time, couldn’t seem to pull the fledgling co-op together, and it fell apart.

This time, she and other residents are confident they can work together and make their group ownership a success.

“I don’t believe it will fall apart,” Chase said. “We’ve got Jessica’s help, and we’ve got a good core group here. If we work together, I think it’s going to work. I’m going to give it my all.”

Residents said the park hasn’t been maintained in recent years, and HOME officials have been unresponsive when they’ve called them about problems or a lack of maintenance.

Reichard said the organization is not a professional property management company, and was concerned if it raised the rent too high, to pay for a higher level of upkeep, it could price residents out of the park.

“We did our best, with limited resources,” he said, noting it was never the group’s intention to run the park, which he noted is a fair distance away from their Orland base. “We’re extremely pleased (the residents formed a co-op to buy the park). We’re very excited for them. This is what we wanted all along and we wish them all the best in the world.”

DEMOCRATIC PROCESS

Decisions about how to run the park, and how much rent to charge, are now being made democratically. The park is overseen by the board of directors, but major decisions, such as how much rent to charge for lots, are made by a vote of all resident-owners. Five members who were the only ones to express interest in it were appointed initially, but a formal election is set for Sunday.

Mike Morissette, 59, a 10-year resident of the park, and the first president of the co-op’s board of directors, said the first thing they needed to do, and need to continue to do, is “make sure everyone gets along.”

The first vote of the membership, which Pooley said was a unanimous vote, was to raise the lot rent, from $140 to $180 a month, a rate which Morissette said is still well below other parks, and includes water and septic on the park’s private systems.

Residents said raising the rent was necessary because they’ve got plans for the place, including a new leach field, road improvements and a culvert to allow access across a stream to the large parcel of undeveloped land out back.

Gertrude Turcotte, 71, who has lived in Deer Ridge for 12 years, and is the group’s treasurer, said what is best for the park is what guides the groups decisions on what improvements and actions should be made.

Residents who don’t pay their rent, or break other park rules, after a warning process, may be taken to court and evected by the co-op. Dennis said the task of enforcing the rules is one of her roles in the group.

MORE RESIDENTS

Now that they have ownership, they also have big plans.

Their long term goal is to develop some of the land, either as lots to rent or by the co-op buying trailers and putting them in place to rent. While more residents would bring in more income, group members said their first priority is to keep them affordable, so others can gain the benefits of owning their own homes they now have.

“This is a low-income park and we want to keep it that way,” Dennis said. “We hope to expand so there is more affordable housing here. We’d like to make a play area for children, maybe a community garden, and make this a nice, safe, family community.”

Amanda Bartlett, executive director of the Augusta Housing Authority, a quasi-municipal group which seeks to help provide affordable housing, said an expanded, cooperatively owned park could help provide more affordable housing in Augusta.

“Hopefully this initiative will expand homeownership opportunities to lower income residents as many Augusta residents struggle to afford the median home price,” Bartlett said. “The co-op model is great in that when residents become owners they are empowered to strengthen their community and define their own sense of place. The answer to our shortage of affordable housing doesn’t lie in one solution but rather a patchwork of ideas and people coming together towards a common goal of giving people a safe and affordable place to call home.”

Resident-owners of the park each buy one share of the co-op, for $100, which, if they sell their unit, they can sell to the new owner. That share also gives them one vote when it comes time to make decisions about the park.

Pooley noted ownership also gives the residents some control over their own destiny, allows them to decide how much rent will be, and to get rid of service providers if the group doesn’t like their work, and prevent an outside owner from selling the park out from under them.

HELPING RESIDENTS

Through the New England Resident Owned Communities program, the residents have received extensive training, and will continue to get assistance to make sure the co-op continues to function properly.

“They learn how to get along with each other and work as a team, serve as a board, govern themselves as a nonprofit, how to read and understand financials, how to enforce their own rules, there is a lot,” Pooley said. “A transformation happens, you see it at that first residents’ meeting. They don’t believe, sometimes, they’re capable of getting along and doing it. Then time passes, things start to gel and it’s very empowering. They develop confidence, leadership skills.”

For some of the training and other services provided by Cooperative Development Institute, residents will be charged a fee. Pooley declined to reveal the specific fee, though Deer Ridge residents said the institute had agree to waive its fees for them, until they get their co-op on firmer financial footing.

Andy Danforth, director of Cooperative Development Institute’s New England Resident Owned Communities Program, said Deer Ridge joins over 160 similar cooperatives across the country.

Pooley and the Cooperative Development Institute tried, last year, to help the residents of Meadowbrook Trailer Park in Richmond, where a broken septic system was pumping sewage onto the ground and into a nearby brook and the owner, Russell Edwards Jr., said he couldn’t afford to fix the problem.

Pooley met with residents there and incorporated them into a resident group, but they were unable to get the owner to sell the park to them. He sold it to another firm instead.

The other three resident-owned parks in Maine, Pooley said, are the 32-unit Medomak Mobile Home Cooperative in Waldoboro, the 55-unit Brunswick Bay Mobile Home Cooperative in Brunswick, and Greystone, a park with roughly 68 units in Veazie.

Damariscotta-based Genesis Community Loan Fund was involved in all four conversions of those parks into cooperative ownerships.

“We are pleased to use the resources we have available to help residents of mobile home communities secure affordability and security in their housing,” Liza Fleming-Ives, deputy director of Genesis, said in a news release.

Genesis, Chase said, essentially assumed the remaining mortgage on the property, from HOME. Residents of the park will, collectively through their rent payments to the co-op they own, pay off the loan.

They’ve hired a local firm to handle their accounting and make sure their bills, with board approval, get paid.

Morissette joked that, because they’ll no longer be able to pick up the phone and call the owner of the park to complain about things there, instead he’ll look at the mirror, and complain to himself.

The board members have been meeting every other week — in Turcotte’s mobile home which has shelves lined with her extensive frog figurine collection — and are confident they will succeed in owning their park, together.

“All of us are more than willing to help out our neighbors,” Chase said. “That’s the only way we’ll keep it going.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

 


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