Think Out Loud

Seniors face uncertainty with sale of mobile home community in SW Washington

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
Jan. 22, 2024 7:02 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Jan. 23

The Woodland East Mobile Home Park is a community of residents 55 and older in Southwest Washington, roughly 20 miles north of Vancouver. The Columbian recently reported on the plight of the many seniors who live there and struggle to pay $1050 per month to rent a lot, in addition to their mortgages, utilities and other expenses. The tenants claim the landlord has raised their rent by 250% since he purchased Woodland East in 2017 and have filed more than 100 complaints against him with the Washington Attorney General’s office.


But now the tenants are facing their biggest hurdle. They received notice last fall the community was up for sale and have until Jan. 24 to raise $33 million to buy the mobile home park themselves, although the property may already be under contract. Alexis Weisend and Mia Ryder-Marks cover affordable housing and homelessness at The Columbian. They join us to talk about their reporting and how a new law intended to protect mobile home tenants can still leave them vulnerable to rent increases and eviction.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Residents at the Woodland East Mobile Home Park north of Vancouver say they’ve been dealing with many challenges over the last seven years. They have filed more than 100 complaints against their landlord with the Washington Office of the Attorney General. They say the rent has more than doubled since 2017. And they recently found out that the park is for sale at a price that might mean much bigger rent hikes in the near future. Alexis Weisend and Mia Ryder-Marks have been writing about the Woodland East Mobile Home Park for The Columbian and they both join us now. Welcome to the studio.

Alexis Weisend / Mia Ryder-Marks: Thanks for having us.

Miller: Alexis, first. Can you describe Woodland East?

Weisend: Woodland East is a 55+ mobile home park that’s located just outside of Clark County into Cowlitz County. Even though it’s a 55 and older community, most of the residents are over the age of 70. The houses in that neighborhood go for around $70,000 to $150,000. It’s about a 20 minute drive from Vancouver. It’s a very cozy and quaint neighborly community.

Miller: Mia, what did you hear from residents there about rent increases in recent years?

Ryder-Marks: Since the new owner bought the park in 2017, rents have gone up about 250% for tenants. And right now, residents are paying around $1,050. But in March, that will go up to $1,250. Residents told us this is basically a breaking point for them and this next rent period will be bordering very close to what a lot of them make for Social Security.

Miller: What does rent actually pay for at a mobile home park?

Ryder-Marks: When you hear rent or renting, you think of renting a house or an apartment. But that’s not how it works in this situation. They are homeowners. They own their home but they rent the land beneath them. Then the rent goes towards their shared amenities like their clubhouse, those kinds of things. But what gravitates a lot of older adults towards mobile home parks is that they’re considered an affordable option. Even though you have to pay rent, you own a home for maybe one-fifth of what it would cost in other areas.

Miller: Alexis, how do current rents at Woodland East compare to the average rent for a traditional one bedroom apartment in Clark County?

Weisend: In Clark County, it’s about three-quarters of fair market rent for a one bedroom apartment.

Miller: Just for the rent for the land?

Weisend: Right. And so that’s particularly when it’s going to go up to $1,250 in March. In Cowlitz County, which is kind of in-between these two counties, that’s a one bedroom apartment, basically fair market.

Miller: But Mia, tenants might be paying for a mortgage on their physical homes as well?

Ryder-Marks: Yes. And on top of things like medical expenses that a lot of older adults have, if you didn’t plan for this financially, it’s pretty unsustainable.

Miller: Alexis, you both describe the owner of the property, Michael Werner, as a mobile home park mogul. What can you tell us about him?

Weisend: So Michael Werner is from Vancouver. He and his wife Denise Werner own around a dozen RV, mobile home parks around Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington. We specifically say Michael Werner because that’s whose name was listed in the property records. But he and his wife have an investment company called Deer Point Meadows that a lot of these properties are owned by.

The Werners have developed a bit of a reputation. The Columbian and other local news outlets have reported on excessive rent increases at their other parks. And they especially gained some notoriety, I think you actually report on this, when recently they were fined $1 million by the Washington Attorney General for illegal evictions in Ilwaco RV and Mobile Home Park.

Miller: Yeah, we had a conversation about that with a reporter from KMUN. I think that was actually when there had been complaints, but before a fine was levied.

Mia, you reached out to Michael Werner. Did you hear anything from him or the companies that he and his wife own?

Ryder-Marks: No, we didn’t hear back.

Miller: Alexis, for what it’s worth, we also reached out to Deer Point Meadows. That’s Werner’s company which owns Woodland East. We got no response. You did report that Woodland East residents said that park management explained the rent increases, as you said, 250% in six years by pointing to property tax increases. What did you find when you looked into tax records?

Weisend: We know that property taxes have increased. We wanted to understand whether that could be a viable reason for these rent increases. But when we looked at property tax records, it only increased about $18,000 between 2018 and 2023. When you do the math and see the lowest amount that renters at Woodland East Mobile Home Park are paying and multiply that by 130, they’re making at least half a million dollars more from these rent increases. Half a million dollars [compared to] $18,000.

Miller: Besides rent increases, Mia, what did you hear from residents about the management of this mobile home park?

Ryder-Marks: Residents told us that some of their maintenance requests weren’t fulfilled in a timely manner for common areas like their clubhouse, which would be the owners of property management’s responsibility.

Miller: Alexis, do you have a sense for how many tenants have already been evicted?

Weisend: Not many have been evicted. And that’s because these residents are doing everything they can to keep from being evicted. They expect more evictions once the rent continues to go up because residents say that they’ve basically reached a breaking point. They especially are doing everything they can not to be evicted. They’re having family members move in with them to help them pay the rent. They’re choosing between which medications they can afford. They’re pinching pennies anywhere they can because it’s very different being evicted from a mobile home park compared to being evicted from an apartment.

Miller: What does happen if you’re evicted from a mobile home park?


Weisend: You have 120 days to either sell your mobile home or relocate it somewhere else. Relocating it is going to take a lot of money. You need to get permitting. You need to figure out who’s gonna help you move. You need to find a place where you can move that home that’s going to accept you, with an eviction record as well, within 120 days. And if you can’t pay rent, it’s unlikely that you’re gonna have the finances to do that. On the other hand, if you want to sell it within the 120 day [period], residents are upset because they think that the value of their homes have gone down because of these rent increases. So you have to buy this home,

but then you also have to pay these very excessive rents as well.

Miller: This is complicated. It’s just one more example of the complicated realities of owning a mobile home and renting the space where it’s set up. And even how the rent you’d pay for the space can affect the value of the home and your ability to sell it to somebody else.

Mia, your article mentions a law that went into effect last summer in Washington that was supposed to help tenants who live in mobile home parks like this one. What was the purpose of the law?

Ryder-Marks: Senate Bill 5198 was passed by lawmakers last summer. Before the law, mobile home park residents might not even know that their park was for sale until they received a notification of new ownership. But now with this law, it requires park owners to notify residents that their park is for sale, so they have a chance to buy it. The law gives residents and eligible organizations, like a local government or nonprofits, 70 days to make a bid for the park.

Miller: It seems that residents of Woodland East are a test case for this new law because they found out recently that their park is for sale. How did they find out?

Ryder-Marks: The Homeowners Association president was looking online one day and stumbled across the listing on a site called LoopNet. She then sent out a link to residents and they all filed a complaint with the Washington Attorney General that they hadn’t been notified. And around 48 hours later, they received a printed notification from their park owners.

Miller: That seems to be very different from the way the law was supposed to work. Alexis, the asking price is $33 million. I mean, as Mia was just saying, the idea of this new Washington law is to give mobile home park residents the chance to come together to buy their park or to have some other entity, maybe a nonprofit, buy it for them. Could they do that given a sale price, an offering price, of $33 million?

Weisend: For that amount of money it doesn’t seem likely. We talked to ROC Northwest, which is a nonprofit that helps residents like these buy their park and figure out their financials. What they told us is that the residents would basically have to double their lot rent in order to afford the park, which the residents might be willing to do. But a bank probably would think that’s too risky to loan.

Miller: In terms of, instead of paying rent, a mortgage of that level, banks would say, “No we don’t think you’re good for it,” right?

Weisend: Right. The land is assessed by the County to be worth around $8 million. The Werners bought it for $8.9 million back in 2017. After this article came out, we got calls from brokers saying, marketwise, they’re looking at probably $16 million. Either way, $33 million is viewed as excessively high.

Miller: Again, this is for older residents, 55+, and you said, the majority, are 70+. What is attractive to investors to a place like this?

Weisend: So for all age parks, your ability to pay rent depends on your employment. So if you lose your job, if you’re in the hospital for a month, you’re not receiving money from your employer any more. That affects the park’s owner and their ability to receive the rent. But when you’re a senior and you’re on a fixed income, you have Social Security payments or other kinds of payments coming in monthly, that’s guaranteed cash that can go directly into rent.

Miller: You reported that the landlord, they are already under contract with a prospective buyer. Is that legal? I mean, we were just talking about the 70-day period that’s supposed to give tenants time to come up with their own offer. So how do you square these?

Weisend: Right, we don’t really know. We never got a clear answer on that. It’s a very confusing process right now. So we spoke to someone who helped draft the law’s language. She works for ROC Northwest and she said that the intention of the bill was to give eligible organizations and residents 70 days to make that bid. That’s why the bill has a timeline. But when you read the law, it doesn’t exactly say that. It doesn’t seem to say it explicitly. So we will see what the answer to that is after the Attorney General either confirms a contract and takes an enforcement action or whether they don’t.

Miller: Mia, let’s look forward. Can you tell us about HB2114 which Washington lawmakers and housing advocates are pushing for now?

Ryder-Marks: The law would give a little more protection for renters because it aims to prevent excessive rent increases for renters and mobile homeowners. Because right now, Washington doesn’t have any rent control or any rent increase ceiling. So with this new bill, residential landlords would only be able to raise their rent 5% within each lease year.

Miller: How might the current situation for Woodland East residents be different if that law were already in effect?

Ryder-Marks: If this law was in effect since 2017 and rent can only be raised around 5% each year, their rent would be around $500 today.

Miller: As opposed to over $1,000, potentially heading to over $1,200 just in a couple of months. Let’s say that Michael Werner is able to sell his property for anywhere close to $33 million. What would the new buyer be likely to do in terms of rent increases? If you buy it for that much, how much do you have to make in rent to make your investment worth it?

Ryder-Marks: They’d probably have to raise the rent to pay off the $33 million bill. I mean, it’s an investment. You definitely wouldn’t want to buy a park for $33 million and lower the rents if you’re trying to make a profit.

Miller: Alexis, what’s the latest you’ve heard from Woodland East residents?

Weisend: Well, they’re frustrated. This entire process for them has been very confusing. They have been upset that they thought that this law was their savior basically. And as we point out in our article, it’s kind of put a little pressure and has shown the cracks on this bill. I wanted to mention that the Attorney General can only take an enforcement action after a transaction has been made. And so we don’t think that necessarily makes the transaction void afterwards. And then the fine for not following this law is only $10,000. And these are multimillion dollar investment companies. $10,000 to them is not a lot.

Miller: And the small price to pay for doing business, a fraction.

Weisend: But there are some updates. So they did make a $16 million bid. They’re guessing that that bid is going to be ignored because it’s around half the price of what the Werners are asking for. They also filed another complaint against them for potentially going into a contract within the 70 days they were supposed to have to make a bid. And even though that 70 days is supposed to be up starting tomorrow on the 24th, a couple of investors read our story and they want to purchase a plot of land in Woodland and move everyone over to that plot of land. So they’re reaching out to ROC Northwest and the Woodland City Council right now for help.

Miller: It’s worth saying that is a kind of a single response to enterprise reporting, as opposed to a policy change at the state level that could be a substantive change, that could prevent this broadly. It’s sort of like GoFundMe for one person as opposed to a broad change in how we fund health care, say. But I’m just curious as well, before you go, what’s the broader picture here? What are local officials in Clark or Cowlitz Counties or the city of Vancouver saying about the need to create or preserve affordable housing?

Weisend: We’ve heard a lot from local officials about creating more affordable housing, not so much preserving affordable housing. We haven’t heard any plans from state legislators about making edits to this law. We’ll see what happens after this entire process is finished. But the Woodland City Council, it seems, is going to have a chance to, at least for this specific scenario, make a change. As far as this happening statewide, we haven’t heard anything.

Miller: Alexis and Mia, thanks very much.

Weisend: Thank you.

Miller: Alexis Weisend is an affordable housing and homelessness reporter at The Columbian, along with Mia Ryder-Marks. You can read their most recent article about this. There is a link on our website as well.

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