Soaring mobile-home rents anger Arizona voters

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YUMA, Ariz. — Judy Youngs had gotten used to modest increases in her mobile-home rent. Then late last year, she learned it would soar by 60 percent over the next four years.

Already living a frugal life on her Social Security income, the 71-year-old started clipping more grocery coupons and buying frozen Lean Cuisine meals on sale — five for $10. She dipped further into her savings to cover shortfalls and worried how long she’d be able to stay in her home.

Many of Arizona’s mobile-home parks are experiencing big jumps in rent, deepening the financial woes of low-income residents already struggling with high food prices. The spike is tarnishing the economic views of a big group of voters in this swing state, even as Arizona’s economy booms. About 7 percent of Arizona’s population lives in mobile homes, versus 5 percent nationwide, according to the Census Bureau.

Conversations with 30 mobile-home residents in different parts of Arizona showed that rising rents are giving some right-leaning voters another reason to stick with Trump and reducing other voters’ enthusiasm for either candidate.

“Everything is going up, and it’s putting a squeeze,” Youngs said after a recent town hall meeting at her mobile-home park, Coyote Ranch. She backed Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 but isn’t sure how she’ll vote this time, expressing frustration with Trump and Biden. “We don’t have, in my opinion, qualified people to run for president,” she said.

Housing costs have soared for many Americans, but the jump is particularly painful in the mobile-home communities that have long served as one of the nation’s most affordable types of housing.

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Residents typically own their houses but lease the land underneath. Those rents are jumping in many parts of the country because of several factors, including rising corporate ownership of the parks and higher demand as Americans get priced out of more expensive housing.

Buying the home itself is also getting more expensive; the average sales price of a new manufactured home rose faster than that of a new single-family home between 2017 and 2022, according to an analysis of federal data by the financial services company LendingTree. Arizona was the third most-expensive state, with average prices rising 80 percent over that period to $160,500.

Arizona is enjoying faster-than-average economic growth, low unemployment and a flood of high-tech investment. But the mostly right-leaning residents of Coyote Ranch — many living on modest fixed incomes — mention little of that when they talk about the economy. Instead they wonder how a lifestyle that used to seem so affordable is suddenly so out of reach.

Some have joined a letter-writing campaign seeking rent-control laws from state legislators, a project begun by angry mobile-home residents near Sedona, Ariz.

“Where can we even go, if we must move — to our cars, to our adult child’s home?” one of the group’s recent letters asked state representatives. “Or do we become part of the ever-increasing homeless population?”

Cindy Tinsley, a real estate agent and Coyote Ranch resident, said more of her neighbors are being forced to sell their homes and move to escape spiking rents. Some go to live with family while others seek out older trailer parks “in a part of Yuma that is not very nice or safe,” she said. “It breaks my heart.”

When rents go up, many residents are trapped. Despite their name, most mobile homes these days are not trailers on wheels but small ranch houses designed to be left in place. It can cost $20,000 or more to move them, making residents dependent on the parks where they live.

National data on lot rent is hard to come by. In mid-2022, rents were 4.9 percent higher than in mid-2021, according to a Fannie Mae report. But many communities have reported much higher spikes over the past few years.

Fountain East, a park in Mesa, Ariz., has raised annual rent by 9 to 11 percent for the past two years, according to resident Kari Torgerson. On the Greens, a park in Cottonwood, rent rose by 9 percent this year, after an 8 percent jump last year, resident Lynda Schlipf said. At nearby Lampliter Village in Clarkdale, the most recent hike was 10 percent, according to resident Scott Murray.

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Sandi Veitch and her husband moved to Coyote Ranch in 2005, buying a manufactured home from a nearby dealer and placing it on a lot that cost $87.50 a month. The rent jumped significantly a few times in the mid-2000s but rose modestly for most of the past decade. Then, like Youngs, Veitch learned late last year that her rent would leap between 8.5 percent and 13.7 percent each year through 2027.

The 68-year-old worries how far her finances will stretch if she lives into her 80s.

“I can manage a 13 percent increase this year, next year and the year after. But I can’t manage that for 18 more years,” she said. “That’s the fear — of losing your home and then it’s kind of like, okay, where do I go?” she asked. “We don’t have kids … we already downsized.”

Veitch thinks the economy is in “awful” shape, pointing to lofty food prices and a jump in her electricity bill. As for the coming election, she called it frustrating to face the same choice as last time. “I cannot support Biden,” Veitch said. “I probably will vote for Trump,” she added. “I don’t like him as a man but the economy was better.”

Thomas Property Management of Modesto, Calif., which manages Coyote Ranch, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Lampliter defended its recent rent increases as fair and necessary to maintain the park’s infrastructure. The other parks either declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests.

Yuma County backed Trump by a solid margin in both of the last elections, so the complaints about Biden at Coyote Ranch are perhaps unsurprising. Higher prices have joined a list of reasons many residents say they dislike the president, along with immigration and Biden’s age.

But anger over rising mobile-home costs is also brewing in some purple parts of the state.

Dave Knoer of Mesa, Ariz. — part of Maricopa County, a big swing county — has watched his mobile-home rent rise by 23 percent over the past three years, to $765. When he adds extra charges for water and trash removal it eats up more than half of the $1,600 he gets a month in Social Security disability support, forcing him to tap a local food bank for groceries.

Knoer, 60, voted for Biden and Hillary Clinton in the last two elections but said he is undecided this time.

“I’m unhappy with Biden because of the economy. And I don’t see much except turmoil and upheaval with Trump,” Knoer said.

At Coyote Ranch, Jeanne Weatherly, a 70-year-old former small business owner, is worried about climbing prices, along with the state of the U.S.-Mexico border and what she sees as a government effort to redistribute wealth away from baby boomers. She’s backing Trump.

Weatherly gets by on $1,200 a month in Social Security. Like her neighbors, her rent is spiking from $536 last year to $856 in 2027. She already shops at 99-cent stores and grocery outlets that sell nearly expired food. She’s also curtailed the modest trips she used to take, to the Grand Canyon or to see family in California.

“I’m going into savings and having to cash out what I have set aside for long-term care,” she said. “I had thought I worked 50 years and would be retiring comfortably and be in the golden years of my life, and instead it’s stress.”

Democrats, she said, “will say, the economy is better, inflation is down, the stock market is recovering and we are better off than we were in the previous administration. I don’t know who they are talking to, but it isn’t anybody of my generation.”

Some in the park remain ardent Biden supporters. Donna Cooper, 69, moved to Coyote Ranch two years ago, when she could no longer afford her longtime manufactured home in San Diego. Having cut her rent considerably with the move, she is now alarmed to be facing the same spike as her neighbors.

The retired X-ray technician voted for Biden last time in California and will stick with him this time as an Arizona voter, she said.

“I’m terrified of another four years of Trump,” she said. Biden, she believes, has done a lot to help the country recover from the pandemic. “I think the way [the economy] was left to Biden was pretty close to being fatal,” she said. “We’re not out of the woods, yet, but I think we’re in a better position than we were four years ago.”

She gets $2,000 a month in Social Security and worries she may have to move if her rent keeps climbing. “I have no idea at this point,” she said.

Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.

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