This episode brings us to a mobile home park in Waukee, Iowa, where we meet 93-year-old Arletta Swain and her neighbor Matt Chapman. These manufactured housing communities were one of the last remaining affordable housing options in the US – at least they were, until private equity firms came into the picture. Today, we talk to the two neighbors about what grassroots activism looks like when you’re up against a 70% rent hike and, in Arletta’s words, “money-crazy” folks.
- Learn more about the affordable housing group, MHAction, and follow them on Facebook
- Follow Matt Chapman’s activism on Twitter
- Keep up with Julián on twitter @JulianCastro and Instagram @JulianCastroTX
Arletta Swain: [00:00:31] It’s been nice here. It really was. And it has been until just the last few years, but nobody has time to stop and do the things they used to because they have to work to pay these bills off they’re giving us, just constantly adding something to them. And I don’t know how some of them they get away with it. I don’t like crooks. And what we’re going through here now is just something else.
Julián Castro: [00:01:00] That’s Arletta Swain talking to me from her mobile home in Waukee, Iowa. Have you ever met someone who just instantly struck you? That is one of those people for me. I met her last year and ever since, I think about her often. In fact, she was one of the first people I reached out to for this show. Arletta lives in one of 300 mobile homes located in a park called Midwest Country Estates. And we should really called these structures manufactured homes because the term mobile home is pretty misleading. In most cases, these houses aren’t mobile at all, or the cost to move them would be prohibitively expensive for the people that live there. Instead, their defining feature is their affordability. Roughly 22 million Americans live in prefabricated housing, including veterans, people with disabilities and seniors living on a fixed income. Manufactured homes are one of the last forms of affordable housing left in the United States, or at least they were until recently. Private equity firms are now flooding the sector while the investors are buying up the land that sits underneath manufactured homes and then raising the rent, trapping low-income residents in an impossible situation where they’re forced to choose between paying their bills or abandoning their home.
Julián Castro: [00:02:24] This is exactly what happened to Arletta and her neighbors when they found out a Utah-based private investment firm called Haven Park Capital was taking over their property. The new owners introduced themselves by announcing that they were hiking the rent by nearly 70 percent. This week, we hear about how Arletta and her neighbors fought back. This is Our America. I’m your host, Julián Castro.
Julián Castro: [00:03:03] When you and I talked on your doorstep, I think you were a very young 91 or 92. So you’re 93 now, and how long have you lived there at Midwest Country Estate?
Arletta Swain: [00:03:17] I think I moved in here in ’65. ’63 or ’65. I was the eleventh person in here. We used to pull our tables out as card tables, and if you had something extra, make a salad or make a cake, them them out and then set them down. Anybody who wanted some could have some, whatever they wanted. It was really, really a nice place.
Julián Castro: [00:03:44] So there was a sense of community.
Julián Castro: [00:03:46] Yeah. And still up until just a few years ago now — and it’s not the people here. It’s the people that’s running it. I don’t know whether they’re money crazy or whether they just come up in a different age when it’s different, because at my age, I’ve seen too many things change.
Julián Castro: [00:04:10] An interesting thing about manufactured housing is that while the mobile homes themselves depreciate in value, the land they sit on becomes an increasingly valuable commodity. That leads to a pretty significant power imbalance, because in these communities, people often own their homes but rent the land from the park owners. Waukee has been experiencing a period of development. Apple announced plans to construct a data center in town slated for 2027, and new businesses like fast food restaurants have popped up alongside the community. These developments, along with other factors, have had an impact on land value. According to Dallas County assessor’s data, the property value of Midwest Country Estates has grown from about $1.3 million to $3.8 million over just four years. For Arletta, things feel unrecognizable.
Arletta Swain: [00:05:06] I started life in a coal mine, a coal mining town, not a coal mine. I went down in one once. My father took me down in one. I don’t ever want to go down in the earth that far again. That was awful.
Julián Castro: [00:05:21] And where did you grow up? Which state were you in?
Arletta Swain: [00:05:24] Iowa. It was down Carbon, Iowa, a little coal mining town. My grandfather, my father’s father, owned several coal mines down there. And I was twelve when we left. We left there because my father got injured in the coal mine and could no longer go down. Something hit him in the head. My husband worked for the Department of Agriculture. Died after two years. That was a hard time for me, too.
Julián Castro: [00:05:56] If I could ask him how many years were you married and at what age did your husband pass away?
Arletta Swain: [00:06:03] In his forties and I was married in, I don’t know, ’45 or ’44, I think it was, you know, I’d have to check. And he was only 42 when he died. I’m moving around because I keep his death certificate. He died working for the state. And his death certificate, I’ve always kept up here on my rolltop. Yeah. We were married 20 years. And how I remember that because he said when we were 20 years old, we just raised kids and worked hard, both of us. And he said, I’m going to take you to Hawaii on a vacation. And he said, I want to go there anyhow, because I want to see the sand when it’s not red with blood. He was a Marine. And he died when we were married for 20 years. It upsets me, so I don’t talk too much about that.
Julián Castro: [00:07:06] Oh, no. Yeah, I completely understand. And how many children did you all have together?
Arletta Swain: [00:07:14] We had two children. We had two boys. We had one boy. And then I had cancer. And we only had the second boy, which 10 years after the first one was born, because the doctors said it wouldn’t ever have any more children. We fooled him. We had one 10 years later and it fooled everybody.
Julián Castro: [00:07:39] That was a nice trick.
Arletta Swain: [00:07:41] Yeah. More people should have those kind of tricks. It was really nice trick. He’s dead, but he left me his children. So that wasn’t so bad. And I had to raise them all out here in this mobile home. I’m just an old lady who just raised 11 grandchildren. It’s been a nice time. And they’ve been nice kids.
Julián Castro: [00:08:15] To accommodate eleven grandkids, Arletta has modified her home over the years. She turned her screened-in porch into a bedroom with bunk beds for the children. She takes a lot of pride in her yard, their roses and patches of rhubarb, big, beautiful trees. In fact, she shared a photo of herself in front of those trees that you can check out by clicking the link in the episode description.
Julián Castro: [00:08:44] If I remember right in front of your of your home, there’s a nice tree, isn’t there?
Arletta Swain: [00:08:52] Yeah, I grew that. And I have one just like it on the south side of the house, I grew it from a little sapling. And now they’re great, big huge trees just like the ones who cost money.
Julián Castro: [00:09:09] Yeah. I was going to say, they’re beautiful trees and when I was there with you, you pointed out that you had planted them. And now all of these years later, you know, they’re so nice. They’re so beautiful and big.
Arletta Swain: [00:09:22] Yeah, I know. And then I guess they started pulling down the trees after that big storm. Some trees fell in the mobile homes. And I got a little aggravated, which I do once in a while, and I shouldn’t. And I went down there and I said, “don’t you cut my trees down, I’ll sue you. So help me God. I planted those trees, and I’m gonna let them grow.” They’re stinkers. That’s exactly what they are.
Julián Castro: [00:12:21] Arletta isn’t the only person who made an impression on me during my visit to Waukee. Matt Chapman has been an outspoken critic of the new owners and is a longtime resident. He was well positioned as an organizer.
Julián Castro: [00:12:35] Now, you said you’ve lived there for 15 years, so you knew Arletta before before Haven Park bought Midwest Country Estates.
Matt Chapman: [00:12:47] Yeah, I did. I knew her fairly well. At first, I knew her as the woman she had one of the people people from Twilight, one of those actors on her screen door, like a big thing that you see for promotion. So I always knew her from that.
Julián Castro: [00:13:06] So that wasn’t her’s, it was one of the grandkids’ posters, right?
Matt Chapman: [00:13:08] That was actually her. Yeah. She is hilarious. But you know, I saw that and I said, there’s somebody, you know, either they really like Twilight or they’ve got a heck of a sense of humor because it looks like someone’s standing in that doorway. And she had one up they made her take down because they said a couple people had crashed when they saw someone in the doorway when they were driving. She was undaunted. She took it down for a while and then put it up. She had two of them. But, yeah, I knew her and the one good thing about this is we all kind of got to meet each other at meetings and such like we’d never done before.
Julián Castro: [00:13:49] Yeah. Can you describe the community, describe the residents and the community there of Midwest Country Estates?
Matt Chapman: [00:13:57] Absolutely. And I mean, it’s you know, it’s just it’s a cross section. There’s a lot of low-income folks in here. There’s a lot of elderly in here. They move here because the lawns are smaller. They don’t have to take care of a big house or, you know, maybe they can’t pay the taxes or whatever on their home anymore like they used to. So they wind up we have lots of elderly here. There’s some young families, too. You have a lot of single moms in here, you know, and then a lot of Latinx folks in here. But it’s a pretty good park. It’s I mean, these people have lived here for many of them, 30-plus years and worked in Waukee. And this is just stunning to them. What has happened is a private equity firm bought us, and they raised our rent, $200 right across the board. So that was our introduction was the letter saying your rent’s going up $200. And they timed it on a Friday afternoon. They went put a note on everybody’s door. And I just looked at that and said, oh, my goodness. You know, what are some of these people gonna do?
Julián Castro: [00:15:14] It’s important to remember the $200 carries different weight depending on who you are and where you are in the United States. In Iowa, the state minimum wage is only $7.25 an hour. Before the new owners arrived, the standard lot rent was $295 a month. The letter declared that the new monthly rate would be $500.
Matt Chapman: [00:15:38] It was stunning. I mean, it’s like a 66 percent increase. You know, and you have folks in here living off $1,200 a month and they’re already losing $200 for their Medicare premium. So, yeah, it’s really put people in some dire straits. And we’ve lost some people. We’ve had a lot of people just give up and abandon. We have tons of empty lots here, a few abandoned homes. It’s just caused a lot of stress.
Julián Castro: [00:16:12] What were you thinking when you got the letter?
Arletta Swain: [00:16:16] Well, that’s when I tried to get Social Security and all that stuff to help. I thought, I’ve got to do something to help. I can’t go back at my age, back and do nursing. I probably need it myself! And I said, what do we do? So we had several meetings. Most of the people in here are retired people. Well, they are now. And there was an attorney, he took up a collection so I could make it, 21 people gave for my rent until I we got down. And I think that’s pretty nice. And I’ll never forget him. And he finally gave me all their names. I said, now, I want to know their names. I want to send them a thank you. Egads.
Julián Castro: [00:17:16] Do you feel like that they’re trying to drive you out of there?
Arletta Swain: [00:17:19] Yes. Me as especially because I’m the oldest one in here now. I think, well, are they after me? With the years I’ve got left, they’d better leave me alone.
Julián Castro: [00:17:35] And you’ve been very vocal. How do you see these new owners?
Arletta Swain: [00:17:40] It just seems to me like, all they care about is money. That’s the kind of people they are, they’re money-crazy. I never saw anything like it in my life. Everybody likes money, but they’re just ridiculous. They keep adding something on our statement. Every time you get it every other month, you wonder what’s this?
Matt Chapman: [00:18:06] They’re dumping fees on us right to left. Where we used to be $10 a month for garbage. They raised it to $13.77. That doesn’t sounds like much, but they’re doing it per can now, where it used to be two cans you could put out for ten bucks. They’re charging us sewer, which they’ve never charged us before. Everywhere they can find to pinch a little bit more money here, a little bit more money there. You know, they’re charging a pet fee if you have a dog, the charge is $15. You know, times 300, times however many parks they have, that really adds up.
Arletta Swain: [00:18:43] How did they get by with poking something three or four things every month to make it come up just close to $500 as they can? I’d like to know how they get away with charging for pets, because the only pet there is is a dog unless there’s a snake somewhere I don’t know.
Julián Castro: [00:19:05] You have a dog?
Arletta Swain: [00:19:06] My little chihuahua. My granddaughter gave her to me. I had another one and she died and it had upset me. My granddaughter came with this one Christmas. She had it in her hands. She was that small. She said this is yours. I had told the kids, I said, no more dogs. Well, she brought this at Christmas when you can’t say no.
Matt Chapman: [00:21:25] It had a real big impact on my neighbor, Bob. He was an older guy, and when he got that note on his door, the rent was going to go up by $200. He went and declared bankruptcy. Yep. And they auctioned off his house. He sold everything he had it at auction, moved into a, like, senior apartments here in the same town. And two days later, he died. He’s was just so stressed out.
Julián Castro: [00:21:54] Oh, wow.
Matt Chapman: [00:21:55] Yeah. And so it’s it’s just it’s terrible for a lot of people in here. For most of the folks, especially the seniors. And there’s quite a few folks that are disabled, it’s a disaster.
Julián Castro: [00:22:10] Matt recognized the immediate threat the rent hike posed to his community. And he decided to do something about it.
Matt Chapman: [00:22:15] So I just created a Facebook page and a Gmail account and just made a flier and I went around and did the same thing on Saturday and Sunday and tagged all the doors. I said, hey, join this group if you need a place to talk. So we can share our stories. So I thought, well, we can’t just complain about it. So I contacted Legal Aid and got them to come to some meetings, set up meetings and come explain to everybody their rights. When they realized how little rights they actually have in Iowa, it was just stunning to them.
Julián Castro: [00:22:57] Iowa law doesn’t place any restrictions on how much landlords can raise the rent as long as they give some advance warning and wait until the original lease is up. That doesn’t offer much protection when you’re on a month-to-month lease. Haven Park capital held most of the cards. They still didn’t like the idea of Matt going door-to-door and working with Legal Aid.
Matt Chapman: [00:23:19] One thing that was interesting was I got a cease-and-desist letter right off.
Julián Castro: [00:23:23] The letter accused him of spreading false rumors and requests that he stopped making unsolicited visits to neighbors. Iowa Legal Aid helped write a response letter, and they started organizing residents from other mobile home communities across the area to support legislation that would give them more rights.
Matt Chapman: [00:23:43] We had a great bill this year and I just, you know, it was like the dream bill.
Julián Castro: [00:23:49] Can you describe it a little bit?
Matt Chapman: [00:23:50] Sure. It put caps on rent increases. It got rid of no-fault evictions, you know, stuff that I never even thought about that that Legal Aid and the A.G.’s office had been working on for years. They’re the ones that produced the bill.
Julián Castro: [00:24:07] The bill was brought to the state house where Matt, along with many other community members, appealed directly to local lawmakers.
News reporter: [00:24:14] Residents of seven mobile home parks stood up today, asked lawmakers to pass a bill to give them legal protections to keep the homes they invested in.
Resident: [00:24:23] These corporate entities are coming after us. I live in fear now that my house is going to be taken away.
News reporter: [00:24:31] Representative Kenan Judge has pushed for a bill to protect residents against rent gouging by requiring 180 day notice of a rent increase, set good cause standards for eviction and give recourse if landlords violate lease agreements or failed to provide essential services.
Matt Chapman: [00:24:54] And what happened next was, you know, we got the newspaper involved and it was towards the end of the first session, the legislature, they had a bill for the mobile home park owners that they amended in the Senate. So we got a lot of pressure. And I think the Mobile Home Park Owners Association kind of came down on Haven Park and Haven Park caved. And they came and did what I’d like to call the apology tour where they came in and they said, OK, we messed up, we’re only going to raise your rent $100.
Julián Castro: [00:25:29] In the face of mounting pressure and negative press, Haven Park Capital agreed to stagger the rent increase. This is a victory, but the outcome is still the same. In the very near future, they’ll be paying 70 percent more than they were before. And while they wait for the full rate to take effect, the new owners keep adding fees.
Julián Castro: [00:25:52] What was your impression of the politicians, the people in office throughout this process where you were trying to get legislation to protect people of modest means, these folks that are very vulnerable.
Matt Chapman: [00:26:04] To be honest, on the Democratic side, they were the ones pushing to get some stuff done. The other side, which is the trifecta, the Republicans control both houses and the governor’s seat. Like I say, it was like Lucy and the football. They’re all nice. Yep. We’re going to look at this. Maybe we can do that or maybe we can — and, you know, they just don’t ever bring anything. They’re in control, so they don’t bring it to the floor.
Julián Castro: [00:26:31] So they would pay you lip service when you talk to them, but then never really doing.
Matt Chapman: [00:26:35] You got it. You got it. And I you know, I’ve learned a lot about that the last four years hanging out up there. They had no desire to actually, you know, do anything for these people.
Julián Castro: [00:26:47] In the absence of strong legal protections, Matt continues to see his neighbors get taken advantage of.
Matt Chapman: [00:26:53] There was a woman in our park, she had one of the newest homes in here. It was a 2016. And the way she got her home was she got hurt really bad at work. And so she paid $62,000 and bought a car and thought, OK. Now I can afford this off the disability I have. And they refused to let her sign the lease. They refused to let her pay the rent. And they just no-fault evicted her and they gave her a small window to sell her home. She wound up having to sell it to another park. She didn’t want these guys to get it. She sold it for $20,000 and she said it’s just ruined her life. Last time I talked to her a few weeks ago, she was living in a dingy old trailer in a small town and looking for an affordable apartment. [00:27:48][54.8]
Julián Castro: [00:27:49] What do you think their goal is? Is their goal to get rid of you?
Matt Chapman: [00:27:53] I think that was the original goal. I think that the $200 increase, they thought people would just walk away. And then that would be their base to start at. And then they could bring new homes in and then go to $600, $700. I think that was that was the plan of how they were going to make money here. I don’t think they expected the pushback at all. But as far as the end game, you know, I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Maybe they’ll just sell it to a developer that wants to build more housing, apartments in here. Or who knows? They’re sure not concerned about the 300-plus households that live here.
Julián Castro: [00:28:42] What is your advice for residents of other mobile home communities that are getting bought out by private equity groups? After everything that you have been through, your neighbors have been through, what would you tell somebody that you just got that letter today?
Matt Chapman: [00:28:56] I would say you need to organize and you need to push any politics aside, you know, and just don’t give up. Take take a look at us. We’ve made some progress. You know, get together with your neighbors, start knocking on some doors, have some meetings, reach out to the Legal Aid, try and get a Legal Aid representative that really knows the mobile home law in your state to come to meetings because they will. I mean, they literally came to our meetings and we had a room off to the side at the same time they’re doing Q and A for two or three hours with the crowd, they’re signing people up to see if they’re eligible to have an attorney through Legal Aid. So that’s it. You know, and then engage with your legislators at the state level, whether you care for them or not. You know, let them know what’s going on in their district. You’ve got to do that also.
Julián Castro: [00:29:59] What did you learn about yourself throughout this?
Matt Chapman: [00:30:03] That we could actually have a success, you know, in that even though it’s still delayed, they’re going to do what they’re going to do, just by people power, you know, and by using the levers that we have, since there’s no laws to protect us, you know, we could actually make a change here. We could actually push back some. And we’re still working at it.
Julián Castro: [00:30:29] I know that there is still a lot of unanswered questions. And, you know, what would you like to see happen with your community?
Arletta Swain: [00:30:37] Well, I just have time. If they had time, they don’t have the time. I’d like to see them have time with their kids. They don’t know what their missing with their children and their grandchildren. They don’t have the time now to go together and have time to talk to each other. They just don’t have it. And it’s something you can’t give them. You can’t give them time because they have to pay bills and they just don’t have time. But they’re sure missing something. Something great.
Julián Castro: [00:31:13] I just wanted to say thank you so much for sharing your story with us. And thank you for being, you know, as wonderful as you have been and for fighting the good fight with your fellow residents. And I think making a difference, you know. And I just want to also wish you Godspeed.
Arletta Swain: [00:31:36] Thank you for calling and being nice. We have nice people. Let’s let it rub off a little.
Julián Castro: [00:31:46] There’s not a simple end to this story because the problem is ongoing, and unfortunately it’s not unique to Iowa. In the midst of an affordable housing crisis, big investors are continuing to buy a manufactured housing parks all over the country, squeezing fast cash out of low-income Americans. I hope that by sharing stories like these and hearing directly from people like Arletta and Matt, a little kindness does rub off. But I also hope that more people will be inspired to speak up, organize and fight back. Next week, we’re zeroing in on another national problem without a simple solution.
Man’s voice: [00:32:25] By and large, we’re not seeing any accountability. We’re not seeing officers removed from the force, removed from the profession, when they demonstrate that they are not capable of treating people fairly, treating people with dignity. And the police union contracts is central to creating barriers that make that process not result in an outcome that is accountable to the people.
Julián Castro: [00:32:56] Our America is a Lemonada Original. The show is produced by Jackie Danziger. Our Associate Producer is Giulia Hjort. Kegan Zema is our editor. Music is by Hannis Brown. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Julián Castro. Help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. Follow us @lemonadamedia across all social platforms or find me on Twitter @JulianCastro or on Instagram @JulianCastroTX.