In southwest Colorado, a cooperative and a land trust partnered to preserve affordable housing.

On a quiet day this spring, Alejandra Chavez walked into her office at Westside Mobile Home Park in Durango, Colorado. Residents were gathered in the community space, discussing their plans for the park’s future, some leaning on the kitchen’s baby-blue counters while others sat in plastic lawn chairs. A year ago, this building was owned by a New York corporation and was off-limits to residents. But now, residents use the space for yoga, child care and community events. That afternoon, there were piñatas in the corner, left over from a recent birthday party. 

Not long ago, 63 families at Westside faced the threat of displacement. In early 2022, the park’s owner announced plans to sell the park to Harmony Communities, a California-based corporation with a reputation for raising mobile home rents by up to 50% and imposing strict rules. Wary of being at the mercy of institutional investors, Chavez and her neighbors organized to make a counteroffer and take control of their community.

After months of fundraising and working with the Denver-based nonprofit Elevation Community Land Trust, Westside made a successful offer and formed a housing co-operative. Now owned jointly by its residents and Elevation, the park operates as a community land trust, which removes land from the real estate market and transforms it into community-owned property. Two decades after she first arrived in Durango, Chavez, a DACA recipient, is now the park’s property manager and the co-op’s vice president.

“Their voices will be heard now. They weren’t listened to before.”

At Chavez’s office this spring, she was busy collecting rent  while her phone buzzed and fellow residents dropped by. Her community’s story is one model for how to preserve affordable housing, with the potential to reshape housing in the West in a way that allows residents to guide the discussion. “Their voices will be heard now,” Chavez said. “They weren’t listened to before.”

DURING THE SO-CALLED “Zoom boom” in the years following the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, Durango’s median home price climbed more than 30%, according to real estate data. Though they have also been getting more expensive, manufactured homes remain a relatively affordable option in an area where few such options exist.

Across the country, 22 million people live in manufactured homes. While nearly 80% of residents own their mobile homes, Esther Sullivan, an associate professor of sociology at University of Colorado-Denver, notes that only 14% own the land beneath their homes. The threat of eviction “is inscribed into the very land on which they live,” Sullivan said. And that vulnerability only increases under corporate ownership. Colorado has 734 registered mobile home parks, and 66% are controlled by corporate or multi-state owners.

Cooperatives and land trusts, which are both systems that leverage the collective ownership of property and land, can help reduce the insecurity that many low-income residents face. But rarely do the two systems collaborate — especially for mobile-home communities.

It’s generally uncommon for housing co-ops to partner with community land trusts. Part of that is due to location. Co-ops are more common in urban environments, where residents are likely to own a share of the property, such as their housing unit, while land trusts typically flourish in rural, agricultural communities. Today, not only are land trusts more widely available with over 270 currently active nationwide, they are also better recognized by housing co-ops. Even so, the most recent study from 2014 found fewer than 10 active partnerships between land trusts and co-ops.

Elevation, a nonprofit whose mission is to increase access to affordable homeownership in Colorado, recognized this gap. With the support of Elevation Community Land Trust, Westside’s residents were able to purchase their park, becoming one of the six community land trusts in Colorado. It was the first time that Elevation applied the community land-trust model to a mobile home park. The cost of the cooperatively owned mobile home is insulated from the real estate market, while a trust holds the deed to the land and extends a 99-year ground lease to the homeowner. When a home is sold, it is listed for a restricted price to preserve its affordability.

‘Wow, I’m going to be able to buy my own house as an immigrant.’

This model has roots in the civil rights era. In the 1960s, Black farmers in rural Georgia were displaced as punishment for participating in the equal rights movement. In response, civil rights organizers purchased land and established New Communities, Inc, a foundational model for land trusts in the U.S. That event speaks to the historic issue of working-class communities of color being barred from home ownership, creating what Stefka Fanchi, CEO of Elevation Community Land Trust, called a “huge racial wealth gap.” A land-trust model corrects that inequality by providing those communities with access to homeownership.

Today at Westside, residents have a say in decisions that directly impact their lives. “The residents used to pay $750 or $650,” Chavez said. “Now some are paying less than $500.” Elevation updated water meters and developed a different billing system for utilities than the previous owner used, changes that resulted in lower monthly utility costs for residents. Elevation received a grant from the Colorado Department of Legal Affairs and a loan from La Plata County for a suite of improvements — fixing potholes in the community, for example, and trimming cottonwoods so that they no longer present a safety risk. Residents also built a sturdy new fence around the community building. Last summer, they painted it a light blue.

“The residents used to pay $750 or $650. Now some are paying less than $500.”

All these improvements have helped make home-ownership possible for some rent-to-own residents. With the help of a translator, Darcy Diaz, a resident and co-op secretary, was still processing the idea of becoming a homeowner, saying, “I feel like, ‘Wow, I’m going to be able to buy my own house as an immigrant.’” Home ownership had seemed like an impossible dream for Diaz. Now, as it becomes a reality, her worries have changed. “What if I get sick and can’t make payments?” she said. “It’s those fears that you face when you’re about to achieve a dream.”

In years to come, residents, with the help of the land trust, intend to redevelop the park by removing the trailers and transforming the units into homes. The co-op and land trust are currently in the early stages of redeveloping the park, and residents are leading those discussions. Collectively securing their homes has increased their sense of power and possibility, residents say.

“Whatever we want to do in the future,” Chavez said, “if we keep together, then we’re going to go a long way.”

Kirbie Bennett and Jamie Wanzek Image credit: Jakob Barlow/High Country News

Jamie Wanzek reports on housing and is a freelance print and radio journalist based in Durango, Colorado. @jamie_jane

Kirbie Bennett is a freelance cultural writer, print and audio journalist, and member of the Navajo Nation.

Kirbie and Jamie are collaborating with producer Adam Burke on a local history podcast based in Durango, Colorado and told through the lens of class and race called “The Magic City of the Southwest.” Follow them on Instagram @magiccitypodcast.