Come this March, Heather Winters will have lived in Mason City's Gracious Estates for four years.
That time hasn't always been easy.
Winters, a 51-year-old health care worker, said that in that time she's worried about everything from road conditions to water quality in the mobile home community on the west end of town.
"(My) husband was in the hospital for 23 days," Winters said. "It was a blood infection but they don’t know where it came from. I had my water tested and it had E. coli. To me that is disgusting."
After that entire ordeal, Winters said she went to Walmart for a water purifier.
Nothing with road conditions was as severe as that but, per Winters, permanent remedies never really came in the past.
"They’re terrible. Nothing has been getting done. They put black tar in the holes and let it be," she said.
When Winters would would try and contact management in years past, she said she wouldn't have any luck. And trying to contact a higher-up was out of the question.
"We were told we were not allowed to contact the owners. We would contact the management and then the management would contact the owners," she said.
In December 2020, the deed for Gracious Estates was sold for $2.77 million to Gracious Estates MHC LLC. On the real estate records website Beacon Schneider, that deed is marked "ATTN: MR. SAM HALES" of Auburn, California. Hales is the CEO of Saratoga Group, which is a real estate developer specializing in mobile home community development.
"We take over undermanaged communities and invest heavily to improve the community and we work to convert renters to home owners," said Steve Sacher, the company's chief operating officer. "We also want pride of community. We want people to be proud of their community and home."
Sacher said that Saratoga Group, which has about 40 communities in 14 states, has a number of improvements planned for Gracious Estates over a period of 12 to 18 months that will require local vendors and on-site management to help facilitate. Over the phone, Sacher rattled off a number of those plans: "Demo all dilapidated homes. Tree work planned. Repairing of water lines. We’ve got a great solar light platform that reduces crime. We want to pour some new driveways."
Sacher said he thinks that such improvement plans differentiate Saratoga Group from other management groups that work with mobile home communities. According to him, others jack up rents, invest very little in the community and take advantage of residents.
"(That) couldn’t be farther from our model," he said.
With Gracious Estates, Sacher acknowledged that there have been management issues in the past but said that the company is confident in who is there now. He also expressed that the company can only move forward and not back.
"We can’t control what was done or the standard that was set or not set," Sacher said.
What can cause difficulties
One thing that can make management issues at a mobile home community tricky is that protections are often different.
In a Jan. 1, 2020 piece, Thomas Friestad included a quote from assistant state attorney general Ben Bellus who said that "Unlike with Iowa apartment renters, the state’s manufactured housing owners are not automatically refunded security deposits or prepaid rent after their leases are terminated." Bellus then noted that it's also difficult for such owners to seek damages from landlords who put illegal provisions into leases.
What a local government can do is also hemmed in.
"Manufactured housing’s construction code requirements are set by federal government," Mason City Director of Development Services Steven Van Steenhuyse said.
According to him, the city can inspect the foundations for mobile homes but not the trailers themselves. And if something is owner-occupied then the city can't do much there, either. Van Steenhuyse did recall one case with Gracious Estates in recent years where the city got involved.
"There was a serious problem with how they were maintaining the unit and it was starting to affect the surrounding units," Van Steenhuyse said.
Trailer for sale or rent
Winters plans to sell her mobile home in the springtime. Her kids all have lives of their own and the variety of problems over the years added up.
She said she doesn't feel like living in a tin box anymore and that the plan to live in Gracious Estate was a mostly a temporary one.
"That was our whole thing: We’ll live here for a year and then we’ll move. It was a spur of the moment deal anyway," Winters said.
Early in her conversation she shared a story from a neighbor who spent time away from Gracious Estates and then came back.
"My neighbor across the street spent all summer camping and came back and said nothing has changed."
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Jared McNett covers local government for the Globe Gazette. You can reach him at Jared.McNett@globegazette.com or by phone at 641-421-0527. Follow Jared on Twitter at @TwoHeadedBoy98.