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Priced out: Former tenants face sticker shock as mobile home parks rebuild

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Pam Halbert and her elderly mother had been living together in a 1979 manufactured home worth about $45,000 when it was destroyed by the Almeda fire. They’re now faced with manufactured home prices in the Rogue Valley that are double, triple or even quadruple the value of their destroyed home that was part of Bear Lake Estates in Phoenix.

New homes in the manufactured home park will start in the $120,000s and go into the $170,000s, according to Utah-headquartered Investment Property Group.

People who move in will also have to lease the land beneath each home. Rent was about $700 before the destructive fire and will likely be similar in the rebuilt park, the company said.

Halbert, 63, said dual-income couples or families might be able to afford the new home prices, but she and her 82-year-old mother cannot.

“I think it will be way out of reach for the average senior,” Halbert said.

Mobile home parks hardest hit

Bear Lake Estates is the first manufactured home park to be cleaned up by a government-run program funded by the state of Oregon and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The program doesn’t require parks to rehouse burned-out tenants.

The September 2020 Almeda fire destroyed nearly 2,500 residential structures, including mobile and manufactured homes, houses and apartment buildings. It swept from northern Ashland through Talent and Phoenix to the southern edge of Medford, leaving more than 4,200 people homeless.

The greatest homes losses were in the area’s manufactured and mobile home parks — a reservoir of affordable housing for low-income workers, senior citizens and families.

The fire burned homes on 1,499 spaces in 20 local parks, said Jackson County Emergency Operations Center Director John Vial.

Of those parks, 16 agreed to take part in the government-funded cleanup, he said.

Contractors are currently clearing burned debris from seven manufactured and mobile home parks plus one development of single-family homes, said Kevin Alvarado, spokesman for the state’s Debris Management Task Force.

The aim is to first clear sites that lost a concentration of homes — maximizing the opportunity for replacement housing.

Bear Lake Estates, a sprawling property with 210 home sites, is now a clean slate after contractors who started in January finished hauling away burned cars, metal home foundations and other debris this month.

New look

New manufactured homes will start arriving this summer, said David Cornell, chief operating officer for Investment Property Group, which manages the park and 110 others around the nation.

“We’re excited to be underway,” he said.

The company is in the process of redesigning the park’s clubhouse, which will include a kitchen, gathering spaces and a fitness center. The park will feature a pool, spa, dog park and walking paths, according to the company.

All of the new homes will be double-wide and have air-conditioning, landscaping and other amenities. Most will have three bedrooms and two bathrooms, with some two and four-bedroom options, Cornell said.

Bear Lake Estates was a 55-and-older park, but it will rebrand as Oak Ridge, an all-ages manufactured home community.

“People chose it years ago because of the age designation. This is a totally new community from the ground up. There are housing shortages in the Northwest, and we want to help solve that as much as possible,” Cornell said.

He said Investment Property Group is aware and concerned that many former Bear Lake Estates residents will be priced out of the new development.

Cornell said the average home value at Bear Lake was $70,000 — although some tenants were in homes valued at much less.

“It’s an unfortunate reality. Those homes were built 30-40 years ago in a different time. Some people may not be in a position to buy a home over $100,000,” he said.

Cornell said Investment Property Group is investing about $35 million to rebuild the burned park. To help the community, it plans to sell the new manufactured homes there for the amount it spends to buy and move them to the site, he said.

He said park managers generally make money from the leasing of land, not from the selling of homes.

Most park owners didn’t have enough insurance to cover the cost of cleaning up after the disastrous fire. They shouldn’t be forced to offer below-market housing in exchange for taking part in the cleanup program, Cornell said.

“Our communities are affordable by nature. They’re not affordable because they’re subsidized,” he said.

Although the prices of the new manufactured homes may be out of reach for some former tenants, Cornell said they can be an affordable option for many people, especially dual-income couples and families faced with the high cost of single-family houses.

The median price in Talent for a single-family house was $396,500 for the quarter that ended Feb. 28, according to Southern Oregon Multiple Listing Service.

The median house price in Phoenix was $307,500, while the median price in southwest Medford was $322,450. The median house price was $497,750 in Ashland.

A $150,000 manufactured home is affordable in comparison.

However, buyers need to consider that a $700 monthly land rent fee is the equivalent of adding $125,000 to the price of a home financed through a 30-year mortgage at today’s low interest rates. That would push the comparable price of a $150,000 manufactured home to $275,000.

Although buyers can someday pay off the home loan, they will never own the land.

Cornell said Investment Property Group hasn’t ruled out allowing people to buy used manufactured homes and place them in the future Oak Ridge manufactured home park. However, there are few used homes on the market, especially after the widespread devastation caused by the Almeda fire.

“There are other parks in Oregon and the Northwest were you can find a nice $40,000 to $70,000 home in a nice park, but you’d have to leave the area," he said, adding the situation is difficult and sad for many burned-out residents.

‘It’s a difficult time’

Halbert, who lost the Bear Lake Estates home she and her mother shared, said they are renting bedrooms in another person’s home while they search for new housing. They don’t qualify to stay in a FEMA trailer because they received an insurance payment for their home, she said.

Their most promising find was a $109,000 manufactured home with $410 monthly space rent in the rural community of Wimer, north of the town of Rogue River. The home came fully furnished — a great selling point for fire survivors who lost their possessions.

The owners showed the home to another seller in the morning and to Halbert in the afternoon. The morning visitor made an offer and Halbert lost her chance to buy the home.

Halbert said she and her mother would like to stay close to friends and their doctors near their home that burned in Phoenix, but they may have to move out of the Rogue Valley, which was plagued by a lack of affordable housing even before September wildfires.

“It’s a difficult time. It was difficult before, and the fires multiplied it so much,” Halbert said. “It’s a little depressing. We’re trying to stay positive and believe our turn is coming, but we don’t know when that will be.”

She said local residents and thousands of fire survivors are all competing for the scarce homes and rentals available in the area.

“It’s super competitive. The market has doubled in price or higher. People are so desperate. People who’ve lost everything will get in a bidding war and prices are driven higher. Things are gone before they even hit the market because Realtors hear about them and tell their clients,” Halbert said.

Affordability issue widespread

The issue of affordability is facing manufactured and mobile home parks that are taking part in the government-funded cleanup as well as those that are not.

The company Cal-Am Properties Inc. manages Medford Estates and decided to pay contractors to clean up after the Almeda fire — even though it didn’t have insurance to cover the full cost of the massive debris removal work and the rebuilding that will follow, said Sheilla Tannert, national operations manager for Cal-Am Properties Inc.

The national company, which has had some of its communities damaged by hurricanes in the past, didn’t want to wait for FEMA and the state to come up with a post-fire cleanup plan, she said.

The company also didn’t want fire survivors to have to keep seeing the charred debris.

“We didn’t want them to have to drive every day through the nightmare they experienced,” Tannert said.

The fire destroyed 144 homes at Medford Estates and left 88 standing, she said.

The cleanup there started about two months after the September 2020 Almeda fire and wrapped up in February, Tannert said.

The company’s website says new homes will range from $164,900 for a two-bedroom model to $179,900 for a four-bedroom home.

However, company officials won’t know exactly what the prices will be until they’re able to buy and place the homes. Prices will likely be in the mid to high $100,000s, said Susan Krause, national sales manager for Cal-Am Properties.

Cal-Am Properties will make a commission on the sale of homes, Krause said.

Current space rent at Medford Estates is $621 monthly, according to Tannert.

The COVID-19 pandemic makes rebuilding the park especially challenging, Krause said.

Park owners and managers are dealing with a national backlog for manufactured homes. The pandemic has disrupted factory operations and the supply chains that bring construction materials to those factories, Krause said.

Investment Property Group is facing the same issue for Bear Lake Estates, now known as Oak Ridge.

“I’ve never seen this kind of delay — and I’ve been in this industry for 24 years,” Cornell said. “I’ve seen delays, but never national and never like this.”

Cal-Am Properties hopes to bring a batch of 20 new manufactured homes to Medford Estates in the next few weeks, then another 20 soon after, Krause said.

“We’re so happy and excited to be able to move people into new homes,” she said.

The all-ages development will feature new homes with three to four bedrooms and large front porches, a bigger basketball area and playground, a pickleball area, a dog park, a pool and a clubhouse with a billiards room, shuffleboard, a fitness center and other amenities.

The 88 Medford Estates homes that survived the fire will be allowed to stay. Residents who were burned out of 144 homes were given priority to be on a waiting list for new homes, Krause said.

About 15-20 former residents are on that list, she said.

Tannert said she knows some former residents are upset and hurt that they can’t afford to move back into Medford Estates, but others are excited about the new opportunity.

“We are trying to do the right thing. We’re just trying to make it a great community. We have people who are asking to buy homes and move back in and get their lives back," she said.

Tannert said the company didn’t ask for money to clean up the park from the government or park residents.

People will be allowed to buy a new manufactured home from another company and move it into Medford Estates, but the home must meet the park’s standards. Standards for the park help protect the investment residents make there, Krause said.

A former Medford Estates resident who asked to remain anonymous said she received a $73,000 insurance payment for her destroyed home in the park. She didn’t want to pay approximately $170,000 for a manufactured home and also pay monthly space rent to move back.

She took out a mortgage on a $285,000 house in White City that is farther from her work and her children’s schools. She said she can barely afford the house.

“It’s a long road and journey to recovery. People think the fire is over and you must be better now. It’s not true,” said the mother of two elementary school-age children.

Help for some

Three burned parks are taking part in a FEMA-funded cleanup and will be paid to temporarily house fire survivors in FEMA trailers, said Vial.

Together, Talent Mobile Estates, Totem Pole Trailer Park in Talent and Rogue Valley Mobile Village near Phoenix will provide 131 spaces for fire survivors, he said.

FEMA is still negotiating with park owners about what it will pay to use land at the parks for temporary housing.

FEMA officials said they hope to finish construction of the temporary trailer housing in early June, although the timeline is dependent on how the cleanup goes.

FEMA typically pays 75% of the cost for temporary trailer housing, with states covering 25%. Oregon has asked the federal government to cover 100% of those costs, said Paul Corah, media relations specialist for FEMA.

Update: FEMA is covering 100% of the cost of the temporary housing program.

There are currently about 226 households totaling nearly 700 people who qualify for that FEMA housing help, Vial said.

About 91 of those households are already housed by FEMA in mobile homes at other sites, so the 131 spaces at the three parks should take care of the rest of the households, he said.

However, not everyone who needs housing help qualifies for a FEMA trailer, Vial noted.

About 445 households totaling 876 survivors are still living in local hotels paid for by the state, he said.

That help is available to anyone who lost housing due to the fire, including undocumented workers. For hotel housing, call the state’s wildfire housing hotline at 833-669-0554.

Undocumented immigrant workers and people with work and student visas are among those who don’t qualify for federal aid. Some people living in hotels didn’t apply for FEMA help, some were insured and some may still be working to prove their eligibility, according to FEMA.

For those who qualify, the FEMA trailers are available for up to 18 months after the Almeda fire. The clock started ticking in September 2020 — long before anyone moved into a FEMA trailer.

Jackson County officials plan to ask for an extension for FEMA housing aid.

In addition to providing FEMA trailers, the federal agency provides other forms of help, including rent assistance.

As for helping fire survivors buy manufactured homes and move back into parks, Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said the state may be able to offer access to programs with low-interest and forgivable loans.

Marsh said she hopes park owners will be flexible in allowing residents to buy manufactured homes from different suppliers and move them into parks. She would also like the parks to allow single-wide trailers and not require that all homes be the more expensive double-wide style.

But Marsh said she recognizes that parks face many challenges, even with the state and FEMA covering clean-up costs for most. Meanwhile, former residents are facing a difficult housing market while trying to rebuild their lives.

“The parks have obstacles. The residents have a tremendous number of issues,” Marsh said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

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Former Bear Lake Estates resident Pam Halbert says she cannot afford the price of a new manufactured home there after she lost hers in the September 2020 Almeda fire. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune