Worried About Rent Hikes, 301 Families Came Together to Buy Their Mobile Home Park

And five other creative ways Americans are stepping up to build strong local economies.
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Photo by typhoonski / iStock.

This article is part of our state-by-state exploration of local solutions.

California

When the Oakland Army Base was shuttered in 1999, around 7,000 jobs went with it. During the 13 years the site sat vacant, the city’s unemployment rate peaked at 16.5 percent.

So in 2003, when the city of Oakland announced plans to redevelop the base, residents saw a chance to demand good jobs for local people—not the low-paying, temporary jobs large development projects often create.

For nearly a decade, the people of Oakland proactively bargained with the city council as it considered pitches from different developers. Revive Oakland!, a coalition of 30 local organizations, negotiated with the city to implement a community benefits agreement—the first of its kind in Oakland. The deal guaranteed that the $800 million development project, a shipping and logistics center that eventually won the bid, would benefit local people in the rapidly gentrifying city.

“We heard they were coming,” said coalition member Shirley Burnell, with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. “People here need work, and we wanted to make sure they were included.”

The project, which broke ground in 2013, set a living wage standard and required that 50 percent of the work hours go to local residents and 25 percent of apprenticeship hours go to low-income or formerly incarcerated workers—and the project is exceeding that by nearly double, according to East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy.

A jobs center providing Oakland residents with information and training also emerged from the agreement. The benefits will continue past the construction period: The new warehouse is scheduled to open in 2017, creating an estimated 1,500 jobs, half of which are guaranteed to be local hires.

Though the original agreement took years of bargaining, it also set a precedent for future city projects. Revive Oakland! has since secured a community benefits agreement with Alameda County Transit and is working toward another with the Port of Oakland. —Araz Hachadourian

Nebraska

In 2012, a group of Nebraska ranchers learned the Keystone XL pipeline would pass through their lands. Determined to stop it, they teamed up with environmental advocacy group Bold Nebraska and tribal communities along the proposed pipeline route to create the Cowboy and Indian Alliance. The coalition protested in members’ home states and in Washington, D.C., eventually winning a veto from President Obama that halted construction.

Coming together around an anticorporate project got Nebraskans organized and introduced them to one another, says Jane Kleeb, Bold Nebraska’s founder. After succeeding, Kleeb says, locals started to explore moving away from a dependence on fossil fuels while supporting local farmers and businesses.

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At Davey Road Ranch in Lancaster County, Nebraska, Ben Gotschall, energy and local food director of Bold Nebraska, produces artisanal meats and cheeses, including grass-fed beef, free-range duck, and handmade cheese, while building grassland health and quality. Photo by Mary Anne Andrei for Bold Nebraska.

So they started Made in the Neb, a directory of more than two dozen sustainable Nebraskan businesses that range from ranches to small shops selling skateboards or artisanal soaps. Made in the Neb aims not only to encourage people to buy local but also to provide examples of what is possible. “[We want to] show there are alternatives—alternative ways to buy meat, alternative ways to put up energy,” says Kleeb, who hopes the project will help overcome Nebraska’s reputation as a red state with little interest in the environment.

Art Tanderup joined Bold Nebraska after learning that the Keystone XL pipeline would pass 600 feet from his corn, soy, and rye fields. He started investigating solar energy and eventually installed panels on his land. Since the launch of Made in the Neb in May, Tanderup says he’s had more than 400 people come by his farm to learn how he did it: “It’s something people see that they can do to make a difference.” —Araz Hachadourian

New Hampshire

When the residents of a Goffstown mobile home park learned their landlord was looking to sell the park property to a developer, they worried they would face steep rent hikes or even lose their homes.

But there was another option: New Hampshire law requires that residents be given the opportunity to buy land from a mobile park owner if they can match the sales price. Though the 301 families were competing with a national corporation, they teamed up with the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund, a community development financial institution that offers loans and technical assistance to people who traditional banks might decline. The families bought the land and created the Medvil Cooperative, a resident-owned community or ROC.

About one-fourth of the state’s 450 mobile home parks are resident-owned communities.

Medvil resident Kim Capen says that while there is more work in managing the community, the benefits are worth it. “For most of the people here, their homes are their largest and sometimes only investment, and you get to be in control of that as a member of the cooperative,” Capen says.

The ROC model has spread across New Hampshire. About one-fourth of the state’s 450 mobile home parks are resident-owned communities, ranging in size from four units to 392. —Araz Hachadourian

New York

When Buffalo’s shipping and grain storage industries declined in the mid-20th century, it prompted thousands of jobs and people to leave. From 1950 to 2010, the population shrank by half, causing building vacancy rates to soar. That meant the people who remained lived amid the decay, says Aaron Bartley, co-founder of the grassroots organization People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo.

Working closely with the community, PUSH Buffalo helped build a “Green Development Zone”—a 25-square-block area in which the organization turned abandoned and rundown properties into energy-efficient, affordable housing. The idea was to give families a better chance at staying rooted, finding jobs, and creating community.

Luis Nieves helps Michael Raleigh secure floorboards in Raleigh's front porch. Raleigh is renovating a house on Buffalo's East Side, which he purchased from the city for $1. YES! photo by Mark Boyer.

That was 10 years ago, and since then PUSH Buffalo and local partners have, through grants and fundraising, put families into 50 affordable, energy-efficient housing units. Some have features like solar panels. The waiting list for them can be two years long.

Meanwhile, Bartley is happy to see more people in the streets and parks: “That’s still a very moving aspect of the work—seeing a community come together.” —Christa Hillstrom

South Carolina

In 2003, the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood of North Charleston had the highest concentration of childhood poverty in the state, and 85 percent of all homes were rentals. An after-school program sponsored by community development corporation Metanoia recognized that students were constantly moving around and falling behind in school.

Over the course of four years, crime in the neighborhood went down 23 percent.

“We knew we couldn’t really care about the kids in the neighborhood without getting involved in housing work,” says Bill Stanfield, the program’s director.

With the help of a grant, Metanoia started buying and fixing houses, and helped local families secure and pay their mortgages.

Residents began to have a stake in their community as they revived blighted land, took care of their properties, and looked out for each other. Over the course of four years, crime in the neighborhood went down 23 percent. —Araz Hachadourian

West Virginia

Visitors to the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum see authentic rifles and bullet casings used in the Battle of Blair Mountain, learn about the history of the term “redneck,” and view a reimagining of the Paint Creek-Cabin Strike of 1912. But this homage to the history and culture of coal mining—often overlooked in other parts of the United States—serves another purpose too: increasing revenue in a post-coal economy.

In the early 1920s, when miners fought coal operators for the right to unionize in the West Virginia mine wars, local economies were heavily dependent on coal. But since then, the number of mining jobs has decreased considerably. Between 1950 and 2011, coal mining jobs in West Virginia fell from nearly 120,000 to about 25,000.

In the face of this decline, coal-dependent communities have had to find alternative ways to rebuild their economies. For Matewan—site of the Matewan Massacre of 1920—that meant developing tourism by turning the state’s rich history into an attraction.

Visitors at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum's grand opening in 2015 view the "Coal Camp Life" exhibit, which sets the context for the conditions under which miners and their families in southern West Virginia lived in the lead-up to the mine wars. Photo by Catherine V. Moore.

In May 2015, the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum was born. Supporters call it an example of “heritage tourism”—the celebration of a city’s colorful past through authentic places and artifacts.

“People are so moved when they come through because there’s really not another place you can go and see this history and, in some cases, experience this history,” said museum board member Catherine Moore.

The museum offers several interactive exhibits to engage visitors, more than 500 of whom attended during opening weekend. “There’s a wide range of people who come,” said Moore. “We wanted to tell the stories of the mine wars from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.” —Olivia Anderson