“This is our home, and this is our community” – Residents celebrate 20 years of co-op ownership

If you cross the Freedom Hill Co-Op in Loudon, Janet Verville-Clough might flag you with her radar gun.

The speed limit is 24 km/h, and she sees people driving by. But she will tap on their windows and say slow it down.

In winter, she will plow the roads in the neighborhood in the truck purchased by the cooperative. She mows the lawns, picks up the garbage and drives the tractor. The community also manages its own water supply.

As chairman of Freedom Hill’s board of directors, Verville-Clough spends 60 to 70 hours a week wearing many hats to keep the neighborhood running.

” This is my passion. I think that was my calling,” the retired policeman said. “I feel like I’ve accomplished more as president in my 59 years of life than just working.”

Freedom Hill is a resident-owned prefab housing co-op off Route 106 in Loudon. When the previous owners put the park up for sale 20 years ago, locals bought it. It’s one of the many ways communities ensure affordable costs for homeowners, while investors target these parks as multi-million dollar investments.

Pioneers in NH

Resident-owned communities have a rich history in New Hampshire. In 1984, the NH Community Loan Fund helped residents purchase their park, the Meredith Center Cooperative. It became the first resident-owned community in the country.

There are now 145 resident-owned parks statewide.

The process of organizing residents to purchase the land where they live has great benefits for landlords. But it also takes risks before there is reward, said Tara Reardon, vice president of ROC-NH and spokeswoman for the Community Loan Fund.

“It’s a lot to ask a group of residents where the house they live in might be the biggest asset they’ve ever owned, to take on a multi-million dollar park and borrow multi-million dollars. dollars to pay for it,” she said. said.

But when tenants own their own park, they manage every aspect of their living environment – ​​from entertainment to landscaping. These rules are set by a community’s bylaws, and many tenants, such as Verville-Clough in Freedom Hill, are elected to a council to enforce them.

If a park is owned by a management group or local owners, residents have no say in the rules they follow.

When a park is for sale, tenants have 60 days to make their own offer under New Hampshire law. In this period, the Community Loan Fund steps in to provide a roadmap to organize a collective purchase.

This is a short time frame, however, Reardon said, with big decisions at stake.

It often takes 15 days before the fund learns of the imminent sale of the park, which gives it a little over a month to organize the tenants. The fund meets with residents and explains to them what buying the park would entail. After these information meetings, if the residents want to proceed with the purchase, they must form a cooperative and register it with the State Secretary. They must also hire a lawyer who can draft the contract of purchase and sale.

In order to receive a loan, they must also carry out a thorough inspection of the property.

Ultimately, it’s the residents’ trust in their community and the willingness of neighbors to take responsibility for the park – from rent collection to maintenance – that drives these cooperative purchases.

Ideally, park owners will notify the Community Loan Fund if they are putting their park on the market and help arrange meetings with the collection of new buyers. The fund wants to avoid seeing residents evicted if a new private landlord arrives and triples the price of rents or fees.

The worst case is when residents are overvalued by private equity investors. In Rochester, an investor offered $54 million to buy Briar Ridge, a community of 415 homes. In order to match that price, the residents would have had to raise the rent by $200 to $700 per month. They turned down the opportunity.

A purchase by an investor does not necessarily mean an eviction for current tenants. This often leads to increased rental prices and new regulations. When residents move to an industrial housing community, they often own their homes. But they have to rent the land the house is on.

If rental costs are out of budget and a resident has to leave the park, many abandon their homes. Often, these are the biggest financial assets a person has, Reardon said.

Private purchases can also mean demolishing a park for investment in a new subdivision.

The Community Loan Fund’s model of enabling and supporting resident-owned communities sparked a nationwide push for other states to follow suit. In the United States, at least 295 communities have been purchased by residents. New Hampshire, a state with an estimated 35,367 manufactured homes, has half of the nation’s resident-owned communities.

Living in a co-op allows residents like Verville-Clough to create a sense of community in its park and take control of management decisions.

Celebrate the community

As Freedom Hill approached its 20th anniversary as a resident-owned community on September 10, Verville-Clough knew she wanted to throw a barbecue to celebrate.

In the 10 years she had lived in the park, she remembered a few times when the residents got together. They held a Christmas party last year for the first time. But never a barbecue, with lit grills and children playing together in the street.

She wanted to bring residents together to celebrate the history of the park. But she didn’t want them to have to pay for it.

Along with park maintenance manager Joe Keuenhoff, Verville-Clough scrapped metal to raise money for the barbecue. They raised over $375, and other community members also donated to buy food for the event.

A sewing group that meets at the community center in the park sewed bags for the corn hole. Keuenhoff built a tic-tac-toe lawn game. Together, the residents celebrated two decades of community.

“It’s been four years since I dreamed of trying to bring the community together for a barbecue,” she said.

When Verville-Clough first moved into the community, however, there was no camaraderie among neighbors. Instead, there were tensions between the residents leading the council and those affected. With decisions on rental prices, eviction guidelines and home maintenance, it’s a fine line to walk between respecting your neighbors and running a business, Verville-Clough said.

But the retired policeman, who has lived in the park for 10 years now, has decided to run for the position of president of the cooperative. She has held this position for four years. At the end of the month, she will run for another two-year term.

His partner on the right is Anita Wise, who is vice president. Wise moved to Freedom Hill seven years ago. She has been involved in the operations of the co-op for most of her time as a resident.

“I’ve always been very active in my surroundings,” she says.

With Keuenhoff, Verville-Clough joked that they were the “three amigos”.

“We don’t do anything without each other,” she said. “If we go to a member’s house, we don’t go there unless the three of us are together, so that there are three witnesses to what is being said, to what we agree on. ”

The full Board of Directors is made up of nine members, however, there are two positions that are currently vacant. The council is responsible for enforcing community bylaws, which Verville-Clough printed next to a gavel in their meeting space.

Each year, the council holds an annual meeting where it reviews park regulations and funding with all residents, much like a town meeting. Here they can ask members to approve changes such as rent increases. Currently the rent is $450 per month, but with increased supply costs for things like salt and sand, an increase will be proposed at the next meeting.

Before the meeting, Verville-Clough prints out the proposed changes and prepares envelopes for delivery to the 148 homes in the park, so members know what’s on the table.

“We are very transparent. We don’t hide anything from the members because they are co-owners,” she said. “They may be renting our land, but they are co-owners. Their contribution means a lot to this council.

Although Verville-Clough finds pleasure in managing the park, it is not always an easy task. Especially when it means rejecting potential applicants and evicting residents from the park.

To join the cooperative, those interested must complete an application. Wise, who was a former mortgage lender, does a credit check and a background check. A candidate cannot have more than 40% debt to income ratio and a crime in the past five years, or 10 years for felons.

“Some people don’t meet the criteria. And I hate this job,” she said. “I have a soft heart when it comes to it. And I tried to keep that tough exterior, but it’s tough.

A strict line drawn is that no registered sex offenders are allowed in the park. Recently the council had to evict a resident who allowed a sex offender to live there.

Evictions are where the road between empathy for neighbors and management priorities gets tricky. These decisions are difficult to make, but necessary to enforce.

“This is our home, and this is our community. But when we sit on the board, that’s our business,” Wise said.

Caring for their neighbors to keep the community running smoothly is at the heart of what they do. They have ideas for a Halloween party or a Saturday morning residents’ breakfast – anything to bring residents together, to become more involved in the life of the place they call home.

“We try to build this family bond. That’s what a co-op is,” Ms. Verville-Clough said. “‘Help your neighbour’, ‘pay it forward’, in my eyes.”

Edward N. Arrington