Des Moines Register: ‘Unacceptable’: Rep. Cindy Axne, Sen. Sherrod Brown seeks answers from company raising rent 69% at Waukee mobile home park
June 10, 2019
Rep. Cindy Axne denounced Utah-based Havenpark Capital’s plan to hike rent at some Iowa mobile home parks by up to 69% on Monday, calling it “unacceptable” in a letter sent to the company’s managing partners.
“I strongly urge you to reverse these large, rapid rent increases,” wrote Axne, a Democrat who represents Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District.
In her letter, Axne wrote she wants more information on Havenpark’s justification for its rent hikes at communities like North Liberty and Waukee, which she said are causing “significant financial hardship on Iowa families.”
She asked the managing partners questions about its other properties, previous rent increases and other business workings.
Havenpark said in a statement Monday afternoon it is reviewing the requests in Axne’s letter.
Axne submitted the letter to Havenpark after visiting Midwest Country Estates in Waukee with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.
Havenpark officials told residents at Midwest Country Estates that it will raise standard lot rent from $295 to $400 on July 1, then from $400 to $500 on April 1 — a total increase of 69%. Park members said they are worried residents who are elderly, single mothers or on a fixed income will have trouble covering the extra increase.
Axne and Brown visited Waukee to learn more about the hardships the rent increase is causing for residents. Brown said Havenpark has also purchased six communities in Ohio, although the proposed rent increases he’s heard about there haven’t been as steep.
“I’m going to be talking to federal regulators about this,” Brown said. “We will both work in Congress together, she, in the House, and I, in the Senate, to shine a brighter light on these investors when they come in and just rip people off.”
The members of Congress met at the home of 73-year-old Lois Garwood, who moved to the park five years ago from De Soto. They were joined by Garwood’s daughter, Chris Crone, and local organizer Matt Champan, both of whom live in the park.
Garwood said spending hundreds more dollars each year on rent while she’s on a fixed income will keep her from completing other projects, like a new deck and wheelchair ramp she was planning to build.
“I need a new deck, but that’s not going to happen,” she said. “Status quo is where I’m stuck.”
Crone said on top of the rent increase, which some families are struggling to meet, new park rules are also affecting them. She mentioned rules that prohibit swingsets in yards and specify only two cars may be parked at each lot, something that affects her family since her daughter also needs a car to drive.
She said she was encouraged that Axne and Brown took the time to visit the park.
“They listened and they cared, and I really think they’re going to take action,” she said. “It puts a smile on my face to know that Havenpark picked with the wrong group.”
Havenpark has blamed rising Waukee land values for the increase and said the rent hike was necessary to bring the park up to comparable market rent for other mobile home parks in the Des Moines metro. The company purchased the roughly 64-acre site, which has about 300 lots, for $17.5 million.
In a statement sent to the Register Monday afternoon, Havenpark said its purchase secured the park and prevented “the mass eviction of over 300 families in the area” for other development. The company said it wants to make a smooth transition for residents and preserve affordable housing. It plans to invest more than $1 million into Midwest Country Estates over its first year for park improvements.
“We do understand that any price increase is a burden, especially when residents haven’t seen increases over the years like is seen in normal rental agreements with cost of living adjustments,” the statement said. “We are in open and transparent communication with all residents to explain the need for the price increase and property improvements.”
The company said the average $500 lot price will still be less than some other mobile home park communities in the greater Des Moines area.
Havenpark Capital owns properties in nine states, including five in Iowa. Axne is requesting a full list of Havenpark’s Iowa properties, as well as the rent increases at those properties.
Neither Axne nor Brown minced words to describe Havenpark’s actions on Monday, saying they believe the company is taking advantage of low-income homeowners.
“When predatory companies are coming in like Havenpark and making life difficult for the folks that come in here, then we need to address the issue,” Axne said.
Brown described the rent increase as “immoral” and said he hopes increased scrutiny from members of Congress and the media will encourage Havenpark to relent.
“They seem to have picked our two states to extort people, to cheat people,” he said of the company’s actions in Iowa and Ohio.
Havenpark’s statement said the company doesn’t want to get into a back-and-forth about specific claims but did dispute a line in Axne’s letter that it has an F rating from the Better Business Bureau. The company’s page now has an A+ rating, although when the Des Moines Register reported on Havenpark a month ago, the rating was an F after several complaints about overcharging.
Axne and Brown’s visit shows a growing interest among members of Congress in the activity of investment firms that own mobile home parks around the nation.
Two weeks ago, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, sent a letter to Havenpark Capital that posed several questions about the rationale for the rent increases and how many homes have been abandoned since the company took over.
It was among several sent to investment firms who own mobile home parks two weeks ago.
Brown said he intends to coordinate his efforts with Warren as they move forward.