Presidential Hopeful Castro Pushes Housing Agenda in Iowa

Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro speaks during a Fox News Channel town hall event on Thursday. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

WAUKEE, Iowa (CN) – Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro put on his hat as former head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in a visit Friday to an Iowa mobile home park where residents were recently stunned by rent increases by the new out-of-state owners.

Castro, housing secretary during the Obama administration, is making affordable housing a key part of his campaign, so on a campaign swing through Iowa this week he asked to meet with residents of a mobile home park who have made the news for protesting the recent rent increases.

The presidential hopeful’s visit to the Midwest Country Estates mobile home park in Waukee, a booming suburb west of Des Moines, comes after residents of the park got hit with substantial increases in rent for their lots. The same thing is happening at four other mobile home parks in Iowa, all of which were recently purchased by Havenpark, a privately held company based in Orem, Utah, that has acquired more than 25 mobile home parks around the country.

A spokesman for Havenpark said the company is investing in mobile home parks like Waukee’s to preserve affordable housing.

On Friday, Castro met in the home of Maria Munoz, 54, and other residents of the Waukee mobile home park for a brief roundtable discussion of their plight.

Daniela Fanco, 29, Munoz’s daughter who also lives in the park, said low-income residents facing steep rent increases ask themselves, “Do I buy more food for the week, or do I save that for the rent?”

Castro asked the residents what they want from the new owners of the park.

Fanco said it would help if the owners spread the rent increases over a longer period. “At least give us time to get another part-time job to pay for it,” she said.

“Folks are going to lose their homes here,” Matt Chapman, 55, who has lived in the park for 10 years, told Castro. His rent went up 66%, which he said means he will have to work additional hours to make ends meet, he said.

“One reason I wanted to come out here is because there is a housing affordability crisis” in the United States, Castro said, which he said is especially bad for manufactured housing.

“We see these companies come in here with an agenda to move these people out. For these people who are displaced,” he said, “it sends them scrambling,” often to live in their cars or double up with others.

Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, plans to issue what he called a “comprehensive” housing policy on Monday that will include, among other things, refundable tax credits and stronger legal rights for mobile home park residents.

Residents in the Iowa parks were shocked with rent increases, reportedly ranging from 20% to 70% per month, along with new fees, which they say is a particular burden because they chose mobile homes that are affordable housing for people with low incomes.

The outcry from mobile home owners led to an effort in the Legislature to enact protections for mobile home parks, but the bill did not get through both houses beore lawmakers adjourned last month.

Iowa Congresswoman Cindy Axne has taken up the residents’ cause as well after meeting with the Waukee mobile home owners recently. She wrote a letter to Havenpark executives calling the rent increases “unacceptable” and asking the company to respond to a list of her questions about its investments in Iowa.

Not all residents are unhappy.

“I like the new owners. It seems like they are trying to do things,” Joyce Spalek, a mobile home park resident near Indianola, told the Des Moines Register in May. “Some of the new rules are outrageous, but I understand why they have most of them.”

For its part, the company said its goal in buying up mobile home parks is to preserve affordable housing, and they argue that the fate of many of the aging mobile home parks could be worse in fast-growing communities – such as Waukee – where other buyers would evict tenants and replace them with new commercial or residential development.

“Our overall mission is to secure and preserve affordable housing,” the company said in a statement released earlier this month. “We look forward to continuing to invest in this and our other communities to make them great, safe, clean places for individuals and families alike.”

The company said it is investing more than $1 million in improvements at Midwest Country Estates. As for the steep rent hikes, in response to the outcry, it said the increases will be phased in rather than taking immediate effect. And the company said with the increases, rents will still be less than comparable mobile home parks in the greater Des Moines area.

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