Bob Dougherty, a 69-year-old retired IBM worker and Vietnam vet, has owned his home in Burlington's New North End for nearly three decades. He bought it from his mother, who lived there before him.
Last week a neighbor came by with a letter bearing news he's dreaded for months: The land he lives on is for sale — for $5 million.
Dougherty rents a parcel in Farrington's Mobile Home Park. The only such park within city limits, it hosts 120 lots, all but three of which are occupied. The trailers — some brand new, others ramshackle — are tightly packed on 11 acres off North Avenue across from the Ethan Allen Shopping Center. Nearly all the homes are shades of off-white, so residents tend to refer their units by the color of the shutters.
Standing outside his green-shuttered singlewide, Dougherty and three of his neighbors digested the recent news. George Leduc, a retired electrician, Navy veteran and Farrington's resident for the last 21 years, said, "I own my trailer but, to move it, first I'd have to find a place to put it, which is—"
"Impossible," Dougherty finished the sentence.
"I've lived in this park since May of '86!" Pamela Juczak said, launching into an expletive-laden tirade that concluded with the comment, "I'm pissed!"
The group started calculating. They added up the costs of moving a mobile home, which they noted is really a misnomer. And they wondered aloud about the difference between the park's $1.9 million appraised value and its price tag of more than twice that.
For now, though, Farrington's residents are plotting, not packing.
And they've got at least one thing going for them: Vermont provides robust protection to mobile-home owners. Park owners who want to sell must give residents a chance to buy the property as a group or find a nonprofit to purchase it instead. Tenants have 45 days to decide whether to pursue one of these options. If they do, they have another 120 days to sign a purchase agreement with the owner, who's required to negotiate with them "in good faith."
If a trailer park ends up closing, the owners must give the tenants 18 months' notice.
"There are times when people feel like the mobile-home park statutes can be overly restrictive," said Jennifer Hollar, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, which administers the laws. "But this is exactly what they're intended for."
Brian Pine, assistant director for housing and neighborhood revitalization for the Burlington Community & Economic Development Office, described Farrington's Mobile Home Park as "a critical housing resource for low-income people in Burlington." Residents at Farrington's pay $300 a month for a spot to park their trailers, and it's going up to $315 in January. Water and trash removal is included, but not property taxes on the dwelling.
Still, that's a remarkable price in a city suffering an "affordability crisis" because its housing supply hasn't kept pace with demand. A recent city-commissioned study confirmed a 1 percent vacancy rate in Burlington. It also found that average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,400 and Section 8 housing vouchers are in short supply.
It's easy to see why Farrington's residents — many of whom are on fixed incomes — are worried. As one of the park's owners, Robert Farrington, put it: "I don't think it gets much cheaper than here."
For residents to find equivalent housing nearby isn't just daunting. As Dougherty said, it's likely impossible. Pine confirmed that there are virtually no park vacancies in Chittenden County.
Another conundrum: A singlewide trailer costs about $40,000. Moving to an affordable house or apartment — if the Farrington's residents were lucky enough to find one — would likely mean ditching mobile homes they've worked hard to buy.
The rumors started swirling in August, when Sandra Farrington died and her four children inherited the trailer park. Contacted several weeks ago, her son and executor of her estate, Robert Farrington, told Seven Days that he and his siblings had no plans to sell it.
But in an interview last Thursday, Farrington gave a different story: He said his mother's will stipulated that the property should be sold. More specifically, according to Farrington's broker, Shawn Nolan, a separate trust agreement requires that "any property not distributed" to the heirs be sold and the proceeds divided among them.
Asked why the siblings couldn't jointly own the park, Nolan said, "They have bills that need to be paid off, and the only way for all that to happen is for the property to be sold."
The Farrington family has owned the property since the 1800s. George Farrington Sr., a Civil War veteran and granite carver, operated a dairy farm on the land before his son purchased it in 1927.
The mobile-home park was the brainchild of George Farrington Jr., who also ran a successful business growing flowers on the site and selling them in a Church Street shop. Evolving from a summer campground into a permanent trailer park, it first appeared in the city directory in 1949, but Robert Farrington and others say it started roughly 20 years before that.
Robert's dad, James Farrington, inherited the business from his father. His wife, Sandra, took over when James passed away in 1996.
As the park aged, so did the infrastructure. In 1999 there was sewage in the sinks, and city officials almost shut the place down. Over the years, some tenants abandoned trailers rather than move them, and raccoons and feral cats moved in. Several dilapidated units remain — some on lots too small to accommodate a modern mobile home, according to the owner. To clean it all up, Farrington's would have pay all the back taxes, plus the cost of moving the trailers — which could run as high as $13,000 each, according to a story last winter in the Burlington Free Press.
"My mother struggled to run it," Farrington explained, noting that evicting a problem tenant typically cost $12,000. "You're not making much money."
In fact, Farrington's owes a considerable sum to the Burlington Department of Public Works — the result of roughly $100,000 in unpaid water bills dating back to the early 1990s. The city has a lien on the property.
Farrington, 42, has worked in the park since he was a teenager, and he lives there, too — but he doesn't plan to stay. "It's time for me to move on," he said. Describing the decision to sell as "heartbreaking," Farrington said he is "100 percent" behind the concept of a resident-owned co-op.
Local housing officials have been anticipating such a scenario. Several weeks ago, even before the family announced the sale, CEDO convened a meeting of state and city officials and several housing organizations to discuss the park's options.
Michael Monte, Champlain Housing Trust's chief operating and financial officer, was there. "The preservation of that housing should be of highest importance for most of us," he said in an interview, adding, "This will take some real serious work."
Pine echoed that perspective. "I'd say the city has a real concern about being able to preserve the park," he said. A closure, he continued, would be "traumatic and very disruptive."
"I think it's very feasible," Hollar said, referring to both the nonprofit and co-op options.
Seven percent of Vermonters live in mobile homes, one-third of which can be found in organized parks. Six of the state's 244 trailer parks are cooperatively owned, according to Sarah Woodward, who directs the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity's mobile-home program. That means they've created bylaws and elected a board, which handles day-to-day decisions. Households purchase an interest in the organization, entitling them to a vote on larger decisions such as the budget.
A group of residents would like Farrington's to be number seven. Jeanne Lieberman, an adjunct professor at Champlain College and a U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps veteran, is among them. "I would have a stake in the land my trailer is sitting on, and I would have a voice in decision making. I would have a lot more security and I would have equity," said Lieberman, who has lived in the park since 2006. "Am I going to be another homeless vet in few months, or are we going to work this out?"
To pursue ownership, 51 percent of residents need to approve the decision, so "working it out" will require convincing skeptics their neighbors have the time and resources to make it work.
Asked what he thought of the idea, one resident said with a laugh, "Here?" The man, who did not want to be identified, was outside his mobile home helping several others push a broken-down car onto a tow truck.
Theresa Lefebvre, a recently retired state employee who's lived in Farrington's for 29 years, is helping lead the co-op effort. She said many of her neighbors support the idea but wonder whether they could pull it off financially. They would likely need to get a loan for the purchase and necessary repairs. After a one-time membership fee, residents would pay rent that would be used to pay for operational costs. "There are a lot of people here who are in a situation where they are just on Social Security or they have disability or they are underemployed," Lefebvre said.
Andy Danforth works for the Cooperative Development Institute, a nonprofit that offers technical assistance to aspiring co-ops in New England. He said residents shouldn't assume a multimillion-dollar price tag is out of range.
He pointed to a plethora of success stories across the Connecticut River. Roughly a third of New Hampshire parks are run as co-ops, largely due to the work of ROC USA, a nonprofit that started in the state and provides loans to communities looking to establish co-ops.
Both ROC USA and CDI are involved in discussions about Farrington's. The first step for residents would be to conduct an engineering review to determine how much work the park needs and whether the $5 million figure is reasonable, Danforth explained.
Despite the outside help and the legal protections in place, some residents are convinced that the land will end up in the hands of a developer who will convert their humble park into high-end condos. "This is prime real estate," said one resident who didn't want to be identified. "If you were a greedy SOB, wouldn't you buy it and put up nice big houses?"
Pine said the property, which is zoned medium residential, could accommodate another 100 units, but he reiterated what he said is the city's point of view: "The best solution, of course, is to preserve it, improve it and take care of everyone in there as far as giving them some stability and security."
Pine also suggested that "greedy" developers might think twice before bidding on the property. "They would have to deal with some significant community and political backlash to their plan if it involved going in and displacing that many people," he said. Many of the tenants have personalized their lots, building picket fences, wooden wheelchair ramps and storage sheds. Leduc has reseeded his dirt driveway, converting it to a tidy lawn. Lefebvre is proud of her perennials.
Farrington's location — across the street from the Ethan Allen Shopping Center and a short walk from Leddy Park and the lake — is enviable. It's also on the bus line, which car-less residents say is key. Leduc said he never expected to live in a trailer park, but after two divorces, he found himself at Farrington's. When he moved in, "It was a hell hole." Now? "I'm comfortable! I've been here for 21 years!" Leduc said, gesturing at the spotless kitchen in his immaculate trailer.
Which isn't to say Leduc doesn't have complaints: about the city, which, he claims, ignores code violations in the park; about the owners, who "only do what's absolutely necessary" to maintain it; and about some allegedly slovenly neighbors.
Farrington's isn't perfect — if residents get possession of the park, they'd inherit some significant problems. But right now, for more than 100 Burlingtonians, it's home. m
Corrected, 6:45 p.m. 11/26/2014 to reflect accurate rent figures.