It’s late November, and nighttime temperatures have dropped below freezing in Christiansburg, Virginia, a town tucked in a valley between Blacksburg and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sarah Rupp, an aide at Belview Elementary School, learned from a kindergartner’s grandparent that eviction notices were being posted at Massie’s Mobile Home Park, the only low-income housing in town. The modest manufactured homes, arranged in neat rows, are tidy but mostly aging. Some are sided with corrugated metal. Some—though they’re called mobile—appear nearly impossible to move.
Rents at Massie’s have shot up some 40 percent after new owners bought the park last spring. Since then, Rupp says, some renters have moved, leaving the park around 20 percent vacant. A few fled in the night, leaving possessions behind, she said. Rupp shows me a photo of abandoned children’s toys in a vacant mobile home. She worries that her school may lose as many as 15 percent of its students to homelessness.
Other tenants at Massie’s have been given eviction notices or “pay or quit” letters. Some were posted on doors of people who’ve already paid their rent, while phones at the numbers provided by the new owners go unanswered.
An hour’s drive northeast of Massie’s is Princeton, West Virginia, where Valeria Steele owns her mobile home. A single mother of a special-needs child, Steele pays rent for the land beneath her house at Elk View Estates. Unlike Massie’s, where the tenants rent their trailers, at Elk View many of the tenants rent the land but own their homes, or have a rent-to-own contract. Though she hasn’t been given a new lease, Steele’s monthly lot rent shot up to $525—$300 more than she previously paid—after new owners took over the park last fall.
Tenants at both parks send their rent checks to a post office box in Englewood, New Jersey, that is associated with Smith Management, the parent company and deeply intertwined affiliate of Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund famously described by Bloomberg’s Joe Nocera as the “destroyer of newspapers.”
Massie’s and Elk View are among the more than one hundred such parks owned by limited liability corporations that in turn are owned by Homes of America LLC, a Delaware corporation that’s part of Smith Management. Across the country, Homes of America tenants are raising similar complaints: rent hikes of 40 to 60 percent, lack of basic maintenance, and unreachable managers. The parks’ owners have also become the targets of tenant lawsuits and legislation calling for tighter regulation.
Alden has become infamous for swallowing local newspaper chains and extracting their real estate and cash. Cofounders Randall Smith and Heath Freeman and their colleagues have been investing more than $150 million in mobile-home parks around the county since 2021, financing them through an entity called Tribune II MHP Finance One LLC.
Alden’s mobile-home-park strategy reminded me of what the hedge fund has already done to newsrooms. When Alden took over the Monterey County Herald in California (where I worked for ten years, the last three under Alden), the hot water stopped working and was never fixed. Staff had to place plants under a leaking roof. Several of Alden’s newspapers in the Philadelphia area suffered leaking toilets and other infrastructure problems before the buildings were sold.
Attorneys and others representing mobile-home-park tenants have found that many Homes of America communities do not have proper permits, that managers rarely answer the phone, and that parks are plagued by backed-up sewage and other hazards.
Several people interviewed for this story said they or their neighbors are now facing homelessness. One Massie’s resident, Glenn Godfrey, handwrote a desperate letter to President Joe Biden that reads: “They are trying to evict everyone in the park.… I pray you can help us.”
“We have such a shortage of affordable housing,” said Ellen Stewart, a housing coordinator for the town of Blacksburg. Christiansburg and Blacksburg are part of the New River Valley, nestled in southwestern Virginia’s Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains, where the population is roughly 180,000. There’s no year-round, all-day shelter in the area, Stewart said, “only an evening shelter in the winter” that can take in fourteen people.
Stewart is part of an informal coalition—which includes Southwest Virginia Legal Aid, New River Community Action, and the town of Blacksburg—that’s trying to get other local governments interested in “what’s happening with Massie’s.”
Roy McGlothlin, who rents a house at Massie’s with his fiancée, was at home in November when the entire park went without water for half a day. “We called, and they said they shut it off because they didn’t pay the bill,” he said. It turned out Massie’s new owner owed nearly $15,000 to the utility. After a few phone calls from Southwest Virginia Legal Aid to Massie’s lawyer, the account was paid up and the water was back on.
McGlothlin said his rent was paid, but he and his fiancée got a “pay or quit” eviction notice anyway. “We’re both on disability. I don’t know where we’re going to go,” he said. “There’s hardly any places around here, and the ones that are here cost too much. I’ve lived here three years, and this all started when the new owners took over.”
According to Kristi J. Murray, an attorney at the Legal Aid office in Christiansburg, tenants at Massie’s whose rent is subsidized by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development found proof that their HUD checks were cashed, yet were still told they owed back rent and given five-day notices. Murray discovered that Homes of America had neglected to register its address with HUD. Even after the mistake was revealed, she said, Homes of America continued to post eviction notices.
Homes of America LLC is based at Smith Management’s headquarters in New Jersey. Although the company is registered in Delaware, where corporate officers’ names are kept secret, related filings in Florida list its chief executive as Thomas del Bosco, who was executive manager of the Cayman Islands–based Alden Funds. Del Bosco is also a vice president of Smith Management, known as one of the pioneers of vulture capitalism that early on specialized in the acquisition of distressed companies. Alden cofounder Freeman is listed as an officer on Homes of America’s financing affiliates, and is named as president of several Florida mobile-home parks on their incorporation papers. Alden CFO Joshua P. Kleban is named as a Homes of America finance manager in the few public records available.
To date, I’ve identified more than a hundred mobile-home parks that were bought by Homes of America since early 2021 in seventeen states including Indiana, Louisiana, Florida, North Dakota, North Carolina, Virginia, Illinois, West Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama. The actual total is likely far greater.
Multiple calls and emails seeking comment from Alden, Massie’s attorney Grimes Creasy, and Homes of America chief operating officer Bryon Fields were not returned.
Although it had previously dabbled in news media stock purchases, Alden entered the newspaper industry in a big way in mid-2011, when it acquired the Journal-Register Company and became the majority shareholder of MediaNews, soon after both chains had declared bankruptcy.
A decade later, after Alden bought Tribune Publishing, in May 2021, it immediately implemented buyouts. Staff attrition skyrocketed at Tribune papers like the Allentown Morning Call, which between April and August this year lost 23 percent of its staff.
Alden also vowed to cut news coverage by 20 percent across the chain. An analysis by Tribune executive Kurt Gessler examining local news content on Tribune’s websites confirms that Alden has cut the number of stories at the papers it owns. Gessler’s research shows the number of stories at the New York Daily News dropped from 2,298 in January 2022 to 1,990 in July. Similar declines are shown for the same period for the Baltimore Sun and Tribune’s South Florida papers. Only the Chicago Tribune’s article count held steady.
After Alden effectively took control of Tribune Publishing’s board, the company said in a financial report to the Securities and Exchange Commission that it hadn’t paid rent on Tribune buildings since March 2020 and was being sued for default. Tribune eventually walked away from five of its leases, and those newsrooms and their buildings were permanently closed: the Morning Call, the Annapolis Capital Gazette, the Orlando Sentinel, and the Daily News. Another Tribune building, in Aurora, Illinois, closed in August 2020 after the company stopped paying rent.
Alden’s moves in the news business have prompted scattered protests across the country, mostly by newsrooms wary of steep cuts. Similarly, opposition to its stake in housing has been quite vocal—and growing, even moving into the courts.
A series of lawsuits naming Smith Management and others in the Appalachian region were filed starting in late November. Steele, the Elk View tenant, who had refused to pay the $300 increase in her rent instituted in January 2022, said the increase was abruptly dropped after the first suit was filed last fall.
The pro bono law firm Mountain State Justice has filed a class action suit that alleges Smith Management and Homes of America unfairly hiked rents and issued eviction notices in five West Virginia parks; failed to maintain sanitary park conditions; and engaged in fraud and breach of contract.
The suit also alleges that the defendants took part in a conspiracy that employed “straw buyers” who purchased the parks and were then paid an additional $17 million in inflated prices by Smith’s “shell corporations” so that Smith and Homes of America could “leverage their holdings and/or take advantage of beneficial tax treatments.”
In the 121-page complaint, filed in state court February 14, plaintiffs—who include Steele—are asking for unspecified actual and punitive damages as well as a number of remedial steps. If certified as a class action, the suit could include more than seven hundred Homes of America park residents in West Virginia. In a March 20 filing, the defendants denied all allegations, but at a March 31 hearing, Homes of America was ordered to fix a number of permitting violations by August 1. The next hearing for the case has been set for May 17.
In Christiansburg, Southwest Virginia Legal Aid filed claims on behalf of thirteen Massie’s residents on November 17, arguing that the water shutoff amounted to illegally intimidating tenants with what’s called “unlawful exclusion.”
“Unlawful exclusion is when a landlord takes action like changing locks, or essential services are willfully turned off,” said Murray, the Legal Aid attorney. “Since [billing] notices had been sent out to them, the company had been aware of the cutoff date.” At a hearing on January 6, the case was dismissed, but plaintiffs appealed.
In North Dakota, former mobile-home-park owner Kent French refers to Homes of America and its ilk as “predators.” Last year, French, who is also director of government affairs at the North Dakota Manufactured Housing Association, lobbied for the state’s Senate Bill 2159, which tightened regulations for mobile-home-park management.
French said he called Homes of America COO Fields and informed him he was violating state law by not keeping park managers’ offices open during business hours and having a twenty-four-hour emergency number where tenants could reach someone. He said Fields laughed, told him he had a copy of the law on his desk, and hung up.
This year, in response to French’s association and tenant complaints about Homes of America, a group composed mainly of Republican lawmakers passed Senate Bill 2243, which increases fines, requires more disclosure from corporations buying the parks, and can result in a park owner’s license being suspended or revoked if they are found to be in violation of the new rules.
“I’m so sick of these government agencies saying ‘Oh, that’s capitalism.’ No, they’re destroying communities,” Steele said. She added that if her $300 rent increase hadn’t been dropped after a lawsuit was filed, it would have cost her $50,000 to move her home elsewhere. “What are you going to do when there’s six hundred people with nowhere to live?”
Steele said she spoke with Fields after her park was bought. When asked if he was the owner, she said, he responded, “You don’t need to know.” When she asked for a lease in a later call, she said, he hung up on her.
She has since reached out to US senator Shelley Moore Capito as well as to Marty Gearheart, the Republican whip of the West Virginia House of Delegates, hoping to get a law similar to North Dakota’s passed in her state.
If Alden’s hope is to empty its mobile-home parks via attrition, it may well be succeeding. It seems counterintuitive, but French says losing tenants is very much in the owners’ interest. “Then they can move in their own units and rent them out,” he said—at even higher rates.
School aide Rupp, who has taken on the role of volunteer advocate for Massie’s tenants for the New River Tenants Union, notes that the loss of local press watchdogs in communities where Homes of America has invested can only benefit the company’s owners.
In late November, sewage began leaking onto a grassy play area next to a basketball court at Massie’s. Rupp took photos of toilet paper strewn across the grass and shot a video on her phone. It shows a flock of vultures fluttering around the field.
TOP IMAGE: Courtesy Sarah Rupp