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Residents take control

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

If you speed through the Freedom Hill Co-Op in Loudon, Janet Verville-Clough might flag you down with her radar gun. The speed limit is 15 mph, and she sees residents fly by in their cars. But she’ll tap on their windows and tell to slow it down.

In the winter, she’ll plow the neighborhood roads in the truck the co-op purchased. She mows lawns, collects trash and drives the tractor. The community also manages its own water supply.

As President of the Board of Directors for Freedom Hill, Verville-Clough spends 60 to 70 hours a week wearing many hats to keep the neighborhood running.

“This is my passion. I think this was my calling,” said the retired police officer. “I feel like I’ve accomplished more as a president in my entire 59 years of my life than I did working.”

Freedom Hill is a resident-owned manufactured housing cooperative off Route 106 in Loudon. When the former owners put the park up for sale 20 years ago, residents bought it. It is one of many ways communities are ensuring 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 N.H. Community Loan Fund helped organize residents to purchase their park, the Meredith Center Cooperative. It became the first resident- owned community in the country.

Now there are 145 resident-owned parks across the state.

The process of residents organizing to buy the land where they live yields great benefits for homeowners. But it also takes risk before there is reward, said Tara Reardon, the VP of

SEE HOUSING A4

Janet Verville-Clough, president of the Freedom Hill Co-Op in Loudon, in front of her home last week.

GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

HOUSING FROM A1

ROC-NH and spokeswoman for the Community Loan Fund.

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

But when tenants own their own park, they manage all aspects of their living environment – from entertainment to landscaping. These rules are set through a community ’s bylaws and several tenants, like Verville-Clough in Freedom Hill, are elected to a board to enforce them.

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

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

It is a short timeline though, said Reardon, with big decisions involved.

It is often 15 days before the fund has heard of the park’s pending sale, giving them just over a month to organize tenants. The fund meets with residents and walks them through what purchasing the park would entail. After these informational meetings, if residents want to follow through with the purchase, they have to form a cooperative and register it with the Secretary of State’s office. They also need to hire an attorney that can write the purchase- and-sale agreement. In order to receive a loan, they also have to conduct a thorough property inspection.

Ultimately it is up to resident’s faith in their community and the willingness of neighbors to take on the responsibility of the park – from rent collection to maintenance – that leads to these coop purchases.

In a best case scenario, park owners will notify the Community Loan Fund if they are putting their park on the market and help organize meetings with the collection of new buyers. The fund wants to avoid seeing residents evicted if a new private owner comes in and triples rent prices or fees.

The worst case scenario is when residents are out priced by private equity investors. In Rochester, one investor offered $54 million to purchase Briar Ridge, a 415 home community. In order to match that price tag, residents would have had to raise rent by $200 to $700 a month. They turned down the opportunity. An investor purchase doesn’t necessarily mean eviction for current tenants. It often leads to an increase rent prices and new bylaws. When residents move to a manufacture housing community, they often own their house. But they have to rent the plot of land the house sits on.

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

Private purchases can also mean the demolition of a park for an investment in a new housing development.

The Community Loan Fund’s model of enabling and supporting resident-owned communities sparked a national incentive for other states to do the same. Across the United States, at least 295 communities were purchased by residents. New Hampshire, a state where there are 35,367 estimated manufactured housing units, comprises half of the nation’s resident-owned communities.

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

Celebrating community

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

In the 10 years she’d lived in the park, she could recall few times when residents came together. They had a Christmas party last year for the first time. But never a cookout, with grills fired up and kids playing games together in the street.

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

Alongside the park’s maintenance director, Joe Keuenhoff, Verville-Clough scrapped metal to raise money for the barbecue. They raised over $375 doing so, with other community members also providing donations to purchase food for the event.

A sewing group that meets in the park’s community center stitched bags for corn hole. Keuenhoff built a tic-tactoe lawn game. Together, the residents celebrated two decades of community.

“That’s been my dream for four years is to try to get the community together for a cookout,” she said.

When Verville-Clough first moved into the community, though, there was no camaraderie among neighbors. Instead, there was tensions between the residents that ran the board and those who were impacted. With decisions on rental prices, eviction guidelines and home maintenance, it is a fine line to walk between respecting your neighbors and managing a business, said Verville-Clough.

But the retired police officer, who has lived in the park for 10 years now, decided to run for the cooperative’s president role. She’s served in this position for the past four years. At the end of the month, she’ll run for another two year term.

Her right-hand-partner is Anita Wise, who serves as the vice president. Wise moved to Freedom Hill seven years ago. She’s been involved in the operations of the co-op for the majority of her time as a resident.

“I’ve always been really active in my surroundings,” she

said. Along with Keuenhoff, Verville-Clough joked they are the “three amigos.”

“We do nothing without each other,” she said. “If we go to a members home, we do not go unless all three of us are together, so that there’s three witnesses as to what’s being said, what we agree upon.”

The full board consists of nine members, however, there are two positions that are currently vacant. The board is responsible for enforcing the community bylaws, which Verville-Clough has printed out alongside a gavel in their meeting space.

Each year, the board hosts an annual meeting where they review the bylaws and financing of the park with all residents, much like a town meeting. Here, they can ask members to approve changes like increases to lot rents. Currently the rent is $450 a month, but with an increase in supply costs for things like salt and sand, an increase will be proposed at the next meeting.

Ahead of the meeting, Verville-Clough prints out proposed changes and stuffs envelops to be delivered to the 148 homes in the park, so that members are aware of what’s on the table. “We’re very transparent. We hide nothing from members because they are coowners,” she said. “They may be renting our lot, but they are co-owners. Their input means a lot to this board.”

While Verville-Clough finds joy in managing the park, it is not always an easy feat. Especially when it requires rejecting prospective applicants and removing residents from the park.

To join the co-op, interested parties have to fill out an application. Wise, who was a former mortgage lender, runs a credit check and a background check. An applicant can’t have more than a 40% debt-to-income ratio and a misdemeanor within the last five years, or 10 years for felons.

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

A strict line drawn is no registered sex offenders are allowed in the park. Recently, the board 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 rough. These decisions are hard to make, but necessary to enforce.

“It’s our home, and it’s our community. But when we’re on the board, it’s our business,” said Wise.

Looking out 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 breakfast for residents on Saturday mornings – anything to bring residents together, to have a greater stake in the livelihood of the place they call home.

“We’re trying to build that family connection. That’s what a co-op is,” said Verville-Clough. “’Help thy neighbor,’ ‘pay it forward,’ in my eyes.”

Janet Verville-Clough, president of the Freedom Hill Co-Op in Loudon, left, and the vicepresident Anita Wise share a laugh as they get ready for the 20th anniversary celebration at the co-op garage on Sept. 10.

GEOFF FORESTER Monitor staff

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