Out-of-State Investors of Mesa Trailer Park Kicking Out Lifelong Residents

A mobile home is torn down in the Mesa Gardens RV Park, which is attempting to evict its longtime residents.
A mobile home is torn down in the Mesa Gardens RV Park, which is attempting to evict its longtime residents. Katya Schwenk
Editor's note: This story has been updated with a response after deadline from Good Living Ventures, the company that owns Mesa Gardens RV Park.

On a normal Thursday in November, dozens of residents of the Mesa Gardens RV Park found a note taped to their doors. The letter was short: They had 90 days to leave.

The notice sent a shock wave through the close-knit community of mobile-home owners in downtown Mesa, most of whom have lived there for years, even decades. As the days tick by, residents have banded together to fight to stay in their homes — as yet another of the Valley’s dwindling trailer parks attempts to force out its residents.

The story of Mesa Gardens takes a familiar shape. It began two years ago, when a multi-state investor came to town.

In 2019, the first time in decades, Mesa Gardens changed hands. Ever since, according to nine residents of the park and documents reviewed by Phoenix New Times, the new owners have raised rents without warning in violation of state law, left residents without running water for days at a time, and — finally — attempted to evict them from the park illegally.

“They are running us out very suddenly,” one resident, who gave his name only as Miguel, said in Spanish. “And in a way that's inhumane.”

New Times agreed to withhold the full names of multiple residents interviewed for this story to protect them from retaliation. Several residents said they had experienced intimidation from the park owners, particularly in recent weeks as tensions have ramped up.

“This is a community,” said Pam Bridge, an attorney with Community Legal Services, a legal nonprofit that is representing a group of Mesa Gardens residents. “This is a community of people who have lived their whole lives there. They’ve known each other for years. There are kids that were raised here.”

Any time a mobile home park closes, Bridge added, it is “so painful.” "But in this situation,” she said, “the landlord did it wrong.”

According to Arizona statute, in the event that a mobile home park stops renting to trailer owners, a landlord must provide notice "at least one hundred eighty days before the change in use" — not 90 days.

The landlord must also have "good cause" to evict tenants, according to the law, which was not provided in the notice. If tenants had breached their rental agreements, that could amount to cause. But of the notices New Times reviewed, none made such allegations. Change of land use also qualifies as a good cause, under the act.

An Arizona Department of Housing spokesperson confirmed that the eviction notices violated state statute. After New Times' inquiries and a complaint the agency received on Tuesday from a resident, the spokesperson said, the agency had begun efforts to contact park owners.

Multiple calls and emails to Good Living Ventures and the company's executives regarding Mesa Gardens went unanswered at first. After the story ran, the company's founder, Michael Horton, provided a written statement defending the evictions.

"Mesa Gardens makes every effort to avoid evictions and attempts to mitigate the unfortunate circumstances of our residents.  However, some circumstances are unavoidable and if eviction is necessary, Mesa Gardens proceeds in compliance with applicable law," Horton wrote. "Mesa Gardens stands firm in its commitment to the City of Mesa community and to provide safe and affordable living opportunities for its residents."

click to enlarge Mesa Gardens was purchased by investors, who fixed up the property — and then quickly posted eviction notices. - KATYA SCHWENK
Mesa Gardens was purchased by investors, who fixed up the property — and then quickly posted eviction notices.
Katya Schwenk
Over the last two years, Good Living Ventures, an investment firm based out of Denver, Colorado, has been quietly acquiring mobile home parks across Arizona.

The company describes its mission as “principled” and “value-driven.” Its website, sleek and modern, is full of these slogans, alongside photos of trailer parks made to look like resorts. Horton, grew up working class in Oklahoma before building a career in corporate land acquisitions, the company says, and it made him an altruist.

"We transform forgotten and neglected properties into safe, clean, and thriving communities," the Good Living mission statement says. "We aim to prove that profitability and doing the right thing are not mutually exclusive."

The “profitability” piece of the equation is certainly there. Trailer parks — in Arizona and elsewhere — have looked more and more appealing to speculators in recent years as property values have skyrocketed. Increasingly, these parks are being bought up by private equity tycoons and corporate landlords. This is especially true in the Valley's white-hot housing market.

Good Living might be small compared to behemoth investors like the Blackstone Group — which owns its own major stake in Phoenix real estate — but the company has been expanding its foothold in Arizona, New Times found.

A review of property records found more than a dozen trailer parks across Arizona that the firm has purchased in a little over two years, including Sundial RV Park in Peoria, Green Acres RV & Mobile Home Park in Phoenix, and Estrella Valley Mobile Home Park in Buckeye. According to online listings by a partner of the firm, the company owns parks in seven other states, mostly in the West and Midwest.

Mesa Gardens was part of Good Living's first slate of purchases, back in 2019. The trailer park is in a prime location: Right on Main Street, where the light rail cuts through downtown Mesa. It currently houses both RVs and trailers — a mix of snowbirds passing through in their campervans and residents who have lived in the park for five, ten, even twenty years.

Residents told New Times that they felt that, at first, the new owners were welcome. For years, the park had been left to sink into disrepair. The roads were cracked and full of potholes. There was little upkeep. When Good Living arrived, residents said that for the first time in years, the owners began to pay attention to the landscaping, cleaning up the park and putting down new gravel and pavement.

Still, the park's long-time residents — most of whom live in trailers, not RVs — had a sense that they were being cut out of these new changes. One resident, who requested anonymity, recalled a conversation with his elderly neighbor after the new owners had moved in.

"He was like, 'you know they're just fixing the park as a cover-up to raise rent?'” the resident said. “And then, months later, he ended up moving. He was one of the first to go."

The man's prediction was right. The rent did go up. According to multiple residents — and receipts reviewed by New Times — some saw their rent jump by hundreds of dollars this year, just months before the park kicked out its residents.

Many residents had chosen the park because of the low cost of living. Most owned their trailers, and were accustomed to paying $450 or $500 a month in rent for the lot. Some were retired, living on social security. Others were single parents, supporting several children. When rents jumped to nearly $800, without warning, it was a major burden for some.

Residents said that they never received notice of these rent hikes, which Bridge said is illegal. “They’re not allowed to do that,” she said. “You have to give proper notice.”

At the same time, residents said, they began having problems with their water. According to the accounts of five residents and audio recordings they provided, trailers were left without running water on multiple occasions this year, sometimes for days. There was never any warning, and no rush, it seemed, from the property managers to resolve the issue.

More and more, residents said, there was a sense that the park's focus was on attempting to become an "RV resort" — catering to richer, transient guests instead of the longtime residents in mobile homes, many of whom owned more shabby trailers from the 60s and 70s.

So Elsa Beltran was not exactly surprised that day in November when she found the eviction notice on the door of her old trailer. It informed her not of the park's closure — but of a "change of use." Starting in 90 days, Mesa Gardens would only accept RVs. Anyone in mobile homes had to pack up and leave.

"It's not just," she said in Spanish, "that, suddenly, they tell us to get out."

Beltran, a single mother, has a daughter in grade school. The family has lived there for more than a decade. "What I want is for them to give us the time to be able to find another home," she said. "I want to find a good place. But I need time to do it."

As it turns out, the 90-day notice of eviction, even beyond the cruelty of kicking residents out of their homes during the holidays, is a violation of state law. Arizona's Mobile Home Landlord and Tenant Act states landlords must give tenants 180-day notice in such an instance. They also must notify the state.

"They have clearly violated the Mobile Home Act," Bridge said. "There's so many things that they did wrong in that notice."

Even so, residents remain in a precarious position. Not all are being represented by Bridge, and would have to face an eventual eviction hearing on their own. And Mesa Gardens has not yet backed down on the 90-day notice, leaving the possibility that the owners would take residents to court in January.

There is a lot on the line if residents do have to move in 90 days. For one, although they own their homes, most will not be able to move with them — instead leaving the trailers to be demolished, and possibly recouping some money from the state's mobile home relocation fund.

"These trailers are not, actually, mobile," said Sylvia Herrera, an activist with Barrio Defense Committee, a group that is helping to organize the trailer park residents. "They are pretty set and permanent. They are fixed."

Beltran's trailer, for instance, was built in 1968. Most trailer parks, these days, aren't accepting homes that are more than a few decades old. And even if the family could find a place to go, it would be difficult to move the home. Older trailers fall apart more easily. Moving fees are costly — often thousands of dollars, said Stuart Smith, a mobile home dealer in Phoenix.

Smith said that the events at Mesa Gardens seemed unusual. "I hear of larger companies buying parks all the time," he said. But the manner in which residents were being told to leave, especially without any compensation offered, seemed out of the ordinary, he said.

As New Times sat with a group of residents in December, a trailer beside them was being torn down. Even though only 45 days had passed, some of the residents' neighbors had already left, anxious to find new housing. "She thought she was going to live here forever," a resident said of the neighbor. Slowly, the community was beginning to come apart.

"We were going to ask, you know, if we paint it and fix it up, could we stay here?” one woman, who gave her name only as Yolanda, told New Times, gesturing to the trailer she and her husband had lived in for more than 17 years.

“It’s supposed to be a resort, right?”
click to enlarge One family's 1968 mobile home in Mesa Gardens that, because of its age, cannot be moved. - KATYA SCHWENK
One family's 1968 mobile home in Mesa Gardens that, because of its age, cannot be moved.
Katya Schwenk
For Herrera and the community organizers who have rallied around Mesa Gardens residents, what is happening to the park is symbolic of the plight facing poor, often Latino communities in the Valley.

Cities have pushed to develop the corridors along the light rail, particularly after its newest extension into east Mesa. With that development comes displacement. Mesa Gardens is just the latest trailer park along the light rail to push out long-time residents — before it was the Mesa Royale park, which was eventually redeveloped by Chicanos Por La Causa, and before that, Tempe Mobile Home Park.

“What we see happening is that the city of Mesa wants to — supposedly — beautify that stretch,” said Herrera.

That comes at a cost.

"It’s just painful to see low-income families lose such an important asset in their lives," Bridge said — to lose a home that, in some cases, had been passed down from one generation to the next. "It’s always a horrible experience."

In response to questions from New Times, Ana Pereira, a spokesperson with the city of Mesa, wrote in a statement that the city would not get involved in “private party contractual” matters.

“We understand the residents of Mesa Gardens are going through a challenging situation,” she said. “We are available to provide information and referrals to the residents, as we have done with those who have already reached out.”

Still, activists say the city is taking too much of a back seat.

“We've seen that argument before,” said Salvador Reza, another activist working with Mesa Gardens residents, referencing what occurred when a developer seemed poised to close the Mesa Royale trailer park. Eventually, the city helped broker a deal with Chicanos Por La Causa, a community development corporation, to redevelop the site, mostly replacing the trailers but allowing some residents to stay and providing compensation to the rest.

“[The city] also will respond to public pressure," Reza said. "And that's what we did last time.”

For now, though, as the holidays approach, no one has yet stepped in. Bridge said that Community Legal Services has been trying to contact the owners. So far, there's been no response.
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk