By State Sen. Zach Wahls, Coralville (Senate District 37)
My top legislative priority in 2020 is affordable housing, starting by finishing the work begun last year to protect Iowans who live in manufactured homes. This is an issue that affects both rural Iowa and urban Iowa, as virtually every county in Iowa has at least one manufactured housing community, if not several.
I’m intentional about using the phrase “manufactured homes,” but you may hear them referred to as “mobile homes” or “trailers.” However, most “mobile” homes are not in fact “mobile.” Moving the homes that can be moved typically costs $2,000 to $5,000. That’s a lot of money.
Over the last year, you may have read news reports about out-of-state companies moving into Iowa, purchasing manufactured housing communities (or MHCs) and increasing the rent by as much as 70%. The problem of out-of-state companies coming into Iowa, purchasing trailer parks and jacking up the rent has been unusually pronounced in this senate district, and I hear about this concern at virtually every event I hold. Havenpark Capital—the Utah-based investment group that infamously raised the rent on multiple Iowa manufactured housing communities by more than 60% last year—has purchased parks in all three counties I represent in the past year.
Last April, in response to this growing crisis, the Senate unanimously passed a bipartisan bill I helped craft to take the first steps in protecting Iowans who own manufactured homes. Unfortunately, that bill did not pass the House, because we were so short on time that we could not reach a compromise before adjournment.
During the “interim” period from April 2019 to January 2020, a bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives has been meeting to discuss this issue. Both Representative Bobby Kaufmann and I are taking part in these negotiations. We are working to develop comprehensive legislation that will protect vulnerable Iowans from predatory landlords while also ensuring that local mom-and-pop owner-operators acting in good faith are not harmed. It is important that we protect all Iowans from predatory behavior while making sure we do not harm the ability of good actors to offer this affordable housing option.
During our review of this issue over the interim period, I was shocked to learn that people who rent apartments actually have stronger protection under Iowa law than people who own manufactured homes! Common sense tells us that people who own their own homes should have at least as much protection as people who rent, if not more. But that is not the state of Iowa law today. And likely, that it why we are seeing so much interest from out-of-state landlords.
Any meaningful legislation should be focused on two key areas. First, ensuring that we have equal protection (at least) under Iowa law for renters and for owners of manufactured homes. Second, we have to protect the property rights and due process rights of these home owners.
I am cautiously optimistic that we will be able to accomplish meaningful reform in this area. Generally speaking, affordable housing is a very important topic, and it makes sense that you would start with the most “affordable” option and work your way up. I hope that by working to bring together Republicans and Democrats, landlords and residents, we can build agreement in Des Moines for common sense legislation. That is how our system is supposed to work!