Less than a mile from campus, families were being told that they couldn’t have their children’s toys in their yards, that they couldn’t be outside past 10 p.m., had to remove vehicles with signs of rust, and that they had to pay another 60 dollars a month to live with tightening restrictions. Who has the power to command such a rigid way of life? Lakeshore management, which bought the Viking Terrace mobile home park in Northfield.
In April, a national corporation called Lakeshore Management bought Viking Terrace, a mobile home park community in Northfield. After being owned by the Haan family since 2003, this change in ownership immediately caused concern; residents of the park did not even hear about the sale until after it was finalized. Lakeshore owns mobile home parks across the US, and has been sued by Attorneys General in multiple states.
Later that month, residents saw their worries materialize. The new management issued a new lease that imposed illegal rules upon the residents. Lakeshore distributed this new lease only in English to largely Spanish-speaking residents. When asked to translate it for residents, they refused.
Some examples of the new rules imposed on residents prohibit laundry lines, vegetable gardens without permission, walking outside after 10 p.m., and children playing in residents’ yards.
Retired attorney and activist Gina Washburn, alongside other non-resident community members, has been advocating and organizing with the Viking Terrace community. Washburn has been documenting the early behavior of Lakeshore Managemant’s community manager. “[They] took pictures of every lot, sent the resident a letter with a section of the rule [and] didn’t list what the issue was…The letter said you have (typically a week) [to] correct or eviction proceedings will proceed,” Washburn said.
Washburn emphasized the lack of explanation and care Lakeshore gave residents about their new lease. “Some parts of the letter were in English, some in Spanish, the actual problem was not enumerated. She would circle the letter with the rule when asked for clarification,” Washburn said.
Mar Valedcantos is a Northfield resident who has long been a liason to the Spanish speaking community in town through her organizing with the Municipal ID campaign and her local nonprofit Neighbors United. Valdecantos said the management team of Lakeshore wasn’t giving them enough time to correct the offenses of the new lease. They later found out that this breaks Minnesota state law. “We learned from a Lawyer that Minnesota law dictates that people should have 30 days to correct a home violation,” Valedcantos said.
Washburn provided the Messenger with a document containing residents’ questions and concerns. It included a resident’s complaint about the inability to reach Community Manager, Monique Swearing. “[She] does not answer the door for long periods of time. Even during office hours, the door is locked and blinds pulled. The resident alleges that she requires residents to “make an appointment” to talk with her, yet is completely unavailable to make an appointment by phone or in person,” the complaint read. “In addition, she is disrespectful and very defensive when residents try to speak with her. However, Swearing often disturbs tenants by going door-to-door on the first of the month to collect rent, even when tenants have until the 5th of the month to pay,” the complaint continued.
The new rules implemented by Lakeshore have restricted residents so much that some have attempting to leave the community. According to Washburn, “The executive director of Rice County Habitat For Humanity was contacted by a mother to apply for a habitat home to get out of Viking because the community manager told her to remove her son’s wheelchair from the front porch. The wheelchair didn’t fit through the front door. You know what Monique said? I don’t care, your problem.”
In one of the reports to theMinnesota Attorney General (AG)’s office, a resident said “it is absolutely infuriating and devastating for me to see that my family and community members are being treated this way. My community has lived here for many years and has worked to make their homes beautiful. This company is destroying our lives and is making us live in fear in our own homes” (interview reported by Insight News).
The new lease also increased lot rent by 60 dollars a month, whereas the old owners would only ever increase the rent by 10 dollars a month, if at all. At the same time, Lakeshore refused to issue receipts for rent payments, which residents need to receive food stamps or other welfare.
In response to these rules, residents contacted Valdecantos and then organized a meeting at the Emmaus Church to which residents arrived en masse. Over 200 people attended. This meeting consisted of reading through the lease in Spanish and sharing grievances about the rules. Another meeting was held with Attorney Margaret Kaplan of the Housing Justice Center, a St. Paul based non-profit dedicated to expanding and preserving affordable housing in Minnesota. Kaplan told the residents that they did not have to sign the lease, and they didn’t have to obey the rules if they were a substantial change to the previous lease.
Washburn said that this was a moment of strategic passive resistance; she and Valdecantos spoke to residents who felt empowered after hearing that they did not have to obey Lakeshore’s rules.
In July 2022, Lakeshore attempted to have their illegal leases codified by holding a lease-signing event. Managers and officials from the company tabled outside at the mobile home park and tried to get residents to sign their leases. But after residents had learned that they couldn’t be evicted for not signing this new lease, almost none of them signed. Washburn said she and Valdecantos went to the park that day to talk to residents who weren’t at the previous meeting or who hadn’t heard about their rights. At the end of their day, they only counted three residents who signed leases.
Viking Terrace community and advocates continued to fight for their rights as a living community. Valdecantos and Washburn reached out to many religious leaders in Northfield asking to address their congregations and talk to them about the injustice their neighbors were facing. Groups replied eagerly, and many held their own “Attorney General Complaint Party,” where allies arrived, laptops in hand, and wrote the AG Kieth Ellison. This was successful, and Ellison assigned Assistant AG Katherine Kelley. Seeing all of the prepared grievances and legal memoranda that Residents and the Housing Justice Center prepared, Kelley issued a cease and desist on Lakeshore’s lease. After this issue, Community Manager Monique Swearing, was fired from the Lakeshore Management team.
This win is just a pause. Viking Terrace residents are currently abiding by their old lease, but there is always possibility of a new lease being issued. While Washburn anticipates that any new lease will go through the AG’s office, Viking Terrace residents are still looking to the future with concern about what Lakeshore will do next.
Lakeshore has gone through a lot of effort to enforce the rules that they tried to establish. For what purpose? Lakeshore’s website features pristine and culturally homogenous mobile homes, untouched by weather or time. The organizers of these recent protests believe that Lakeshore’s rules are an attempt to create an image of utopic living under a name that they can sell. They buy parks with lower value, and enforce exploitative rules until residents are forced to move or are evicted, and then new residents will move in and help increase the property value to make money for Lakeshore’s shareholders. Lakeshore has a stake in the money they take from residents, but they also seem to be concerned with projecting an image of perfection that, according to many residents, discriminates against poor people.
The structure of manufactured home ownership leaves residents vulnerable. They have to pay higher interest rates because of alleged mobility, but mobile homes don’t typically ever move. And while residents might own their homes, they don’t usually own the land itself — they are legally still renters.
Washburn said that residents are interested in buying the mobile home park, which they would then turn into a cooperative. A cooperative is a collection of people dedicated to meeting their economic, social, and cultural needs through the democratically controlled and owned operation.
In the case of housing cooperatives, co-op owners aren’t just concerned about the operation of money making, like Lakeshore is, but they are also concerned with how well residents’ needs are being met. This change in the structure of ownership and operation would radically shift power toward residents.
Soren Stevenson from the Northcountry Cooperative Foundation, a nonprofit in the cities that helps tenants form cooperatives, met with residents in mid September. Northcountry has already written to Lakeshore and offered to buy it in hopes to put together the loan structure for the residents, but Washburn said Lakeshore has not responded. Lakeshore has a stake in instituting their rules and expanding their powers. In light of this stonewalling from Lakeshore, Washburn also expressed interest in the legal possibility of using eminent domain to have the City of Northfield take the city from Lakeshore and issue just compensation, per the constitution. The city, which has demonstrated concern for preserving affordable housing, would then sell Viking Terrace to Northcountry, who would eagerly offer to buy it.
County Commissioner Malecha is also looking into mobile home rent stabilization laws and learning from St. Paul organizers success in their 2021 rent stabilization win. This route does not ensure rules about non-economic relationships will not be in a new lease written by Lakeshore or any landlord.
Either of these scenarios are longer-term than the immediate lives of residents, and right now, community allies such as those at Imminent Brewing and the Community Action Fund are fundraising to help with the costs of winterizing and rehabilitating mobile homes in Northfield.
Even St. Olaf’s Academic and Civic Engagement (ACE) classes are bringing students to Washburn’s Hotmail inbox, asking her how they can help. Organizers to whom the Messenger spoke added that true solidarity starts with building relationships and trust with these communities. “They don’t need to work with me, Washburn said. “They need to work with Jorge [the president of the Resident Association Board], this is what my needs are.”
This news story is less of a story about a vibrant community and more of a tale of a corporation’s attempt to homogenize and gentrify some of the last affordable housing in Northfield. We were unable to get on-record comment with any residents, several of whom expressed fear of retaliation by Lakeside if they publicly spoke out against it, but our conversation with Washburn and research into Lakeshore Management has elucidated an exploitative wielding of power over a low income community that already exists on the margins of this town. The other half of this story is in the residents themselves, and the community that hopeful allies should build relationships with if they wish to disrupt Lakeshore’s unjust command.
As of this issue’s publication, Viking Terrace management has not responded to the Messenger’s requests for comments.