Mason Adams Published

W.Va. Mobile Home Park Tenants Fight A Media Giant

A sign is shown above several mobile homes in a mobile home park. The sign reads, "Masse Trailers for Rent, Park, 320-6090."
Massie's, a Homes of America mobile home park in Christiansburg, Virginia.
Sarah Rupp

This conversation originally aired in the March 31, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

When a new owner took control of a mobile home park in Mercer County, West Virginia, its residents noticed immediate changes. 

Rents went up, and it seemed like the new owner was doing less to take care of problems like broken windows, or even a sewage leak. So one resident started looking into exactly who this new owner was. 

What she found led to a story in Voices of Monterey Bay, an online publication from California. It’s titled, “The Davids in Appalachia fighting the Monterey Bay Area’s news Goliath.” 

Julie Reynolds reported the story. She recently spoke with Inside Appalachia Host Mason Adams from a van in the Mojave desert, north of Quartzsite, Arizona.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Adams: I think you are the first person I’ve interviewed who has been in a minivan sitting in the desert.

Reynolds: Most likely, but you know, the sound quality is pretty good.

Adams: The story you have is headlined, “The Davids in Appalachia fighting the Monterey Bay area’s news Goliath.” This story sprawls across the U.S., but let’s start where the story does, in Mercer County, West Virginia. Can you tell us about Elk View Estates, which is the property at the beginning [of your story]?

Reynolds: Sure. Elk View Estates, according to one of the tenants there, Valeria Steele, was a very nice mobile home park manufactured home community until about 2021, when a very mysterious entity bought the park. Tenants didn’t know who these owners were. They were told to send their rent checks to a place in Englewood, New Jersey to a man named Tom del Bosco and various other entities.

At different times, the rent checks went to a lot of different places. Valeria is kind of a citizen journalist, and she started investigating and digging into public records and connected the dots to see that the entity that bought her mobile home park was an affiliate of the same investment firm that had taken over a huge swath of American newspapers. She found my reporting about this company Alden Global Capital, and its related business Smith Management, and connected the dots and saw that the company that bought her mobile home park, Homes of America, was actually a business affiliate of Alden Global Capital, the same company that was known for destroying local newspapers.

Adams: Now the residents of Elk View Estates are suing Homes of America. What’s the latest on what’s happening there?

Reynolds: So a pro bono law firm called Mountain State Justice decided to support the tenants in all six Mercer County mobile home parks that were owned by Homes of America. They have filed several lawsuits, including one that’s a possible class action. They’re waiting to see if they get certified. And the reason I call them “the Davids fighting Goliath” is because they’ve actually had some successes. They were able to stop rent increases. They were able to halt some evictions. When Homes of America took over, rents just shot up. I mean, Valeria’s went up $300 a month, from $550 to $850 a month. Some went up 60 percent. And we’re talking about, many people in these parks are on very limited income — Social Security, veterans benefits — and can’t even fathom affording that kind of rent increase.

At the same time, they’re stuck there if they’re renting the land, but they own their mobile home. The costs of moving the home are prohibitive. You know, it can be in the tens of thousands of dollars to move one of these mobile homes. So many of them just left. The parks now have a huge vacancy rate. Valeria has told me that there’s been sewage leaks, that there’s overgrown grass, broken windows. And all of this took place since Homes of America took over the park.

The lawsuits, like I said, have had some successes. To me that was very inspiring, because journalists have been trying to figure out how to save their local newspapers, and so far have been kind of befuddled. They’ve been fighting back, and they’ve had a few small victories against Alden Global Capital. But this was stunning and inspiring to see these tenants organizing themselves. They went out with cell phones, shot photos of the sewage leaks and things like that, and put together a case.

Adams: What is the latest with their case at the moment?

Reynolds: They’re kind of on hold for a little bit. The judge handling the cases, the main one retired in December, and the new judge has not been appointed. So they had been in the middle of a process of submitting some motions, because Homes of America was not complying with the court orders. They were not supplying what’s called “discovery,” which is all the documents showing what’s going on. There is a motion still pending to order them to provide this discovery.

They’ve been ordered once and they ignored that order, and now they’re waiting for a new order to have some consequences because they’re absolutely ignoring the court’s order on this. So, they’re in a holding pattern right now. And we shall see what happens next. But they are still fighting.

Adams: You know, here in Appalachia, we’re seeing both of these trends play out in real time, with different companies buying up mobile home parks, and in a lot of cases, raising rent, and making it harder for residents to live there. At the same time, we’re seeing increasing numbers of newspapers acquired by corporate owners who appear to be stripping down the paper for parts. How does Alden bring these stories together? And how did you make these connections?

Reynolds: It was pretty easy because I’m a public documents nerd. Once I started looking at the deeds for these mobile home parks, I recognized the names. I recognized the address in Englewood, New Jersey, I knew that was Smith Management. That’s the firm of Randall Smith, the co-founder of Alden Global Capital. I saw names of Alden executives, all kinds of documents, acquisition papers, permits. Valeria has shown me a check that was cashed by an Alden affiliate was literally a firm set up by Alden completely unrelated to Homes of America. They play very loose and sloppy with all these business entities. There’s a lot of overlap. A lot of the same players are involved in them. So I recognized the names from many of the newspaper documents.

What was most disturbing was an entity — it was called, I believe, Tribune Finance MHP, LLC, something along those lines. That raised my hackles because Alden had recently acquired Tribune Publishing. And I have been trying to follow that trail to see if Alden actually extracted money from the Tribune newspapers to buy these mobile home parks. The name of that entity certainly makes it look like that. And it’s not out of Alden’s wheelhouse because they actually did the same thing with the newspaper chain I worked for, Media News Group. They extracted hundreds of millions of dollars and used that money to buy unrelated businesses that they profited from. Meanwhile, the papers were languishing. We literally had leaky roofs. We had no hot water in the building.

Alden just stopped paying bills, stopped doing maintenance — exactly the same activities they’re doing in these mobile home parks. To them, a business is just a way to extract cash. There’s no interest in journalism, there’s no interest in providing housing — these things that are essential to our society. Companies like Alden do not take that into consideration. It’s just a spreadsheet in their offices. They find ways to extract the maximum profit and provide the least amount of service because that’s what costs money.

Adams: This twin dynamic of corporations, pushing people out of housing or making it harder to live where they live and stripping down newspapers. They’re both pretty bleak. Where do you find hope in all this?

Reynolds: I find hope in Mercer County, West Virginia. I was very inspired by what these tenants are doing. They are not giving up, they are still fighting. These are their homes. This is the one thing that you can claim is yours and hold onto, and it gives you some sense of security. They are not letting go. They are tenacious. The cases are still winding their ways through the courts. Like I said, they have had some successes, and just the fact that they were able to halt the rent increases is a dramatic victory.

I think the hundreds of mobile home parks around the country that are going through the same situation, probably thousands, can look to Mercer County, and take some inspiration and study those cases and see where they’ve been able to have these successes. I mean, I’m just very inspired. I recommend journalists look at them, and study, how are they able to get this kind of success? Because if it’s not illegal, what Alden is doing, it is certainly unethical, it’s immoral.

In many cases, they have just completely ignored permitting processes, things like that. And so that’s where these tenants are able to catch them in the act and find, “Hey, you are not meeting the requirements to even get a permit to operate this business.” And the court says, “Hey, that’s true. Let’s do something about this. You can’t keep charging extra rent until you fix these things.” And in fact, I’m told by the attorneys handling the case that everything they have fixed has been because of a court order.

Adams: It’s pretty cool that a reporter from all the way across the country is still tracking these legal proceedings in West Virginia. Julie Reynolds, thank you for your work. And thanks for coming on and speaking with us on Inside Appalachia.

Reynolds: You’re very welcome. And it’s my pleasure. And both my parents are from Appalachia. So I have roots in eastern Kentucky.