GILFORD – The complaints at Lakes Region Mobile Home Village Cooperative in Gilford have all the intrigue of a mystery or soap opera, with allegations of bullying, infighting, polarized neighbors, and questions about finances.
Some residents say they’re called troublemakers and vigilantes when they challenge the board, request copies of financial statements, or raise questions about computer records.
Some say they even miss the old days before they became a resident-owned community, which happened in 2010, thanks to loans and coaching from the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund and ROC-NH.
“When I first came to this park, everybody was friendly and nice. Now everyone is stabbing everyone in the back,” said Sylvia Dion, 78, a LRMHVC resident for 34 years, who served as a co-op board member in 2018-19. “They call us vigilantes and troublemakers. We just want what’s fair and equitable and what’s supposed to happen.”
“It’s been a small group,” Colleen O’Riordan, current board vice president who was elected last month, said of the dissidents. O’Riordan said that, according to ROC-NH, which helped LRMVHC become resident-owned, “it’s nothing unusual compared to what happens at other parks.”
It’s an example of how democratic self-rule can come undone when discord, power struggles and resentment boil over among people in small groups – including housing co-operatives, clubs, or civic associations – who are tasked with governing each other.
According to Dion and some of her fellow co-op members:
- Checks were signed by a former board member who didn’t have authority to write them.
- A $50,000 loan was taken out to buy a $25,000 mobile home for use as an office, which remains locked to co-op members.
- Rent for members of the 100-unit co-op on Old Lake Shore Road hasn’t risen in eight years. It's still $365 a month, despite financial pressure to boost it.
- Recently, the board rejected a proposal to allow a rules committee to translate co-op bylaws into language that is easier to understand.
An analysis in September by Michelle Sykes, an independent tax accountant, raised several questions about park operations and management.
O’Riordan said the board’s attorney, paid by co-op members, would have to answer questions related to co-op management. A message left at the attorney’s Bedford office was not immediately returned.
Jane Sharp, the president of the co-op board, declined to comment on any of the issues raised by unhappy residents.
Everybody’s an amateur
The problem is “everybody’s an amateur,” said Carlee Nichols, a resident and past board member at LRMHVC. “Nobody really knows how to do things, or what’s the best thing to do.” Residents volunteer to serve, she said, typically with little direction other than bylaws and a comprehensive guidebook from ROC-NH. They frequently establish their way of doing things, and sometimes flout the rules, she said.
Without others who are willing to run in elections to replace them, governing is left in the hands of a few, who can easily create a mini-dictatorship, according to some LRMHVC residents. In small, self-contained communities such as mobile home co-ops, the pool of volunteers with relevant experience to choose from is a small one.
“How many people in a mobile home park have ever managed a $5 to $15 million dollar business as a volunteer?” said Steve Varnum, communications director for the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund, which has financed more than 132 mobile home co-ops statewide in 36 years. The Loan Fund's program, ROC-NH, is one of seven that help underwrite affordable housing, business startups and childcare centers in New Hampshire.
Varnum cites Meredith Center Village, the first New Hampshire mobile home park purchased in 1984 with assistance from ROC-NH. “There are times it’s well-managed and times it wasn’t,” he said. The park is now independently owned and governed without ties to ROC-NH.
The situation at Lakes Region Mobile Home Village Cooperative is not unheard of at mobile home parks that have become resident-owned and operated, according to members at local mobile home co-ops.
“It’s neighbors governing neighbors, that’s got to be tough,” said Karen Soucy, executive director of the New Hampshire Manufactured Housing Association, which represents mobile home parks owned and operated by landlords. Soucy says she sometimes receives calls from distraught mobile home co-op members looking for guidance. But she said no mobile home co-ops responded when she sent out a mailing asking if they wanted to join the association, which can help untangle issues.
To residents of mobile home co-ops where things go sour, ownership can be a slow-rolling nightmare. In hindsight, some question whether they had enough information, training and continued support to make a go of it without running into speed bumps, roadblocks and standoffs – and worrisome financial shortfalls.
A landmark law
In 1984, a landmark New Hampshire law gave mobile home park tenants the opportunity to buy their parks from selling landlords, if they could match the price and terms of the landlord’s best offer. ROC-NH and its parent not-for-profit corporation, the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund Inc., created in 1983, stepped up to meet the demand.
Today, the $31 million New Hampshire Community Loan Fund, which is tax-exempt and licensed by the New Hampshire Banking Department as a community development financial institution, receives government grants, capital infusions from investors and donations from the public, in addition to interest on its loans. Through ROC-NH, it has financed and coached 132 resident-owned mobile home co-ops statewide, and six more are in thepipeline, according to Tara Reardon, director of ROC-NH.
Both the NHCLF and ROC-NH have been praised as boons to affordable housing in a state where it's scarce. They've also been lauded for creating paths to home ownership that might otherwise not exist for middle and low-income buyers, who are often ineligible for less-pricey conventional mortgages because they lack sufficient income, assets and credit history.
No one disputes the important mission of the Community Loan Fund. Mobile home park residents say they hoped for the best when they bought their parks with 8-percent loans that were their best or only option, and cheaper than predatory consumer rates.
But some residents at local ROC-NH parks say ownership has come with risks and casualties they didn’t foresee, including greater financial uncertainty, heavy debt that is difficult to get out of, and unpleasant social interactions that have changed the neighborly feel of the parks. Some also say ROC-NH hasn’t provided the degree of ongoing support they expected and thought they paid for.
“They’re more concerned with their money than helping the parks,” said Rick Dubois, a 27-year resident and past board member of Old Lake Shore Cooperative, a 52-unit mobile home park – also in Gilford – that refinanced a $1.1 million mortgage from Citizens Bank and the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund this summer.
After the park became a co-op 16 years ago, technical assistance from ROC-NH was hard to find, DuBois said. “They were supposed to come to meetings once a month, but they never showed up.”
He also said Old Lake Shore Cooperative waited months to access the $1,100 it paid monthly into a separate capital improvement account managed by the loan fund. “They control all the money. You have to go through hoops to get it. It’s months and months to get the money – your money.” As a result, the co-op missed windows of contractor availability, DuBois said.
Reardon, director of ROC-NH, said some proposed projects and expenses don’t meet ROC’s parameters for sound expenditures, and that might account for a delay in releasing funds.
Reardon also said ROC-NH spends roughly 20,000 hours annually advising co-ops by phone and attending meetings, visiting 55 to 65 co-ops each month, but it’s impossible to reach all of them regularly. One- and two-year-old co-ops get the most support.
Back at Lakes Region Mobile Home Village Cooperative, some co-op members say difficulties might have been avoided with more guidance from ROC-NH. They question the financial management of co-op officers who stayed in power too long and were reluctant to relinquish it or transfer complete records to the next board.
Recently, acrimonious battles escalated to threatened lawsuits between board members. There have been charges about a lack of communication and transparency, and a failure to involve co-op members in important decision-making, disgruntled co-op members say.
For instance, the waste removal company that residents valued for its customer service was exchanged for a slightly less expensive but significantly less helpful contractor without consulting members, they say. At recent co-op meetings, agendas have been ignored, and the board has limited member questions, according to multiple accounts. A police officer was even hired to keep the peace at a monthly meeting because some board members feared harassment.
“I’m a member of this park. I have an investment in this park. I am a part-owner of this park, and I like to keep track of where my money is going,” said Dion, who has an accounting background. She said she was recently denied copies of financial statements by the board president for “being rude.” Dion said she has written four letters requesting financial information, but not gotten any response.
‘A little microcosm’
LRMHVC pays $200 monthly to ROC-NH for technical assistance, which amounts mainly to trainers coming to co-op meetings once or twice a year, Dion said. But ROC-NH’s communication is primarily with board members - which can be a problem when co-members need advice and can’t solve issues through the board.
“Our goal is to have them be independent of us, to call us when they have questions. They have bylaws and rules and committees,” said Reardon. “They need to problem-solve on their own, and be running their own communities, including day-to-day operations."
“Almost every resident-owned community we work with is untrained, but we find lots of skill sets," Reardon said. "When people become resident-owned, they get to interact with their neighbors more than when they just worked and came home. Some have definitely had their bumps, and worked through it. It’s a little microcosm of the world."
"Without ROC, we wouldn't be here," said David Berube, who served as LRMHVC board president for eight years. "They're not in your back pocket, but as long as they get paid, if you have a question, they answer your question."
Dion and other co-op residents say, considering its resources and mission, ROC-NH could do more to help the co-ops thrive.
“It’s more like a finance company that is helping communities do things on their own,” said DuBois. Once the co-ops are established, “they really don’t care what happens. It’s like, ‘OK, we got the money, let’s go. Onto the next project.’"
ROC-NH employs three full-time trainers and five others who specialize in acquisitions, who also provide assistance to the co-ops, which include 8,211 households statewide, Reardon said. They offer conflict resolution training during its leadership training sessions, and by request. But at LRMHVC recently, only two people agreed to training and a mediated meeting, Reardon said. In general, it's a challenge to get co-ops to follow through.
“ROC-NH doesn’t intervene in interpersonal squabbling. It's not part of our job,” said Reardon. “We can provide the best conflict resolution training in the world, but if people aren’t open to it – to listening and looking at an issue from another’s perspective – our hands are tied," she said. "People have to be willing to participate."
What happens at self-managed co-ops depends on who’s on the board, said DuBois. Sometimes problems boil down to bad decisions and errors, or to personality differences and grievances. "It can be, 'I don't like Joe down the street, so he can pound tar.'”
Neighbor vs. neighbor
Some LRMHVC residents say life was more pleasant before resident ownership put neighbors in charge of neighbors.
Dion said she lives in disfavor with current and former board members. Since 2014, she’s had a contentious relationship with Berube, her 81-year-old next-door neighbor, and the co-ops longest running board member who also has served in appointed roles.
Disagreements over their lot lines have flared. Dion said Berube has left his truck and snow-blower running (his driveway is roughly 15 feet from her house) just to annoy her, which he denies. She said he falsely accuses her of dumping shoveled snow in his yard.
Dion put insulting signs in her windows that face his home. Berube called Gilford police, who negotiated a lukewarm détente. But after two weeks, he started revving his engines again, which made her house shake, she said. So Dion called the police.
“It’s unpleasant to live in a situation like this,” Dion said.
"She's just a miserable old lady," said Berube, who denies revving his engine and Dion's other accusations. "She'll go from window to window and yell out at me."
Deputy Police Chief Chris Kelly said Gilford police have responded to reports of harassment that seem to be related to an ongoing feud between the neighbors.
Tension and bad blood can make life in the park miserable for anyone who goes against individuals in power – which may be a function of living in a self-contained community that runs itself without much professional help or oversight. Those who protest board overreach and what they see as irresponsible management say they have been bullied. Some accusations, including those circulated in a petition to oust a former board that included Dion, have approached character defamation, Dion said.
“It’s like a nightmare really," she said. "We tried to get a lawyer, but no one wanted to deal with it.”
A hand-lettered sign in her street-facing window reads: "A CO-OP IS A DEMOCRATIC ORGANIZATION CONTROLLED BY ALL MEMBERS – NOT JUST A FEW.”
"People don’t want to talk because they have to live here,” said Deb Richardson, who served on the board with Dion last year. “When you buy in, they tell you that you make the decisions, you have a voice. After (this) board makes the decisions, that’s when you find out. That’s not right,” she said. “We’re called vigilantes and troublemakers just because we want a voice.”
Richardson said board meetings are sometimes held without notifying co-op members, and have involved very few people.
There have been quorums at annual membership meetings, said Berube, but sometimes it has been close and lack of interest plagues community meetings in general. He believes many New Englanders think, "Let me live my life, don't bother me. I pay my dues."
“When you get a board that has been a board for eight years, they become very emboldened,” said Carlee Nichols, who has lived in Gilford for 40 years, almost 20 at LRMVC, including before it became a co-op. “They think, ‘This is the way we do it, and this is the way we’re going to do it.’”
To spur interest and greater participation by members, Nichols put a sign in her yard: "You own this park. You need to speak up.’”