KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald

Editor’s note: Residents of Wildwood Mobile Villa spoke with the Keizertimes, but requested that we not use their names in out of concern of reprisal.

When it comes to growth in Keizer, spaces like Wildwood Mobile Villa are where the rubber will hit the road. Residents fear that it’s already happening.

“We used to fall into that low income [space]. It is not anymore,” said one resident of the senior manufactured home community.

Since 2008, rent at the park located in north Keizer skyrocketed from $395 to $675. The new owner, Investment Property Group is increasing it another $50 this May. [For more on IPG and its owner, Brian Fitterer, see sidebar]. In addition to the rent increase, new residents will shoulder the costs of sewer, water, garbage and stormwater bills, all bills that were once included in the space rental. According to a local manufactured home sales agent, Wildwood is now the most costly mobile home park in all of Salem-Keizer.

“The first thing I ask a client is if they’ve checked into the rates here. It’s hard to find clients who will stick with a purchase after they find out about the rent,” the sales agent said.

The increases in the cost to live in Wildwood put residents between the proverbial rock and hard place. Many own their homes, but the spaces where they are located are owned and rented out by IPG. They can attempt to sell their homes, but there are already six others in the park on the market with rental rates scaring off buyers. Even if a willing buyer appears, they can leverage the cost of rent over the price they are will to pay for the home on it – even though they are owned by two different entities.

The other option is moving the home to another park, which exposes the fallacy of calling manufactured homes “mobile homes.”

“The majority of houses in Wildwood are 40 years and older. If you found a space on private property some place else, most cities will not allow you to bring one in more than 10 years old. The prejudice on manufactured homes is very widespread,” said the sales agent.

A resident said there are only about eight homes that are less than 10 years old in the park. Moving one to a new park would also cost at least $10,000 by most estimates.

“The people can’t move the homes and they are going to take a beating when they shut this park,” said one long-time resident.

Amber Monte, president of IPG, said the company has no plans to shutter the park.

“We are long term community operators and there are no plans to close this community. In fact, we’ve never closed a single community in our company history and have no plans to do so anywhere,” Monte said.

Fitterer also offers a discount for current residents struggling to pay the rent.

“It is self-funded by the park owner and provides a 10 percent rent discount to any resident who is struggling to make ends meet. The discount never has to be repaid and our residents can continue to renew it annually if their financial situation does not improve,” Monte said.

Monte said the amenities make Wildwood “superior” to other parks in the area and justify the high rental rate.

“The prior owner invested over $700,000 in new water lines, new sidewalks and other improvements for the community just before the sale occurred,” Monte said.

One of the residents Keizertimes talked to said the largest part of those improvements went into fixing leaky water lines throughout the park that added to the owner’s expenses.

“That should have lowered the rent, but it increased,” he said.

The situation at Wildwood puts Keizer’s ongoing growth discussions in sharp focus. Keizer only has 450 acres of vacant and buildable land. That’s an optimistic estimate because much of it is on large lots owned by individuals who may have no interest in maximizing its development, and Keizer needs that development if it hopes to absorb the projected growth in the city for the next 20 years.

In that same time frame, low-income housing will be one of the greatest needs. At a January meeting of a task force examining the issues, Bob Parker, a project director at consulting firm ECONorthwest, said the need for low income, very low income and extremely low income housing in Keizer will account for nearly half the overall need.

“If buying power continues to erode, it will exacerbate the need on the lower end of the spectrum,” he said.

Parker said the free market alone is not likely to meet current or future housing needs, and Keizer is already dealing with a crisis when it comes to affordability. The state recent tagged the city as “rent burdened.” It’s assessment tools determined 54 percent of renters in Keizer are paying more than a third of their monthly income on rent, and 25 percent of homeowners are in the same situation when it comes to their mortgage. The city is by no means the worst off in Oregon, but the situation is unlikely to fix itself.

Three of the half-dozen Wildwood residents who spoke with the Keizertimes would fall into the rent-burdened category, and two of them will be paying more than 50 percent of their income with the scheduled rent increase in May. Some have sought out roommates while others are contemplating selling their homes.

As a senior community, many Wildwood residents are also treading on thin ice. The death of a spouse can cut income by half and lead to high-duress situations where homes are sold below their actual value.

“Many people have had to move when that very thing happens,” said one resident.

When asked whether the rent controls recently passed statewide by the Oregon Legislature were part of the solution, the answer was a resounding, “No.”

The rent controls will still allow 7 percent increases per year plus a 3 percent cost of living increase. At a place like Wildwood, that would push the rent north of $800 a month, which can be twice as much as residents are paying on their actual mortgage.

“[The rent controls] are so favorable to the landlord that there’s nothing there for anyone renting anything,” said a Wildwood resident.

Despite Monte’s assertion that there are no plans to close the park, residents say the all indications are to the contrary.

“We own our house and, if we have to walk away from it, we take a huge loss,” one said. “If they can get us out, they have all the infrastructure to make this place into something else.”