The sun glitters on the blue waters of Saratoga Lake in upstate New York and refracts off the lines of bright white boats docked at a nearby boat launch and marina. The lake is located near Saratoga Springs, a longtime tourist destination in eastern Saratoga County that’s filled with all the hallmarks of a high-end vacation paradise—5-star hotels, a casino, golf course, racetrack, multiple entertainment venues, and the expensive and exclusive Prime Steak House. But luxury and scenery don’t convey a complete picture of the area.
Income inequality is stark in Saratoga County, so stark in fact that studies have put it on par with San Francisco and Manhattan. The Economic Policy Institute ranked the county 28th in income inequality out of 3,000 U.S. counties.
The Saratoga Lakeview Mobile Home Park, which lies adjacent to Saratoga Lake, is one such community. It’s where Angela Kaufman moved a few years ago in hopes of finding an affordable home for the long term. But things haven’t worked out as planned. The property changed ownership not too long after Kaufman moved in, and ever since, she says she’s been fighting to keep her home in the face of escalating harassment.
Kaufman’s story highlights a loophole in provisions that are supposed to protect mobile home park residents, as well as the power of park owners to make life difficult for tenants in technically legal ways.
‘We Thought We Were Doing the Right Thing’
Kaufman moved into Saratoga Lakeview Mobile Home Park in 2020 with her partner and two rescue dogs. It was there that she hoped to find some peace to recover from a brain injury and ride out the pandemic.
“My partner was not working at the time,” she recalls. “I am self-employed, my health was starting to deteriorate.” Their rent of $1,030 a month in the neighboring town of Clifton Park was going up regularly, and wealthy people were moving into the area from New York City. Knowing they were going to be priced out before long, they started looking at mobile homes.
Manufactured homes are one of the most common forms of unsubsidized affordable housing, especially in less urban areas. In a mobile home park, purchasers buy the homes, but pay lot rent to the owner of the land on which the home sits. Park owners are responsible for infrastructure and maintenance of common areas.
Kaufman and her partner looked at parks for a few months and even held off on making an offer on a home in another park because Kaufman’s partner had had a good experience with the then-owner of Lakeview, who had a reputation for being reasonable and hands-off with tenants. Lakeview was home to 14 households, including families with young kids, elderly folks with chronic diseases, and a few single young adults. When the couple visited the 3.2-acre park, there were obvious signs of disrepair—a decrepit pump house, potholes, and an abandoned trailer—and there were several Trump signs, which made them nervous.
In the end, however, the ability to walk their dogs on the property and have an unobtrusive landlord was enough to seal the deal. They took out a $20,000 loan to purchase the home in July 2020, and paid another $13,000 for repairs, including fixing a leaky roof.
With a loan payment of $325 a month and lot rent of $425, they thought they would be able to afford to live at Lakeview for a long time. “We figured . . . if my health gets worse, if I end up on disability, I can afford to live here. We thought we were doing the right thing to prepare for the future,” says Kaufman.
A New Owner
To Kaufman’s surprise, however, in January 2021 residents learned that the owner of the mobile home park intended to sell it.
The intended buyer, Michael Giovanone, owns a boat and RV storage unit that borders the park, and he wanted to expand it. Under current New York state law, residents would have two years to vacate the property.
But also under that same law, residents of mobile home parks receive the right to match the buyer’s offer within 120 days and buy the park for themselves (known as right of first refusal) when a prospective buyer intends to change the use of the land to non-residential within five years of closing. The law requires the prospective purchaser to certify whether they intend to change the use when they make the offer, and requires the seller to notify residents if a prospective purchaser intends to change the use of the land, so that their right to match the offer can be invoked. The offer to match was $650,000.
When she got that notice, Kaufman, a politically active author, decided not to just accept the inevitable. She reached out to her neighbors and to tenant organizations. With a local nonprofit, Rebuilding Together Saratoga County, they began exploring whether the residents could form the required homeowners association and come up with the funds through state grants and other support.
About halfway through the 120-day window, however, Giovanone and the owner formulated a new deal that involved adding different land along the lake to the offer, making its effective value more like $1.2 million, something the residents would have a much harder time matching. Giovanone also certified that the park’s use wouldn’t be changed for five years, canceling the residents’ right to be given a chance to match the offer. Without that right, residents ceased to have access to various sources of state funding and no legally protected window of time in which to raise the money, making it certain they wouldn’t be able to make a competitive offer.
Kaufman recalls being on the conference call when tenants received the news. While it was framed as a win in that it bought the tenants more time to find a new home, Kaufman was skeptical that they’d get even that. “I told them all that promise means is that he’ll drive us all out individually,” she says.
Changes at the Property
Since then, conditions at the property have gone downhill. Most of the trees have been cut down. The abandoned trailer was demolished, but the debris was left behind. Yvonne Maldonado, an organizer with MH Action, a group that organizes residents of mobile home parks, says she cried after seeing what had changed after Giovanone took ownership of the property. “I went out before he’d taken over and there was shade, all these nice trees that gave everyone privacy,” she says. “I went back in April , and I was just devastated. This man made the park look like war zone. There were pools of water everywhere full of debris and kids were playing in them.”
Giovanone is not eager to push back against descriptions of the park as a run-down hazard. In fact, he points to those conditions as a reason why it should no longer be used as a residential space. “This is not a typical mobile home park,” he says. “Nothing has been done for 30 years. Someone is going to get hurt or die. The town knows it, the police know it, law enforcement know it.”
It’s also, as Giovanone told the Albany Times Union earlier this year, “in the center of the commercial district.” In other words, a place where perhaps visibly poor people are not wanted. “Back in the 40s, a trailer park, it probably belonged,” he said. “But it’s 2022. It’s in the center of the commercial zone. There is no public water. I’m putting on a use that the town openly said they support.” He added that he has 45 names on a waiting list for boat and RV storage.
Despite his commitment not to change the use away from residential for five years, Giovanone has actively been encouraging tenants to take the relocation assistance he will be mandated by law to offer and to leave sooner rather than later.
He told Shelterforce once he gets down to only two or three remaining tenants he’ll be allowed to shut the power off to the park and close it down. He referred to that threshold as “the magic number” on multiple occasions. The legal basis for his magic number assertion is unclear, and state agencies appear to have conflicting opinions.
An answering machine message for Giovanone’s business says he will soon have multiple new storage units ready for rent.
Not Going Quietly
Kaufman has not been making this process easy for Giovanone. She’s been vocal to the press and on social media with slogans like “People need homes, not boats.” She tried to delay the tree removal while she confirmed it was allowed under park rules. She has refused buyout money, saying it wouldn’t be enough to relocate and that her home is too old to move safely. (Despite their common name, today’s mobile homes are typically not economical for homeowners to actually move.) She has continued to try to talk to her neighbors about resisting the change.
Giovanone for his part, has called police on Kaufman, once for allegedly threatening him—which Kaufman denies—and another for allegedly interfering with a tree removal, for which she was arrested.
A gate was recently installed directly behind Kaufman’s driveway to allow for access to Giovanone’s neighboring boat storage unit. Why it was put there is not immediately clear as there is no road to meet it on the other side. A giant orange dumpster was also left in her driveway. Giovanone told Shelterforce that the dumpster is for a tenant to clean up debris after her roof blew off during a storm and that it was in Kaufman’s driveway because her preexisting carport was blocking his new emergency access road. He paused and added, “Sweetheart, the dumpster is the result of your actions.”
Kaufman and her partner won’t even leave their house now without their body cameras turned on, making sure to record everything they say or do while on or near park property. “He’s trying to make an example of me because I’m the one making noise,” says Kaufman.
Giovanone has made no effort to hide his contempt for Kaufman, but denies he’s taken malicious action. He says the tree removal was done to protect trailers from falling branches.
In April 2022 he filed an eviction case against her alleging she was trespassing on other lots, she had fixed her roof without a permit, and her carport interfered with snow removal. (He later changed his story on the problem with the carport being emergency access.)
“That’s my property,” Giovanone told Shelterforce before the hearing. “Should I take my loader and just take her carport off my property, I can do that. But I’m a law-abiding citizen and I will let a judge deal with it.” Kaufman’s leased lot includes the space where the carport sits, and has going back to previous tenants.
Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, who represents the area, said Kaufman’s “situation makes it clear that the rights of the residents of manufactured home parks are tenuous. It is outrageous what [the new owner is] doing . . . The irony of the housing courts being backed up for two years due to the pandemic and yet he’s able to get a date to evict her in weeks is shocking to me. The whole thing is terrible.”
A Day in Court
On July 13, Kaufman and Giovanone appeared in court. Kaufman amassed binders of documentation to disprove Giovanone’s claims. She says the alleged trespassing stems from her delivering information to residents about rental assistance programs during the pandemic. The roof repair was done before Giovanone bought the property, and the local buildings inspector declined to cite Kaufman for her roof or carport despite being asked to by Giovanone.
The hearing was marked by outbursts from Giovanone, who instead of answering questions from Kaufman’s attorney at one point told the judge he was insulted to be treated in such a manner and began listing his associations with law enforcement.
A tenant brought to the stand by Giovanone’s attorney to testify to Kaufman’s “disruptive” behavior appeared to turn on the landlord on cross-examination, saying Giovanone had ordered him to post disparaging remarks about Kaufman on social media. At the end of the testimony Kaufman’s attorney thanked the witness and apologized if he felt threatened by any of the questions. The witness demurred and said the only thing he was intimidated by was Giovanone.
Mid-proceeding, the judge tossed out Giovanone’s suit.
“He’s Trying to Intimidate Everyone.”
In the last year and a half, five households have left the park. Giovanone says some of those residents left because of Kaufman’s actions. “She’s my biggest advocate,” he says, touting letters he’s received from tenants.
Kaufman and her lawyer suspect the letters are part of a quid pro quo for the financial help, especially since one of them was from the tenant who testified during the eviction hearing that he had been intimidated by Giovanone into taking actions against his will.
“He’s trying to intimidate everyone into just . . . leaving before the deadline,” says Kaufman.
The New York State attorney general’s office has sent Giovanone a cease-and-desist letter ordering him to stop harassing tenants.
Investors Snapping Up Opportunities
Kaufman’s situation isn’t fully typical of the plight of most mobile homeowners in New York state. Increasingly mobile home parks are being bought up by investment firms whose business model relies on keeping them residential—though they may do little to no maintenance while significantly increasing rent. Kevin Borden, executive director of MH Action, says his organization is primarily focused on organizing communities around rent gouging and neglect perpetrated by large investment firms.
“What we’re seeing is that the local mom and pops aged out of ownership and that started consolidation with these predatory investment firms,” says Borden. They aren’t seeing a lot of changes of use, he notes, “because the profit margin [from rent] is so high right now.”
But still, some of the legislative changes MH Action is fighting for might have helped Kaufman and her neighbors before things got to this point. For example, there is legislation pending in the New York State Legislature that would close the loophole that only gives mobile home park tenants right of first refusal to buy the property if the buyer plans to change its use within five years. The new legislation would give tenants the right to match the offer whenever a park is sold. If this loophole had been patched in 2021, residents of Lakeview wouldn’t have had their right to match Giovanone’s offer taken away. Residents across the country are forming resident-owned cooperatives to buy and manage parks themselves, and financing is available.
Even without purchasing a park, tenants can organize against an unresponsive landlord. Orchard Grove Village, a manufactured home park outside of Rochester, New York, has followed a more typical trajectory—and the kind of collective action Kaufman had been hoping for. When Cook Properties, the largest owner of manufactured home parks in New York state, bought the park in September of 2020 and announced a rent increase of 6 percent, MH Action helped residents of the park organize a tenants association. That association hired a lawyer who negotiated a lower increase accompanied with promises to address backed-up sewers, a lack of running water, and other repairs and outstanding issues. Park residents say the repairs and improvements were never made, so as a group they’ve organized a rent strike to bring about real improvements.
[RELATED ARTICLE: Tenant Power—Organizing for Rent Strikes and Landlord Negotiations]
Kaufman, on the other hand, finds herself at the mercy of a landlord who has no interest in having human tenants at all.
“My friends and my family sometimes ask me why I don’t just leave. Why don’t I just pack up and get out, so I don’t have this stress?” says Kaufman. The answer? “I don’t have any place to go.”
Giovanone counters that he has paid for residents to relocate and that he would have gladly helped Kaufman find another residence. “If she wants to move, there are places to go. . . . If maybe the first day she met me she hadn’t threatened to kill me and instead put on a pot of coffee and asked what plans I would have, she’d have been sitting in a new place overlooking a lake right now.” (Kaufman had a video recording of their first encounter ready to play in court to rebut that accusation, but the judge stopped the case before it came up.)
In any case, with housing costs so high, a one-time relocation package will only go so far. The state required amount once a change of use is declared is up to $15,000. One resident whose doctor told him after four heart attacks that he shouldn’t go back to work told the Albany Times Union in January he’d taken on two jobs to be able to afford to move out of the park.
At base, housing security, tenant rights, maintenance of park infrastructure, and relocation terms are too important to be conditional on making nice with your landlord. That point connects Kaufman, Orchard Grove residents, and other mobile home residents across the country who are trying to resist what feel like overwhelming forces.
“Whether I’m evicted next month or in three years I’m still going to be homeless,” says Kaufman. “I may as well stay and fight.”