WORTHINGTON — The Sungold Heights mobile home park in Worthington is undergoing a $2.57 million infrastructure rehabilitation project this year, funded largely by grants and deferred loans totaling $2.3 million.

The rehab work, which began last month, includes abandoning aging sewer and water infrastructure on the park’s west side and building new main and lateral lines to individual homes, milling existing and badly deteriorated pavement, and creating new bituminous streets in the 106-site community.

All of the work is made possible as a result of the park’s former owner opting to sell the property to park tenants.

Northcountry Cooperative Foundation (NCF), a Minneapolis-based nonprofit, worked with residents of Sungold Heights for two years on the process to form a cooperative and take ownership of the mobile home park, according to NCF’s Victoria Clark. Ownership was transferred to the cooperative in June 2019, thanks to an upfront $1 million commitment from Minnesota Housing to finance the rehab work.

The remainder of the funds were secured in December 2020 through the Manufactured Home Community Redevelopment program.

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Taking pride in ownership

The cooperative is now governed by a six-member board of directors comprised of park tenants. Mario Cornéjo, a 15-year resident of Sungold Heights, serves as board president. He’s thrilled work is finally being done in the community after years of asking the previous owner to address maintenance issues.

“For years it’s been really, really bad and now we’re getting stuff done in our community,” shared Cornéjo. “The residents in Sungold Heights are very pleased that this is taken care of.”

Cornéjo said about 80% of the residents in the mobile home community had problems with water and sewer pipes constantly freezing during the winter. He hopes the new lines will alleviate a majority of those problems.

“We have faith that it’s going to change and get better for the future,” he added.

Back in 2019, Cornéjo said frost boils damaged many of the streets within the park. It was so bad that garbage haulers refused to enter Sungold Heights, forcing residents to wheel their garbage bins to the nearest adjacent street for service.

“We weren’t happy about it because we pay our taxes,” Cornéjo said, adding that it went on for an entire year.

“A lot of people just left the trailer court because of all those issues,” Cornéjo shared.

When tenants learned the previous owner was looking to sell Sungold Heights, Cornéjo said residents were worried about where they might find a different place to live — especially with Worthington’s lack of available and affordable housing.

That’s when NCF stepped in, as it assisted tenants through the process of forming a cooperative.

Cornéjo said the residents of Sungold Heights are content now, and anxious for their homes to become even better.

“The finishing of the road is the start of a better life,” he said, adding that park residents want to improve the playground area for their children, renovate the storm shelter and possibly add a community center.

“We’re talking about getting new homes, too,” Cornéjo said. “We have a lot of projects in mind. We want something better for our kids.”

A triple win for Worthington

Sungold Heights is the first southwest Minnesota project NCF has assisted with, according to Clark. It’s also the largest and most ethnically diverse of the mobile home communities with which the nonprofit has worked.

NCF is one of about a dozen nonprofit organizations across the county that uses the Resident Owned Communities (ROC) model to assist in converting mobile home parks from private to cooperative ownership. Clark said NCF, which has completed nine Minnesota projects and three in Wisconsin since 2004, helped Sungold Heights residents establish governance and find ways to finance the rehabilitation work.

As that rehab work continues — it’s slated to be completed in October — NCF will continue to support the cooperative through the life of the loan on the property. Clark said each tenant in the cooperative represents one vote, and the full membership makes all budgetary decisions, as well as capital improvement projects.

“The next phase of their improvement project is … assistance with home rehab and new home placement,” Clark said. “They have a few vacant lots in the community and they’d like to bring in new homes. Some have also expressed rehab, and others have expressed wanting to bring in a newer home.

“They have the control now and they have us to help them identify the resources,” she added.

Clark called the Sungold Heights project a triple win. Not only are residents going to have new streets and working water and sewer lines, but the community also plans to partner with Highland Homes to bring in some new residences. That will keep jobs in Worthington and lead to improved housing for the community.

Ultimately, the value in helping Sungold Heights form a cooperative means that the manufactured home community can continue to provide much needed affordable housing in a community like Worthington.

“Manufactured housing can be a part of your affordable housing solution,” she said. “There’s a lot of stigma and historic animosity toward these communities. We don’t see it that way. With investment, these can be vibrant places where people own their homes. It can be a pathway up for them instead of being a last resort.

“That’s what the residents of Sungold Heights are doing,” she added. “We want to be a vibrant asset to this community.”