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At a Mass. mobile home park, residents are evicted for a new housing development

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Mobile homes have long been an affordable housing option, but big investment firms have been buying up the land they sit on, causing homeowners to worry about whether they'll be able to stay. From member station WBUR in Boston, Simon Rios reports on how corporate ownership is upending the lives of people in one park.

SIMON RIOS, BYLINE: Outside John Piazza's trailer, the 84-year-old former harbor captain and amateur historian is sorting through his life's belongings.

JOHN PIAZZA SR: You want drills? I got a bunch for you to take home. Look at them. Keep them. There's three or four. Keep them.

RIOS: His son John Jr. is helping him pack and trying to persuade him to toss more stuff. They argue over a pile of boxes Piazza hopes a cousin will take.

JOHN PIAZZA SR: This is - look at it, Joe Santi - Joe - this is all going out.

JOHN PIAZZA JR: Yeah, Joe Santi's been here three different times.

JOHN PIAZZA SR: No.

JOHN PIAZZA JR: If he doesn't take them, he doesn't want them.

JOHN PIAZZA SR: How do you know?

JOHN PIAZZA JR: Well, I don't know. If he wanted them he would have...

JOHN PIAZZA SR: He's in love with them. He grabbed the two bikes.

JOHN PIAZZA JR: Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah.

RIOS: Piazza has lived more than two decades at Lee's Trailer Park in Revere, a small working-class city just north of Boston. Living in a mobile home was a good choice for him when rent control ended in Boston in the '90s.

JOHN PIAZZA SR: I said, let me look at it, and I fell in love with it. I says, wow, this is bigger than my apartment. And I bought it - 20,000.

RIOS: Mobile home parks are home to 22 million people across the country. But they've become a target for corporate investors, accounting for roughly a quarter of park sales, according to the firm Real Capital Analytics. Residents worry this means increased rents and the possibility of displacement because even those who own their mobile homes don't usually own the land they sit on. Piazza was planning to spend the rest of his days at Lee's Trailer Park, but a year and a half ago, it was sold to an entity managed by a Boston investment firm, Helge Capital. They soon started evicting people to make way for a new housing development. Piazza recalls standing outside with his neighbors as one of them watched his house being destroyed.

JOHN PIAZZA SR: The person that runs the machine put the top jaw on top and the bottom jaw above the metal frame, and squish, and that whole wall came off.

RIOS: The park's new owners wouldn't agree to an interview, but in a statement they said they have treated every resident fairly. They've also been compensating residents for the value of homes that can't easily be moved. The park's former owner, William Settipane, says he feels for some of the people whose trailers were crushed, but...

WILLIAM SETTIPANE: Well, they're paying the people, though. And he agrees to take it. They ain't do nothing wrong. They ain't forcing no one to take it.

RIOS: Settipane also says the new housing development planned would be a big improvement over the park, which he says has long been dogged by drugs and crime.

SETTIPANE: The city should be glad that they got rid of the - get rid of the park because it was nothing but a problem, even though I was the owner.

RIOS: Mobile park advocates say parks like Lee's get into bad shape because park owners let it happen. And cities don't do enough to stop it.

ETHAN MASCOOP: This looks like there was a - certainly a home here. And maybe over here where the dumpster is. Dumpster's not covered. Minor things, but still violations. Drainage is a problem. So we have wetlands issues here, too. You see here, it looks like a river or a brook.

RIOS: Boston University public health instructor Ethan Mascoop sits on the state Manufactured Homes Commission. He surveyed Lee's Trailer Park and spotted one health violation after another, even though people still live there.

MASCOOP: It looks like a remains of a war. There's stuff strewn about. There's people's - some belongings. It's very, very sad.

RIOS: Mascoop says he wants to know where the city is with so many apparent health violations. The Revere mayor's office did not respond to multiple requests for interviews. But in the meantime, the park's population is slowly dwindling. Roughly 100 people have already left Lee's and just 17 mobile homes remain. Those are gradually being removed as well. Back at John Piazza's mobile home, surrounded by decades worth of belongings, his son John Jr. says it's sad to see his dad forced to leave this way.

JOHN PIAZZA JR: I mean, he's - his independence is gone. He can walk out here, get in his car, go shopping and stuff like that now.

JOHN PIAZZA SR: Exactly.

JOHN PIAZZA JR: You know, he's not going to be able to do that in the city.

RIOS: That's because Piazza is headed to an assisted living home in Boston, where he won't have his car any longer. He doesn't want to leave, but he counts his blessings. He says some of the people who lived at Lee's Trailer Park have no place to go. For NPR News, I'm Simon Rios in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Simon Rios