“Follow the Money.”
– a maxim used by journalists and investigators.
“Sometimes the best place to hide is in plain sight.”
– axiomatic expression used by numerous authors.
‘One should separate wheat from chaff.’
– Per Dictionary, to separate wheat from chaff means sort
the valuable from the worthless, as in ‘I hope we’ll get a
preview of the auction so we can separate the wheat from the chaff.’
This idiom alludes to the ancient practice of winnowing grain.
“There’s class warfare, all right, “but it’s my class,
the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
– Warren Buffett, cited by the New York Times and other sources.
“Superficiality is the curse of the modern world.”
– Matthew Kelly, author,
speaker (i.e.: don’t skim, read deeply for understanding.
Bear in mind that Buffett says he reads 5 or 6 hours daily. He considers
reading one of his most important habits for success).
This article is going to be presented in sections, laying out step-by-step some important points necessary for the understanding of what’s gone wrong in parts of the affordable housing arena, and how that could be corrected.
One ought to begin with facts, one should cite sources, and then someone can apply logic to arrive at common-sense understanding. A reality-based understanding is the foundation for sound, sustainable solutions.
We’ll begin with a brief but interesting article written by Golden State Manufactured-Home Owner League (GSMOL) then president Michelle Smith. Her point made us aware of where the activist group MHAction gets its money, and it is relevant to residents, policy advocates, lawmakers and others. We first republished this letter under fair use guidelines in 2018.
A Cautionary Tale by Michelle Smith, GSMOL President
Recently, the GSMOL Board of Directors received a written complaint from a member about a group called MHAction. After doing some research, we found this group does not have their own non-profit standing but rather, they use other groups’ legal standing to solicit funding. They have been calling and emailing GSMOL leaders, asking for personal meetings, apparently hoping to build their membership from our leaders.
According to the GSMOL member’s complaint, MHAction takes credit from their association with other groups’ accomplishments, then uses those “pirated” accomplishments to apply for grant money under the category of “Education”. Their website shows that they are a New York based group with local leaders in California.
- MHAction (501c4) is a fiscally sponsored project AKA Advocacy Fund and
- MH Education Fund, (501c3) is a fiscally sponsored project at the Tides Foundation
It’s apparent that MH Action is competing with GSMOL for Educational Grants;
trying to recruit GSMOL leaders into its group, infiltrate GSMOL, and trying to position itself to use GSMOL’s accomplishments to fuel their grant requests.
They did NOT do what they promised to do for the Humboldt County RSO group, yet they now claim THEY were the ones who successfully promoted the RSO in Humboldt County…this quote is directly from them: “MHAction has successfully pushed for advances in state and local policy including the passage of a rent stabilization ordinance in Humboldt County, California”
I am so suspect of this group that I stand by my oath to “protect and defend the purposes and interests of GSMOL…” from being publicly identified with MHAction. If my perceptions are correct, this group’s real intentions will be eventually revealed. In the meantime, I fear there could be legal investigations into this group which could reflect poorly on anyone associated with them. GSMOL’s Board decided not to have any public association with MH Action. Please be aware in case YOU get a phone call or email from anyone in this organization. “No thank you” is the best response.
What the GSMOL president described is a group – MHAction – that behaves in an allegedly problematic fashion. MHLivingNews fact checked her point about MHAction funding, and she proved to be correct. That fact-check – following the money – led us to a surprising point of origin for a good bit of that money.
Warren Buffett, is the chairman of the Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate. See the graphic below that traces that money-trail that Smith described above. Note that we’ve asked manufactured housing unit leaders in firms owned by Berkshire, as well as the Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI), to respond to the concerns noted in this and related reports. They’ve repeatedly declined comment.
In the video posted below, there is at times clear enthusiasm by Berkshire Hathaway manufactured home division leader Kevin Clayton, the President and CEO of Clayton Homes. While the lenders 21st Mortgage Corporation and Vanderbilt Mortgage Corp (VMF) are separate entities, they are ‘related’ to Clayton under the Berkshire umbrella. 21st serves independent retailers and communities, while VMF serves Clayton owned retail outlets.
Starting about the 50-minute mark of the video above, pro-Berkshire interviewer Robert Miles asks Kevin Clayton the following question.
Q – How would you manage the other CEOs?
“The same that Warren [Buffett] does,” said Kevin Clayton.
“…Be as competitive as you can. Deepen and widen that moat every day.”
MHLivingNews has previously done a deep dive into how that “Moat” of Warren Buffett works, and how being a tough ‘competitor’ apparently was used to purportedly undermine thousands of independent retailers, by cutting them off from financing. That in turn had several impacts. One was to reduce the number of factories producing homes. Another was to cause more of the industry’s retail outlets to consolidate into fewer hands, about half of which is now owned or controlled by Clayton Homes. See that report linked below.
But that purported market manipulation, which some antitrust attorneys say appears to be ‘smoking gun’ evidence of antitrust violations, also had other impacts on manufactured home businesses and residents that are often overlooked. Some of the implications that has are linked here.
Among those harm was done do was arguably independently owned land-lease manufactured home communities, what some errantly call ‘mobile home parks.’ First, there have been no mobile homes built since June 15, 1976, the date that HUD Code manufactured homes were first produced or were ‘born.’ But also of importance, as some manufactured home (MH) resident community leaders have rightly observed, many mobile homes and the millions of manufactured homes are not easy or inexpensive to move. It requires special equipment, experts, and costs thousands to move one.
Some MH resident leaders have argued that they are better understood as ‘immobile homes.’
Here’s why that matters in the context of manufactured home (MH) community resident issues.
Independent retailers for decades routinely supplied the new manufactured homes going into the majority of ‘mom and pop’ owned manufactured home communities (MHCs).
So, when thousands of independently owned retailers were eliminated by the purported market manipulation of Clayton Homes and their affiliated lending, then tens of thousands of independently owned land-lease MHCs were hobbled over time too.
How so? As the years marched on, vacancy rates in land lease communities naturally increased, because the retailers that delivered homes into their communities had vanished, as was documented here.
As any community – not just a manufactured home community – ages, the infrastructure needs maintaining. Streets, water lines, sewer lines and other infrastructure can be pricey. So, when the vacancy rates get high enough, and the income coming from the property goes low enough, what options does an independently owned business have?
Note that this process is so subtle, that absent reading a report like this, thousands of those community owners never imagined the cause might be linked to something Clayton Homes and 21st Mortgage did over a decade ago.
Many of those struggling property owners will inevitably sell. Who do they sell to? Clearly, it is to larger companies that are building a ‘portfolio’ of properties. That need not be problematic, but it may be so, depending upon the management philosophy of the new owners. Examples of problematic behavior are linked here, here, and in the new report below.
Some of those aggressive new owners that purchased one or more properties from ‘mom and pop’ operations often have little direct connection to that community’s residents. So, unlike the family owned business, some – not all – corporations lack the personal ties that the family owned community had with their residents. Sadly, but understandably, an often-adversarial relationship between management and residents develops as a result.
Another option for an exiting ‘mom and pop’ community owner is to sell to a redeveloper. When a property is sold for redevelopment, that in turn means that those remaining – singles, couples, households, and families with their ‘immobile homes’ – are now forced into making a difficult and costly choices. Note: for those who are pondering buying a manufactured home in a land-lease, if you want a good measure of security, you should ask the property owner to give written assurances that the property won’t be sold for redevelopment, nor will it be sold to an investment group without appropriate safeguards being provided for the resident/homeowners.
That said, what has drawn too little attention until recently is the role that Berkshire Hathaway owned brands played in those above described process. See the article linked below for a vexing example.
New readers should bear in mind that to us at MHLivingNews, affordable housing and manufactured homes are nonpartisan – or bipartisan – issues. A great example of how lawmakers on both sides of the two major party aisles can come together over the impressive facts about manufactured homes is linked below. And that’s the key, facts and evidence should be among the drivers.
With those predicates, let’s turn to back to that Clayton video interview above. Because immediately after talking about “the Moat,” interviewer Robert Miles and Kevin Clayton pivot to nonprofits and foundations. Coincidence?
The significance will be outlined after reviewing some additional pull-quotes from the video.
“In terms of corporate responsibility, corporate charity, personal philanthropy, I’ve found that most successful, if not all successful all have a mission outside of their own business,” said interviewer Robert Miles, in teeing up his next question to Kevin Clayton, starting at about the 51:10 mark in his video.
“What’s the Clayton Home corporate charity?” –
Clayton’s CEO answers in this posted video; “Two fold, we try to be very active philanthropically in a lot of areas, but the two primary focuses that we have:
One, we think in the future factory-built housing will play a larger role working through nonprofits, providing housing, particularly in urban infill and housing of all types to people that couldn’t afford it otherwise. Rebuilding some downtown areas, all that. We really have a great product for that, and we are getting better at that. And Ford Foundation is spending 10 million dollars showing the nonprofits how to use factory-built housing for that. So, we are following their lead in that area. Got a ways to go.
Second of all, is education. In working with schools, and we are kind of watching Bill Gates and the lead that he is taking there, where he and Melinda and that foundation, they work through a lot of organizations, one of those which is Dagget [Family Foundation], which does these model schools conference and symposium. We are working with several high schools in our area [Knoxville, TN metro] and middle schools, sending them to that conference. Getting them involved in that network. It is really sharing best practices. Trying to start teaching more of what’s relevant. People come out of high school that are ready to go to work and Clayton Homes and many other jobs. And keep them in those towns where they were raised. Make sure that there are good jobs there because ultimately the data shows that to build a great community, they have great schools. If you have great schools, the rest of the things usually come right behind that. So, we are having a lot of fun being involved in that.”
Q: What about the Clayton Family Foundation?
A, from Kevin Clayton: “Very similar to support both of those initiatives that I just mentioned. And, ah, my father [Jim Clayton] has control of that foundation. And its getting quite large. And its tended to give money where Clayton Homes has been successful and have team members. We hope some of these initiatives we are working on will be able to take out to these communities where we do business and other places.”
Clayton is clearly motivated about using nonprofits and foundations. His own words reflect that while it sounds ‘philanthropic,’ they clearly see this as a method for benefiting their own business interests.
With that said, let’s turn to some third-party publishers that have written about the problems with Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway, Clayton Homes, their lenders 21st and VMF. These describe how “the Moat” as unethical and a means of forging a monopoly.
- The New York Times had an interesting article on the historic trends, and named several industries being monopolized.
- The Atlantic, without specifying in detail how the monopolization was being accomplished, noted that the independent retailers in manufactured housing were being rapidly eliminated/consolidated, that report is linked here.
- GuruFocus said “Warren Buffett Can’t Escape Unethical Strategic Moats,” their specific points are linked here.
- The Nation called it “The Dirty Secret Behind Warren Buffett’s Billions…” and specifies Clayton Homes among those using the strategic moat in ‘dirty’ ways.
- Seattle Times – Federal Officials Investigating Practices of Warren Buffett’s Mobile Home Business.
- The Jacksonville Florida Times Union summarized the connection between the John Oliver viral hit video dubbed “Mobile Homes,” MHI, Clayton Homes, and their related lenders. That op-ed was first fact-checked by an editor, before it was published not only in the one newspaper it was submitted, but at least in 5 Florida newspapers.
When one looks at the last linked article above, it briefly makes the point that Buffett’s financial ties through foundations and nonprofits are flowing to ‘both sides’ of several fights involving manufactured housing. Buffett led Berkshire brands are certainly supporting the Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI), which a staffer with an important Democratic Congressional lawmaker told MHLivingNews last month has a reputation for being ‘anti-consumer.’
Then, as GSMOL’s letter above pointed out, the Tides nonprofit supports MHAction. MHAction and two other activist groups created a white paper that in turn where used to attack predatory or aggressive corporate community owners. Here’s where the principle of wheat and chaff becomes critical. Facts and the interpretation or proposed solution for those claimed facts don’t always align. Someone can have accurate facts, but draw flawed conclusions from those facts.
It is useful and important to understand that the behavior that MHAction’s co-branded white paper describes. The practices mentioned are troubling, as MHLivingNews and our sister site MHProNews has noted on several occasions in numerous reports.
That said, what is subtle but hiding in the open is this. The headlines and videos like John Oliver’s ‘bad news’ reports arguably harm smaller firms that had nothing to do with the problem as much, perhaps more, than the larger firms that actually are the cause of the problem.
Evidence for that is easy to point to as well. In the midst of an affordable housing crisis, when there is so much third-party proof that manufactured homes are a good and proven solution, new manufactured home shipments are stunningly in decline year-over-year for 8 straight months.
Rephrased, what this diabolical process yields is this. By causing bad news, and by failing to properly promote the good news about manufactured homes, the net result is that total new home sales can be driven down. Fostering unrest among current mobile and manufactured home (MH) owners makes prospective MH owners doubt the value proposition.
So, the MHAction style of ‘activism’ is arguably harmful to the interests of manufactured homeowners, as well as to independently owned and ethical manufactured home companies. GSMOL’s president’s letter above is, based on such an analysis, is correct to doubt the authenticity and the trust- worthiness of MHAction.
Recently, left-of-center CNBC reported that Buffett is donating several billion dollars more to nonprofits. “Warren Buffett said he will donate $3.6 billion worth of Berkshire Hathaway shares to five foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.” Note that was one of the nonprofits Clayton mentioned, and that Buffet himself sits as a trustee on the Gates foundation.
CNBC elaborated. “The Oracle of Omaha will convert 11,250 of his Class A shares into 16.875 million Class B shares. About 16.8 million of these Class B shares will be donated to five foundations: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, Sherwood Foundation, Howard G. Buffett Foundation and NoVo Foundation, the company said in a statement on Monday.”
It is the NoVo Foundation that Buffett’s ‘charitable donations’ flowed from into the Tides nonprofit, and from there into MHAction.
There is much more to unpack. But let’s begin to draw these threads together with the following reasonable conclusions.
- Foundations and nonprofits can be ‘weaponized’ to create reports that appear to be arms-length from the source of the money. The MHAction white paper is an example of that, see that white paper, linked here.
- Such negative news – which may be accurate – can nevertheless add to an already vicious cycle that harms smaller operations more than larger ones. That in turn harms the interests of millions of manufactured home owners.
- It isn’t the smaller firms that normally the cause of the bad news, rather, it is the aggressive larger ones. But driving new home sales down keeps occupancy lower, and that in turn means that marginal communities may be forced to sell.
With that backdrop and context, consider some pull quotes from the recent Democratic primary presidential debates.
- “It has been far too long that the monopolies have been making the campaign contributions, have been funding the super PACs, have been out there making sure that their influence is heard and felt in every single decision that gets made in Washington.” Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA-D).
- “I think we have a serious problem in our country with corporate consolidation. And you see the evidence of that in how dignity is being stripped from labor, and we have people that work full-time jobs and still can’t make a living wage…
…And you see that by just the fact that this is actually an economy that’s hurting small businesses and not allowing them to compete…
…So I feel very strongly about the need to check the corporate consolidation and let the free market work.” Senator Cory Booker (NJ-D).
- “…the 40 million of us who can’t start a family, can’t take a good idea and start a business and can’t buy our first home.” – Congressman Eric Swalwell (CA-D). Let’s note that citing these or other partisan sources are quotes, not to be understood as an endorsement.
In fairness, there are GOP lawmakers and President Donald J. Trump have been talking about the outsized role that big conglomerates play and they too are taking on the questions and concerns about monopolization and consolidation. Word has leaked out that big tech is being probed by the antitrust division of the Department of Justice. There are sources that suggest that several investigations are underway aimed at Clayton Homes and their lenders in Washington, D.C. A letter from Senate Democrats pushing that with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is linked here.
Rephrased, on both sides of the political aisle, there are voices that see the problem of consolidation and monopolization to be real. That very much applies, as the above and linked reports arguably demonstrates, to the manufactured home industry.
There are also those in both major parties who see the value of manufactured homes.
But what has gone under-reported is how powerful conglomerates and the uber-rich like Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway can weaponize nonprofits and foundations, yet still get tax benefits for it. Meanwhile those nonprofits and foundations are little more than tools in their warchest to build their monopolistic moats.
The solution to much of this is to enforce existing laws.
- There are already antitrust laws on the books that could be used to break up or otherwise punish misbehavior. See our prior report on that topic, linked here.
- Enhanced preemption is already federal law for manufactured housing. There is evidence that we have previously published and will build upon that Berkshire brands, their surrogates – including MHI – are suppressing a knowledge of enhanced preemption under the Manufactured Housing Improvement Act (MHIA) of 2000 law. Perhaps the top expert on that topic is Mark Weiss, JD, president and CEO of the Manufactured Housing Association for Regulatory Reform (MHARR). That Washington, D.C. based trade group has persistently promoted the public call for the full implementation of the MHIA law and enhanced preemption. Weiss, per reports, was involved in the drafting of the law, so he is very informed on this topic. See a recent and important example, linked here. See our step-by-step analysis, linked here.
- Duty to Serve (DTS) by the Government Sponsored Enterprises and reform of the FHA Title I and Title II loan programs, to make them easier to use for current and potential future manufactured homeowners. If more lending options existed, then Berkshire owned 21st and VMF would have less power and influence over the marketplace. MHARR has called for Congress to investigate the mishandling of DTS.
Once Understood, Solutions Become Apparent
How would this potentially benefit residents in land-lease communities? Once understood, it is actually quite simple. It is a matter of giving homeowners and home buyers more options that currently and for years have unjustly been blocked or obscured.
Secretary Carson said it quite well when he said that the solution to the problem of affordable housing is one of supply and demand. Provide more supply – more options – and that in turn will mitigate the opportunity for a predatory firm to aggressively raise site fees or other pricing.
That fits with what the National Manufactured Home Owners Association (NMHOA) president Tim Sheahan said, “Initially, stiff competition among various developers during the only time a true “free market” situation existed in these communities commonly led to very reasonable starting rents.”
Sheahan may or may not have thought of it that way, but the logic of his point so applied is powerful.
What needs to happen is that the free market must be restored. It is a point where some Democrats and Republicans agree. Arguably, what this report reflects is how the Warren Buffett and those businesses that follow his principles have used a variety of means to divert placement, lending, and other options. Resorting those options is therefor part of the solution.
To us at MHLivingNews, this isn’t as much about who gets credit for achieving worthy goals and solutions. Rather, it is about putting into motion and following through on the steps needed to accomplish those positive goals and solutions. Once the equitable objectives are achieved, there is plenty of credit that can go around.
MHI for years has postured ‘promotion’ of the industry, but has done so arguably mainly to impress their own members and toadies. See the report linked here.
Once the problems and its underlying causes are understood, the solution is rather simple, isn’t it? Enforce existing laws.
The article linked below is of a resident leader who is writing his elected officials asking for an enforcement of the law. There is no need to pass new laws, what ought to occur is that existing laws should be enforced. There should be an increasing number of Americans who ask their public officials to publicly expose this problem through hearings. That will help in a variety of ways, and will likely increase the resolve of regulators to crack down on high profile and powerful personalities and their brands.
MHARR has likewise called for congressional investigations.
MHARR Cautions Congress on Two Unnecessary And Damaging Manufactured Home Bills | Manufactured Housing Association Regulatory Reform
Washington, D.C., July 1, 2019 – The Manufactured Housing Association for Regulatory Reform (MHARR) in a June 26, 2019 communication to both houses of Congress (copies attached), has called on legislators to take no action on pending proposed bills that are at best unnecessary and, at worst, harmful and damaging to both the mainstream HUD Code manufactured housing industry and the lower and moderate-income American families that rely on those homes for affordable homeownership.
It must be kept in mind that when one follows the evidence and money trail, Buffett’s money and fingerprints are on both sides of several issues. Buffett money flowed from the NoVo Foundation to Tides to MHAction. MHAction may be correct on certain facts, but that doesn’t mean that what they claim are solutions are in fact solutions. Indeed, part of what MHAction argue for is demonstrably wrong.
The National Association of Realtors (NAR) Chief Economist Lawrence Yun, Ph.D., has said something similar to what NMHOA’s Sheahan and Secretary Carson said. There must be more supply in order to mitigate the rising cost of housing. Everything else is a band aid, misguided, or a head fake.
Public officials and advocates should understand in that in implementing existing laws that they could easily make the case that it is good for most of society. See the “Fear” report, linked further below.
Breaking the hold of weaponized information can only be accomplished by telling the truth in a cogent way.
The truth about manufactured homes and how they benefit the nation and the majority of Americans. A few monopolistic minded people and their minions are those who benefit from the status quo.
Or as the Good Book said, “…the truth will set you free.” Lies and misinformation ensnare, while the truth understood and implemented is liberating. Enough said. “We Provide, You Decide.” © ## (LifeStyle News, reports, analysis, fact-checks, and commentary. All third-party images and content are provided under fair use guidelines for media.)
L. A. ‘Tony’ Kovach is co-founder of MHLivingNews and MHProNews. He is a highly acclaimed industry expert and consultant, a managing member of LifeStyle Factory Homes, LLC, and is a 25 plus year award-winning manufactured home industry professional. Kovach earned the Lottinville award in history at the University of Oklahoma.
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Washington, D.C., June 18, 2019 – The Manufactured Housing Association for Regulatory Reform (MHARR), in a June 13, 2019 communication to Fannie Mae Vice President Jonathan Lawless (copy attached), has reiterated its call for a congressional investigation into the failure of both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to implement the statutory Duty to Serve Underserved …