The death of billionaire Samuel “Sam” Zell has and will spark an array of commentaries, among them this from the Associated Press (AP) which quoted Zell as follows. “I’m a professional opportunist,” Zell told AP at the time. “I’m pretty sure that no matter what topic you pick, we’re involved in some way or another.” That absolutely holds true for the mobile homes and manufactured homes that are found in the “202 MH Communities” with “74,700 sites” that Equity LifeStyle Properties (ELS) recently reported having. That AP report on 5.18.2023 also said: “Zell was born in Highland Park, Ill., on Sept. 28, 1941, four months after his immigrant parents arrived in the United States. They fled Poland before the Nazi invasion.”
“Sam Zell, a Chicago real estate magnate who earned a multibillion-dollar fortune and a reputation as “the grave dancer” for his ability to revive moribund properties died on Thursday. He was 81.”
Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI) connected blogger George F. Allen noted on the day Zell died that “major land lease community portfolio owner/operator’s nickname has morphed from ‘grave dancer’ to ‘grandma gouger’. This is not the sort of publicity our unique income-property type needs at this time; which, in my mind, begs the question: ‘What is MHI’s National Communities Council division doing to ameliorate such matters these days? After all, they claim to represent community owners/operators nationwide. I’ve heard nothing to this end. …” The link from the quote above is added by MHLivingNews, not from Allen, but is related to his remarks.
“Zell died at home due to complications from a recent illness, according to Equity Group Investments, a company he founded in 1968,” said that AP post.
Sam Zell’s Death Will be followed by Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett, Jim and Kevin Clayton, Tim Williams, others Dying too
Zell’s billions didn’t stop MHI “member emeritus” and editorially linked through MHInsider blogger Allen from the odd timing of his remarks that the: “‘grave dancer’ [nickname has turned into] the ‘grandma gouger’. This is not the sort of publicity our unique income-property type needs at this time…” There are plenty of issues that this writer and trade publisher has disagreed with Allen on in the past, and based on personal experience – all IMHO – there is every reason to think that various disagreements with Allen will continue in the future. That disclosure made, be it by accident (perhaps Allen not realizing that Zell had died) or design, the retired Marine has made a troubling point.
Allen went on to say: “which [the negative Zell/ELS image of grandma gouger], in my mind, begs the question: ‘What is MHI’s National Communities Council division doing to ameliorate such matters these days? After all, they claim to represent community owners/operators nationwide. I’ve heard nothing to this end.” While Allen didn’t specifically name Zell or ELS, a simple Google search reflects the two quoted terms Allen used.
For tens of thousands living in an Equity LifeStyle Properties (ELS) manufactured home land-lease community, they may wonder:
- what will happen to them personally as a result of Zell’s death?
- How will Zell and the ELS corporate legacy in mobile homes and manufactured housing impact their residents’ lives?
- Will ELS continue on with the practices that have caused publications like the Guardian to call Zell the “grandma gouger” or will ELS pivot toward something else?
Hold those thoughts for a few moments as the following apt segue is pondered.
Axios said on August 27, 2019 that “There are more than a million paid obituaries created annually.” Axios also said in that report that: “Legacy claims to publish 1 in every 3 obituaries in America.” Legacy’s website said on Jun 12, 2020 that: “April 2020 abruptly showed an 85% increase year over year in the number of obituaries published.” Perhaps the effect of COVID19 related lockdowns sheds some light on why obituaries increased. Like it or not, some people get a fine paid obituary, but millions don’t.
It is a given that a paid obituary of Zell’s, or any other billionaire like Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger or Warren Buffett, will cause reams of paper and oceans of digital or actual ink to be spilled on newsprint.
We will all die. That is not morbid, but rather can lead to a healthy inspiration to ponder: what will your or my legacy be? How will we be remembered?
Speaking of news, for all his wealth and successes, the AP reminds us that a month after making one of the biggest commercial real estate deals ever in the U.S. that “he [Zell] made another deal that ultimately tarnished his image: the acquisition of the ailing Tribune Co. for $13 billion. The media giant filed for bankruptcy the following year.” Success in other ventures did not make Zell a success in the newspaper business. That huge commercial real estate deal? Per AP: “Zell sold Equity Office, the office-tower company he spent three decades building, to Blackstone Group for $39 billion in 2007. It was the largest private equity transaction in history, and Zell personally netted $1 billion.”
Also according to AP:
- He later co-founded the Samuel Zell & Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in 1999 with Lurie’s widow, Ann.
- Zell’s reputation grew, and in 1976 the contrarian investor talked about his penchant for spotting and pursuing opportunities in an article that he entitled “The Grave Dancer.” The nickname stuck.
For all of his wealth (Forbes reports that his net worth was about $5.3 billion about the time of his death), and for all of his successes, those billions did not keep Zell alive.
Zell’s body is dead. However…
Death in contemporary American life is an often a tricky subject. What is or isn’t appropriate to say at the time of death? There are good reasons to explore the insights and lessons to be learned from Zell’s or any other death.
No two people have the same life expectancy. A lady we’ve known for years recently died about 100 days past her 100th birthday. She wasn’t a poor woman, but neither did she reportedly have anything like Zell’s wealth. But she played a quiet yet positive role in the Magyar Szabadság Kör (Hungarian Liberty Club, Plant City, FL), where she could be celebrated with birthday songs in two languages by dozens who respected her and what she helped start for others.
With few exceptions, every soul is marred by sin. Virtually all humans are imperfect. But that church-going Magyar born lady’s memory is going to be cherished.
We’re not in a position to know where a soul’s eternal ‘resting’ place will be, but that woman’s soul likely ended in a heavenly place of eternal glory. What about some of the billionaires and big-time millionaires in manufactured housing, like Jim or Kevin Clayton? Tim Williams at 21st Mortgage Corporation? Or others who are often associated in with MHI? An accident can take any of us at any time, quite unexpectedly, as Jim Clayton learned.
The AP mentioned Zell’s “blunt-spoken” language, but the AP writers might have called his verbal communications as being at times coarse, salty, and inappropriate too. He called one of President Barack Obama’s plans “half-assed.” Zell was called “vulgar” in a different controversy. In fairness, Zell’s approach allowed women to take roles that were “glass shattering.” There is wheat and chaff to be found in every life.
Zell brought favorable attention, in some cases, to manufactured housing and manufactured home community living with his “contrarian” view that included his mantra: “when everyone is going left, look right.” He also observed: “Everyone calls them trailer parks. Pencil head, it’s not a trailer park.” Zell had other things exclusively reported about manufactured home communities (MHCs) from his perspective in the Chicago, IL metro. We tried to cover the good, the bad, and the ugly. People from all walks of life will make up their own minds.
But to the point raised earlier, while some of his residents doubtlessly like their communities, management, lifestyle, etc., others reportedly believe that they are ‘grandmas’ being ‘gouged.’
ELS residents have repeatedly sued the company, with two sides of one of the ongoing suits reported here and here. Zell died within days of a report by the Guardian (5.11.2023) that had the headline: “‘It’s hell’: life under the American mobile home king who calls himself a ‘grave dancer.’ The Guardian reported on the woes that numbers of ELS residents experience. “The man they blame is Sam Zell, the property mogul who is the largest landlord of mobile homes in the US.” “The average sale price of a new mobile home [MHProNews notes: link added and the Guardian should have said, manufactured home, not new mobile home] as of January 2023 was $128,300, compared with the average sale price of a house of $400,600 in February 2022.”
Official U.S. Census Bureau Cost & Size Comparisons of New Manufactured Homes to New Single-Family Site-Built Homes – Facts for Shoppers, Affordable Housing Advocates, Public Officials, Investors & Researchers
That same source said:
- “In a 2012 conference call, Zell said he liked “the oligopoly nature of our business”, in reference to limited competition in the mobile home industry.” Related, see this 5-2023 report.
- “In 2014, a jury awarded a record $111m to residents of a mobile trailer park in San Jose, California, owned by ELS for its failure to maintain the park. The lawsuit argued that property managers were incentivized through a bonus structure to forgo maintenance. Amid appeals, the case was later settled for just under $10m.” In each of those cases, the mainstream media terminology is incorrect, see the Zell quote about “trailer” above. See the graphics here and here.
Zell understood that the cost for moving a manufactured home was prohibitive for many if not most residents.
While ELS tends to focus on larger and nicer properties near attractions such as lakes, oceans, or other natural features, their own corporate investor presentation makes it clear that the limited supply and “constraints” on manufactured homes is in ELS’ view an investing advantage. Really? The sad – if not tragic – oddity of that notion is that abundance is what the American Dream ought to be about, and Zell, Buffett and other billionaires of their ilk who celebrate their respective “moat” are arguably overlooking or deliberately harming the opportunities that could expand multiple generation wealth creating options for potentially millions who want and need to become affordable homeowners and could do so honorably and profitably for far more investors currently do too.
Free enterprise is a good thing, but vulture, predatory, and crony capitalists are giving capitalism a bad reputation among too many youth and others who have mistakenly been led to believe that socialism is good. “The goal of socialism is communism.” So said the Russian revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin. There may be billionaires among communists in China today, but the state can take that wealth from them in short order. Americans cherish freedom. Though modest in size today, that liberty is routinely celebrated monthly at the Magyar Szabadság Kör because “freedom isn’t free.”
A curious paradox is that Zell helped fund an educational center for the study of free enterprise, yet through his behavior, is among the cadre of the Buffett “class warfare” billionaires who don’t believe in the American Dream because of their predatory business practices. They are turning to Marxist, socialist, and communist ideas instead.
Among the good things one might say about the late Sam Zell is that he proved once again that immigrants can come to America and they and/or their family can work their way to the top.
But among the troubling things that have been said about Zell, and others in that ‘elite’ circle, is that they have worked for years to rig the system in their own favor. The ethically bad behavior Capitalists are giving socialists and communists the ammunition and the rope that may someday hang them.
Did Zell make his peace with God before he died? One should hope so. The same hope and prayer should be extended to every soul on the planet.
Sadly, too many uber wealthy people are building a legacy that is contrary to what made America the absolutely finest place to live on planet earth. It is Jesus who said “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all other things will be given to you as well.”
Life Is a Gift from God.
We hold from God the gift which includes all others. This gift is life — physical, intellectual, and moral life.
But life cannot maintain itself alone. The Creator of life has entrusted us with the responsibility of preserving, developing, and perfecting it. In order that we may accomplish this, He has provided us with a collection of marvelous faculties. And He has put us in the midst of a variety of natural resources. By the application of our faculties to these natural resources we convert them into products, and use them. This process is necessary in order that life may run its appointed course.
Life, faculties, production–in other words, individuality, liberty, property — this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it.
Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.”
– Frederic Bastiat, The Law (GoodReads, QuoteFancy, other sources).
Zell’s final legacy is not yet known as this is being written. His will, family or perhaps even ELS may reveal much about what might be thought or hoped for his soul.
That said, there is a troubling pattern among some of America’s most wealthy people that is decried not because earning vast wealth is bad, it rather, how it is earned and are others being kept from their dreams through contorted machinations?
I met Zell in person. He was a fascinating individual. A certain part of his wealth came from the manufactured home business that he was involved in for decades. As with virtually any soul, there are good and problematic things that could be recalled. All of these reflections are in this writer’s humble opinion. But that opinion is informed by God’s word, Divine teachings, the often-good history of this land that should be tempered by the evils that had or still need to be overcome. These views are the fruits of decades of study, prayer, reflection, and life experiences. That said, I’d personally rather die broke, and end up in heaven, than die a billionaire and rot in hell. Eternity is not only a long time, but eternity is also never ending. That God exists, and that there is an afterlife, should not be questioned, because it is not hard to demonstrate.
What is certain is that the split-second after Zell or anyone else dies, everyone faces their particular (personal) judgment. Several examples could be cited. Among them? Scripture reminds us of a story of a rich man that died and awoke – “raised his eyes” – in hell.
From Luke 16:19-31 (NIV per Bible Gateway) we read the following.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
There are parallels and allusions to Luke 16:19-31 from the Hebrew Scriptures (the “Old Testament”), such as Ezekiel 16:49, Amos 6:4-6, or Job 21:11-15.
From Job 21 (NIV-Bible Gateway):
11 They send out their little boys like a flock,
and their children dance.
12 They sing to the tambourine and the lyre
and rejoice to the sound of the pipe.
13 They spend their days in prosperity,
and in peace they go down to Sheol.
14 They say to God, ‘Depart from us!
We do not desire the knowledge of your ways.
15 What is the Almighty, that we should serve him?
And what profit do we get if we pray to him?’
God provides every soul nearly countless opportunities in life. We pray for the repose of all souls. But we should pray for those who have not yet died, who have a chance to amend their lives so as to create more opportunities for others, not fewer.
The late Zig Ziglar would often say: “You can have everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”
Pondering Ziglar’s insights in the light of the late Zell’s ELS, and past or current other corporate interests, a simple parallel observation could be made. Doubtlessly Zell’s commercial office space had some units on leased land. Land lease can be done correctly, or it can be structured in a way that is predatory. Zell’s professionals are quite capable of structuring their business in a way that creates mutual victories for virtually all of their residents. Why not create a win-win legacy for Zell? Or does they want Zell to be remembered as someone who might bluntly mock those who used “the t word” or had classier locations, but who nevertheless operates in some respects like Frank Rolfe and other MHI-NCC members?
“For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” Mark 8:36 (Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition – Bible Gateway)
Some tell themselves that they have time to ‘convert.’ That’s true, but habits are powerful things. 1 Timothy 2:3-4 (NIV-Gateway Bible) says:
…3 This is good and pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
2 Corinthians 6:2 NIV Gateway) For he says,
“In the time of my favor I heard you,
and in the day of salvation I helped you.”[a]
I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.
It is a good thing to pray for the dead. (Isaiah 8:19-22, Jude 1:9, 1 Peter 3:19, Psalm 23:4, Matthew 22:32 and dozens of other verses). Let’s pray for him and for all that have died, some of whom may have none to pray for them.
Right next to justice for those who wrongfully manipulate our society should be the earnest prayer that all come to seek first the Kingdom of God, because only then can “all other things be given to us as well.” Amen. ###
PS: Let’s editorially stress that there are scores of individual and family-business professionals who are doing manufactured homes correctly or “right.” They should be celebrated for their part in making the American Dream a reality.
That’s a wrap on this installment of “News through the lens of manufactured homes and factory-built housing” © where “We Provide, You Decide.” © ## (Affordable housing, manufactured homes, reports, fact-checks, analysis, and commentary. Third-party images or content are provided under fair use guidelines for media.) (See Related Reports, further below. Text/image boxes often are hot-linked to other reports that can be access by clicking on them.)
By L.A. “Tony” Kovach – for MHLivingNews.com.
Tony earned a journalism scholarship and earned numerous awards in history and in manufactured housing. For example, he earned the prestigious Lottinville Award in history from the University of Oklahoma, where he studied history and business management. He’s a managing member and co-founder of LifeStyle Factory Homes, LLC, the parent company to MHProNews, and MHLivingNews.com. This article reflects the LLC’s and/or the writer’s position, and may or may not reflect the views of sponsors or supporters.
Connect on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/latonykovach
Recent and Related Reports:
The text/image boxes below are linked to other reports, which can be accessed by clicking on them.
Official U.S. Census Bureau Cost & Size Comparisons of New Manufactured Homes to New Single-Family Site-Built Homes – Facts for Shoppers, Affordable Housing Advocates, Public Officials, Investors & Researchers
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