A crew with Growing Up Healthy distributes winter preparation kits at a mobile home park in Northfield. Credit: Submitted image

Jose Montoya knows winter can be a tough time for residents at the mobile home park where he works in Willmar. 

Many of the units date back to the late 1970s, and haven’t been updated much. That means single-pane windows and poorly insulated floors—or bellies, as they’re called. Walls on old units can be thin. It all makes heating the units expensive and inefficient. 

That’s why Montoya was a willing helper when Willmar Municipal Utilities and the University of Minnesota Extension were interested in doing an energy efficiency outreach and assistance event at Regency Mobile Home Park, where he works as a maintenance supervisor. Their goal was to pass along basic weatherization kits—window caulk, plastic film, and pipe wraps—and energy efficiency tips to residents of the mobile home parks. They also encouraged families to sign up for energy assistance.

“The big problem is windows and bad insulation,” Montoya said.  

Mobile homes are affordable, which makes them attractive to many new immigrants. Because residents are often low-income and older units can be drafty, the homes are a prime candidate for directed weatherization efforts that can lower costs and cut greenhouse gas emissions. That’s what the Extension’s Clean Energy Resource Team was thinking when it targeted 22 mobile home parks across Minnesota in an outreach blitz this fall. In more than half those parks, including where Montoya works in Willmar, the majority of residents are Spanish speakers, according to Joel Haskard with the University of Minnesota Extension. 

“The homes aren’t getting any younger, the problems aren’t getting any smaller,” said Sandy Malecha, senior director of Healthy Community Initiative, a nonprofit providing services in Northfield that assisted in outreach efforts.  

A common issue

The Healthy Community Initiative is an umbrella organization with several offshoots serving families and youth in Rice County. One of those groups is Growing Up Healthy, led by Northfield native Jennyffer Barrientos. 

Mobile home parks house a significant portion of Northfield’s sizable Latino community, and Growing Up Healthy tries to be a regular presence there. Historically, that community was largely Mexican, but has seen a large influx in people from Guatemala and El Salvador in recent years. 

In 2020, Growing Up Healthy sent a winter preparation kit to every mobile home in Northfield. Inside was window sealing equipment, informational flyers, and a winter preparation checklist in English and Spanish. Most of the people Growing Up Healthy serves live in mobile homes and more than 90 percent of the families they talk to say they have a drafty window, Barrientos said. 

Many mobile homes “were not manufactured with Minnesota in mind,” Haskard said. The best place for insulation is underneath the home, in its belly, and working there can be a miserable experience.

That rings true for Montoya, who has worked in maintenance at the Willmar mobile home park for 15 years. Plumbers and other contractors are often hesitant to take those jobs. 

“Nobody wants to work down there,” he said. 

Single pane windows are also an issue, with most residents using film in an attempt to keep more heat in during the winter. It all combines for hefty heating bills come winter. Montoya said some residents will see a $250 bill for January.  At the park in Willmar, homes are heated with natural gas. Many mobile homes in Minnesota use propane heating, Haskard said. Prices for both fossil fuel heat sources are expected to rise this winter. 

Longtime residents generally know how to prepare for winter, but for newcomers it can be a shock, Montoya said. He cares about the people who live in the park, and when a new family moves in, he tells them about potential issues before winter comes. He’s helped several families connect with United Community Action Partnership to sign up for energy assistance, which has led to about five homes receiving new furnaces. 

Many mobile home residents may qualify for federal energy assistance, and signing up for it can lead to more substantial weatherization benefits like new furnaces and windows, Haskard said. At mobile home events they tried to encourage residents to sign up while they passed out other goods and information. 

Reaching out

It’s easy for community outreach events to be little more than a place where a handful of people pick up a flyer that ends up in the recycling. To avoid that pitfall, trusted community partners like Growing Up Healthy in Northfield are needed, Haskard said. 

The organization began partnering with the Extension’s Clean Energy Resource Teams through the city of Northfield. For the past four years, Growing Up Healthy has partnered with Xcel Energy do outreach and home energy audits in the community. Expanding on its work for mobile home events was a natural progression. 

“You have to go into the neighborhoods if you want to reach more people,” Barrientos said.

Growing Up Healthy says building familiarity and trust is key to getting people to check out an event. Outreach efforts should be hosted in the evenings, when parents are less likely to be working, and ideally tie in some form of food or activity. In the mobile homes in Northfield where many residents speak Spanish, it’s important to have translators or bilingual partners, Barrientos said. 

“The winterization kits are only helpful if we can get them out to the people who need them,” Malecha said.  

Partnering with the staff at the mobile home park in Willmar was key to reaching the community, according to Christopher Radel with Willmar Municipal Utilities. Radel said without the willing help of Montoya, he doubts more than 10 people would have come by the informational booths. But Montoya suggested hosting the event near the school bus stop around the time when children get home. He encouraged them to offer a treat—root beer floats—to lure families. The result was about 50 people receiving information and basic winterization equipment. 

Alongside large Latino and white populations, mobile home parks in Willmar now have a growing contingent of Karen residents. The western Minnesota town has been a hub of rural immigration in the past 30 years, with new arrivals coming to work in agribusinesses like the Jennie-O turkey plant. The municipal utility has learned patience and relationship building are key to reaching immigrant residents, Radel said. At the outreach event Willmar Municipal Utilities had Spanish and Karen translators on hand.

“Our message was: Save money on your bills,” Radel said. 

Montoya thinks the event benefited the community. At some level, it’s good for the people who live in the park to see that people in the city government care about them and want to help, he said. 

Andrew Hazzard is a staff reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew...