With Affordable Housing Dwindling, These Home Owners Are Fighting Back

In a booming economy, it’s no surprise that developers are eyeing mobile home parks, which house dozens of families, as prime properties for redevelopment. But some residents are finding ways to secure their home
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
GROUP BUY: In 2016, Steve Aitchison, with other residents of a Lakewood mobile home park, bought the land where 48 homes are located

This article appears in print in the November 2018 issue and in the October 2018 issue of Seattle Business magazineClick here to subscribe.

Two years ago, the dozens of low-income residents at Firs Mobile Home Park in SeaTac received some daunting news: Their landlord had decided to close the park to make room for larger housing developments. The 67-space park, made up of households that own their homes but rent the land, were suddenly facing the very real possibility of having to say goodbye to their close-knit community. They were also facing the prospect of losing their homes altogether—it takes thousands of dollars to transport a mobile home, and finding a new community for it would be challenging.

“Everybody was scared,” says Maria Blanco, who lives at the park with her husband and teenage daughter after moving into her parents’ longtime mobile home. “The apartment rents right now are really expensive. There’s no way we can afford them.”

The community, which includes many Spanish-speaking residents, quickly decided to come together to fight for their homes and their $500–$550 monthly rent. For the past two years, they’ve held meetings twice a month to strategize about how to save the 6.7-acre park, spoken at city hall meetings and, with funds promised from the state and King County, raised about $4 million of the $11 million needed to buy the park.

In June, the community organizers finally got some positive news. King County Superior Court Judge LeRoy McCullough ruled that the park’s owner had to redo certain closure paperwork. Blanco says this essentially gives the community an extra year to get the funding to potentially buy the community; being able to own the park would give her and the other residents much more security.

“That’s the fear that everyone has. We don’t know if tomorrow we’re going to become homeless or not,” says Blanco.

Mobile home communities are a key source of affordable housing in Washington. Today, there are about 1,250 registered communities providing nearly 65,000 spaces for rent, according to the Washington State Department of Revenue. Brigid Henderson, program manager for the Washington State Department of Commerce’s mobile home relocation program, said in an email that these communities are important because they “provide affordable homeownership and a sense of community for low-income households, many of whom are seniors on fixed incomes, non- or limited-English-speaking households and first-time homebuyers.”

But in some parts of Washington, especially urban areas, these mobile home parks are also among the largest land parcels in the state, making them appealing to developers looking to build large retail or single- or multi-family developments.

The Commerce Department says at least 14 parks have been or are expected to be closed or converted between 2017 and 2020, for reasons such as creating permanent residential housing, expanding a business or the retirement of the park’s owner. In fact, in 2017 and 2018, the state saw the most park closures per year in almost a decade.

When these parks close, there’s a very good chance that no new parks will be built to replace them, says Dan Watson of the King County Housing Authority, an independent municipal corporation.

“The land costs today are such that I don’t think you’re going to see any additional mobile home park development in King County,” says Watson.

Rather than standing by as their affordable housing disappears, in recent years, mobile home residents have teamed up with city agencies and nonprofit organizations to find alternative ways to preserve their communities and help safeguard their way of life.

The King County Housing Authority is one of those organizations. It has purchased and now manages a handful of mobile home parks in order to keep them affordable for low- and moderate-income seniors or families with children.

For example, in 2008, dozens of residents living at Wonderland Estates, a mobile home community in Renton, were facing eviction because the owner wanted to redevelop the park into townhomes.

“This owner, I think, was just trying, as many developers and owners of property do, to get his maximum value out of his property,” says Watson.

But the residents did not want to give up their homes. With the help of elected officials in the area, the residents were able to team up with the housing authority to purchase the 11-acre park for $8 million.

The community has remained intact and affordable ever since. (The park’s monthly rent is $600.)

“We were asked to get involved at the behest of the residents and elected officials in the area that were looking at somewhat of a catastrophic situation if basically 108 households in there had been displaced,” says Watson.

Another preservation option for manufactured home communities involves residents banding together to purchase the park themselves. That’s what the Northwest Cooperative Development Center, a not-for-profit organization based in Olympia, assists with. The organization is affiliated with the national nonprofit ROC USA (Resident-owned Communities), which helps residents take ownership of manufactured home communities. Since 2007, the local organization has converted 13 parks in Washington to resident-owned communities.

Woodbrook Wagon Homeowners Cooperative, a mobile home community in Lakewood, is one of its most recent conversions. Steve Aitchison, president of the community, says it started in 2016, when the residents were informed that the park was being sold. “When they say they’re going to sell, your first thought goes to ‘It’s going to be purchased by some sort of corporation or a slum lord or something, and they’re going to raise rents or run you out,’” says Aitchison, who has been living in the community for 17 years.

Residents from the 48-home park attended a meeting where they were asked by the Northwest Cooperative Development Center if they would like to own their community. Aitchison says they agreed almost immediately.

ROC USA helped them secure a loan to purchase the roughly 3-acre piece of land for $2.7 million. About six months after they decided to convert, they became a resident-owned community. Now, each household pays a $479 monthly fee and a onetime $250 membership fee to join the co-op that owns the land.

Other mobile home communities have opted to turn to local nonprofits to help secure their homes. The Manufactured Housing Community Preservationists, for example, buys, renovates and operates mobile home parks in order to keep their housing costs affordable. It currently owns five mobile home parks across Washington, according to its website.

The approach is fairly collaborative. A board of directors runs the nonprofit, and one elected resident from each mobile home community can join it. Homeowners are also responsible for their own utilities, personal property tax, insurance and maintenance.

The state’s Department of Commerce also has a variety of resources to help preserve these parks, including a manual that details exactly how mobile home communities can come together to purchase their park, as well as loans for low-income residents living in parks transformed into resident-owned communities.

The department has helped to preserve more than a dozen mobile home parks between 1993 and 2009 through the state’s Housing Trust Fund, which awards funding for affordable housing projects, and federal home loans, according to Henderson. The trust fund currently has about $966 million in active investments, according to Jason Davidson, portfolio manager at the Department of Commerce.

It awards money in the form of loans and grants. And any organization that receives an award must commit to keeping the project affordable for 40–50 years, according to Davidson.

Some cities in Washington have preservation built into their comprehensive plan. They have mobile home park zoning, which means the community’s owner would first have to get the property rezoned before attempting to redevelop it. Bothell, for example, has mobile home park zoning that can only be changed if someone requests a comprehensive plan amendment, and that request is considered and adopted.

When there isn’t any type of zoning in place to protect the community, it can be really difficult to preserve it, says Watson. “There’s nothing really at that point anyone can do to stop a developer from coming in and doing what, in their mind, makes perfect sense, which is developing the property to its highest and better use, even though the residents may be collateral damage in the redevelopment program.”

But the residents of Firs Mobile Home Park, along with other communities across the state, have no intention of being collateral damage. They are using whatever resources are available to them, from nonprofit organizations to loans, to preserve their community and thus their way of life.

“Owning the piece of land that we have right now will make my life peaceful, secure and feeling like no one’s going to come and kick you out,” says Blanco.

Fire Fund
As this story was being researched, two mobile homes at Firs Mobile Home Park were destroyed by a brush fire. The two families that lived in the homes escaped uninjured; however, their belongings and homes were unsalvageable. The community is raising funds to help recover the families’ losses. For more information, visit gofundme.com/seatac-mobilehome-fire-recovery.

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