Sitting at a small table inside her cramped camper, Carolina Sanchez called for her son to take their dog outside. He held the puppy in his arms as he opened the door, then walked down the steps of the recreation vehicle into the narrow strip of trailer park set up alongside the Chevron on Highway 71 in Del Valle. Aside from the two dozen other mobile homes, gas pumps, a convenience store, and the traffic on the highway, there's not much else to see.
Sanchez apologized for the flies and ants around her house. Annoying as they may be, the insects were the least of her worries. Her children are struggling with a new school; their outdoor shower lacks a reliable supply of hot water. And the leaks in their roof, which expose the family to the elements during storms, have been plaguing the Sanchez family's daily life since they were forced in May to move out of the mobile home community at 2110 Thrasher Lane.
"It was too much," Sanchez said of the move. "A lot of stress. My children were upset. They were worried. My son still says from time to time, 'Mom, why did we have to move?'"
The Sanchezes had to move because the owners of the land had ordered that they must, but the motion of displacement cannot be understood merely as a disagreement between tenant and landlord. It's more complex. Before Urban Rio LLC, which previously owned the Thrasher Lane Mobile Home Park, made residents aware of their plans to sell last March, Sanchez had already caught word that a change was on the way. Although people from outside the community came to their aid to negotiate some extra time and financial assistance, the park's 17 mobile homeowners were ultimately on their own when the move-out date arrived.
As rapid development has put some city residents at risk of displacement, cases like Sanchez's illustrate how defenseless mobile homeowners can be to the wave of gentrification that has swelled with rising property values. Despite the danger, thousands of Austin families continue to choose to live in these humble abodes. For some, it's the only realistic way to afford owning a home or having enough space to raise a family. But because mobile homeowners don't actually own the land they live on, a sale of the property can quickly throw their lives into a tailspin. On Sept. 1, 2016, City Council adopted the Tenant Notification and Relocation Assistance Ordinance, which made a point to include mobile home residents. The provisions of the measure recognized the higher stakes for this group of tenants – for example, mandating that developers give apartment renters 120 days notice of a move-out date and mobile homeowners 270 days. And yet the origin of the ordinance itself is rooted in two high-profile instances of displacement of apartment dwellers, not mobile homeowners. The parameters of its protections reflect that.
In 2009, Houston-based firm Grayco Partners agreed to pay each tenant of Shoreline Apartments a $485 move-out stipend, in exchange for the city permitting a height extension on the South Shore District apartments set for construction on the property. In September of 2010, the developer offered only $125 to those who would vacate the following June. When community advocates finally brought Grayco's broken promise to the city, many tenants had already left, having received nothing in compensation.
Then, on Aug. 5, 2015, the tenants of Lakeview Apartments were delivered notice by Cypress Real Estate Advisors that they would have to vacate the premises by Sept. 30. After tenant protests, the owners consented to allowing those who had leases beyond September to stay until their contracts were up. That didn't stop more than 60 former tenants from filing a lawsuit against Cypress in 2016 for actual and exemplary damages caused by the eviction.
The November 2015 resolution passed by Council to explore the possibility of a tenant relocation ordinance was a direct response to these cases. Mobile homeowners would not be incorporated into it until the next April, when another episode of displacement hit headlines.
The homeowners at Cactus Rose Mobile Home Park learned that January that a rezoning application had been filed to accommodate developer Oden Hughes' plans to build a 356-unit apartment complex. Representatives from Council Member Pio Renteria's office and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid initially visited the community to help them organize, but it would be Renteria's sister, Susana Almanza, and the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan Contact Team that ended up leading negotiations for the terms of their relocation. Cactus Rose residents held a series of press conferences to raise awareness of their dilemma, and spoke at City Hall to share their stories with commissioners and council members. The persistence proved an effective tactic, eventually putting the community in a position to strike a deal with Oden Hughes: Single-wide trailer owners got $10,000 in relocation assistance, double-wide owners $20,000, and RV owners $2,000. Almanza cited the racial divide between the largely Hispanic Cactus Rose community and the white Oden Hughes negotiators as a reason for the distance between the two parties, and the resulting confrontational stance of the mobile home park's residents.
Former Cactus Rose Neighborhood Association President Saúl Madero said that if he could do the bargaining over again, he would not have wasted his time appealing to the city's sympathies. He said he should have thought about it more as if the community was at war. "It doesn't matter what your dreams are, or if you are worried about the children, or the animals. It doesn't work," he said. "You have to be realistic."
Madero was one of the last residents to move out of Cactus Rose. His 1979 mobile home was too old to move, so he had to sell it and transport his family and their belongings to a storage shed while they looked for a new home. Some of their possessions were stolen, and arguments between his two sons escalated to the point where his oldest son left to stay with friends. Eventually, Madero's wife found a new affordable mobile home for sale, and the family moved to the River Ridge Estates on Slaughter Lane. Madero said he used to pay around $800 a month for rent and bills at Cactus Rose. Now that he's making payments on the new home, his monthly bills have risen to $1,300. He's been working two jobs to break even, but said it's worth it to have a dignified place to call home again.
Sanchez and her neighbors at Thrasher Lane had even less time to make arrangements, originally only 30 days. But one of Sanchez's neighbors heard about how Almanza had helped at Cactus Rose, so they invited her to negotiate for them. Almanza was able to convince the owner to agree to a 90-day move-out period, to pay $7,000 in relocation assistance for each of the 17 households, and to waive two months of rent. Despite these accomplishments, Sanchez said she did not feel Almanza made enough of an effort to represent the community, and that she felt Almanza was more on the side of the owners. "In the end, it was like, 'Y'all can figure it out on your own,'" Sanchez said. "It felt like she was in a hurry to get it over with when we still hadn't decided what we wanted to do."
Almanza said Thrasher Lane and Cactus Rose were different because Herman Cárdenas, who represented Urban Rio during negotiations, was more willing to cooperate and less hostile than Oden Hughes had been. She speculated that some Thrasher Lane tenants might have been uncomfortable with Cárdenas' attendance at their community meetings, but she had tried to explain to them that it was necessary to have a dialogue with the owner in order to make a compromise. "He was a person of color," Almanza said. "He made it known that he understood and that he wanted to work with them. He wanted to make sure that everybody got a fair deal." Cárdenas could not be reached after multiple requests for comment.
Sanchez said that even with Almanza's help, it was hard to find someone to move her single-wide home in time for the move-out deadline. When she finally tracked down a mover, she paid $1,800 to relocate the mobile home to Del Valle, but on the way the home split in two on a bumpy road. Sanchez said she had to pay the mover an additional $700 to bring another machine out to transport it to a landfill. She and her husband used their remaining funds for a down payment on an RV that was about half the size of their previous home.
TLH Riverside 6507MF-1 LP purchased the title to 2110 Thrasher Lane after all the tenants had been removed. Speaking on behalf of TLH, Graves, Dougherty, Hearon & Moody attorney Michael Whellan said that they were aware that a mobile home park had previously existed on the property, but that they did not know the details of how or why it was closed. TLH had filed an application to rezone the property for townhomes and condominiums after the tenants had already been displaced, so their request was too late to trigger the protections of the tenant relocation ordinance. David Cox, one of the owners listed on TLH's zoning application, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but his LinkedIn profile lists his most recent job title as a vice president for Cypress Real Estate Advisors, the developers involved in the Lakeview case.
Of the nationwide housing stock, mobile homes represent the greatest supply of unsubsidized affordable housing for low-income households. Data aggregated by Fregonese Associates for the City of Austin's Strategic Housing Blueprint shows that in 2014 there were 7,223 households occupying mobile homes. Using what's called the Balanced Housing Model, the consultants calculated based on projected demographic trends that that number will decrease to 5,399 by 2040, granted there are no changes to the land development code. David Fiske, an urban planner with Fregonese, said the group based its forecast on housing preferences among different demographics. "If you're seeing anticipated growth in younger millennials," he said, "you'd expect to see additional growth in multi-family." Likewise, he agreed that the projected decline in manufactured homes would reflect an assumption that the demographics that prefer that housing type – largely low-income households – will not be moving to Austin.
The Blueprint recommends not only facilitating the construction of new affordable units, but also preserving those that already exist on the ground. Senior city planner Jonathan Tomko said that although there is no specific strategy listed in the document for sustaining mobile home communities, they still figure into the plan's overarching approach of maintaining 10,000 affordable units over the next 10 years. However, Dr. Esther Sullivan, an assistant professor at Colorado University who is writing a book on mobile home park evictions, said that if the city does not prioritize the preservation of these communities, then it is displacing them by default. "They're not the same as every other source of affordable housing," Sullivan said. "The last century of planning regulations and municipal codes have treated them categorically different than other forms of housing. So, to say as part of your preservation strategy 'they're just locked in with everything else' is just disingenuous."
One of the tools outlined in the Blueprint does seek to address the mobile homeowners' disconnection from the land. Community land trusts, such as the one managed by the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, overcome that barrier by having a nonprofit buy the land to keep the property values from going up. Tomko said that the city could make regulatory changes to scale CLTs, but he also acknowledged that finding lenders who are willing to lend on a development product where the land is detached from the structure poses a significant challenge.
Resident Owned Communities USA, a New Hampshire nonprofit, is one of those uncommon lenders. The organization has helped finance 211 manufactured home co-ops in 14 states. "Each homeowner owns a share of the entire community," explained communications manager Mike Bullard. "We are the lender in about half of the deals, but we are obligated by our own rules to bring the best financing package that we can to the co-op. So in some states we are the best financing option, but in other states we can get lower interest rates, typically through a state housing finance authority."
As successful as ROC USA has been, their model depends on a property owner's willingness to sell to them. Accordingly, the organization focuses on cultivating relationships with movers and shakers in the real estate market so that it can seize opportunities when they present themselves, but it avoids involving itself in political disputes between tenants and landlords. "If we were to become some sort of pariah in the industry, no one would want to work with us, and then we would be out of business," Bullard said.
Residents at the North Lamar Mobile Home Park at 8105 Research Blvd. have reached out to ROC USA to assist them in their long-term goal of collectively buying their property from current owners Frank Rolfe and Dave Reynolds. NLMHP NA President Nain Cruz said that process has been slow going because the community has struggled to set up a meeting with the owners, even to file complaints about the management of the property. When Rolfe and Reynolds bought the land in January of 2015, they raised rents in the middle of some tenants' leases, provoking TRLA to file a lawsuit on behalf of the residents. Since then, Cruz said, the only time they hear from management is when it's time to collect on rent. Rolfe declined to comment on whether the property would be sold in the near future, but he did say that he did not think that a mobile home park was the optimal use for that land.
As an alternative to a private or state lender funding the upfront cost to buy mobile home park properties, it is possible for the local government to do so. The Bond Election Advisory Task Force is expected to make its final recommendation to City Council this month as to what the 2018 bond will include, but at least part of that package will be funds for affordable housing. In Almanza's opinion, it would make more financial sense to use that money to invest in preserving mobile home parks rather than only incentivizing or subsidizing developers to offer income-restricted apartment units.
CodeNEXT presents another possible avenue to safeguard mobile home communities. If Council decides to approve the final draft of CodeNEXT, the city will have to be mapped in terms of the new zoning spectrum. The Manufactured Home zone is proposed to be carried forward in the new code, and all properties that currently have this zoning designation will retain it under the new map. However, not all mobile home parks carry this zoning. Thrasher Lane was zoned neighborhood residential, and the Cactus Rose property was a hodgepodge of commercial, general office, and single-family zones. If the CodeNEXT map were to rezone all existing mobile home parks into the Manufactured Home zoning category, it could signal the city's commitment to perpetuating this affordable housing stock.
Contrary to these top-down solutions, Madero believes that the way to stop mobile homeowners from being displaced is for them to start organizing earlier, before a notice of eviction is delivered to their door. "Talk to your neighbors!" he urged. "If you fight back together, they will fear you."
Yet Madero has had trouble following his own advice at his new residence. People keep to themselves at River Ridge, and the atmosphere is quiet and peaceful. He said it's nice, but that he misses Cactus Rose. He remembers the community spirit that existed there: children riding their bicycles; pets jumping around the yard; music playing through open windows. Neighbors regularly borrowed money from each other and supported one another, Madero said. He doesn't yet feel comfortable enough to lean on his new neighbors in that same way.
Sanchez said she tries not to dwell on the past these days, so that she can concentrate on resolving the overwhelming complications of the present. Water bills went unpaid in the chaos of relocation, and are now overdue. Her son has not had success making new friends at Del Valle ISD, and his grades are suffering. Recently, she sustained a head injury while helping her husband on a job, and had to go to the hospital.
For displaced apartment renters, having to relocate to a new home can disrupt jobs, school attendance, health care, and much more. For displaced mobile homeowners, the treacherous journey the home itself must make can end up costing them everything. Sullivan said that in her field research of mobile home displacements, she observed that about one-third of those who had to involuntarily pick up and go ended up forfeiting their equity in the process. "They lose more. They incur all the negative consequences of forced relocation, but as homeowners," she said. "There's a real social cost for a city to say that that [asset], which many have fought to achieve, just means nothing."
The term "mobile" is misleading. After being installed at a site, these homes settle onto the ground like any other structure. When a property owner orders mobile home owners to relocate, in cases like Sanchez's it is essentially the same as if their home had been tagged for demolition. But unlike the destruction of other buildings in the city, no permit is required, and the damage happens off-site and out of mind. The pain of losing everything, however, lives on in the minds of those that the city has collectively told to move out.
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