Petra Bennett knows she doesn’t have much longer in the home she’s been paying a mortgage on for the last 17 years.
It’s where her three boys, now all adults, grew up. They still come back weekly to the place where they camped out on the trampoline, spent time with friends and had BB Gun wars. But in September, when Bennett expects the Denver Meadows Mobile Home Park near East Colfax Avenue to finally close, she’ll have to leave all that behind.
For her and many like her, there’s nowhere to go.
Mobile home parks across the Denver Metro region, like a lot of growing urban areas, seem to be drying up – though, it’s tough to find data supporting that. The city of Aurora doesn’t keep it, neither does the state. Adams County, which has a bulk of the state’s mobile homes, knows one park closed last year.
Most of Aurora’s remaining parks now neighbor new, pricey development, and many fear that once those parks are sold there won’t be anywhere for residents to move to because there isn’t anywhere quite as affordable for the homeowners.
Adams County Commissioner Chaz Tedesco said it seems the companies that relocate to Denver want the same city amenities that those people living in mobile home parks have — location, proximity to rail.
“And those areas are the most lucrative to take,” he said.
This week, Aurora City Council unanimously decided to put a 10-month moratorium on rezoning applications for existing mobile home parks. During that moratorium a task force will study how the city can best provide and preserve affordable housing.
It’s a subject Esther Sullivan, an assistant professor at University of Colorado Denver, has been studying for years. She teaches and researches poverty and income inequality, specifically as they pertain to urban governance. So far, she said she hasn’t seen a proactive approach to the issue quite like what Aurora is attempting.
“This move on Aurora’s part is incredible. I haven’t seen this happen anywhere. So this is a huge move,” she said. “They could be a model for the country here. Affordable housing advocates have to focus on preservation.”
In places where the local government buys up a mobile home park, which has happened in Boulder, Pitkin County and Portland, Sullivan said it’s because municipalities realize there is nowhere else for those residents to move to. It’s a last resort, she said.
But the moratorium might prevent that, Sullivan suggested.
She spent two years living in a mobile home park in Florida that met the same fate as Denver Meadows is likely to meet.
“Mobile home park owners create profitable uses for otherwise undesirable land by renting lots to residents who own their homes and pay low monthly lot rents,” she wrote for Context, a quarterly sociology magazine, about her research of living in the park. “Together, these characteristics make mobile homes affordable sources of housing for 22 million Americans. In fact, mobile homes are the single largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the U.S. They shelter large populations of poor, elderly, and immigrant homeowners.”
The Manufactured Housing Institute, which keeps data on the industry, told Governing Magazine last fall it doesn’t appear mobile home parks are closing at a faster rate today than they have in the past. But it’s hard to pinpoint specific data, particularly in tight housing markets, such as Denver’s.
Edgar Leon, a sales representative with manufactured home seller Pinetop Homes in Denver, said increasing home and rental prices has meant his office stays fairly busy.
“The market is actually really good right now,” he said.
Buyers do worry about the possibility of a park closure, but it doesn’t seem to be a real deterrent in the end. Leon can sell 10 manufactured homes in a good month.
Last year, Fort Collins state Sen. John Kefalas took up affordable housing specifically related to mobile home parks with a bill that would encourage mobile home parks to sell to home associations or organizations that would preserve affordable housing.
The Coloradoan reported that more than 460 families have been displaced in Fort Collins as five mobile home parks have closed in the last two decades.
Tedesco echoed the urgency and importance of affordable housing and the role mobile homes play there in his testimony on the bill. In Adams County, where Denver Meadows is located, Tedesco said there are more than 10,500 mobile homes spread among 66 parks.
Kefalas’ bill died in a Republican-led senate committee.
On a warm March evening, Bennett opened the back door of her mobile home to her yard where Romeo, a friendly black-and-white shepherd, barreled outside with his evening treat.
“Routines, you know?” Bennett said with a laugh.
The neighborhood is quiet, even though Bennett’s home is virtually underneath Interstate 225. She’s in the shadow of the southbound East Colfax Avenue offramp bridge. A lot of her neighbors are, too.
Just beyond the park and Bennett’s own little piece of paradise, the R Line, which hugs I-225 through Aurora, is visible, as are a couple of new brutalism-style buildings that belong to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
Bennett said she can remember a time when none of that was there. There were fields and a few nearby businesses, like a bowling alley. Now there is a row of fast-casual chain restaurants. It was hardly the bustling landscape it is now. Soon, Bennett thinks the property where she and her neighbors park their homes will become part of that metropolis.
Nearly two years ago the park residents received a hearing notice about a possible zoning change of the land.
“That’s when we all kind of figured there was something in the bushes,” Bennett said. “I personally called the city planner and asked about what the zoning was all about.”
The notice alerted residents that there was an application to rezone the property for transit-oriented development, much like what has been popping up near the R Line throughout Aurora.
“I asked if mobile homes would be within that TOD and he (the city planner) said no. Mobile homes would be in violation of zoning,” Bennett said.
Since then, many of the park residents have rebelled — that’s how Bennett describes it. And fighting the rezoning hasn’t come without its difficulties. Many residents, most of which spoke through a translator, said at a city council public hearing last month they faced retaliation from the park owners, Shawn Lustigman and his sister, who act as the managers of the park.
“A lot of the families have moved now, but it’s still a good 200 people who will be displaced. When we first started all this there were 100 families and over 500 people,” Bennett said. “Through harassment, retaliation, rent increases, shutting off water for hours at a time for no reason — that caused a lot of people to say they couldn’t handle it anymore.”
Lustigman wasn’t available for comment, and a woman who answered the phone at Denver Meadows said she couldn’t speak to the press. But the owner did show up to a hearing on the moratorium resolution in March. He maintained that he’s done everything he can to help the residents move and that there has been no retaliation. The audience, many of which listened through headphones and a translator, seemed to disagree, as they repeatedly shook their heads in dissent.
Bennett estimates 40 to 50 families have left in the last couple of years.
“You see a lot of empty spaces now,” she said.
9to5, a nonprofit organization that has become a kind of mobile home park hotline, launched a lawsuit on behalf of the residents to address the retaliation. Andrea Chiriboga-Flor, a lead housing organizer for the group, said it was hard to find a lawyer that would take the case because the mobile home act — which dictates that those alleged acts of retaliation are illegal — is hard to enforce.
From Bennett’s backdoor it’s easy to spot four pad sites where mobile homes once stood. They look as if the homes have been blazed right off foundations. Directly across the street from Bennett is one site where just front steps are left behind.
The neighborhood’s attempt at saving the park rang in at $20.5 million. Resident Owned Communities, a nonprofit group that helps residents buy their mobile home parks, helped secure the money for the residents, but said the offer was turned down. Officially, the offer came from Thistle, a Boulder-based non-profit organization that helps preserve affordable housing, mostly in the Boulder area.
Executive Director Mary Duvall said the $20.5 million was what they expected the land would be appraised for. Bennett said the residents were only looking to secure 11 of the 28 acres of the park.
Lustigman turned down that offer, according to Duvall.
Bennett said she expects to have to leave the park sometime around September. The moratorium doesn’t prevent the closing of the park, just the processing of any re-zoning applications. At a city council meeting, she said she’s looked into buying land to put her home on, and it’s either too costly, isn’t zoned for a mobile home or would be extremely expensive to get water and electricity to.
She’s looked as far as Kiowa, but she said that just isn’t really an option because she works all over the Denver metro area as a manager of a gas station chain.
“I’m figuring it will take me about two years to get back up on my feet,” she said. “I’ve started getting rid of things and making arrangements for where to stay.”