City, state work to stand behind dwindling mobile home parks

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Raised mobile homes and empty pads are riddled throughout the Denver Meadows Mobile Home and RV Park, as residents anticipated the parks closure by the end of 2018, forcing the remaining residents to relocate.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel

AURORA | In a time of climbing home prices and questions of how to tackle affordability, advocates and lawmakers increasingly turn to mobile home parks, which are deemed the last line of unsubsidized, affordable housing both in Aurora and across the country.

When the issue of the Denver Meadows Mobile Home Park closure would arise in front of city Aurora City Council members, Mayor Bob LeGare and other council members often said they had all once lived in mobile homes decades ago, and believe in their importance in today’s ballooning housing market.

As residents of Denver Meadows pleaded with the city to do something about the pending closure — which kept being extended until LeGare finally struck a deal with the park owner to pay remaining park residents who say they’re few affordable places left for them to live — it quickly became obvious the displacement of nearly 100 families at Denver Meadows was not the extent of what could happen to the most affordable housing in Aurora.

Only 1.3 percent of the total housing stock in Aurora are mobile home units, according to city documents. But many of those units have remained affordable. In 2016, the median value for mobile homes in Aurora was $28,300. That’s about the same price as pre-recession years. Lot rents drive up the price, though. Mobile home park owners often own the home but not the land.

Last year, the city launched a mobile home task force, which was applauded by Esther Sullivan, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver who studies mobile home affordability.

“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.”

And so that has been the discussion in Aurora.

In February, the task force, which included advocates and mobile home park residents, released its findings and recommendations on what it’d like to see change or be implemented to preserve parks in Aurora.

The task force wants to see the city council adopt more policies that protect mobile home residents from being forced out of their communities. One recommendation asks council to “mandate that all residents who are directly impacted by rezoning should be notified individually and provided with clear information about the implications of (the) rezoning at least three months prior to rezoning, in accruable with other zoning applications.”

Currently residents receive a 10-day notice, which residents have said is hardly enough time to find a new home that could accommodate the mobile homes that they own.

Other recommendations include reviewing the current rezoning process, incentivizing mobile home park owners with infrastructure improvements and providing residents with a collective purchase opportunity — Denver Meadows residents offered park owner Shawn Lustigman $20.3 million for a portion of the land. He turned down that offer, hoping to get more money after the site is re-zoned for transit-oriented development projects.

It’s so far unclear how those recommendations may be implemented. At a city council meeting, staff said they could produce more informational material for owners and park residents. Bigger moves, like a collective purchase opportunity are far more progressive policies, and may see a harder time gaining political will with city lawmakers.

Now that the task force has presented its recommendations, council member Crystal Murillo, who represents the northern portion of the city, wants to keep that group permanently. There has been talk of rolling the task force into another advisory group. But doing so would mandate that the members be city residents.

“If we don’t have good process around (the task force) we won’t be able to make decisions that are meaningful to people that are living in those parks,” she said.

State lawmakers are also looking to bolster rights for mobile home park owners. This year  HB19-1309, aimed to improve rights for the more than 100,000 mobile home park residents in Colorado who often own their homes but rent the land from the park’s owner.

Boulder state House Rep. Edie Hooton sponsored the bill that finally made its way to the governor’s desk this year. It was signed this week. She explained that the seven parks in her own district have been her anchor for the issue, and that constituents have made it clear to her they wanted to see more protections.

“In 1985, Colorado passed the Mobile Homes Park Act and in that statute it addresses the rights of homeowners and park owners, but there was not a corresponding enforcement mechanism,” she said. “Since then, almost 40 years now, there’s been a pretty significant imbalance between homeowners, who pay lot fees on property that they don’t own in a home that they do own, to park owners, who are not regulated. And so there have been many years that legislation has been introduced to try to create some kind of parity between the two parties.”

Hooton can easily recall the history of mobile home park legislation in Colorado, and there are a lot of ways she wanted to address the “imbalance” she’s heard about from park residents. HB1309 is a big step in the right direction, she said. But there’s a lot more she wants to do, too.

“I was highly motivated, not just by my community, but also (people) around the state and what’s going on in affordable housing,” she said, adding that next year she’ll focus on another mobile home bill. Stakeholder meetings are planned to start this summer.

Hooton said she’d eventually like to prevent situations like the residents of Denver Meadows endured. HB1309 created a dispute resolution program within the Department of Local Affairs that is funded through new fees paid by park owners and residents. It also grants counties to enact laws related to mobile home parks — which Hooton said is important because many parks are in unincorporated areas — and extends the time a resident has to move or sell a mobile home after being evicted.

Activists who worked closely with the people living in Denver Meadows are hesitant to say this legislation would have made a difference in that specific case, where residents complained of retaliation from the park owner.

9to5, a housing organization that often acted on behalf of Denver Meadows residents, came out strongly in favor of HB1309 because they said it could have an impact on places like Aurora, where 700 mobile home units disappeared between 2005 and 2016.

“We pushed for 1309 precisely because we think it’ll make a difference. We’ve seen and heard a lot of stories from mobile home owners who have been negatively impacted by negligent landlords and feel like their hands are tied from doing anything about it,” said Jenn Rivera, a spokeswoman for 9to5. “It’s hard to predict what would have or could have happened in the past, but we hope that in the future other mobile home communities are able to use the various measures put forth by 1309 as tools in the fight for housing justice.”

A group of city council members on the Federal, State and Intergovernmental Relations policy committee voted to support the bill.

Murillo said she believes the legislation will be beneficial for the city moving forward because it does incorporate so much of what the task force has already talked about, but it shouldn’t keep city lawmakers from also continuing to talk policy and solutions around the disappearing units.

“I hope we don’t feel any less responsibility to move positive policy forward because this won’t solve everything,” she said. “People are really interested in building and developing in Aurora.”