Development riles trailer park residents

By Mike Simpson - Staff Reporter

Maria Guillermo built a life for herself and her family since she moved to the United States from Mexico City.

She works down the street in one of SeaTac's hotels, and her kids attend Madrona Elementary School around the corner.

Fifteen years ago, she bought her house for $10,000.

She owns the manufactured home she lives in, but not the acreage it sits on in the Firs Mobile Home Park.

Guillermo and other residents pay around $1,500 per month for rent.

Now she and her family have one year to leave before the land is turned into a hotel, one of a half dozen planned for SeaTac at the moment.

In a time of rapid urban growth, this is a reality for many mobile homeowners who are required to relocate.

Eight of Washington's 1,344 manufactured home communities are scheduled to close in 2017, which is a fast increase from just two in 2016, and it is the highest number of closures since the early recession peak of 17 in 2008, according to the state Department of Commerce.

The new Angle Lake light rail station sits across the street from Firs. It's the end of the line, but not for long as there are plans to extend the light rail line to Highline, Federal Way and Tacoma.

As new tracks are built, cities tend to redevelop low income communities along the way.

This may be devastating for long-time residents.

On the other hand, redevelopments tend to strengthen a city's tax base and create more funds for police, education, city planning, parks and roads.

More than 60 households will be relocated and owners have created a Homeowners Association to fight through legal action, or buy the park.

Since the landowner is simply changing the land use, which is redeveloping and not selling, he is not required by law to give the Firs community an option to buy.

Homeowners have asked the City Council to help, but so far, they say there is nothing that can be done because the development follows the letter of the law.

Guillermo said she has no idea where she and family will end up if they are evicted.

A City of SeaTac notice posted at the entrance says they have one year to move.

Jong Park of Fife Motel, Inc. owns the property.

The homeowners have known for years that Park has intended to redevelop the property, he said.

He said he is open to selling the land to the current homeowners and if not, he will help in the relocation.

The Firs community could potentially buy the property with the help of the Washington State Housing Finance Commission and Resident Owned Communities USA, a New Hampshire based organization.  Both have recently helped manufactured home owners in Washington purchase parks.

Park bought the property in 2007 for $4,999,500 and it was recently appraised at $4,140,000.

He hired a relocation specialist, Kerri Lynch, and offered all owners $2,000 for the move.

Lynch did not respond to interview requests.

Average sales prices for mobile homes are more than $25,000.

Many Firs residents are also eligible to receive up to $7,500 relocation assistance from the state after their move is completed.

The relocation money helps with rental of moving equipment, down payment on a new home, some repairs and light construction related to the move, or demolition of the unit.

"We'll help them get help from the help them get moved," Park said.  

Cruz Medina, Firs resident and president of the Firs Homeowners Association, said he and the residents were lost at first, but have now decided to fight to stay.

The relocation assistance would only cover the demolition of their home and a partial deposit on a rented apartment, Medina said.

"[Everyone here] is like a family," he said.

Firs has a small town feel and the residents look out for one another. Everyone works, or goes to school, close by and takes care of their home as if it were a traditional house, he said.

Medina works in the car-towing business and lives in a manufactured home with his wife and two daughters.

"We're ready to fight for our land," Medina said.  "We won't accept $2,000."

Medina and a committee of homeowners are currently working with the Tenants Union of Washington state, an advocacy group that counsels tenants about their rights and helps them organize legal action.

Park is only thinking about becoming a millionaire without a thought toward the consequences for the senior, disabled and undocumented residents who rely on this land, Medina said.

In response to Park's statement that he would sell, Medina said the homeowners would buy the land, but only at fair market price.

If the homeowners could buy the land, they would hire a company to put in traditional homes, he said.

The SeaTac City Council was advised by city attorneys not to comment on Firs because of an upcoming appeal that was filed by the Firs homeowners.

The appeal is to determine if the Firs closure meets statutory requirements.

The City Council did not respond to interview requests, or declined to comment.

In an Oct. 6 town hall meeting between the SeaTac City Council and homeowners at the SeaTac Community Center, Mayor Michael Siefkes said, "I don't think there's anyone up here that doesn't support you and doesn't feel for you and would try and help you if we could. As far as being able to being able to save the mobile home park in making a change, that's outside of our ability as a city to do."

At the same meeting, Councilmember Pam Fernald said, "Hopefully we can come help you get something. I can't guarantee what."

The landowner, Jong Park, plans to redevelop the land with Hotel Concepts LLC.

He may not intend to sell, said Helena Benedict of the Tenants Union.

She has been working with the homeowners for more than four months in opposition to the hotel development after they had contacted her organization asking for help.

She and the Firs community wrote a letter to Park opposing the development, asking for help, and outlining his neglect of the property.

"We would have to abandon our community, our jobs and our health care," they said in the letter. "Many of us have no economic resources to start over and we would be left homeless with our children."

They asked him to cease development, continue operating the land as a mobile home community, or seek a buyer that would.

They asked him to meet, but said that they haven't had much luck getting him to talk.

Benedict said to the City Council during a recent City Council meeting that she wants SeaTac to be "bold and creative" to preserve the land as affordable housing.

SeaTac should go on record in support of the Firs community, invite the landlord to a mediation and create a community task force to study future options, Benedict said.

This is the first time that the Tenants Union has worked with manufactured housing communities, as they tend to work with renters.

"We were disappointed by the [SeaTac City Council's] rude and dismissive treatment of the homeowners, and your request that we take our signs to Olympia," Benedict said at a City Council meeting.

SeaTac has not given the homeowners the information to engage in the civic process, Benedict said.

This is a regionwide problem that requires a regionwide solution, she said.

Benedict presented the case of Bellevue, in which the city invited a developer to negotiate and preserved a low-income apartment building as affordable housing by contributing $2 million.

In Renton, the City Council passed an emergency ordinance to protect tenants when a landlord stopped accepting section-8 vouchers.

State Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-33rd district, has been a public supporter of the Firs community and participated in protests that homeowners staged.  She represents SeaTac, Des Moines, West Kent and Burien in Olympia and was on the SeaTac City Council from 2012 to 2015.

"They are super scared," she said.

Sure the landlord is providing relocation assistance, but this amount is deducted from what the state provides, so the homeowner is left with little money to do anything, Rep. Gregerson said.

The city could supplement the relocation, she said.

"These people will be homeless," Rep. Gregerson said.  "There's so much despair."

Ishbel Dickens, an activist and attorney with Columbia Legal Services, has been working with Firs for the past three months after the Tenants Union asked her to get involved.

She has been working in the rights of manufactured housing communities for 30 years.

They have more protections than apartment renters, but they aren't protected from losing all equity in a home after a park closes, Dickens said.

There were a lot of closures in the mid 2000s, then the economy got worse.  Now it's picking up again, Dickens said.

Such homeowners tend to be people of color and low income families, Dickens said.

"Transit-oriented development will continue to have an impact on manufactured housing communities.  It certainly has at Firs," Dickens said.

"Cities do tend to hide behind the fact, it's the state's problem, it's not our problem," Dickens said. "They could come up with solutions."  

SeaTac could enact a zoning ordinance, which jurisdictions have done and have been upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, that would protect other mobile home parks in the area with a security of tenure, Dickens said.

The Manufactured Housing Community of Washington has been the biggest obstacle, Dickens said.

This is a non-profit group that represents landlords and managers of manufactured housing communities in Washington.  They brief landlords on their property rights and offer training to managers in rules and regulations, tenant interactions and property maintenance.

"They are a very well organized industry group, and they have lobbyists and money," Dickens said.  "They are always trying to deregulate responsibilities and pass more and more responsibilities onto homeowners."

Craig Hillis, executive director of the Manufactured Housing Community of Washington, said he can't think of one case where that would be true, and that his organization tries to work with residents.

"We try to keep [manufactured housing] affordable," he said.

The Manufactured Housing Community of Washington recently supported a change to legislation that would give relocation assistance to manufactured home owners regardless of income.  The previous version stated that the owner would only qualify if the individual or family met the definition of low income.

Hillis said they did this to keep relocation assistance fair for all people regardless of income.

Firs would be a good example of a community that would benefit from this, he said.

The Firs homeowners appeal with the City of SeaTac will take place on Jan. 5.

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