Pat Streeter winces a little when asked where she lives.
“I don’t even want to tell anyone I live in a trailer home,” said Streeter, 64, sitting in the cramped office of Park Plaza in Fridley.
“Oh, yes, there is a stigma. They see you as trailer trash.”
That stigma is part of the reason Minnesota’s mobile home parks are dying off, recently losing about 300 individual plots per year.
But Streeter is fighting back. She and her neighbors have banded together into a scrappy co-op which is being hailed as a model for saving the parks. Three trailer-friendly bills are in the Legislature, new allies have emerged, and Minnesota’s first new park in 22 years is being proposed for North Branch.
At a time when it seems like every official from the governor on down is clamoring for affordable housing, proponents are asking: Why not promote the affordable housing you already have?
“These are some of the most affordable living opportunities anywhere,” said Sen. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights, who co-sponsored one of the bills. “And they are going away.”
In the metro area, 19 mobile home parks have closed since 1985, including nine in Hennepin County.
Whispering Oaks in Oakdale closed in 2007, and Lowry Grove in St. Anthony closed in 2017. Ten other parks have been identified as endangered by All Parks Alliance for Change, an advocacy group.
Since 1980, 3,000 trailer spaces have been lost statewide, according to the Northcountry Cooperative Foundation, which helps residents of parks form cooperatives. The metro area is losing them faster — 832 spaces have been closed since 2005.
The problem is that most of the parks in the U.S. were built 30 to 50 years ago, which is basically the life span for streets, sewers and water pipes.
When the value of the properties drops, there is less incentive for owners to spend money on infrastructure.
“If it is a depreciating asset, the rational decision is not to invest in it,” said Shaun McElhatton, legislative liaison for Northcountry.
That makes it tempting for owners to close the parks and sell to developers.
“That’s a catastrophe for people living there,” said McElhatton.
To break that pattern, advocates are fighting on several fronts.
A group of 30 legislators formed the Manufactured Housing Working Group two years ago to find ways to preserve and expand mobile home parks.
Thanks to that group, said McElhatton, three bills have been introduced, all aiming to make the parks easier to operate. “We are getting some traction,” he said.
Some provisions call for changing the rules of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, to allow it to give the parks funding as it does for newly-built affordable housing.
Laine’s bill would encourage residents to form cooperatives to buy their own parks.
“Any owner wanting to sell must give residents the chance to buy it first — with an equal offer,” said Laine.
RISING CHORUS FOR AFFORDABLE HOUSING
The timing of the save-the-parks movement is fortunate, because of a rising chorus calling for more affordable housing.
Out of every 100 households needing affordable housing, only 40 units are available, according to the Minnesota Housing Partnership.
In other states, developers are allowed to build and sell affordable homes — smaller, higher-density and less burdened by regulations. But in Minnesota, the usual approach is for local governments to build market-rate apartments, then provide them to low-income households for a discounted rent.
Subsidized affordable housing recently cost $260,000 to $400,000 per apartment in St. Paul, and would cost $568,000 per unit for a proposed project in the historic Fort Snelling site.
Why not, the advocates ask, support trailer parks instead?
New units averaged about $51,000 in 2018, according to the U.S. Census. Used units in Fridley’s Park Plaza recently sold for as low as $2,000.
The owners buy their mobile homes, then pay rent for their spaces, which is $500 a month at Park Plaza.
Mobile homes are usually bigger than one-bedroom apartments, according to national averages. The occupants own their homes, something they can never do with subsidized affordable units.
One example of the parks working is the 79-unit park in Fridley — Park Plaza.
Board president Natividad Seefeld recalled watching in horror two years ago as the owner shut down another park — Lowry Grove in St. Anthony.
‘WE HAVE TO DO THIS’
Park Plaza was in prime space for development, just like Lowry Grove had been. Alarmed, the residents mobilized and formed a cooperative with help from the Northcountry Foundation.
They negotiated the purchase of the park. They settled in, content, until the realities of ownership began to sink in.
“Infrastructure was not in our first five-year plan. Then it became an emergency,” said Seefeld. “It was eating us alive.”
Streets, sewers and water mains were rotting away. The park didn’t have a single fire hydrant. Lighting was inadequate.
Seefeld remembers getting the estimate to fix everything. It was $1 million.
“I cried the first couple of days,” she said. “Then I said, ‘Put on your big-girl pants. We have to do this.’ ”
They hustled and found grant money to upgrade the park. They added seven fire hydrants, and a $600,000 tornado shelter. The Northcountry Foundation helped by buying four homes for $20,000 each.
‘THAT’S NOT AFFORDABLE, SIR’
Seefeld laughs when she hears of government-subsidized construction being called “affordable housing.”
At one affordable housing project nearby, she asked an official about the rent.
“A thousand dollars a month?” said Seefeld. “I told him, ‘That’s not affordable, sir.’ ”
The residents say they feel like they are part of a team — a winning team.
Board member Carlton Dahl was asked what he liked most about living at the refurbished Park Plaza. The streets? The lighting?
“What I like,” he said, “is knowing I am not going to lose my home because someone sells it.”
TEN MOBILE HOME PARKS IN JEOPARDY
Ten mobile home parks in the metro area are in jeopardy, according to a mobile-home watchdog organization.
All Parks Alliance for Change compiled the list, based on factors that put mobile home parks at risk. Director Dave Anderson said the group considered high vacancy rates, health and safety violations, and zoning for something other than the parks — which could encourage owners to sell to developers for another use.
The parks, with comments from Anderson, are:
- Connelly’s Mobile Home Park and Queen Anne Courts in Lakeville. Both are in areas zoned as general commercial districts or office parks
- Hastings Mobile Home Terrace, zoned for “auto-specialized commerce”
- Maplewood Mobile Home Park, a small 19-unit park with a growing number of vacancies, and health and safety violations
- Southridge in Inver Grove Heights. Visible from Interstate 494, the park has “maintenance issues and vacancies”
- Parkview Cooperative in Circle Pines
- Oak Terrace Estates in Ramsey
- Woodlawn Terrace in Richfield, zoned “residential” with a 46 percent vacancy rate
- Watertown Mobile Home Park in Watertown, “really run down, with gravel and dirt roads”
- Valley Haven Mobile Home Park in Shakopee
COSTS OF ‘AFFORDABLE HOUSING’
Recent examples of housing that officials call “affordable housing” cost more than 10 times more per unit than mobile home units.
Construction or purchase prices per unit of affordable housing are:
- $568,000, in a proposed $100 million project at the historic Fort Snelling site.
- $250,000 to $400,000, government-subsidized units along the light rail Green Line in St. Paul.
- $250,000, average metro-area price for a high-density apartment unit.
- $150,000, for new mobile home and development costs for a new park.
- $51,000, national average sale price for new mobile home.
- $45,000, average sale price for new and used mobile homes.
Sources: U.S. Census, Manufactured Housing Working Group, U.S. Mobile Home website mobilehomesell.com, Associated Press, industry websites.
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