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MOBILE HOME OWNERS UNITE TO THWART EVICTION

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - All 10 homeowners in the Lostinda Woods manufactured housing park are moving out after they got letters informing them they'd have to pay roughly double their space rent or leave. Most sold their homes for a loss rather than pay the steep costs to move them. It takes a village to save a mobile home park.

When Oak Leaf mobile home park residents heard rumors in January that the out-of-state park owner would sell the run-down complex in the Cully neighborhood so it could be redeveloped, many feared they’d soon be homeless. But residents mobilized to stave off the closure, and a host of neighbors and others rallied to their side. They got help from Living Cully, a coalition fighting gentrification in the Northeast Portland neighborhood; people of faith from nearby St. Charles Catholic Church, the Northeast Interfaith Alliance and the Leaven Community; attorneys from Legal Aid Services of Oregon; and CASA of Oregon, a Sherwood nonprofit that helps mobile home residents form cooperatives to buy out their landlords.

“We can all take care of each other,” says Oak Leaf resident Victor Johanson, beneficiary of a new wheelchair ramp installed in April by Living Cully volunteers.

Larry O’Mara, who has lived at Oak Leaf since 1987, recalls when he got sick, his neighbors helped feed him. Now he and others hope to rekindle the sense of community they had before the place began to deteriorate.

On Friday, the 65 residents learned their longshot bid to buy out owner Van Tran may succeed, when Tran’s lawyer accepted CASA’s purchase offer. Residents expect to ask the City Council today to help with financing or other aid, probably $1.5 million or more.

“The only piece of the puzzle that we’re missing is the $1.5 million,” Johanson says.

But Oak Leaf residents aren’t the only Portland mobile home owners threatened with eviction. Lostinda Woods, a 10-unit manufactured housing community in East Portland, is being emptied for redevelopment, and more closures loom. As Portland’s sizzling housing market drives up land and housing prices, many mobile home parks are ripe for redevelopment, according to industry insiders and affordable housing advocates.

Manufactured home and mobile home parks provide the biggest source of affordable housing in Oregon that doesn’t require subsidies, so losing more of them will only add to Portland’s housing crisis.

Since a new law took effect last year requiring park owners to notify residents and the state when they’re putting their properties on the market, or getting unsolicited purchase offers, the state has received 59 notices from park owners, says Ryan Miller of Oregon Housing and Community Services, who oversees the process. Of those, at least 21 parks have been sold, he says.

With no new manufactured home parks being built these days, “I think the trick is to preserve what we have,” says Dan Watson, deputy director of the King County Housing Authority. His agency now owns and operates four mobile home parks in Washington.

No public agency or nonprofit has stepped into the role of mobile home ownership and management in the Portland area, though St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County has purchased and manages five mobile home parks.

Tenant buyouts and nonprofit or public ownership may represent Portland’s best options to avert another round of mobile home closures. Housing advocates also are looking into zoning restrictions and changes in state law.

Buying the dirt

CASA of Oregon, which stands for Community and Shelter Assistance Corp., expanded into mobile home buyouts after a wave of park closures in 2007, says Peter Hainley, the executive director.

So far, the group has helped nine mobile home parks form cooperatives and get financing to buy out their landlords.

Mobile home owners have little recourse when their landlords slap yearly rent increases on them, because they own their homes but it’s very costly to move them, even if they can find a park that will accommodate them.

“The down side is you don’t own the dirt,” says John Van Landingham, a staff lawyer for Lane County Legal Aid Advocacy Center, who has worked in the mobile home field for 40 years. But when tenants buy the land, “they get to control their own lives,” he says.

Under the 2014 law that Van Landingham helped write, owners must provide tenants at least 10 days to fashion buyouts after giving notice their parks are for sale. That’s when CASA of Oregon steps in. It can make offers to buy the complexes, and get access to confidential financial information about the parks. CASA has relationships with lenders that provide low-interest loans, and mobile home owners help pay off the loans via their monthly space rent.

CASA builds in extra money in its deals so there is some funding to spruce up the parks, which often are in disrepair when an owner decides to redevelop their property for something more lucrative.

“We want to upgrade the (Oak Leaf) park, so we don’t look like we’re a bunch of derelicts,” says Renae Corbett, who has emerged as a leader of the park residents. “We may have to raise the rent, maybe 50 bucks,” she says, to help finance the deal.

Many park residents have construction skills, and can supply some sweat equity, Corbett says.

“For minimal dollars you do the fix-up,” says resident Larry O’Mara. “It’s not as expensive as people think.”

Because it’s so costly and difficult to move mobile homes, some are advertised on Craigslist for free, O’Mara says, for folks who will move them. “Some of them are in really fine shape.”

Taking out the profit motive

At St. Vincent de Paul’s Lane County mobile home parks, the nonprofit replaces run-down units with brand-new ones, says Terry McDonald, executive director. A new 600-square-foot, single-wide mobile home can be purchased for $40,000, he says. St. Vincent de Paul also owns low-income apartments, and it’s far cheaper to replace older mobile homes than build new apartments, McDonald says.

Kurt Creager, executive director of the Portland Housing Bureau, formerly worked in King County, whose housing authority runs four mobile home parks, and says it may be a viable model here.

“I think it’s a good idea,” he says. But government assistance should only be offered if tenants or a nonprofit entity own the land, Creager says, because that’s the only way to assure long-term stability and affordability in space rents.

Changing laws

Rita Loberger, who represents mobile home park tenants as a volunteer leader of the Manufactured Housing/Oregon State Tenants Association, would like the state to put some teeth into its laws. The owners of Lostinda Woods and Oak Leaf failed to give required notice to tenants when they decided to sell their properties or received unsolicited purchase offers, as required by law. But there’s no enforcement of that requirement.

Aggrieved mobile home tenants must hire a lawyer and sue their landlords, Van Landingham says, and that’s no simple matter.

The Oregon Legislature has, in effect, delegated work on mobile home regulations and laws to a work group that includes tenants and park owners. Anything presented to the Legislature must gain consensus from both landlords and tenants. It was landlords who insisted that tenants only get a 10-day window to respond to a sale notice with a buyout offer, and Loberger says that window of time needs to be much longer.

Creager also likes a California policy that gives mobile home tenants the “right of first refusal” to buy a park when it’s up for sale. In Oregon, owners merely have to listen to a buyout offer from CASA but don’t have to take it seriously.

Chuck Carpenter, who represents landlords as executive director of the Manufactured Housing Communities of Oregon, says his trade group wants to preserve the housing stock. He favors state assistance to make it easier for park owners to pay for expensive upgrades, such as septic tank replacements. Carpenter’s group also wants the Legislature to allow the construction of new manufactured housing parks — which isn’t happening these days in Oregon — outside urban growth boundaries.

He’d also like to quash talk of enacting rent control at parks, which he says will cause owners to sell off their parks. Landingham says rent control isn’t going to happen.

Special zoning

Living Cully has asked the Portland Planning and Sustainability Bureau to explore special zoning for mobile home parks, as done in some Washington jurisdictions.

“You can do that at a very low cost; that preserves it,” says Watson of King County.

By rezoning land for mobile home parks, that makes them the “highest and best use” of the land within that zone, discouraging redevelopments, Watson says. “It does not allow redevelopment unless you change zones.”

Van Landingham isn’t so confident about that idea, fearing it would result in “takings” lawsuits, where property owners say the rezoning deprived them of some of the value of their land.

Joe Zehnder, the city’s chief planner, says he’s not sure, as the Planning and Sustainability Bureau has just started looking into the idea. But it plans to investigate potential zoning solutions to prevent mobile home park closures, and report back to the City Council.

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Mobile home/manufactured home parks sold to residents:

• Nationwide, 96 parks, with 6,250 spaces, have been purchased by mobile home owners at the parks*

• New Hampshire has led the way, helping arrange tenant buyouts of 30 parks

• Massachusetts, with 14 park buyouts, is next

• Next come Oregon and Washington, each with 9

park buyouts.

Oregon parks sold to residents:

(Park, city, units, year purchased)

• Horizon Homeowners Co-op, McMinnville, 30 homes, 2008

• Green Pastures Senior Co-op, Redmond, 51 homes, 2009

• Saunders Creek Cooperative, Gold Beach, 43 homes, 2011

• Clackamas River Community Cooperative, Clackamas, 76 homes, 2012

• Vida Lea Community Co-op, Leaburg, 34 homes, 2012

• West-Side Pines Cooperative, Bend, 71 homes, 2013

• Bella Vista Estates Cooperative, Boardman, 106 homes, 2014

• Dexter Oaks Cooperative, Dexter, 39 homes, 2015

• Umpqua Ranch Cooperative, Idelyd, 110 homes, 2015

• Oak Leaf mobile home park in Portland, with 34 homes, would be the 10th if it goes through

Source: ROC USA Network

*List includes those affiliated with ROC, and may not include every park

Find out more

• CASA of Oregon: www.casaoforegon.org/mhpp

• ROC USA (Resident Owned Communities): www.rocusa.org