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 across the street. Fifteen years ago, she bought her home at the Firs Mobile Home Park for $10,000.
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. While she owns the manufactured home she lives in, she does not own the land it sits on. She and other tenants pay close to $1,500 per month in rent.
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 the 60 or so families who live at the Firs have one year to move.
In a time of rapid urban growth, the number of mobile home communities being redeveloped in the state are once again on the rise. Eight of Washington’s 1,344 manufactured home communities are scheduled to close in 2017. That’s an increase from two in 2016, and it is the highest number of closures since a peak of 17 in 2008, the year the recession hit, according to the state Department of Commerce.
The new Angle Lake light rail station is a short walk from the Firs, and Sound Transit’s plans for Link include extensions to Bellevue, Everett and Tacoma. As new tracks are built, cities tend to redevelop low income communities along the way.
Redevelopments tend to strengthen a city’s tax base and create more funds for police, education, city planning, parks and roads. But the effect has been devastating for long-time residents.
Cruz Medina, Firs resident and president of the Firs Homeowners Association, said the Firs residents will fight to stay.
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.
“[Everyone here] is like a family,” he said.
Jong Park of Fife Motel, Inc. owns the property. He said homeowners have known for years that he has intended to redevelop the property. Park hired a relocation specialist and offered all owners $2,000 to move. He also pledged to help the residents get 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 state…to help them get moved,” Park said.
The residents could be eligible for up to $7,500 in state relocation assistance, but that state assistance would be reduced by relocation assistance from the property owner, according to state officials.
Also, Medina says that wouldn’t be enough — the relocation help would only cover the demolition of their home and a partial deposit on a rented apartment.
“We’re ready to fight for our land,” Medina said. “We won’t accept $2,000.”
Medina said Park is only thinking about becoming a millionaire without a thought towards the consequences for the senior, disabled and undocumented residents.
Because Park is redeveloping and not selling, he is not required by law to give the Firs community an option to buy. But Park said he is open to selling the land to the current homeowners. Park bought the property in 2007 for nearly $5 million and it was recently appraised at $4.14 million.
Option to buy
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 mobile home parks.
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.
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.
Helena Benedict of the Tenants Union was doubtful that Park would sell to the residents. She has been working with the homeowners for more than four months. She said she asked Park to meet, but she said that they haven’t had much luck getting him to talk.
Benedict said she wants the SeaTac City Council to be “bold and creative” to preserve the land as affordable housing.
There are a number of local examples, she said. In Bellevue, 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.
The homeowners have put in an appeal with the city to determine if the Firs closure meets statutory requirements. But SeaTac city officials have said that as long as the plans fall within the law, there is little that the city can do to block the redevelopment.
“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,” SeaTac Mayor Michael Siefkes told residents in October. “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.”
Benedict didn’t buy that the city was powerless, she said at a recent city council meeting.
“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 told city council members.
State Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-33rd district, also has supported the Firs community’s fight to stay.
“These people will be homeless,” Rep. Gregerson said. “There’s so much despair.”
The money being offered would not be enough to help the homeowners relocate, Gregerson said.
Ishbel Dickens, an activist and attorney who has been working on behalf of manufactured housing residents for 30 years, said cities have been passing the buck on responsibility.
“Cities do tend to hide behind the fact, it’s [a] state problem, it’s not our problem,” Dickens said. “They could come up with solutions.”
Homeowners in manufactured home parks tend to be people of color and low-income families and will continue to feel the brunt of development if nothing is done, Dickens said. There were a lot of community closures in the mid-2000s until the recession, but the trend is picking up again, Dickens said.
“Transit-oriented development will continue to have an impact on manufactured housing communities. It certainly has at Firs,” Dickens said.
There are 16,000 manufactured housing communities with 75,0000 households living in them in Washington. 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.
Dickens suggested that 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.
But she says the Manufactured Housing Community of Washington, a nonprofit group that represents landlords and managers, has fought such ordinances and regulations.
However, Craig Hillis, executive director of the Manufactured Housing Community of Washington, disagrees with that assessment and says his organization tries to work with residents.
“We try to keep [manufactured housing] affordable,” he said.
For instance, the Manufactured Housing Community of Washington recently supported a change to legislation that would give relocation assistance to manufactured home owners regardless of income, he said. 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 will be staging a march and rally this Friday Dec. 23, 11 a.m. at the Firs Mobile Home Park, 20440 International Blvd., SeaTac.
Their appeal with the SeaTac Hearing Examiner will take place on Jan. 5.