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Mobile home parks in jeopardy

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Diane Pense, clearing out her manufactured home in East Portland, points to neighbors also forced out of the Lostinda Woods complex.Diane Pense figured she and her husband were pretty set for retirement in their cozy manufactured home in East Portland.

Their double-wide unit, with three bedrooms and two baths, was only 21 years old and in great shape — and they owned it outright.

“We didn’t feel vulnerable at all,” says Pense, 67.

Then, last August, the landlord notified the Penses and nine other families at the Lostinda Woods manufactured home park that their complex at Southeast 125th Avenue and Foster Road was being sold. A couple weeks later, new owner Hichi Investments LLC sent word that the Penses’ space rent would spike from $573 to $964 a month, and tenants would have to start paying for garbage, cable TV, water and sewer utilities previously covered by the rent. Hichi demanded residents sign a letter agreeing to the rent hikes and return it in 15 days.

“It came as a slap in the face, a shock,” Pense says. “If we didn’t sign it, we had to be out by Dec. 30 and move our homes, or forfeit our homes.”

Mobile homes aren’t so mobile, and can cost more than $20,000 to move — if owners can find a suitable park with an empty space available. So state law actually requires a year’s notice before manufactured home park owners can evict tenants to redevelop their property. But that deadline is fast approaching, and nine of the 10 Lostinda Woods owners sold their homes at a loss, Pense says.

The Penses sold theirs — appraised at $55,000 — for only $25,000, and cleaned it out last week. They bought another manufactured home at a Milwaukie park for $58,000.

“Now we’re retired and we have to take another mortgage,” she says, on top of paying the space rent.

Mobile home parks and manufactured home parks are an important source of affordable housing in Oregon. But Portland’s exploding land and housing prices could easily spur a wave of park closures — and homeowner evictions — in Portland and elsewhere. That’s sure to worsen the housing crisis.

Second Portland park to close

The 65 residents of Oak Leaf mobile home park, at 4556 N.E. Killingsworth St., found out in April that their complex of 34 old single-wide mobile homes and trailers was being sold so it could be redeveloped. Many say they face homelessness if they are evicted.

“I can tell you now I have absolutely no place to go,” says Victor Johanson, an Oak Leaf resident who lives on $1,050 monthly disability checks. He checked out studios at low-income apartments and found they cost $750 to $800 a month.

For his modest two-bedroom unit at Oak Leaf, Johanson pays $460 for space rent, plus $117 for electricity and more for other utilities.

Cecilia Shukwit, 62, was living in an apartment and bought a travel trailer to use as an artist’s studio. Then she got laid off and had to move into the trailer, along with two dogs and a 16-year-old cat. She pays $485 a month to park it at Oak Leaf.

Shukwit works as a nanny, but that means living “paycheck to paycheck,” she says.

“If I had to leave next week, I have no idea what I’d do. Your choices get narrower and narrower.”

No new manufactured housing or mobile home parks have been built in Oregon in recent memory. But they remain the largest source of affordable housing that doesn’t require government subsidies in Oregon, says Chuck Carpenter, executive director of the Manufactured Housing Communities of Oregon, a trade group for park owners.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Diane Pense stands in her now-vacant bedroom as she prepares to move out of the Lostinda Woods manufactured home park.“There is nothing else that compares to it in affordability,” Carpenter says. “Those rent increases we’re seeing in apartments, we’re not seeing in manufactured housing communities. We’re not the problem.”

Back in 2007, there was a wave of mobile home park closures in Oregon. Sixteen parks, with 1,040 spaces, shut down that year, five of them in Beaverton, according to an Oregon Housing and Community Services database. Then the 2007 Legislature stepped in to require modest payments to homeowners evicted from their parks. Owners must pay $5,000 to owners of single-wide homes, $7,000 to those with double-wides and $9,000 for triple-wides.

Since 2008, eight parks have closed in Oregon, according to the state database, though that doesn’t include Lostinda Woods.

But now it seems the relative lull in closures was due to the Great Recession more than changes in the law.

New wave of evictions looms

“I would suspect that you’re going to see a lot more closures for a lot of reasons,” says Terry McDonald, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County, which owns and manages five mobile home parks. “Redevelopment of parks in Portland is very likely,” he says, because land prices are escalating so quickly here.

Manufactured housing parks sit mostly on large, flat pieces of land, much of it on the edges of the urban growth boundary in the path of growth, says John Van Landingham, a staff attorney at Lane County Legal Aid Advocacy Center who has worked on mobile home issues for 40 years.

Parks along MAX lines are particularly vulnerable, Van Landingham says, as those are ripe for redevelopment as apartments.

“In most cases, there are more lucrative things that the owner could do with the land or that a developer could do,” says Cameron Herrington, anti-displacement coordinator for Living Cully, a coalition working with Oak Leaf residents to preserve the complex.

There are four other mobile or manufactured home parks on Killingsworth alone, east of Oak Leaf. Combined, Herrington says, they provide low-cost housing for about 1,300 people, roughly 10 percent of the Cully neighborhood.

Kurt Creager, director of the Portland Housing Bureau, is particularly worried about manufactured housing park closures in the Division and Powell corridors in East Portland. “I think there’s about six that are highly vulnerable right now,” Creager says.

Carpenter says the Glenwood area between Eugene and Springfield, off Interstate 5, also is vulnerable to closures now, as it’s in the path of development.

Usually very profitable

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Nine of the 10 homeowners in the Lostinda Woods manufactured home park sold their homes for a loss, says resident Diane Pense. Only one homeowner found a new place to relocate their home. Ironically, many depict owning a manufactured housing park as a license to print money. That’s because park owners have a captive audience of mobile home owners who can’t easily relocate. Many owners routinely raise their space rents each year.

The owner of Rita Loberger’s park in the Tigard/King City area has raised monthly space rents 18 of the last 20 years.

“Last year it was $24; this year it was $19,” Loberger says.

“These parks can become cash cows,” says Gienia Baines, who does social services for St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County at its mobile home parks.

The industry is generally very healthy, Carpenter says, and most parks are pretty full.

There’s little fear that parks will close in rural areas, he says. But where land is tight, such as within the Portland area’s urban growth boundary, there are new pressures to redevelop parks, he says.

It’s terrible to own your own home yet have to constantly worry the land beneath you could be sold, Loberger says. She’s a volunteer leader of the Manufactured Housing/Oregon State Tenants Association, and often hears of park residents’ fears via the group’s hot line.

Stereotypes don’t help

Mobile park owners and residents resent oft-heard stereotypes about run-down parks and unsavory people who live there.

However, there are some parks like Oak Leaf where managers have let conditions deteriorate. Oak Leaf residents complain their park floods frequently due to faulty storm drainage. “In the wintertime, that’s a swimming pool,” says Larry O’Mara, pointing to the road down the middle of the park.

“We’ve had quite a drug problem here, but you can’t put your finger on who it is,” O’Mara says. Drug dealing and drug addiction may explain why people kept breaking into the laundry machines to steal the quarters. Management simply shut down the laundry room, forcing residents to haul their clothes off-site.

The attorney representing Oak Leaf owner Van Tran did not return phone calls.

But construction standards for mobile homes, which the industry prefers to call manufactured homes, have improved significantly over the years. New ones, made of wood, should last as long as site-built homes, says Dan Watson, deputy director of King County Housing Authority in the Puget Sound area, which owns four parks.

Lostinda Woods was a beautiful community, Loberger says, where children could play together in the street.

It costs St. Vincent de Paul about $40,000 to put a new 600-square-foot mobile home in one of its Lane County parks, McDonald says. “What does it cost to build a 600-square-foot apartment up in Portland? About four times as much,” he figures.

“If we ignore this reservoir of affordable housing,” McDonald warns, “we do so at the larger society’s peril.”

In 2014, the Oregon Legislature took action by requiring park owners to notify residents and the state as soon as they decide to put their parks on the market, or as soon as they receive an unsolicited purchase offer, with some exceptions. The idea was to give tenants the opportunity to pool their money to buy the land on which their homes sit.

The Herbert Haberlach family, which owned Lostinda Woods, didn’t provide that required notification, says Ryan Miller of Oregon Housing and Community Services.

Representatives of Van Tran filed their official sale notice three months late, Herrington says.

Pense says Lostinda Woods owners held considerable equity in their homes, and could have qualified for a loan to collectively buy the property, which sold for $725,000.

“We could have, and we would have wanted to,” she says. “We never got a chance to find out.”

It’s not too late for Oak Leaf residents, though.

Living Cully, with the help of the nonprofit CASA of Oregon, has been working with Oak Leaf residents and Portland city officials to help them form a cooperative to buy the property. They say they need $1.5 million in financing or outside assistance, and are banking on the city of Portland to supply much or all of that.

On Friday, Tran’s attorney accepted CASA of Oregon’s purchase offer, made on behalf of the tenants, says Chelsea Catto, CASA’s manufactured housing cooperative director. Now the nonprofit needs to do more due diligence and round up the funds.

On Thursday, the Portland City Council will debate imposing a new construction excise tax to raise more funds for affordable housing. Several Oak Leaf residents are expected to be there to make a pitch to use some of that money to help them save their homes.

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What’s a mobile home?

• Prefabricated homes moved into a mobile home park or a freestanding lot

• The industry prefers to call ones built after 1976, when federal code standards tightened, manufactured homes

• Only 19 percent of mobile or manufactured homes have ever been relocated.

How many live in mobile/manufactured home parks?

• In Oregon, there are 1,080 parks, with 62,589 total spaces

• Portland has 66 parks, with 3,241 spaces

• The rest of Multnomah County has 25 parks, 1,852 spaces

• Clackamas County has 102 parks and 6,313 spaces, third-highest in state

• Washington County has 40 parks, with 3,989 spaces

• Lane County, with 109 parks and 7,499 spaces, has the most in Oregon, followed by Jackson County, with 103 parks and 6,397 spaces

Prime source of affordable housing

• Typical space rent at manufactured home/mobile home parks in Portland area: $545

• 61 percent of Portland-area mobile/manufactured homes are rated as affordable, versus 22 percent for all other housing types

• Median income for mobile/manufactured home owners in Portland area: $38,536

• For all homeowners: $75,566

• For all renters: $35,633

Park closures in Oregon

From 2000 to 2006:

• Statewide, 47 mobile/manufactured home parks closed, with 1,307 spaces

• Three closed in Multnomah County: Sandy Court, Portland, 15 units; Carolina Motel & Trailer Park, Portland, 11 units, Heron Pointe, Fairview, 4 units;

• Seven parks, with 397 spaces, closed in Washington County

• One 55-space park closed in Clackamas County

Park closures in 2007:

• 16 parks closed in just one year, with 1,040 spaces

• 8 were in Washington County, including five in Beaverton

Park closures since 2008:

• 8 parks statewide, with 404 units

• The biggest was Thunderbird Mobile Club in Wilsonville, with 269 units

• Two parks closed in Jackson County and two in Polk County; plus one each in Baker, Harney and Linn counties.

• Lostinda Woods in Portland would be the ninth.

Sources: Innovations in Manufactured Homes (I’M Home); CASA of Oregon; State Manufactured Dwelling Park Directory; Oregon Housing and Community Services park closure database

Find out more:

• Resources on mobile home park living in Oregon:

www.oregon.gov/ohcs/Pages/manufactured-dwelling-park-living-resources.aspx

• Manufactured Housing/Oregon State Tenants Association: www.mh-osta.org

@SteveLawTrib