By Lucy Tompkins, The Texas Tribune and The New York Times
“They saved to buy their own mobile homes. Then the land beneath them was sold to an investor.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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Carolina Velarde lived in the cream-colored, two-bedroom mobile home on lot 15 her entire life.
She attended elementary school a 10-minute walk down the street, and remembers hunting for Easter eggs with her two sisters in the woods surrounding their mobile home park in South Austin long before the trees were cut down to make way for new apartment complexes.
Velarde’s parents, both immigrants from Guanajuato, Mexico, bought the mobile home for $15,000 in 1993 and paid about $600 per month to rent the lot on which it sat. Congress Mobile Home Park was just 5 miles from downtown Austin, making it easy for her father, Jose Velarde, to commute to his job as a floor technician at St. Edward’s University, where all three of his daughters eventually earned degrees.
Velarde’s mother, Emma Sanchez, was a homemaker. The couple lived in the mobile home with the bluebonnet wallpaper in the kitchen until they both died, a week apart, in January 2021 after catching COVID-19. They left the home to their daughters.
On July 1, Velarde, who is now 29, received a letter informing her that their lease would not be renewed and they had two months to leave.
The park had been purchased by a commercial real estate investor from California, who began notifying tenants in June that they had to move out. Residents living in RVs and campers had to be out by August, while those in mobile homes were notified a month later and had until September.
The news shocked the tight-knit community of more than 50 households, mostly Latino and low-income, many of whom have lived in the park for decades, some for generations.
“This is the last place we were with our family,” Velarde said one morning in mid-August as she packed boxes. “We will forever have an attachment here.”
As the populations and economies of Texas cities have grown dramatically over the past several decades, gentrification and rising housing costs have pushed out lower-income residents. And residents of mobile home parks — which offer affordable housing for millions of Texans — are particularly vulnerable to displacement.
Manufactured homes, the term for mobile homes built since federal standards went into effect in 1976, are the largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the country. In Texas, around 2 million people, or 7.4% of the state’s population, live in manufactured homes.
Mobile home parks give low-income families a chance at homeownership, but with a catch: They typically rent the land beneath their homes. If a landlord decides to sell or redevelop the property, people have no claim to the land they live on.
In Texas cities, that land has become so valuable that mobile home parks are being pushed out and replaced by new apartment complexes, townhomes or commercial developments.
At least nine parks in San Antonio have closed since 2014 due to unsafe conditions or for redevelopment, according to a 2020 report by University of Texas researchers. In Austin, at least four, including Congress Mobile Home Park, have closed since 2016, and Go Go Mobile Home Park — just a mile north on Congress Avenue — is requiring that all of its residents vacate by Nov. 1.
Esther Sullivan, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Denver and the author of “Manufactured Insecurity,” a book on mobile home park closures in Texas and Florida, has documented 119 such closures in Houston and surrounding Harris County between 2002 and 2011.
“As urban areas expand, the land where manufactured home communities sit becomes more lucrative to develop, so those communities are displaced to the ever further outer reaches” of cities, Sullivan said.
“Austin has experienced decades of racialized displacement,” Sullivan added. “And instead of holding on to the housing that’s supporting a modicum of diversity, they’re allowing it to be wiped away with two months’ notice.”
Congress Mobile Home Park has been rapidly dismantled as residents scramble to move or sell their homes and find other places to live at a time when Austin’s housing market is more expensive than ever. Rents in Austin have climbed 40% just in the past year, according to Redfin data, while home prices across Texas have increased 45% since the start of 2020 to an average of $314,0000, according to Zillow.
Velarde and her sisters decided to sell their parents’ home for $5,000, the best offer they could get with the time they had, and look for an apartment.
“Selling the home to somebody is like leaving behind a family member,” Velarde said, “but we have to adapt.”
“I have to start all over”
Sofia Ramirez, who is 43 and works as a gardener, bought her pastel green doublewide with pink accents in Congress Mobile Home Park for $60,000 in March 2020. She said the four-bedroom home — the biggest in the park — was the best she could buy near the city for her children, who are 20 and 21, without any credit. She saved for 20 years to buy a home, and paid it off in two.
She was welcomed by her new neighbors, some of whom lived in homes that have been on the same patch of land for nearly five decades. The mobile home park was annexed by the city in 1974, but homes appear to have been there as early as the 1960s, said Shoshana Krieger, project director of Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA), a group that helped the residents as they fought displacement.
Over the years, residents constructed covered porches, stairways, garages and tool sheds. Ramirez’s new home had a screened-in porch and in front of it she planted what became a thriving garden: an oasis of palms, sunflowers, zinnias, apple and peach trees, bird baths and a tall, bubbling fountain shaped like a vase. After working all day in other people’s yards, she often returned home and put on a headlamp to tend to her own in the dark.
Her neighbors liked to visit, even when she was away, she said. Especially her friend Greg Hopkins, who lived in a camper just down the road. Hopkins liked to walk his dog Tashi among the towering oak trees in the mobile home park and often spent afternoons lounging on the bench in Ramirez’s garden.
The year before Ramirez bought her home, the park’s owner was considering redeveloping part of the property to build apartments, which would have displaced a handful of households. The residents banded together and formed a tenants’ union with the help of BASTA, a city-funded advocacy group. They appealed to Austin City Council to rezone the entire property so that it could be used only for mobile homes, and won.
The victory was shared among nine mobile home parks in Austin’s urban core that were rezoned in July 2019, protecting residents from having their homes replaced by new apartments or condos.
One community, North Lamar Mobile Home Park, has since formed a cooperative and purchased the land it sits on, a strategy that offers the most long-term protection to residents.
At least 20 states have “opportunity to purchase” laws that require park owners to give notice when they intend to sell so that residents can make an offer — some even grant residents the right of first refusal — but Texas is not among them.
Congress Mobile Home Park’s new owner, Reza Paydar, who lives in California, has not publicly announced his intentions for the property and did not respond to interview requests from The Texas Tribune. The on-site manager, Dale Heintze, also declined to speak with the media.
Paydar’s other holdings include a 600-unit apartment complex in Austin called Retreat at Barton Creek, as well as Sunland RV Resorts, a collection of nine luxury RV parks in California and Florida equipped with pools, tennis courts, putting greens and spas.
If Paydar continues to use the property as an RV park, he likely would not violate the zoning ordinance that residents hoped would protect them.
The nonrenewal notices sparked tenants back into action, and Ramirez joined her neighbors at weekly union meetings.
On Aug. 29, the Congress Mobile Home Park Tenants Association filed a lawsuit alleging that the property’s new owner, Congress Corner LLC, and its manager, Paydar, had violated a Texas law that requires mobile home park landlords to give 180 days’ notice if they plan to change the property’s use.
A judge granted an immediate restraining order, halting evictions until the case could be heard two weeks later, on Sept. 12, at which point she extended the order for another two weeks. It gave the few families that remained on the property a little more time.
By then, it looked like a hurricane had swept through the park.
Where homes had stood weeks before lay scraps of wood, porch steps leading to nowhere and piles of fluffy pink insulation. Dumpsters spilled over with possessions people left behind, and stumps marked where mature trees had been cut down to clear the way for departing homes.
Hopkins’ camper was still there, empty. Residents of the park said Hopkins — the neighbor who liked to relax in Ramirez’s garden — died by suicide in his home on July 23, about a week before he was supposed to move out of the park. He was 61.
His death was a shock to neighbors who were already grieving the loss of their community. They held a vigil one evening outside his home as warm sunlight filtered through the trees. They said he had been unable to find somewhere else to live.
“We need to give a voice to the people who couldn’t leave in time, like Greg,” Ramirez said. “This wasn’t fair to him.”
Ramirez found a lot 15 minutes further south in Manchaca that would accept her home. A mover charged her $10,000 to take it there; she borrowed money from friends and family to make a down payment.
With her furniture in storage and the two halves of her doublewide split apart for the move — its interior exposed as if it were a giant dollhouse — Ramirez and her son and daughter moved into their car.
Standing in her garden days before she was supposed to move out, Ramirez looked around at what was left of it.
“Everything died,” she said in Spanish. Tears welled in her eyes.
It took more than four days to move her home to the new lot. The walls cracked in the process, shingles flew off the roof, and rainwater poured in, damaging the floors. It was up to her to seal the two halves back together somehow.
On a recent evening, Ramirez walked through the empty rooms, mentally calculating how much work was left to do and what it would cost her; how far it would set her back in her plans for herself and her kids.
“I don’t know how I’ll do all of that,” she said in Spanish. “I have to start all over.”
She grabbed a broom and started to sweep.
For other families, leaving Austin was their only option.
Near the back of the park, Paola Valdez Lopez, 27, had lived with her two children, nephew and husband in a lime-green, three-bedroom home with a big, fenced-in yard. She grew up in the home next door, where her grandparents lived until they died two years ago.
Her aunt and cousin lived on the next lot down — a row of homes that once spanned four generations.
Valdez Lopez and her husband Edvin Orozco Aguilar bought their home four years ago for $24,000 and paid it off this year. They enrolled their 6-year-old son in Pleasant Hill Elementary, the same school Valdez Lopez attended as a child. Her husband worked a six-minute drive away for a company that makes signs for restaurants and businesses.
“It was a dream come true to get a house, especially so close to the city,” Valdez Lopez said. “When we got the nonrenewal it was like a punch in the stomach. You think you’re going to be here for a while, and then your whole world falls apart.”
She searched for apartments in her price range that would accept her four dogs and two cats but soon realized it would be impossible. In early August, she drove three of her dogs — Canelo, Queen and Penny — to the Austin Animal Center to give them up for adoption.
She posted an ad for their mobile home on Facebook Marketplace and waited. Four days before they were supposed to vacate the property, she sold the home for $12,000, half of what they had paid for it. There wasn’t enough time to wait for a better offer.
Under the midday sun, Valdez Lopez and Orozco Aguilar watched as movers attached their home to a truck to haul it away. Their two cats were curled up nearby in a kennel. Neighbors came out of their homes to watch, shaking their heads in dismay. Valdez Lopez wiped away tears with her T-shirt.
A few hours later, the couple would pick up their children from school and drive 20 minutes south to the suburb of Buda to live with Valdez Lopez’s father until they could find a place of their own.
Other families also had to leave Austin to find housing they could afford — distancing themselves from jobs and schools and leaving behind nearby support systems. Some went to Lockhart, about 30 miles outside the city. Valdez Lopez’s cousin moved to Kyle, a town 20 miles south, the only place he could find an affordable home.
These suburban cities have doubled or tripled in size in recent years as gentrification and rising housing costs in previously affordable neighborhoods have pushed mostly Black and Latino residents farther out of Austin.
“I wish the city of Austin would have helped us more,” Valdez Lopez said. “I was born and raised here, my kids are born and raised here. To have someone from California who doesn’t even know Austin kick us out, it breaks my heart.”
After pressure from tenants, Paydar’s company agreed to repay two months of rent and security deposits if residents moved out and cleaned their lots by the date listed on their nonrenewal notice.
That amounted to less than $2,000 for most families. Velarde, who had lived in her parents’ mobile home with her two sisters, said she got nothing because they did not leave their home in time. She and her neighbors are still meeting to discuss further legal action.
“I want it to be a lesson to future investors,” Velarde said. “They have this idea that as low-income people we don’t fight or defend ourselves.”
By the end of August, Velarde had moved into a one-bedroom apartment on West Slaughter Lane, 7 miles farther from downtown. Her younger sister Edith, 27, moved in with her — their eldest sister, Maribel, is attending college and living in a dorm. All three sisters are pooling their incomes to split the $1,500-a-month rent.
Velarde and her sister are adjusting to the quiet and isolation of the apartment complex. They still feel emotionally tethered to the dying mobile home park where they grew up, where their home still sits, empty.
“If they’d let us stay,” Velarde said, “we probably would have grown old there.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/09/27/texas-mobile-home-parks-austin-housing/.
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