On Tuesday, Oct. 31, Firs Mobile Home Park in SeaTac, a community of low-income people and families, was slated to close.
Parents and other adults would have to find new homes, maybe new jobs. Seventy students in the Highline School District would worry about where they would go to school, if they would lose their friends, if they would get behind in their studies. Older adults wondered how they would preserve their support networks if they could no longer age in place.
As of Oct. 30, that was a nightmare deferred, at least for a few months while legal challenges to the closure wind their way through the courts. Rather than a wake, Firs residents, supporters of the community and elected leaders of neighboring cities and towns gathered in Madrona Elementary School to consider what could come next.
The meeting — organized by the Firs Homeowners Association, Tenants Union of Washington and SeaTac Neighborhood Action Council with support from the Highline Education Association — was billed as a meeting of the minds, a discussion of how SeaTac and communities like it could confront forces of displacement and gentrification threatening their ways of life.
In the place of 67 units of affordable housing, the residents were told, would be a hotel and an apartment ccomplex on International Boulevard.
It was also a call to arms.
“We need the support of all of you. We need the support of the city of SeaTac, which we don’t feel we have,” said Maria Blanco, a resident of Firs.
Almost a year and a half ago, residents of Firs received notice that the owner of the property on which their homes sit planned to sell.
In the place of 67 units of affordable housing, the residents were told, would be a hotel and an apartment complex on International Boulevard.
Relocation assistance of $2,000 per family was meant to help folks transition into a new apartment or another park, but that amount won’t cover move-in costs in many places, much less trouble of moving or scrapping the existing mobile home units.
The story isn’t new. Communities around Seattle have felt the effects of the explosive growth of Washington’s first city for some time and the displacement of low-income communities, often comprised of people of color and other marginalized groups.
When an apartment dweller sees their rent jacked up beyond their ability to pay, they must take their belongings and try to find a cheaper option. Not all residents of mobile home parks can do that.
That’s because mobile home parks exist in a strange gray space. The residents rent the plots on which their units sit, but they own and invest in their homes. Despite the name, many of those units cannot be moved. If they are forced to leave, they lose not just their homes but all of the money, time and labor they have invested in them. Even if they leave, they must pay to dispose of the home.
Kathryn Campbell, a SeaTac city councilmember, lives in a mobile home park in the city. Her 1967 unit is too old to move, she said — homes must have a manufacture date of 1977 or newer.
Campbell has been a voice on the SeaTac City Council calling for support for the Firs community. As more hotels come online — there are 13 in the pipeline, she said — more money for tourism will flow into the city through a tax on hotel beds. That could free up other, undedicated dollars for other causes, such as the Firs residents.
“The ‘It’s not personal, it’s business’ has moved its way out West,” Campbell said.
Mobile home parks are a dwindling commodity in Washington. As of Sept. 29, 1,272 parks with 64,898 spaces remained in the state.
Mobile home parks are a dwindling commodity in Washington. As of Sept. 29, 1,272 parks with 64,898 spaces remained in the state, according to the Department of Commerce.
The department’s closure data shows 63 planned closures in the past 10 years, with eight scheduled for 2017 and another six planned to close in 2018.
The problem is that even as parks are closing, new ones aren’t opening, said Ishbel Dickens, a consultant and organizer who has been working with mobile home communities in the Seattle area for the past 30 years.
Dickens refers to mobile home parks as “gated communities for low-income families” because they’re safe and provide a sense of community and collectivism. Preserving them is a critical element to preserving housing affordability and homeownership, Dickens said.
“We’re not trailer trash, we’re homeowners,” Dickens said. “We are part of the fabric of the community, and when that quilt is torn apart, it cannot be patched back together.”
Options for the Firs community moving forward are limited. A court battle extended the amount of time they have at Firs until February of 2018, and they hope to use the extra months to find a way to stay and make backup plans in case they must move.
Patsy Ware has lived in Firs since 1971. She goes to Angle Lake Mobile Home Park most nights to make dinner with her partner and watch football when it’s on. Ware doesn’t know what she’ll do if the residents can’t find a way to stay in place, and she worries for her health.
“I’m hoping that an organization that’s a nonprofit will contact us, buy the park from the owner, let us stay there, let the kids finish their education in the Highline district,” Ware said. “I hope a nonprofit will come in and be our guardian angel.”
This article has been updated to clarify Campbell's comments on the use of the hotel tax.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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