Anita Brito’s home is immaculate — the “company’s coming” level of tidiness that parents with young children fight against the forces of entropy and exhaustion to achieve. But this is her place, her hogar, the place her children grew up, documented in framed pictures displayed on neat shelves reflecting the light of the small Christmas tree up in the corner.
It’s hers, and she and her neighbors are waging war against the forces of development to keep it. That is, if they don’t get evicted first.
Brito and six other households of Firs Mobile Home Park are fighting evictions served on them by the park’s owner. They believe the evictions are a retaliation against them for refusing to sign a relocation agreement to leave by March 31.
The park’s owner, Jong Soo Park, and his partners plan to close the park and develop the site, likely building a hotel and possibly an apartment complex where the manufactured homes used to be. Park is sweetening the deal by offering $2,000 on top of the relocation assistance that households can receive from the state, which amounts to $7,500 for a single-section or $12,000 for a double-section home.
But residents say that the payment is too low to secure housing in the city of SeaTac, especially a place as close to their children’s schools and to their own places of employment. The relocation assistance money only helps if there’s another park for their homes to go — the other option is demolition of one of their largest personal investments.
A court decision delayed the park closure for six months, from Oct. 31 — a ghoulish coincidence — to March 31. But, if the evictions go through, those fighting hardest to preserve the deeply affordable housing on the site could be the first to go.
In the meantime, the residents are searching feverishly for alternatives that will allow them and their neighbors to stay.
Pushed out by light rail
For property owners in SeaTac, the arrival of the light rail was a gravy train. For the residents of Firs, it was the train that crushed them.
The Angle Lake station on the light rail line opened on Sept. 24, 2016. Its arrival extended the line past Sea-Tac Airport and gave residents of SeaTac a straight shot to employment in Seattle’s downtown. It also gave the millions of passengers streaming out of one of the busiest U.S. airports a direct line into the Seattle suburb, and property owners along International Boulevard started to cash in on their investments.
Hotels began popping up along International Boulevard like mushrooms after a rain. National news outlets keeping a weather eye on the impact of the $15-an-hour minimum wage noted in 2017 that the government-imposed increases didn’t seem to hold the hotel industry in SeaTac back — “Hotel Boom in SeaTac is Unfettered by $15 Minimum Wage,” trumpeted The New York Times.
Perhaps Firs could have held out against the relentless pressures of development. Roughly half of the property was, at one point, zoned residential, while the other half remained commercial. But the city rezoned the property, which lies right next to International Boulevard and a quick walk to the train. It’s now fully commercial.
Suddenly a 67-space mobile home park was not the “highest and best use” of the property.
It was also a difficult business, Park, the owner, said. He owned a hotel in Port Orchard, but he sold it 10 years ago and bought the park. A decade later, the property needs work; the water lines leak, and he doesn’t charge for the service. He wanted to close the park three years ago, but only in 2016 notified his tenants.
Park offered $2,000 to residents who signed the relocation agreement to incentivize them to leave, ultimately filing eviction notices against the seven who refused. If the evictions go through, the residents won’t receive the cash, and they’ll have an eviction on their records. It would be very difficult to rent in the area under those conditions, they fear.
“Unless they sign [the agreement], what can I do?” Park said. “It cannot stay open forever.”
Residents, for their part, describe months of harassment. Park would come and knock on their doors, leaving notices and bothering them to sign the agreement, they said. They tried to continue paying rent so that they would not be in arrears, only to find the slot where they would normally deposit their checks nailed shut.
The evictions are a form of persecution, said Irene Cruz, one of the tenants facing eviction.
“It’s like an attack, vengeance,” Cruz said in Spanish. “It’s to separate us.”
The eviction clearly makes no sense, said Helena Benedict, an organizer with the Tenants Union, one of the organizations supporting the Firs residents in their fight to remain. Tenants who sign the relocation agreement are permitted to stay until March 31, but those evicted would have to leave sooner.
The residents are adamant that they “don’t want anything for free.” They turned to the nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), which develops and manages affordable housing, for help to buy the property from Park. Sharon Lee, the executive director of lihi, met with Park and also with officials from the city of SeaTac to inquire about a property that could be developed into affordable housing.
The city turned lihi down, Lee said. “The city could do a lot more,” she added.
Peter Kwon, a SeaTac city councilmember, says he’s done quite a lot.
Kwon has kept an eye on the situation at Firs since the residents began attending City Council meetings, asking for help with their circumstance. He says he’s tried hard to understand the nuances of the problem, down to the details of the state relocation fees.
Kwon has even written legislation that went before the state legislature during the 2017–18 short session, HB 1884, that would make the relocation fees slightly more generous and allow mobile homeowners to use those funds to secure new housing. The bill passed the House and, as of Jan. 23, was in front of the Senate.
He knows that the bill, if passed, would take 90 days to come into effect — too late to help Firs residents. In that case, Kwon said, he’d hope that Park would allow them to stay long enough to receive benefits through the bill.
“Bottom line, I personally am trying to help Firs as much as possible,” Kwon said.
The residents don’t feel supported by city officials, who prevented them from speaking on the matter during public comment, Benedict said.
“They say one thing and act another way,” said Martha Zamora, a resident.
The residents have fewer options in Washington than they might in other states, particularly those in the Northeast. New Hampshire, notably, offers tenants a “right of first refusal,” meaning they have a chance to buy the property underneath their units if the owner chooses to sell. This solves the foundational conflict with mobile and manufactured home parks — residents can find themselves in a position where they own their home, but not the land underneath.
Despite the name, many of the homes are not mobile. Moving them is either impossible due to their condition, or very complicated. In Washington, there are more hurdles to moving a home built before 1976.
That means without the opportunity to buy the land, many homeowners have to watch their homes be demolished, and pay for the privilege, sometimes with help from the state. But such laws are prohibited in the state, the result of a 1998 court decision that found an attempt to implement a “right of first refusal” statute violated park owners’ property rights.
As a result, manufactured home parks are disappearing in Washington state. The Department of Commerce keeps a list of closures planned for each year, with six parks constituting 97 spaces set to close in 2018.
Park bought the property 10 years ago for $5 million. Now the residents want the same opportunity in order to save their homes.
“No queremos nada gratis,” Cruz said.
We don’t want anything for free.
RELATED ARTICLE: Mobile homes offer an affordable roof, but tenants struggle when the land disappears beneath them
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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