When Eloise Mickelsen moved to Halcyon Mobile Home Park 16 years ago, she did so with the understanding that the park wouldn’t be sold.
The previous owner meant for Halcyon to remain a mobile home park for seniors, Mickelsen said.
But manufactured home ownership comes with risks. A household might spend thousands on a manufactured home, placed on land they don’t own, only to see their investment evaporate in the face of a lucrative offer from a developer.
Mickelsen lived in Halcyon for 16 years before the notice of a potential sale came to her door.
“We’re all kind of shaking our heads, because we were pretty much guaranteed if we bought in here, we were safe,” Mickelsen said. “Everybody here is devastated and traumatized.”
Now, members of the Seattle City Council are exploring ways to preserve the park and save a group of low-income seniors from displacement and homelessness. On Jan. 28, eight out of nine councilmembers passed a one-year moratorium on development for the site, safeguarding the park while a long-term solution is found.
Options are limited. With an original asking price of $22 million, Halcyon is likely out of reach for most nonprofit organizations that might step in to maintain the park as an affordable community for seniors like Mickelsen. Even if it sells to a buyer who will continue to run the property as a manufactured home park, there is no guarantee that rents will remain low. Deferred maintenance on park infrastructure can be costly.
Halcyon Park lies on an attractive stretch of land adjacent to Aurora Avenue. Absent municipal intervention, it could be developed into anything from a supermarket to an apartment building as it is currently zoned.
Absent municipal intervention, it could be developed into anything from a supermarket to an apartment building as it is currently zoned.
Council members are considering ways to limit that potential in order to save Halcyon.
Rezoning hinges on city politics
Zoning is the technical set of rules governing where different kinds of development may go in a city — and, increasingly, the subject of intense political fights in Seattle.
The land on which Halcyon sits is worth $22 million due in part to the way it is zoned. Under the current zoning, it would be easy to wipe out the affordable senior community and replace it with expensive apartments or a big box store. Change the zoning and the development potential goes away.
Ishbel Dickens has been arguing for a zoning change for the better part of 30 years.
In the 1980s, Dickens and other advocates tried to convince the city council to set up a zone specific to mobile home parks that would prevent land speculation by taking alternative uses off the table. The councilmembers didn’t bite.
At the time, Seattle had nine parks within its city limits. Today, that number is down to two.
Changing zoning isn’t a panacea. Park owners can still raise rents, refuse to invest in park maintenance or close the park altogether. Rezoning only changes the incentive structure by discouraging owners from selling to big developers.
More mobile home parks in Washington close every year. According to the Washington State Department of Commerce, six parks were slated for closure in 2018, comprising 147 mobile homes.
“There are no new communities being built,” Dickens said. “Once these communities are gone, they’re gone, and that affordable homeownership opportunity disappears off the map for everybody.”
“Once these communities are gone, they’re gone, and that affordable homeownership opportunity disappears off the map for everybody.”
The possibility of a rezone for Halcyon will go first to Councilmember Rob Johnson’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning committee.
Seattle does not have to reinvent the wheel, Councilmember Kshama Sawant argues. Other Washington cities have navigated the competing pressures of development and protecting manufactured housing communities, as has our neighbor to the south: Portland.
Portland creates specific zoning
In August 2018, the Portland City Council voted unanimously to rezone 56 of the 57 manufactured home parks that exist within its city limits.
According to a 2015 report by the Innovations in Manufactured Homes Network, an initiative of the Corporation for Enterprise Development, 64,532 Portlanders lived in 29,106 manufactured homes. Roughly 61 percent of those units were considered “affordable,” meaning a household earning 50 percent or less of area median income spent 30 percent or less of their income on housing costs.
The vote took 56 parks covered by a wide variety of zoning designations and changed them to a zone specifically created for manufactured home parks, said Tom Armstrong, a supervising planner with the city of Portland.
“It makes it harder for park owners to do something different than a dwelling park,” Armstrong said. “They have to go through a comprehensive plan amendment and zone change process, which in turn gives the city a decision point... as to what the future of that park will be.”
Rezoning the properties was only the first step.
Portland’s rezone allowed park owners to squeeze more manufactured homes onto their property than previously allowed. If they couldn’t add more homes, or chose not to, they could sell rights to that extra density to another developer. However, it still forces park owners to engage in a long, expensive process to change the use of the park.
“That can get pretty complicated pretty quickly,” Armstrong said. “It’s not a do-it-yourself kind of process.”
Only one park owner sued Portland over the rezone. That suit has since been dropped.
Are nonprofits or co-ops the answer?
Saving Seattle’s remaining two manufactured home parks will take more than a land use change, advocates told Real Change.
At Halcyon, rents are already climbing faster than senior citizens on fixed incomes can handle.
“They’re already being economically evicted,” said Kylin Parks, the organizing consultant for the Association of Manufactured Homeowners (AMHO).
Selling to a nonprofit or a cooperative of manufactured park homeowners are two ways to prevent existing homeowners from getting priced out of their own units, Parks said.
“They’re already being economically evicted.”
AMHO is lobbying for changes at the state level that would provide incentives for park owners to sell to either residents or a nonprofit such as breaks on real estate taxes, as well as local reforms to change zoning and create more long-term leases.
King County Housing Authority (KCHA) has several manufactured home parks in its portfolio, helping to serve its goal of providing affordable housing for senior citizens, said KCHA Chief Development Officer Dan Watson.
In the 1980s, the Seattle City Council declined to take action, Dickens believes, because of the stigma around manufactured home parks. Those decisions mean that 76 low-income senior households are at risk today.
The clock is ticking and at least four council members who are not running for re-election will no longer be there when the moratorium on development for Halcyon runs out.
“They should be using four months as their timeframe,” Dickens said. “I hope the city doesn’t think they have a year to solve this problem.”
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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. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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