Eloise Mickelsen watched with horror over Memorial Day weekend as news channels carried images of people flocking to beaches, the majority dispensing with masks or any attempt at social distancing. Fear of the coronavirus, which continued to rage in communities throughout the country, was not enough to conquer their desires to enjoy beautiful weather and some semblance of normalcy.
“Passover is not over yet because the angel of death is still riding,” Mickelsen said, a few days later.
But Mickelsen and her neighbors at the Halcyon Mobile Home Park, a community of seniors tucked away off of Aurora in north Seattle, have so far avoided a visit from that portent of doom.
Coronavirus has not come to Halcyon, a boon given that most, if not all, of the people who live there fall into a vulnerable category because of their age. Mickelsen chalks that up to the simple fact that every resident has their own space to shelter from the disease.
There are no shared hallways or elevators in the park, which is open air outside of a community room, reducing the amount of exposure residents have to one another even further — one study out of Japan found that the virus can spread as much as 19 times faster indoors than outside.
The additional protection is welcome because not everyone fully accepts the virus and its potential danger, Mickelsen said.
“Sixty percent of the people here are obeying the rules and carrying on properly,” Mickelsen said. “That other 40 percent are wildcards.”
Halcyon residents almost lost the security that the park provides a year and a half ago when the park was nearly sold. They advocated to the Seattle City Council to save their community and the equity that they had built up in their homes. Tenants in mobile home parks often own the physical building in which they live, but not the ground underneath, and, despite the name, most of those buildings are immobile.
Attempting to move them can destroy some units. Others are more accurately described as “manufactured homes” and have semi-permanent foundations, making them near-impossible to relocate.
In January 2019, the City Council passed a one-year moratorium on redevelopment of Seattle’s mobile home parks, of which there are only two remaining. The idea was the city would use that time to come back with proposals on a new zoning type specific to mobile home parks so that the use of the park would be difficult to change.
Much of the value of the land underneath the Halcyon Mobile Home Park exists because it is zoned in such a way that a buyer could replace the senior community with a big-box store or an expensive apartment complex. A zoning change would preserve it as a mobile home park and prohibit most other uses of the land.
However, the city has not yet unveiled a new zoning designation for the site, nor has it undergone the environmental review necessary to make that happen. On June 1, the City Council extended the moratorium another six months with the hope that would give the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) time to move the process forward.
“This should be fairly routine work, but for whatever reason — that the Mayor’s Office should be answerable to — they have not carried that out,” said Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who sponsored the extension legislation.
It passed unanimously.
Stabilizing the park pays dividends in “normal” times as well as pandemics. Halcyon and parks like it are what Ishbel Dickens, an advocate for manufactured and mobile home communities, calls a “NORC”: a naturally occurring retirement community.
Dickens worked with Halcyon residents to lobby the City Council for protections. Communities like this are one of the few places where people on fixed incomes can afford to live, maintain access to formal social services and create informal networks to care for one another.
“People tend to take care of each other more than you would see anywhere else,” Dickens said. “That’s something that’s always been in place in manufactured housing communities. I don’t think the pandemic has created that sense of community — I think it was already there and was highlighted or used more regularly.”
Residents help one another with grocery shopping, give each other rides to the doctor’s office and check in on their neighbors. They have space to go outside and take in the sunlight when the weather is good, and shelter against the elements when it isn’t. They can age in place with a community to help support their basic needs. The coronavirus created widespread death in assisted living facilities, where it moved among residents and staff. There’s no evidence to suggest the same has happened in these NORCs.
It’s more than physical well-being. Living in a place where you have friends and relationships supports older people in other ways.
Anne Sadler is a resident of Bayview Mobile Home Park in Mt. Vernon and president of the Association of Manufactured Home Owners. She’s lived in the park for 20 years and, at 75, is still fighting to preserve manufactured home communities in Washington and elsewhere.
One of her neighbors is a man in his 90s who got a ride from a community member to get cataract surgery. Another is a woman who lives on $13,000 a year.
“Tell me how you do that any place else,” Sadler said.
A friend, Helen, who did move out of the park and into an apartment complex in Seattle, is miserable and calls to check in and chat frequently. The community had kept Helen connected to her church and to people with whom she had built a support network over the years. The people in the apartment complex keep largely to themselves, especially with amenities and activities shuttered due to the virus.
Uprooting someone from their community can have ramifications on people’s health, Sadler said.
“We don’t change easily,” she said of older folks. “We’re not as flexible, literally.”
Despite the gains, manufactured housing communities are endangered. The value of the land underneath rises and, without an investment in maintenance and improvement, the park infrastructure can degrade, motivating park owners to sell even as developers — particularly in urban settings — see a tantalizing purchase.
Seven Washington mobile home parks are set to close in 2020, displacing people in 107 homes.
Strategies to save the parks focus on zoning, which takes away the incentive to sell and redevelop the properties, and resident-owned communities (ROC), essentially cooperatively owned housing. ROC have their own management challenges, but community members get the freedom to set their own dues and determine when and how to invest in their parks.
Seattle, which once had nine manufactured home communities, is down to two. Halcyon residents are determined to hang onto their park as long as possible, coronavirus or no. But the threat of the disease demonstrates how providing security for elders, low-income households and other marginalized groups before disasters can be essential when they strike.
“For the most part, we’re doing fine; we stabilized the park,” Mickelsen said. “The virus ain’t done yet. If people do not respect the virus, it’ll take them out.”
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.
Read more in the June 10-16, 2020 issue.