By Jim Moore
The recent publicity on the possible conversion of a mobile home park for mid-to-high income apartments raises several policy, political and practice issues re: affordable housing. The current drought in support for affordable housingsuggests a need to revisit the potential of “manufactured houses” and mobile home parks as a partial solution. A look at this case may provide some clues as to what legal, policy and practice changes are needed to make such housing acceptable to all stakeholders.
In the late 1940’s land once part of a Spanish Land Grant was developed as the Chesterfield Mobile Home Park (CMHP) in what was unincorporated St. Louis County. When the City of Chesterfield was incorporated in 1988, CMHP was grandfathered in the city’s zoning plan as a “legal, non-conforming use.” It operates today in that status. CMHP is home to over 300 people living in 135 homes. Most of the individual trailer residents are elderly or disabled living on limited incomes. A larger number of residents are families with one or more wage earners working in low wage jobs in Chesterfield’s stores and restaurants. Many of these are Hispanic. A few are independent, small business owners. There are more than 120 children in the community, most of whom attend Rockwood Schools.
In 2017 a developer approached the owner of the Mobile Home Park to buy the land to build apartment buildings. The sale was contingent upon the developer’s ability to get the land rezoned for that use. If the land was rezoned, CMHP would be closed and the occupants forced to leave. There is no other low income housing in the area, so they would lose their homes, jobs and schools for their children.
An informal committee of residents and concerned citizens successfully fought the rezoning of the property. Rezoning was denied and the developer has withdrawn. Unfortunately, the residents may have “won a battle to lose the war.” The property owners will eventually sell.
The CMHP Resident Association is now looking at potential ways for the residents to buy the land. They are in contact with several national organizations and financiers who specialize in cooperative housing and the purchase of trailer parks for resident ownership (ROCUSA, Grounded Solutions, Community Land Trusts, and others). These efforts will be strengthened by the development of a viable plan for the mobile park which would meet the city’s expectations for improvements in the mobile park. Achieving community ownership would be a win-win-win for the residents, the current land owner, and the city and surrounding neighbors (by means of improvements to the mobile park).
HUD recognizes the utility of such housing in the current market (cf. articles in Evidence Matters and other HUD publications). Several states have also taken action to promote conversion of mobile home parks to “Resident Owned Communities,” among them New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Oregon. All of these have “Opportunity to Purchase” law, which requires the land owner to notify intent to sell and provide a 90-day period of negotiation that requires clear notification of sale expectations and good faith negotiation with residents and others interested. As usual, Missouri lags behind.
Local zoning laws will also need to be addressed to find what is required to make mobile home parks a welcome addition to the community housing stock. And finally, community development practioners should update their views on the parks as real communities where engagement with and mutual support among neighbors is often more easily obtained than in other environments.
If you share my concern about this critical issue and would like to get involved, here are a few ways you can help:
Area citizens and preservation groups are invited to provide moral and public support for the preservation of this low-income housing and to encourage both legal and zoning changes.
Funds are needed in the short term to assist in pre-development activities, surveys, research, organizing, and outreach to the broader community.
Should a Community Land Trust be needed, supporters will be needed to serve in the short or long term on the Board of the Land Trust, both to acquire the land and to assist residents in negotiating improvements with the City of Chesterfield.
CDCs and housing and community development nonprofit partners who are interested in working with Resident-Owned Communities USA (ROC-USA) could assist by serving as a local partner, thus enabling ROC-USA to bring their expertise and support to Missouri and Southern Illinois. Many mobile home parks in these areas are potential sources for upgraded low-income and affordable housing stock.
ROC-USA has managed 200 conversions of mobile home parks and has access to finances to make such conversions possible. But they will not enter our marketplace without a local partner.
For more information, please contact Jim Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim has no experience in housing development, but began work life in community organizing in the 1960s, working his way from the street to city then state government positions in workforce development. The second third of his career was in OD work in the private sector, returning to program and process improvement in the non-profit and government sectors to finish work life. After a 1970s experience with cooperatives in Ecuador, he takes pride in founding four service collaboratives to address employment of ex-offenders and other disadvantaged job seekers.
Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
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