Only by chance did the people who live in Homestead Village, a once pristine but lately neglected mobile home park, learn the park's owner was planning to sell the land beneath their homes—and that a development firm was eyeing the property for a shopping center, offices and new houses. Six months ago, Claudia and Buddy Shows, 34-year residents of Homestead Village, spotted a small rezoning sign stuck in the ground along Capital Boulevard in Raleigh. Like many of their neighbors, they thought the unobtrusive sign referred to the scruffy, defunct Cheviot Hills golf course across the road, which seemed ripe for redevelopment.
But Claudia Shows said they should read that sign, and one morning before dawn, her husband, Buddy, walked up the road and shone a flashlight on it. "Surprise, surprise," she recalls acidly.
The Showses and a few more Homestead Village residents testified at a public hearing against the rezoning of their neighborhood. Yet it's summer and the case is dragging on, postponed repeatedly by the developers. The Raleigh Planning Commission is scheduled to discuss it in August and will make its recommendation to City Council, which will decide if the land should be rezoned. If Council approves, the law gives residents 180 days to move out from the time of the sale, with or without their trailers. Their community may literally be scraped off the earth.
The state of affairs prompted Claudia Shows to recall a verse from Dr. Seuss: "You might not see us at all, but a person's a person, no matter how small."
In the world of real estate, mobile home park residents are second-class citizens. Since the residents don't own the land beneath their homes, they are not considered property owners. Unlike houses, which gain value over time, mobile homes are classified similar to cars and depreciate. Residents have none of the legal rights associated with ownership, such as notification when a rezoning is being considered. When the park owners decide to raise the rent on short notice or sell the property, the residents have no choice but to pay or get out.
This inequity is a significant problem, as working-class and low-income families turn to mobile homes for affordable housing. There are nearly 4,000 trailer parks in North Carolina, according to the U.S. Census, and 15 percent of the state's residents live in 577,000 manufactured homes.
The solution, say housing advocates like the Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina, is to create new programs, such as nonprofit or cooperative park ownerships, that protect residents. While some states have launched such initiatives, North Carolina has not, although faced with the prospect of 40,000 abandoned trailers littering the state's landscape, the legislature is starting to come around.
Since the Homestead Village case began, some residents and affordable housing advocates have begun to ask whether the old park could be fixed up and restored as a place where people of modest means can continue to live, if not in grand style, then at least in very comfortable surroundings. Depending on the City Council's decision, Homestead Village could add to the junk pile—while reducing the trailer park total by one—or it could turn out to be a preservation success story.
On first impression, Homestead Village, which, heading north, is the second right off Capital Boulevard after crossing Interstate 540 (view map), looks like a park whose time has come and gone under the rush of suburbia. But it's soon apparent, as you move along its one main road and onto any of a dozen side streets, that this self-contained oasis would make a perfect trailer park—and with its mature trees, even better than when it opened 35 years ago.
Today, the leafy enclave of 180 mobile home lots still feels like it's out in the country, but it's now surrounded by suburban development. Triangle Town Center, the mega mall on the south side of I-540, is a short hop away. It's a car-hop, though, because you certainly can't walk there.
The Showses moved to Homestead Village in 1974, about a year after it opened. They put their used, 10-by-40-foot singlewide onto a foundation in a treed lot at the top of one of its cul-de-sacs. Several years later, they bought a 12-by-32-foot "add-more" unit and expanded their home, along with a small front porch, a greenhouse and a dog pen.
Back then, Buddy Shows was finishing his training as a medical X-ray technician; Claudia Shows, a Meredith College graduate, was a hospital dietician. They liked the park's location, midway between Rex Hospital, where she worked for a time, and her family in Wake Forest. They expected to live there only temporarily, until they could buy a house.
But for several reasons, two years turned into 34. For some time the park was "immaculate," Claudia Shows says. It had tennis and basketball courts, a kids' recreation area, a swimming pool and a clubhouse, plus a Laundromat and convenience store. The streets were paved and illuminated with streetlights. Lawns were cared for. Gardens were planted. Their next-door neighbor grew roses on her trellises.
It was the equal in every way, Claudia Shows says, to the spiffy Florida trailer parks advertised in the best magazines.
"It kept on being home, so we stayed," she says.
A second reason the Showses stayed put, she adds, is that housing prices were always slightly out of their reach. "The market here always outpaced us," she says, especially after degenerative arthritis forced her to stop working 20 years ago. In 2005, Buddy underwent quintuple bypass surgery, although he returned to work at Raleigh Orthopedic thereafter.
Except for the $295 monthly lot lease, "It's all paid for," Buddy Shows says of his home.
The Showses' neighbors are the Estradas, a hard-working couple with two teenagers who moved to the United States from Mexico six years ago—and to Raleigh because relatives were living here. Elizabeth and David attend Wakefield High School and are fluent in Spanish and English. Their mother, Maria, works at a delicatessen and a catering service, and cleans houses; their father, Aurelio, drives an ice cream truck all day and every evening when they're not at church.
"You couldn't ask for anyone who was sweeter or nicer than the Estradas," Claudia Shows says.
The Estradas, too, own their home and are planning to repair an old porch, Maria Estrada says, if they're allowed to stay. Inside, the immaculate trailer features a tiled kitchen. Estrada's great fear, she says as her daughter translates, is that the tiles wouldn't survive the move to another park. And, she adds, they've been told that it would cost at least $4,000 to move the mobile home: About $1,500 for the transport and the rest to improve their old unit to the higher standards of the other parks nearby.
Claudia Shows puts her home in that category, too. She's sure it would fall apart—or the axles would—if they tried to take it elsewhere. "They're supposed to be 'mobile' homes, but I call them 'immobile' homes," she says.
Not that many "elsewheres" exist, she's discovered. The nearest park in Raleigh, six miles away, had two vacancies when she inquired. Another in Wake Forest had four. That's six places for the 160 trailers that remain today at Homestead Village.
Today's Homestead Village is nothing like yesterday's. It has sunk into disrepair, a fact the Showses blame on the owner's reducing maintenance staff and, apparently anticipating a sell-off, not paying for needed repairs.
The store is still there, but the Laundromat is closed. Instead of the clubhouse, now there's a bar next to the store that caters to construction workers. All the recreation facilities are gone except the swimming pool, which is open intermittently. The streets are marred with giant potholes. Many of the tallest trees are dying or decayed. Yards are unkempt. And a lot of the housing stock looks old and tired—because it is.
In fighting the rezoning, the Showses and their neighbors are learning the hard way that the process in Raleigh is organized for the convenience of developers—and the inconvenience of opponents. Since the residents aren't property owners, they don't receive official notification about the case; they know about the case's status only by checking the city's Web site a day or two in advance. Three times since January, the planning commission has scheduled the Homestead Village case for discussion, and opponents have printed their flyers in Spanish and English and distributed them throughout the park—only to see the developers have the case put off.
The delays don't signal a lack of interest by the developers, says Cary Joshi, a partner in WJ Properties, a development firm with offices in Raleigh. However, he acknowledges they are "continuing to evaluate it" in light of the economy.
As rezonings go, the Homestead Village case is relatively uncomplicated. Bob Binns, who owns the park, is getting old and wants to sell. WJ Properties has taken an option to buy, contingent on the city's approval of the rezoning. The proposal calls for a shopping center and possibly some office buildings on about one-third of the property—the portion facing Capital Boulevard—and about 200 housing units on the remainder of the land. (The rezoning would allow up to 350 housing units, but according to Joshi, the required street widths and buffers would prevent fitting that many on the site.) The specific conditions of the rezoning, which may further alter the property's size and appearance, continue to be negotiated, Joshi says.
What guides city officials in such cases is the Raleigh Comprehensive Plan, plus any area-specific plans on the city's books. An analysis by the city's planning staff found the rezoning to be consistent with Raleigh's comprehensive plan, which calls for dense, mixed-use development within a "focus area" around the I-540 intersection.
But the rezoning would be inconsistent, the analysis continues, with the equally official Capital Boulevard corridor plan, which calls for the Homestead Village site to be used for housing—but not office or retail.
Neither plan, however, contemplates a continuation of the existing mobile park zoning.
Raleigh's zoning rules require developers to meet with neighboring property owners before the public hearing. WJ Properties did so last fall by presenting their plans to the local Citizens Advisory Council and to homeowners in the Smoketree subdivision, which borders the park site on the south.
Some Smoketree homeowners disapproved of the developers' proposal to route traffic into and out of the mall, so they filed a statutory protest petition against the rezoning. Unless it's withdrawn, the developers will need six of the eight City Council members to support the rezoning, not just the customary five-member majority. By law, only neighboring property owners can file such petitions.
The developers aren't responsible for notifying Homestead Village residents, Joshi emphasizes. But as soon as the company realized Binns had left his tenants in the dark, Joshi says, WJ officials tried to arrange a pair of meetings with the residents, at which a variety of affordable housing "options and solutions were offered." The meetings featured real estate and housing experts, he says, including the owners of other mobile home parks, and a Spanish translator.
The Showses and other residents say the options were too expensive or impractical, a response Joshi calls "a little disingenuous." He says he and his partners offered to reimburse residents for the cost of meeting with a housing consultant and offered them the equivalent of three months' rent—$885 each—if, when the park closes, they vacate on time.
In any event, Joshi says, the residents should never have thought that their zoning was permanent, any more than if an apartment tenant's building were replaced. He says he sympathizes with residents, but adds they need to understand that if the land is rezoned, they will have no choice but to leave.
Meanwhile, Binns couldn't be contacted at his home in Homestead Village and didn't answer his listed telephone number. Residents say he lives elsewhere, and they must communicate with him through his office manager, Jennifer Holmes, or her husband, Mike, the person in charge of maintenance.
The Indy left messages at the office, and Binns returned the call, referring most questions to his lawyer. Asked if the rezoning case fails, whether he'd consider selling to someone else who would keep the park open and fix it up, Binns replied, "Why would I not?" adding that there was no reason to reject the rezoning, then politely ended the interview.
Tom Webb and his son, Tom Jr., moved to South Kansas Street in Homestead Village four months ago, renting a unit from the park for $550 a month after their house in Kinston burned down. Webb runs a carpet cleaning service and, despite his bad luck, was relaxing in his yard one recent Saturday afternoon. He says he enjoys living at Homestead Village. Although the initial rezoning hearing had been held when he moved in, no one told him the park was for sale.
"No need to lock your car," Webb says as we walk down the street to meet a neighbor. "It'll be safe. Nobody bothers anybody here."
A few blocks away, on North Texas Street, Kay Bryant is eager to talk about her home and yard, where her gardens are lush with flowers, mint and corn. She and her husband, Brian, a truck driver, have transformed their land into a virtual campground for their 9-year-old son, Stanley, complete with a tent, a playhouse, an above-ground pool and a swing set. "This is the most peaceful, outside place you could ever imagine," she says.
All of her neighbors, in three other trailers on the street, are Mexican immigrants, she says. They're quiet and friendly. "Everybody here stays to themselves," she says, "unless you need something, then everybody jumps in and helps."
Bryant works at a Hardee's near WakeMed, a 16-mile a day roundtrip that's starting to be costly with the price of gas. After 13 years at the fast-food chain, she says, she earns $7.45 an hour. She and her husband paid almost $20,000 for their used trailer, and they have six years left on their mortgage. They're barely making the payments now and to move the trailer would be practically impossible. "Oh, gracious, it would set us so far behind," she says, sighing.
Bryant says she's depressed, and she fears, so his her son. He has heard her worry that they would end up homeless, she thinks. "I'll tell you what I tell everybody," she offers. "We need a miracle."
That miracle would be revamping real estate rules to endow mobile home residents with more rights—and in turn, partially solving the nation's lack of affordable housing.
A Durham-based nonprofit, the Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina (CRA-NC), is a leader in advocating for mobile home residents. Research director Adam Rust, who recently wrote a book, This Is My Home: The Challenges and Opportunities of Manufactured Housing, has traveled from New England to California visiting good and bad parks and compared the local policies that helped create them.
He says there's a discrepancy between the long-term financing that low-income people often need in order to buy their units and the short-term leases they're forced to sign when they move their home into a trailer park.
Because of this mismatch, Rust says, most manufactured housing is considered a depreciating asset from the time it's purchased—just like a car and unlike other houses when they're built on the owners' land.
The answer, Rust says, is to convert "land-lease" communities—the association's preferred term for trailer parks—to some form of cooperative, nonprofit or public ownership that frees the homeowners, and their lenders, from the threat that the land can be jerked out from under them at any time.
Mobile homes in traditional trailer parks, he also discovered, are usually not eligible for government-subsidized improvement loans, the way other affordable-housing units are, since those loans are designed to help homeowners maintain their appreciating asset.
And most places, North Carolina among them, give trailer park residents little or no legal protection if a park owner wants to raise their rents on short notice. Nor, until recently, was North Carolina any help when a park owner sold the land. However, in a package of reforms in 2003 and 2005, affordable housing advocates and the manufactured home industry here persuaded the General Assembly to pass legislation requiring park owners to give 180 days' notice before selling the park to someone who plans to close or rezone it.
On the bright side, Rust found policymakers in a few states are beginning to recognize that manufactured units could provide solid housing for even the lowest-income folks if the land-lease issues were addressed.
Thus, 100 cities and towns in California have enacted some form of rent controls. California, Arizona and Massachusetts now prohibit short-term land leases. In Washington state, park owners must contribute to a fund that helps pay residents' relocation costs should a park close.
The most progressive program, though, is in New Hampshire, where a state fund has financed the conversion of 82 privately owned parks to cooperative ownership by the residents or a nonprofit.
Meanwhile, back in North Carolina the CRA-NC was instrumental in sparking the first such conversion in this state: an eight-acre, 14-lot park in the mountain town of Burnsville. A willing seller helped, as did the fact that the CRA-NC's assets allowed it to make a no-interest, $100,000 second-mortgage loan to an Asheville-based nonprofit that is managing the conversion. The total purchase price: $300,000.
With help from U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat representing Durham, Orange and parts of Wake and Chatham counties (and he wrote the forward to Rust's book), CRA-NC is now able to qualify for up to $250,000 from a federal housing program for future conversions.
CRA-NC Executive Director Peter Skillern and Chris Estes, who heads the North Carolina Housing Coalition, hope to do one such conversion per year. Meanwhile, they want to figure out the best conversion methods, learn the policy implications, and convey both to legislators and state housing officials in Raleigh.
Since it organized in 2001, the Housing Coalition has worked diligently to place housing issues on the state's radar, Estes says, to say nothing of overcoming their bias against "trailers."
But new trailers, which must be manufactured to federal housing code standards (hence the term "HUD-code units"), stack up very well against even the best modular housing construction, he argues, and can help fill the yawning gap in housing for poor folks with incomes as low as 20 percent to 30 percent of the federal median income. Other affordable-housing programs don't adequately help people with incomes below at least the 40 percent to 60 percent range, Estes notes.
Over the years, the Community Reinvestment Association, the Housing Coalition and other advocates have persuaded lawmakers to push annual funding for the state's low-income housing trust fund from just $3 million a year to between $15 million and $18 million annually, Estes notes.
The next step will be to convince the state Housing Finance Agency, which administers the fund, that putting money into trailer-park conversions can be as sound a business move as financing an apartment building.
"If [the Housing Finance Agency] could do park acquisitions, that would change the whole nature of this game," Rust says.
That won't happen in time to help Homestead Village residents. The Community Reinvestment Associations' assets fall far short of what would be needed to finance the conversion of a park its size.
But Rust thinks the opportunity exists for another private owner to buy the park and, if the price is reasonable, improve it using money from the lot rentals. For starters, Rust notes, 160 units are paying $295 a month each for their lots; that's $47,200 cash-flow per month to a prospective buyer.
Legislation under consideration in the General Assembly could add further incentives if the buyer created a nonprofit corporation or cooperative ownership deal with the residents. If so, House Bill 1700 would provide the park seller with a 7 percent tax deduction against his capital gain.
After a favorable committee report, the bill could come to the House floor for a vote any time, with Estes and Rust believing it may be enacted before the current session ends.
For now, Homestead Village residents wait for the next rezoning hearing—assuming it happens. Each time the planning commission schedules the case, it's for a weekday meeting in City Hall starting at 9 a.m., convenient for developers and their representatives to attend but not for opponents—unless they don't work or can take time off. Three times now, Claudia Shows has distributed flyers to her fellow residents with the issues in the case, directions to City Hall and a plea to show up if they can. Three times, too, she's had to circulate follow-up flyers telling everybody that the meeting's off.
"Oh, no!" she moaned when she learned a few days before the July 2 meeting that her case had been pushed back again. Her neighbors, she worried, might be thinking that she's the one screwing everything up. "Why do they keep doing this to me?"
The mood in the neigbhorhood is low. Before the rezoning case, Claudia Shows enjoyed listening to the sound of hammering and repairs in the park, often to a salsa beat on the radio. But the hammering's stopped. "I don't know whether you'd describe it as clinical depression," she says, "but [the rezoning] case has really zapped this community. People think everything's going to be taken away from them because of it, so why bother?"