Council mulls rezoning to shield residents of affordable mobile home parks
The Portland City Council is expected to move quickly Wednesday to pass an emergency zoning ordinance that protects 56 mobile and manufactured home parks from being redeveloped into other uses.
Critics say the proposal could have unintended consequences, and won't shield mobile and manufactured homeowners from evictions or steep space-rent increases.
Mobile and manufactured home parks provide affordable housing for more than 3,000 Portland families, but the booming real estate market has led to the closure of four Portland parks in just two years. Advocates, led by the Living Cully coalition, say creating a special "residential manufactured dwelling park" zone will prevent the loss of more parks and retain a vital source of affordable housing.
Advocates and opponents alike predict a slam-dunk vote by the council Wednesday to concur with the proposal advanced last month by the Planning and Sustainability Commission. Tom Armstrong, a supervising planner for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, said the ordinance could take effect as soon as midnight Wednesday.
But some critics, including those who advocate for mobile home residents, aren't so sure it's a good idea.
"It looks like a great idea on the surface," said Nancy Inglehart, but "I don't think it's going to solve the problem." She lives in Bell Acres Mobile Estates in Gresham and is a volunteer advocate for manufactured homeowners as a board member of the Manufactured Housing/Oregon State Tenants Association, known as OSTA.
"I don't want to see the false hope that the homeowners would have in thinking this is a solution to retaining their homes," Inglehart said.
Like some mobile home park owners, she is concerned that the ordinance will limit options for past-their-prime parks built in the 1970s or earlier. Older, single-wide homes in those parks weren't designed to last more than a half-century, Inglehart and others contend. Perhaps more importantly, many of the city's old parks, such as in East Portland and along Northeast Killingsworth Street, lack proper roads, sewers, water lines and other services, which can be hugely expensive to upgrade.
Upgrades usually require raising the space rents charged to the homeowners, but many of the residents in older parks are on fixed incomes and are hard-pressed to pay more rent.
There's nothing in the proposed city ordinance that bars an owner from leveling an old park and starting anew, skeptics say.
"He might want to flatten it out and put a whole new development there of new houses," Inglehart said.
Some say the ordinance would even encourage that, because owners lose the right to sell to apartment builders or other developers.
Inglehart said she tends to agree with the assessment of Paul Brewer, who owns manufactured home parks in McMinnville and Grants Pass, and sits with her on the Mobile Home Landlord/Tenant Coalition, which vets bills pending before the Legislature. Brewer is "one of the good guys," Inglehart said. "He cares about his tenants."
Brewer, who grew up in Southern Oregon but now lives in Orange County, California, said he's skeptical the city of Portland's rezoning idea is going to work as intended.
"You can still tear down your manufactured housing park," Brewer noted. "Does that protect affordable housing? No, not really."
Brewer warns that upgrading infrastructure in older parks is costly, and park owners will want the tenants who rent space for their homes to pay for it.
He just spent $250,000 to repair concrete in just seven spaces in his McMinnville park, and $1 million replacing a water line there.
He thinks the wave of parks built in the 1970s are reaching the end of their useful economic life.
"They're going bye-bye, no matter what the city wants to do. They're not going to stick around," Brewer said.
And if an owner decides to upgrade with new units, they are likely to triple or quadruple the space rents, he predicted.
Armstrong agreed there's nothing in the proposed ordinance to preclude a sale of a park as long as it remains a manufactured home park.
"There is nothing to stop parks from replacing units with newer units that are likely to be at a higher rent level or a higher price level," Armstrong said.
Cameron Herrington, the anti-displacement coordinator for Living Cully, which has pushed for the special manufactured housing zone, said concerns raised about expensive infrastructure upgrades at older parks is looking at the problem from the wrong perspective.
"It's a bit of a red herring to suppose that we shouldn't preserve manufactured housing parks because some of them are old and run down," Herrington said.
Any kind of housing can get run down, he reasons. "The question should be how can we be sure the places that are run down get resources to provide safe, quality homes."
Living Cully has been working with tenants at Oak Leaf mobile home park and others along Northwest Killingsworth to improve and preserve their parks. With city and grant money and support from Living Cully and faith groups, St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County took over ownership and management of Oak Leaf, and is upgrading the complex. But the nonprofit has acknowledged it turned out far more complicated and expensive than expected.
The real problem is that the city allowed parks like Oak Leaf to get run down because past owners simply kept collecting rent checks without keeping them up, Herrington said.
"It was a willful decision by the park management and owner," he said.
What the city needs to do is more "proactive inspections," especially where low-income people are living, Herrington said.
Armstrong notes that the ordinance before the City Council provides new opportunities for park owners to add more units to their manufactured housing parks. If they can't take advantage of increased density rights, they can sell the rights to an apartment developer who might build most anywhere else in the city. The proceeds can be used to pay for needed infrastructure upgrades, Armstrong said.
Find out more
The Portland City Council will take up the ordinance at 2 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall, and has slotted three hours for that item.
For more information on the city's Manufactured Dwelling Park Project, or to offer testimony online, visit: portlandoregon.gov/bps/76383
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