Saving rundown mobile home park proves challenging
Portland's first foray into preserving a mobile home park threatened with closure is slated to deliver a "good-as-new" complex in the Cully neighborhood with 22 new or owner-occupied affordable homes.
But retaining the endangered Oak Leaf mobile home park is requiring lots more money, time and headaches than anyone imagined, resulting in fewer units.
Hopes were high for 25 remaining Oak Leaf households 13 months ago, when the city announced that St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County was expanding into Portland to acquire and manage the rundown complex at 4556 N.E. Killingsworth St. The nonprofit owns and operates six Eugene-area mobile home parks, and is highly respected for its affordable housing work there.
Oak Leaf residents learned two years ago that the former owner planned to sell the complex for redevelopment, potentially leaving many of them homeless. It took a massive intervention by the Living Cully coalition, St. Charles Catholic Church, the city and other faith groups and nonprofits to thwart the sale and prevent the low-income residents from being forced out.
St. Vincent has since cobbled together almost $4 million from multiple sources, and hopes to secure about $350,000 more to completely redevelop the complex, said Heather Buch, the nonprofit's project director.
"The real work will be seen when we do renovations," she added, hopefully by this summer.
Meanwhile, St. Vincent has sought to "create a new culture within the park," Buch said, and make it "safe and clean, so it doesn't look like a glorified homeless park."
St. Vincent plans to redo the roads and sidewalks, put utility lines underground, and build a community center, laundry, kitchen, meeting room, office space and playground.
It expects to replace run-down mobile homes with 10 to 12 new single-wide homes with HardiePlank lap siding, which resembles wood. St. Vincent will rent those for 60 percent of the median family income, and help the tenants qualify for federal rental vouchers, which aren't available for those who own their mobile homes, said Janet Keating, St. Vincent's on-site manager.
Six other residents who own their units will keep those, but are getting new roofs, weatherization and other improvements, Keating said.
"It's going to look nice if they can do it the way they want to," said Greg Nelson, an 18-year Oak Leaf resident. He lives in an 8-by-20-foot Dodge Sportsman RV at the complex that he calls "home, sweet home."
Not all has gone according to plan.
The number of park residents started dwindling before St. Vincent took over the complex in December 2016 and has continued since then.
Five units remain empty and boarded up, and some remaining residents are restive because renovations have been delayed so long.
"We've been told to have our stuff packed for the last eight months, supposedly to move into temporary places to stay," said one resident, who asked to remain anonymous.
"I'm very disappointed in all of this." he said. "We were told there would be no eviction; instead they've been evicting people."
"It has been our most challenging park ever," Buch said. "The amount of poverty we see in Oak Leaf has been more severe than any of the rural parks we've done in the past."
In June 2016, there were a reported 65 residents at Oak Leaf, living in 34 spaces, mostly decades-old single-wide mobile homes plus a handful of RVs.
"We thought we'd lose maybe two or three spots," Buch said, due to city setback requirements. It turned out they can provide only 22 spaces after Oak Leaf is redeveloped.
That, plus the need to redo infrastructure basically from scratch, has driven up costs to an estimated $195,000 per unit. That's in the range of what the city pays to develop brand-new affordable apartment complexes.
Keating, who works out of an office in an RV on site, acknowledged that two tenants were evicted when they didn't pay their rent.
The nonprofit tries to aid such tenants, and enlisted help from Living Cully, a coalition of nonprofits active in the neighborhood, which initially recruited St. Vincent to take on the Oak Leaf project.
"They make an extra effort to help avoid their tenants being evicted," said Cameron Herrington, the anti-displacement coordinator for Living Cully. Some tenants having trouble paying space rent were helped, and managed to remain in their homes, he said.
St. Vincent also has organized neighborhood helping days, bringing in outside groups and volunteers to do minor repairs and sprucing-up.
"I think they've done a great job of just keeping the place above water," Herrington said. "The park was really on its last legs in terms of the existing infrastructure and the homes themselves."
In its first year, St. Vincent completed more park improvements than the private owner did in 10 years, he said.
St. Vincent relocated some residents whose mobile homes were considered unsafe, in some cases putting them up in hotels while improvements were being done.
"I noticed they took care of the renters and the ones with kids first," said Nelson, the resident living in an RV.
Dealing with Portland city bureaus has been a learning experience for St. Vincent, and everything's taken longer than expected to get approved, Keating said.
Hiring mobile-home moving companies to cart out unwanted units wasn't viable, because the units have to be "road-worthy," she said.
Even recycling the homes, which are made out of metal, is very difficult, because older mobile homes tend to have asbestos in their roofs, plus sometimes in their floors and window putty.
They can't be demolished until asbestos removal takes place, which costs "anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000," Keating said. And that all has to occur on site.
Staff from a Multnomah County weatherization program recently assessed John Schauer's mobile home at Oak Leaf, but the work can't be done until it's moved to its permanent site. "We can't do anything until they get these asbestos people here," Schauer said.
Meanwhile, he got a new tarp on his roof to keep the rain out.
Schauer, who pays $460 a month for space rent, hopes he might be able to move into one of the new units.
As Portland housing prices continue to skyrocket, Oak Leaf is not the only area mobile home park considered ripe for being sold and redeveloped into other uses.
There are 64 mobile home and manufactured home parks in the city, with a total of 3,192 spaces, according to a database kept by Oregon Housing and Community Services, a state agency.
St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County has been approached by other parties about acquiring more old mobile home parks in need of revitalization, including ones in Cully and Southeast Portland.
"We haven't committed to anything yet," Buch said.