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'Housing gridlock' puts squeeze on mobile home owners

Devin Kelly

An office building sits on the space where Robert and Dianne Stevens' mobile home once stood off 36th Avenue in Midtown Anchorage.

The Stevenses were among the residents evicted from Plaza 36 Mobile Home Court when the park was closed for redevelopment in 2001. The site became the Centerpoint Building, part of a wave of commercial redevelopment in the area, and the couple was given $5,000 to move their mobile home to Riviera Terrace Mobile Home Park in East Anchorage. The owners of Riviera Terrace at the time told the Stevenses the park would be permanent.

Last week, however, the couple found themselves in a conference room in the Centerpoint Building, listening to plans to turn Riviera Terrace into upscale housing units. If the project moves to completion, the Stevenses will be forced to move again.

The plan for Riviera Terrace marks another chapter in the story of Anchorage's aging and disappearing mobile home parks. Since 2000, nearly 500 mobile homes have been demolished or moved to make way for other developments.

The people who live in mobile homes have few options. They can move the trailer elsewhere or walk away. If they move into another type of housing, they are likely to be looking at paying more. In Riviera Terrace, tenants pay $425 per month to rent a space for a home with space for a yard, without the necessity of sharing a wall with neighbors.

It's a type of housing that will likely continue to decline in the Anchorage Bowl, which is confronting what experts have described as "housing gridlock." A slowdown in the level of housing production in recent years has triggered a rise in prices, a drop in vacancy rates and calls for increased density to meet demand.

The city's comprehensive plan, Anchorage 2020, recognizes mobile homes as an affordable housing choice and lifestyle option, but does not direct the city to protect them from redevelopment. As developers browse the Anchorage Bowl for buildable land, mobile home parks are being eyed as prime real estate.

"Eventually, all of these parks are going get redeveloped," one of the new owners of Riviera Terrace, Cameron Johnson, told the park's residents at a meeting Tuesday night. "It's the only way for Anchorage to grow."

Typically, Anchorage mobile home parks cleared for redevelopment have been replaced with less dense housing, rather than more, said Susan Fison, former city planning director and a consultant for Housing Anchorage, a local housing coalition.

Off Boniface Parkway about two miles north of Riviera Terrace, Weidner Apartment Homes, a major Anchorage property manager, adopted a different approach in the redevelopment of the Four Seasons mobile home park. Instead of adding density, the company opted to keep the Four Seasons as a park, while switching out run-down trailers with manufactured homes that were offered first to current residents.

But over the next 10 to 12 years, Johnson and his partners plan to fill out the Riviera Terrace park with 460 units of two-and three-bedroom townhouses, more than triple the density of the mobile home park. The units will be rented at market rates, projected to cost between $1,400 to $2,000 a month. The project is slated to unfold in four phases spaced three to four years apart, with the success of the first phase dictating the rest of the development, Johnson said. Of the park's 170 mobile homes, the first phase will affect the 23 sitting in the northern eight acres of park. As many of the trailers as possible will be relocated within the park, to buy people more time to plan for the prospect of a move, Johnson said.

Some trailers can't be moved, he acknowledged, and the municipality will be inspecting each unit in the northern eight acres to find out which those are. It costs close to $10,000 to move a trailer, and between $4,000 and $6,000 to dispose of one, Johnson said.

The new owners are offering relocation assistance and up to $5,100 -- a year's worth of rent -- to the residents in the first phase, who will live rent-free starting June 1. Johnson said the expectation is to break ground in summer of 2015. The owners are offering to pay to move trailers and help find housing for those living in trailers that can't be moved.

If a mobile home won't fit elsewhere in Riviera Terrace, it's unclear where else it can go within the municipality. The average mobile home in the park was purchased in 1971. Many Anchorage mobile home parks won't accept mobile homes built before 1976 -- the year Congress passed the Federal Manufactured Housing Construction and Safety Standards Act, which led to the creation of a national code specifying safety and quality standards.

If the Riviera Terrace development is successful, each mobile home will be demolished or moved eventually to make way for the higher-end townhouses.

"I don't want to hurt anybody," Johnson said Tuesday. "But no matter what I do, somebody is going to be upset."

His words came right after an emotional meeting with about 70 of the park's residents, who packed into a conference room next to the Jack White Realty office with expressions that ranged from resignation to hostility to fear.

At the front of the room, a mounted aerial photograph showed the phasing plan for the project. People walked up and traced their fingers on the map, trying to figure out which phase they're in.

Leaona Gray, 56, buried her head in her arms. "I don't want to hear it."

Throughout the meeting, voices chimed out: "It's like somebody came in and wiped you out." "A lot of us are on Social Security, disability." "No one's going to buy our homes."

Some people pointed out that a $5,100 check does not come close to covering the investment in renovations over the years.

"They may be 1960 homes on the outside, but the insides have been gutted, refurbished," Nelson Bruce said, from the back of the room. "So we just lose all that equity in our house?"

Tearfully, April White-Floyd, 51, called her home her "nest egg."

"I cannot sell my home now," she said.

Seeking to allay fears, Johnson said the developers are also looking into buying land in the Valley for a new park.

During the meeting, Dianne Stevens sat next to her husband at a table near the front of the room. Afterward, she said Johnson seemed nice and polite, echoing others who were grateful for the offer of relocation assistance. She also said that if land was purchased in the Valley, she thought a lot of her neighbors would be interested in moving there.

But she said she and her husband, both disabled and living on a fixed income, wouldn't be among them. She said their mobile home was built in 1970 and the roof is starting to cave in. Their home is situated in the second phase of development, projected to begin three to four years down the road.

"I am not going to move my mobile home. I can't do it again," said Stevens, who is 63. "I just can't."

Reach Devin Kelly at dkelly@adn.com or 257-4314.

 


By DEVIN KELLY
dkelly@adn.com