Saturday, January 28, 2006
Steamboat Springs Ellen Brandt cherishes her neighborhood.
It's the kind of place where children play together and neighbors help one another without asking for anything in return. When it snows, Brandt shovels around the vacant home next door. Her 2-year-old daughter, KÃ¡li (pronounced KAY-lee), has even learned to say "hello" in Spanish to the neighbor down the street.
For six years, Brandt has been a renter in the same mobile home in the Westland Mobile Home Park. Her living situation, however, is about to change.
Westland sits on Yampa Street along the river, in the same spot a proposed commercial and residential project could occupy someday soon. Riverwalk, as it was last described in a city memo, would be a 10-building project along Yampa Street between Third and Fifth streets that would include 72 residential units, seven deed-restricted affordable units, 35 hotel rooms, 35,234 square feet of commercial space and 108 underground parking spaces. Jim Cook has represented the applicant in public hearings.
City planning commissioners approved two aspects of the Riverwalk project last month. The City Council is set to consider those two aspects -- a conditional-use permit and the development plan -- Feb. 7.
Residents of the park say they don't know what they are going to do next, and they worry the same thing could happen to other mobile-home tenants.
The people who live in mobile-home parks are the backbone of the community, said Christina Allevato, a Westland resident who cleans houses for a living. They are bus drivers, retail store clerks, mechanics, nurses, teachers, carpenters, waitresses, plumbers, police officers and firefighters.
Many of those people have lived in the area for a long time, said Bobbi Hodge, a resident of the Dream Island mobile-home community. Hodge has taken an interest in the future of mobile-home parks and has conducted a survey to learn more about who lives in them.
"These are not transients. These are people who have been here for the long haul," she said.
Parks in peril
Allevato thinks that if the Riverwalk project goes through, the elimination of other mobile-home parks will follow.
"Westland will set a precedent for all mobile-home parks in the Steamboat area," she said.
But living in a mobile home comes with its risks, local officials say. Even if people own their mobile home, they likely don't own the land under it, said Kathi Meyer, president of the board for the Yampa Valley Housing Authority. She also is the chairwoman of the city's planning commission but has stepped down from that role during discussions about Riverwalk.
Because tenants don't own the land, Meyer has said, they could face displacement and relocation if the land is redeveloped.
Parks such as Westland, which is zoned for commercial use, are more likely to be subject to redevelopment, said Elizabeth Black, executive director of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority.
"Every mobile-home park not zoned mobile home is more vulnerable to redevelopment than one that is zoned mobile home," Black said.
The city has a mobile-home ordinance intended to preserve mobile-home parks. To change the use of a park, the ordinance requires applicants to complete an impact report before the city will issue a conditional-use permit. The report includes an inventory of the residents and homes in the park, as well as a plan that states the proposed date of the park's closing.
Last month, the city's Plan--ning Commission approved Riverwalk's conditional-use permit. Commissioner Steve Lewis, who was the sole dissenting vote, said that the impact report was not complete. There were blanks in the report where the applicant was supposed to list information about other mobile-home parks, he said.
Lewis recently said his vote was more symbolic than meaningful. Even if the whole commission had voted "no," he said, the applicant could have filled in the blanks.
"It seems inevitable," he said.
Lewis takes that element of the ordinance to task. It's too much of a "slam-dunk," he said, because all developers have to do is turn in a report.
"There is no philosophy, there is no room for us to facilitate mitigating their loss in the change of use -- which is where the mitigation should occur," Lewis said.
Changing the use, Lewis said, makes helping mobile-home owners harder.
"Once the change of use of the property is something else, in essence it is a piece of vacant land. It's past the point where we can really effectively deal with the loss of the mobile homes."
Lewis has said he will fight for a change to that aspect of the ordinance.
"I'm going to follow through with what I think is right," he said.
The housing authority's board plans to review the ordinance in its entirety, Meyer said. However, she said, whether any changes will be recommended remains to be seen.
Housing authority officials have been holding meetings to gain input about what the authority's soon-to-be-drafted strategic plan should address. Housing officials have had a great deal of comments in public meetings from people in Steamboat who are concerned about mobile homes, Meyer and Black said.
"The mobile-home housing component is quite pronounced in Steamboat Springs," Black said.
Cook, who did not return a phone call Friday, has said he will provide six months notice to the residents of Westland Mobile Home Park to let them know when they must vacate their homes.
Cook has said in meetings that he is providing assistance to the residents, even though he is not required to do so. In his relocation plan, Cook proposes giving mobile-home owners who live in their homes $4,000 to relocate, and he would give $1,000 to owners who rent out their homes. Renters would not receive financial assistance.
According to the report, Cook also has proposed paying the city for the portion of the city's right-of-way that he wants to incorporate into the project. That money, which would equal the appraised value of the right-of-way, hopefully would be earmarked for the Yampa Valley Housing Authority, according to the report. Cook has said that he hopes the money, which he said would be more than $1 million, would go to Westland residents.
The report reads: "The Developer believes that such a payment can be used by the Yampa Valley Housing Authority to leverage additional funds and create a larger benefit to the community than any direct payment to individuals would create."
The housing authority never has received money in that way, Meyer said. She said the board has not had any discussions about what would be done with the money because the money is not yet in the board's hands.
Black said that if the city gave the money to the housing authority, the board probably would discuss its use.
"Any funds that we receive from the city from this or any other project, my board would likely earmark for specific housing purposes -- if the money is not articulated by the city itself," Black said.
Westland residents aren't holding their breath to see that money come back to them.
Brandt and her husband, Chris, don't know what to do next. They are looking at living in Stagecoach, but moving out of Steamboat will mean moving away from their jobs, their daughter's school and her pediatrician.
"We'll have to fend for ourselves on this one," Ellen Brandt said. "We don't have any resources. We're not the owners, just the renters."
Allevato planned to build equity off her home. She said she could have used that money for a down payment for another residence, but now she will have only $4,000 in her pocket.
Allevato said she knew the land could be redeveloped, but she didn't realize the gravity of that scenario.
"I never visualized it being as horrible as it actually is," Allevato said. "I didn't realize it would be such a hardship."
Allevato is strongly encouraging residents of mobile-home parks to attend the Feb. 7 meeting and stand up for the parks' preservation.
"We're really ready to put up a fight for our homes," Allevato said. "We need to unite."
Bryan Phillips and his wife, Sherrie, who have a 12-year-old daughter, also put money into their home, which they own.
Bryan Phillips said he understands that he lives on prime property, but he doesn't think the relocation plan is fair.
Phillips worries about his neighbors, too.
"There's a lot of us living here," he said. "I am not quite sure what we're all going to do."
-- To reach Dana Strongin, call 871-4229 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.