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home, sweet mobile home.

Byline: The Register-Guard

On a Sunday drive early last winter my husband and I decided to pull in to what was left of the Thunderbird Mobile Home Club in Wilsonville, recently home to several hundred senior citizens. It closed in March.

It looked like a set for the film version of John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath." Only worse: no hope.

As we wound slowly through the once quiet, flower- and tree-lined streets of the 55-plus retirement community, past the rubble of people's homes in various states of demolition and removal, past the ragged piles of twisted tin, torn fencing, abandoned furnishings and splintered entry ramps - the collateral damage of somebody's real estate opportunity - we began to feel uneasy.

If it could happen here, could it happen where we live - The Patrician mobile home community in Springfield?

When we moved into The Patrician in November 2006, all our research suggested that the park owners, the Van Well family, were committed to the tenants, some of whom have been residents since it opened in the early 1970s.

We even had personal assurance from a person who worked for the city of Springfield that there were no plans for the land on which the park sits.

For us, it seemed almost too good to be true.

Should we invest? Pristine location, wonderful neighbors, fishing in the famous McKenzie River a few blocks away - like many "new seniors" opting for a simpler, debt-free lifestyle in these brittle economic times, this park was exactly what we sought, particularly because we travel.

Of course we knew we had to depend upon the continued assurance that the park owners wouldn't sell.

Then developer Richard Boyles came along with the right amount of money for the next generation of Van Wells, who had taken over park operations at about the time my husband and I were viewing the remains of the Thunderbird.

Boyles even had a possible purchaser should he decide to strip and flip the land - the city of Springfield, which is conducting a feasibility study about the property as one of several sites being considered for a city conference center.

When the news of the sale hit, we began to hear the anguish and anger, frustration and fear of our neighbors, many in delicate health facing or recovering from back, neck and eye surgeries, dealing with bone, lung and colon cancers, negotiating wheelchairs, canes and less evident afflictions of age - and now shocked out of the sense of security The Patrician has afforded them in their declining years.

And, of course, there was the despair over the drastic loss of the value of our homes because of the cloud now placed on the property - our property: homes now reduced to a fraction of their real market value because of the seeming inevitability of the land sale and the meager compensation allotted by state law.

We held meetings with our Springfield City Council representative, Christine Lundberg, and other city representatives who explained what the council and city could and could not do for us.

We met with a representative of Boyles' who assured us as recently as July 12 at a park meeting that "the park is not for sale," even though we'd heard and read about the desirability of the site for the conference center.

"We are not dismantling this park," the representative assured us - even as Boyles, in an article in the July issue of Blue Chip, The Register-Guard's business publication, about his interests in the Gateway area among other ventures, commented, "We do have land holdings in places that we believe are in the path of development." In a Jan. 1 Register-Guard interview, Boyles also noted, "I think it's obvious that change to the property will be on the horizon in the future."

Not to mention the first right of refusal given in writing to the consortium studying the property for the city should Boyles decide to develop the lot any other way (Register-Guard, March 14).

It's pretty hard to believe Boyles is not considering a major real estate opportunity here.

And back at those city council meetings: We were told there was really nothing much the city could do for us outside of recommending other living options - maybe some apartments for those on limited incomes, maybe a few mobile home parks that might be able to take our pre-Housing and Urban Development Department-stickered units, details to follow in the fall.

It didn't look good. And not just for us.

Research indicates that demolishing manufactured and mobile home communities for big development bucks seems to be quite a trend in the state - and across the nation.

In the past five years, approximately 65 of Oregon's 1,300 manufactured and mobile home parks have closed, displacing thousands, according to Oregon Manufactured Homeowners United.

A recent Google search of mobile home park closures in the United States netted 29,700 sites revealing much the same kind of bad news: heartbreaking lose-lose situations for mostly elderly residents, and big burdens placed on cities and counties to scramble for decreasing dollars to assist the evicted.

And mobile home park communities, often politically marginalized due to age, health and economic limitations, can find it very difficult if not impossible to fight back when powerful, moneyed interests take the floor.

It didn't look good. Until recently.

Seizing an opportunity to act, former state legislator and Springfield City Councilor Gene Hulett, a Patrician resident, initiated the formation of a park committee to formally represent our interests.

Among the first orders of business were invitations to others who have already entered the fight to save the homes and way of life of approximately 100,000 manufactured and mobile homeowners in Oregon.

Among recent guests were Peter Ferris, citizen lobbyist and executive director of Oregon Manufactured Homeowners United, and Jerry Harden, a Eugene activist and organizer.

OMHU, along with other park committees and organizations such as Manufactured Home Owners of Oregon (formerly the Oregon State Tenants Association), has been working at the state level the past few years to help pass legislation (House Bill 2735) that allots very small, but at least some, compensation for evicted mobile home residents: $5,000 for residents of single-wide homes, $7,000 for residents of double-wides, and $9,000 for residents of triple-wides, with a possible tax credit of $5,000 for those given closure notices.

Several cities, including Eugene, took advantage of a window of opportunity to add to that compensation for their residents.

Unfortunately, Springfield didn't follow suit.

Our councilors complained they didn't have enough time to act - although, according to Hardin, Springfield City Councilor Dave Ralston served on the Lane County Housing Policy Board during the time a study committee made the recommendations that resulted in the other cities enhancing compensation for their ousted park residents. And a full-time city of Springfield employee sat on the committee itself.

We have to wonder: No time?

Nevertheless, efforts to save our parks - to save The Patrician - continue.

Recently, OMHU has been working with state Rep. Chris Edwards and state Sen. Bill Morrisette to introduce and sponsor a bill in the 2009 Legislature that would amend HB 2735 to bring the power to compensate evicted manufactured home park tenants closer to home, so to speak. It would also re-open the window of opportunity for cities and towns to "amend local ordinances as local conditions warrant as long as they meet or exceed the protections of the statewide statute."

Citing the facts that local governing bodies are better able to know their areas' unique conditions, the vulnerability of their residents and the availability of affordable housing, among other factors, the bill would allow for greater equity in compensating mobile home park tenants for the demise of their communities, and in many cases, the demolition of homes in which many have invested everything.

And it would be good public policy.

Another thing we've often heard is the city's concern about affordable housing.

As recently as July 22, at a forum to discuss Springfield's Urban Growth Boundary organized by state Rep. Terry Beyer, Mayor Sid Leiken and representatives of the Lane County Builders Association and the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, we heard it again. This time with teeth: The city is considerably short of the state-mandated 20-year supply of buildable land for all types of housing. Speakers expressed concern about whether there will be enough affordable housing in the mix to accommodate, say, families just starting out - and seniors on fixed incomes.

For some Patrician residents present, this begged the question: Why not do everything possible, then, to make sure The Patrician remains - or at least that its residents get fair compensation in the event of a sale so that they have a running start to try to secure other homes in an increasingly expensive housing market?

It would seem that our leaders would encourage and protect, not discourage and neglect, communities such as ours: affordable, secure, quiet and tax-producing.

It would seem that if park owners sell their land, the city would also welcome the opportunity to ease the losses residents would experience as well as the city's losses in tax revenue and assistance dollars.

It would be good public policy.

We hope and pray that Springfield city leaders really hear - and understand - this, that they will support the proposed legislation, and find someplace else for the conference center.

In the meantime, we've only just begun our fight to survive.

Time will tell if we can save our homes and our community, or if not, at least recoup more than a few thousand dollars on our investments in housing.

We have a lot of work ahead. But thanks to our neighbors here who weren't willing to give up, we have hope.

And there are a lot of people in similar situations around the state who are also taking action, who are joining organizations such as OMHU and MHOO, supporting their local leaders who support this type of affordable housing, and doing what they can to help pass the proposed legislation.

We may not have deep pockets, but collectively, we have a lot of them.

So what my husband and I are hoping for here is not a Steinbeck re-run, but a Patrician version of "It's a Wonderful Life" - you know, the story of the big developer vs. the little savings-and-loan company that refused to abandon its investors.

When an unfortunate circumstance threatened to ruin all he held dear, George Bailey, head of that little savings and loan, found that because of his friends - and their nickels and dollars and prayers and support - he could indeed go on. Even one of the moneyed players had a change of heart.

We like that story better.

And it's our turn, now, at The Patrician. Help us?
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Title Annotation:Local Opinion
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 3, 2008
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