In the end, nothing saved St. Anthony’s only mobile home park from closing.
Not an eleventh-hour attempt by a nonprofit. Not a lawsuit. Not manifold pleas at City Hall.
Instead, neighbors watched as Lowry Grove became another bygone community in a county that has lost half its mobile home parks since 1991.
Mobile home communities are disappearing in pockets across the metro – and at a much higher rate in Hennepin County, where only six parks remain.
On a recent evening, Natividad Seefeld stood among mourners at a vigil in Lowry Grove, where neighbors grieved the breakup of their community as well as the loss of a neighbor who took his own life days before the June 30 eviction deadline.
Seefeld thought about Park Plaza Cooperative, her own mobile home community in Fridley that once shared an owner with Lowry Grove. Why was one rescued and not the other?
“It’s just not fair,” Seefeld said at the vigil. “Their owner was my owner.”
Phil Johnson at one time was an owner of both parks. He says he tried to keep Lowry Grove open, seeking out affordable housing groups that may have wanted to take it over. In the end, he and his partners sold Lowry Grove to a developer; Park Plaza to its residents. And that has made all the difference.
Lowry Grove and Park Plaza weave a tale of two parks with intertwining histories but dramatically different fates. The communities are similar in size and located about 8 miles apart, each providing low-income families with access to good schools, suburban amenities and a shot at affordable homeownership.
Lowry Grove now awaits redevelopment, its nearly 100 households displaced after last year’s court-contested sale. Meanwhile, Park Plaza has become a stable cooperative community.
Nearly 37,000 people across the metro lived in manufactured housing in 2016, according to Metropolitan Council estimates. Since 1991, no new parks have been built in the region while 12 have closed, with Lowry Grove and another in Bloomington among the most recent. Redevelopment pressures, road projects and aging infrastructure represent common threats.
Groups including the Met Council have identified mobile home parks as an important but often overlooked form of affordable housing, costing families about $560 less per month in recent years than traditional homes.
The issue has captured the attention of low-income housing advocates as well as legislators, who this year formed a bipartisan task force to examine ways to preserve mobile home parks. The task force is studying cooperative communities, which have seen steady growth in Minnesota and now account for about 1,000 parks across the country, according to some estimates.
Park Plaza is one of seven co-ops in the state, with an eighth expected to convert in Rochester later this year.
“If this can be a workable model, I would love to do anything to support it,” said Sen. Carolyn Laine, a member of the task force.
Why not Lowry Grove?
In his 40 years in the mobile home industry, Phil Johnson has watched the co-op movement gain steam – and done his bit to help it along.
The state’s co-op conversions are spearheaded by Northcountry Cooperative Foundation, a nonprofit that helps residents secure financing and shepherds them through the process. It’s a group that Johnson has worked with multiple times.
Johnson reached out both to Northcountry and to Aeon, an affordable housing nonprofit, seeking a buyer for Lowry Grove years before striking a deal with a developer. But the 70-year-old park’s soaring land value, poor infrastructure and the relatively large number of RVs – seen as less reliable income – made a co-op unfeasible.
“At the end of the day, it just didn’t work,” Johnson said.
Nothing came of his initial conversations with Aeon about Lowry Grove, either.
“At the time it didn’t fill our pipeline,” said Aeon President Alan Arthur, who added that the nonprofit’s focus wasn’t on mobile homes at the time.
Last year, Aeon stepped up with a purchase agreement to match the planned $6 million sale of the park to The Village, an affiliate of Wayzata-based Continental Property Group. Johnson and his partners rejected Aeon’s offer.
The sale to The Village prompted a fierce legal battle that survives the park.
Former residents say it’s been tough to find a place nearby for comparable rent or parks that would accept their aging homes, many too old to move. Johnson said he charged about $410 a month in rent before the sale, about $500 less than the city’s median rent.
As the move-out deadline loomed, grief sunk deep, especially following the death of Frank Adelmann, a 59-year-old Lowry Grove resident who neighbors and family say did not want to leave the place he called home for more than a decade. He died, his sister said, with 10 cents, a few prayer cards and a bus pass in his wallet.
Some others had yet to find permanent shelter in the park’s final hours.
“I want affordable housing for these people,” Lowry Grove organizer Antonia Alvarez said the day before the park closed, as families hastened to move their belongings. “These children are going to end up on the street.”
Owned by the residents
Eight miles from Lowry Grove is Park Plaza, a mobile home park with about 80 pads. Residents say before they took over ownership, it suffered from similar structural neglect.
“The roads were horrible. Underground was horrible. Sewer and water breaks [happened] all the time in the winter,” recalled Seefeld, who has lived in the park since 1998. “It was just horrific.”
That changed in 2011, when park residents banded together and bought the land for close to $4 million.
“I reached out to Northcountry right away, and we struck a deal,” Johnson said. The organization’s parent group, ROC USA, provided Park Plaza residents with the loan needed to buy their park.
“People would rather live, believe it or not, in a place where they have security of tenure,” said Kevin Walker, the director of business development for Northcountry. “They like the fact that it’s democratically governed and they get to play a role in shaping what the lot rent will be for the community.”
As a cooperative, Park Plaza’s operations and long-term success rely heavily on the residents. They have to pay a one-time membership fee and an initial spike in their lot rent to join.
A community board, which Seefeld chairs, manages the park budget and its day-to-day operations.
“It is a lot of work no matter what you do, because you’re taking over someone’s property that’s already at its life end,” Seefeld said. “And now you’re gonna take over and figure out how to make it a better place to live.”
Not all Park Plaza residents are sold on the changes, including Barbara Yurich, who decided not to join the co-op. Her home was new and easy enough to move, lessening her fear of displacement and the appeal of resident ownership.
“There were no benefits to joining,” said Yurich, 78.
Not all parks can make the transition to a cooperative or sustain it. Residents in a Lexington park that converted to a co-op in 2005 have since opted for investor ownership. Others, like Lowry Grove, would require millions of dollars in renovation and are difficult to salvage, Walker said.
‘We always say yes’
At least two former Lowry Grove homeowners have moved to Park Plaza, which Seefeld showed off to lawmakers during a tour Friday.
They stopped by Cesar Herrera’s tidy home, where he greeted visitors from a spacious deck he built himself. “I like people to see how we can live,” said Herrera, a carpenter. “I’m proud.”
Park Plaza spent $1.3 million in 2015 to renovate its roads, sewers and water system. Soon, board members hope to break ground on a playground, upgrade their storm shelter and partner with a solar array in St. Cloud.
“Ask us to take on a project and we’ll always say yes,” Seefeld said.
Residents notice these investments.
Jorge Muñoz and his wife moved to Park Plaza a year ago after having previously lived in a larger mobile home community in Minneapolis. The differences are clear, he said: Park Plaza is cleaner, safer and calmer.
That sense of pride and security is reflected in the interactions between neighbors. “And we greet each other,” Muñoz said, speaking in Spanish. “Good morning, good afternoon, good night.”