When flooding forced Alicia Garza and her husband and children to find a new plot for their mobile home, it seemed they were out of luck.
The Garzas lived for 14 years off of East Riverside Drive in Austin where, for a while, their three-bedroom apartment on the banks of Lady Bird Lake ran only $800 a month, Garza recalled. When developers demolished the complex for luxury apartments, the family of five bought a single-wide trailer and relocated to San Marcos. But they were displaced in less than a year by 2015’s floods.
They searched for four months to find an Austin-area mobile home park with room for them. Only when the Federal Emergency Management Agency got involved did a park near the airport give them a spot — by flattening an abandoned structure to make a lot, Garza said.
“There are no places in Austin for trailers,” Garza said in Spanish. “Many people (with trailers) want them.”
The story of gentrification and displacement of lower-income residents from central to outer Austin is one everyone’s heard and many can tell.
But the city’s mobile home residents face a unique dilemma: They own homes they’d like to keep, but they have nowhere to put them.
Some, like the Garzas, struggle to find new spaces when redevelopment or other factors force them to move. Others are trying to keep trailers up to par with changing standards.
Mobile home parks in the city, responding to rising demand for their space, are getting more restrictive in the homes they accept. Many have stopped allowing homes more than 10 years old. Others are upping requirements for upkeep and construction, making existing residents find the money to reside and reroof them or face being booted from lots.
The Austin City Council, moving on a proposal from Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria, asked city staff last week to evaluate options for extending existing city home repair assistance programs to mobile homes. Such assistance is now only available to site-built houses, since mobile homes depreciate quickly. Changing that would let mobile homes be kept in good enough condition that, if they have to move, they could, Renteria said.
Other proposals from Renteria would require any new trailer parks in the city to include additional recreation space and would require all to allow their residents somewhere to grow vegetables.
That’s just the beginning, Renteria said. He’d like to consider using city land to create some kind of transitional mobile home space for residents who have to find new land quickly. But he sees any long-term increase of trailer parks as incompatible with a city vision largely focused on increasing density to absorb growth.
“That’s why I want to do something transitional, not permanent,” he said.
Nowhere to go
Fifty parks in Austin comprise nearly 7,500 mobile homes, according to an analysis by the Texas Manufactured Housing Association. That includes parks with a couple dozen lots up to those with 400 or more.
Roberto Sanchez has lived for 14 years at North Lamar Mobile Home Park, off of Research Boulevard. Attorneys at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid got involved there last year when a new owner altered lease provisions and cracked down on general upkeep. Sanchez had to replace roofing and make repairs to his bathroom — all expensive changes, he said.
But he praised the city for a presentation earlier this month advising residents on code issues and how to best meet city requirements.
The Garzas had to pay $800 to gravel their lot, they said. And they doubt more spaces in their park will open anytime soon.
“These people aren’t moving, because if they pull up their trailers they won’t find anywhere else,” said Alicia Garza’s son Rolando Garza, 21.
The homeownership dream
The shortage of mobile home space affords Austin park owners the opportunity be as picky as they want with residents, said Jimmy Nassour, owner of the Cactus Rose Mobile Home Park off U.S. 183, where residents are having to relocate for development of upscale apartments.
“It leaves the older homes that are trying to find a new location somewhat desperate,” he said. “They end up out of town — Buda or Kyle or Manor.”
He found space in another park where he’s an owner and leaned on colleagues to make exceptions to their requirements for Cactus Rose residents seeking new homes, he said. More than half of those 57 families have already relocated.
Susana Almanza, president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association and Renteria’s sister, argues that the council has a bias against mobile homes.
Though Austin is grappling with affordability, and mobile homes present a more affordable alternative, the city’s strategy has largely focused on boosting the housing supply in the central city and along major corridors through increasing density.
But Almanza sees a place for mobile homes in the city’s core. She recognizes that single-story trailers and pre-fabricated houses don’t yield much density. But her meetings with those residents to talk about shifting to other housing options have been a no-go, she said.
“They say: ‘Why should we go from being owners to renters?’” she said. “That’s what people dream of, having their own little house. They don’t usually dream of having an apartment.
“We couldn’t get any of the owners to budge.”