- By Nancy Flores American-Statesman Staff
The sleepless nights don’t seem to end for Magda Acuña. On most days she drives from her Southeast Austin home throughout Austin and to nearby cities such as Bastrop, Lockhart and Buda, searching desperately for a new mobile home park to live in. Each time Acuña returns without any leads, she’s deflated.
The clock is ticking. A stream of worries has kept her up at night since before New Year’s Eve, when her family of seven received a notice to vacate a mobile home park off East Riverside Drive by the end of February to make room for the installation of a sewer line.
Acuña and four of her neighbors, who are on monthly leases, received the same notice. With the shrinking availability of mobile home parks and a lack of affordable housing options in Austin, they fear they’ll be the latest mobile home residents facing displacement from the city.
The Lee Hill Drive Mobile Home Park is among 16 in Austin that a recent analysis by the Latino Research Initiative at the University of Texas identified as being at risk of redevelopment. And as Austin grapples with affordability issues, the analysis of mobile home parks with a minimum of 5 acres reveals that Latinos are being disproportionately displaced.
“We’ve been searching for another place for our children, but where?” Acuña asked in Spanish. “We’re seeing that mobile home parks are closing all over Austin. Where are we going to move our trailers?”
For mobile home residents, moving out requires more than finding another location to park their trailers. Acuña estimates that moving her double-wide will cost more than $5,000 — an expense that Acuña said her family needs time to gather. And the farther the trailer has to be moved, the pricier it gets. Mobile home parks that do have spaces often accept only newer trailers.
“It’s serious,” said Susana Almanza, president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association. “Many people are not aware of the consequences that (mobile home residents) face when they get an eviction notice. It’s not like at an apartment where you just have clothes and furniture to move — you have a whole house.”
Jay Kramer, who has owned the Lee Hill mobile home park for about a decade, said that although he has no immediate plans to redevelop the property, owning a mobile home park as property taxes and other fees continue to soar is “an impossible situation to be in.”
“It’s not economically feasible anymore to operate mobile home parks within the city,” he said.
Without a sewer line, Lee Hill operates on faulty and outdated septic tanks that Kramer said he spends thousands of dollars to maintain. To provide an adequate sewer system, Kramer hopes to sell the area where the soon-to-be-vacated trailers sit to developers who purchased land next to the site and have the capability to install a sewer line. Money from that potential sale, he said, could be invested back into the mobile home park to improve its conditions.
Kramer said he’s worked out agreements for later move-out dates for two of the families that have reached out to him. Other concerned families, he said, should contact him as well.
Acuña fears what a move to a new city and new school in the middle of the academic year could do to her son, who has autism. Already, she said, his teachers have informed her that the stress of their impending eviction has hurt his progress at school. Switching to a new city would mean leaving behind not only his teachers and hard-earned friends, but his support team of social workers, therapists and mentors.
In front of her children, Acuña tries to stay strong. But at night when she thinks of her son having to start all over again, she breaks down and cries.
“I do care about my tenants,” Kramer said. “If some have to leave so that the rest can stay, well, that’s the situation I’m in.”
To reassure worried Lee Hill families that didn’t receive eviction notices, Kramer said he plans to distribute new one-year leases to replace the month-to-month ones. Although he doesn’t have plans to sell or redevelop the mobile home park after those yearlong leases expire, Kramer said that “eventually I’m sure that the property will be redeveloped in its entirety. … It’s just a matter of time.”
‘Last bastion for affordability’
Lee Hill sits in City Council Member Delia Garza’s District 2. She said her office is working with different city departments “to find a solution for all parties.”
“We are looking at options in order to ensure that constituents in the mobile home park have appropriate support,” Garza said in a statement. Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid is also looking into the situation.
In 2016, residents of the Cactus Rose Mobile Home Park off U.S. 183 near Vargas Road had to move for the development of upscale apartments.
Last spring, the Thrasher Lane Mobile Home Park, a small community of about 15 mostly Latino families, shut down. The mobile home park sat within the East Riverside Corridor Master Plan, aimed at making the area more walkable and bicycle-friendly with denser and mixed-use housing options.
“Mobile home parks are the last bastion for affordability in Austin,” said Latino Research Initiative research associate Gabriel Amaro, who wrote the study “Housing Affordability in Austin Brings New Attention to Mobile Home Parks.”
The analysis shows that in 2015, the median rent for a mobile home was $550 and the average rent was $673 nationwide, which are both lower than rents for income-restricted apartments in Austin, which can range from $727 to $978.
According to the study, there are at least 1,299 low-income mobile home households that might be displaced in the near future because of redevelopment. Mobile home parks, such as Lee Hill and Comfort Park, also off East Riverside Drive, were identified by the UT analysis as being at risk of redevelopment since they all had designations other than mobile home use in the city’s Future Land Use plans, which show its preferred direction for a property.
“That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen,” Amaro said. “It just means that the city would prefer it would go in that direction.”
Although the at-risk designation for mobile home parks might change if the city adopts CodeNext — an attempt to rewrite the land-use code for the first time since the 1980s — Amaro said he feels confident that the mobile home parks identified in the analysis would remain at risk because CodeNext has preferred land uses for the parks other than mobile homes.
In 2016, the City Council approved an ordinance that requires developers applying for zoning changes to give mobile home park residents at least 270 days’ notice to vacate. But if developers don’t file for a zoning change, tenants must be given a minimum of 60 days’ notice.
“As Austin is building up its luxury apartments and high-priced homes, what happens to people who own mobile homes?” Almanza said. “It brings up a lot of questions, and we need to look into city policies.”
Almanza suggested looking into ways that the potential removal of mobile home parks could be a public process, much like when developers seek a demolition permit.
“This brings a lot of awareness and public input,” she said. “It gives a voice to people who own that home.”
The UT analysis recommends that the city “take the initiative to protect these properties by restricting the land use to mobile homes or by utilizing its Community Land Trust option.” If the city purchases the land, it could lease the property to low-income households, an option that Amaro said other cities most commonly use for business districts as well as for low-income housing.
When discussing redevelopment of mobile homes, Amaro said, people assume that high-density, multifamily development would be better suited to land that mobile home parks sit on.
“But you’re displacing residents without giving them an alternative, since even an affordable low-income apartment is more expensive than living in a mobile home park,” he said. “You are really just displacing low-income residents and leaving them out to fend for themselves.”
As a mobile home park owner, Kramer said he’d like to see the city offer tax exemptions for property owners offering affordable housing.
For longtime Lee Hill resident Irma Fuentes, 55, the future seems uncertain.
“What are we going to do?” she asked in Spanish. “Although our mobile homes are humble, we at least have a little roof over our heads. To us, these are mansions.”