Tenants moving on from Trailer Haven

July 1 is deadline for residents

Christine Metz

— One sunny afternoon, sitting on the wooden porch attached to his trailer, Doug Lockwood points to what he guesses is a yellow finch. The bird is perched high above in a willow tree that sits on the banks of Spring Creek.

The bird is an acquaintance of Lockwood. In fact, it was a former tenant one that returned each spring to its nest in the corner of Lockwood’s shed in the Trailer Haven mobile home park.

But the bird and its once landlord have been looking for a new home in the past few months. Lockwood had to move the bird’s three-year-old nest in anticipation of his own move this summer and the demolition of the shed.

Lockwood is one of 11 residents of Trailer Haven who has until July 1 to move out of the trailer park that sits behind the Steamboat Springs post office on Fish Creek Falls Road. It is land the Steamboat Springs Health and Recreation Association plans to build tennis courts on this summer so it can expand parking where the current tennis lots exist.

As in many cases with Steamboat trailer parks, the owners of the trailers never own the land beneath their homes. The residents of Trailer Haven were on 30-day leases with their landlords, Dave and Sue Oakley, before the land was bought by the SSHRA in May 2000.

For more than two years, they have known their time at Trailer Haven was limited.

Moving out

After two days of slamming into the trailer’s windows hoping to find his nest, Lockwood’s yellow finch seemed to have discovered a new home in one of the trees that shades Lockwood’s trailer.

But after two-and-a-half years of negotiating with the SSHRA, appearing before the City Council and working with the Regional Affordable Living Foundation, the 15-year resident of Trailer Haven has not been so lucky.

“Those are the unforeseen ramifications. Not only does it displace us, but the birds,” Lockwood said about the battle that has taken place between the Trailer Haven residents and the SSHRA.

That was a battle SSHRA Manager Pat Carney had not expected when the nonprofit health and rec association bought the property for $630,00 it was like walking into a bee’s, or bird’s, nest.

“It was a hard thing for us. For the community, this is an important recreation facility. We had only heard good praise. All of a sudden we got bad print. It didn’t feel very good,” Carney said.

A facility used by much of the city and not operating for profit, Carney said the SSHRA should not be seen as big developers with millions of dollars to play with.

The board of directors decided to purchase the property so it could expand its parking to 58 spaces next to the gym with the possibility of expanding the building in the future. Backed against the hillside and limited by Lincoln Avenue, Carney said the nearby land was the only solution for expansion.

In 2000, the trailer owners agreed to vacate the premises by July 1 and will be paid $4,000 for leaving. The association will foot the bill to have the trailers removed from the premises, if the owners don’t sell them.

Carney said the SSHRA went far beyond what it was legally responsible for by giving the residents two years to stay on the land, $4,000 for moving and by capping the rent at $250 when mobile home rent climbed to $350 in the rest of the city.

“We bent over backwards to help them,” Carney said. “We tried and did everything we could do within the capabilities of our budget.”

But Lockwood and the other owners who live in the semicircle trailer court said the $4,000 is far less than the amount they will lose in the cost of the trailers and home improvements made to them. Most of the trailers on the lot are too old to move into other trailer parks, even if they could find any open spaces in Steamboat.

“Essentially, they offered us absolutely nothing for our investment,” Lockwood said. “That is despicable. Everybody here could have relocated to someplace else. But it turned into battle.”

When the SSHRA purchased the building, 12 trailers and cabins were in the park. Of the nine occupied in May 2000, four are now empty, Carney said.

Lockwood rattled off the names of his neighbors and where they will be come July 1. Two are moving to a trailer park in Oak Creek and three will stay in Steamboat. The others have left for Utah, Grand Junction and Texas.

Lockwood, who has been in Steamboat since 1980 working with the city transit and active in community theater, is planning to live in Oak Creek for the summer and then move on from Colorado.

Sheri Price is one of the three residents who is staying in the city. A renter who has lived in the park for a few years, Price has moved to a charming house in Old Town and closer to Johnny B. Good’s, where she is a waitress.

Price is taking with her the wildflowers planted around her stairs, hundreds of books and even the trailer’s living room paneling she painted in splashes of bright purples and pinks.

But the resentment for the past few years remains.

“It was hopelessness,” Price said. “‘We have to move you, because you no longer have a home’ what do you say to that? There is nothing we could do about it. Our hands were completely tied.”

Affordable housing

The greatest problem Lockwood and the other owners faced were the few to no options trailer owners have in Steamboat. Although a viable form of affordable housing, few spaces exist in Steamboat’s other trailers parks: Fish Creek, Sleepy Bear and Dream Island.

In fact, Lockwood said he looked for two years for an affordable trailer space in Steamboat and the closest he could find was a park in Oak Creek, 20 miles away.

It’s a problem Rob Dick, executive director of the Regional Affordable Living Foundation, sees as only growing.

“Nobody is building any more mobile home parks. It’s supply and demand. There is just no place to go,” Dick said.

Although mobile homes are a source of affordable housing, similar to renting, they have little long-term economic value because no equity is gained.

Dick said as the land residents are renting continues to climb higher in value, the price of their trailers, which they are most likely paying off in loans, goes down. So, very often trailer owners see little money for their investments.

And if owners have older trailers that cannot be moved or have thousands of dollars of outside improvements, they can risk losing everything if the park owner decides to sell the land underneath it.

But for Lockwood, in 1985 buying a trailer seemed like the right thing to do.

“That is one of the great things with mobile homes. Young people don’t have a lot of money. They pay off their trailer in five to 10 years. They sell it, use it as a down payment or loan and use that for a starter home,” Lockwood said. “That was our plan. But it didn’t work.”

Lockwood said he had hoped to buy the property his trailer sat on and had a verbal understanding with the owners that the Trailer Haven residents would have first rights to the land when the time came to sell.

But Dick, who worked with the residents on finding ways to buy the property, said there was too little time or money for the residents to purchase the land.

It might have been the first case in Steamboat, but mobile home owners being displaced from the parks they lived in for years is a problem that is likely to persist as land continues to skyrocket. Dick said mobile home owners are like other real estate owners who are interested in the best return on their investment. And if mobile home parks no longer appear to be the best use of the land, that use will change.

“The problem is not mobile homes but the land that they sit on. They either need a large market, an available place to put them to keep prices down or a mobile home park owner sensitive to their needs,” Dick said.

Despite pleadings to the City Council to find ways to help them stay in the community and their work with RALF to move to a site just west of the county jail on U.S. 40, the residents did not come up with an affordable housing plan to relocate.

Lockwood and other residents at Trailer Haven were disappointed in the community support.

“Everybody likes to talk about affordable housing, but nobody is willing to stand up to developers. This is the No. 1 priority, but it is always somebody else’s problem,” Lockwood said.

Price shares Lockwood’s opinion that regardless of people’s claim, affordable housing is not a community priority.

“People don’t care about people in trailer parks. If someone comes along and flings zillions of dollars because they have a development idea, how is anybody else going to compete with that? It always comes down to money,” she said.

A success story

But the owners of Hilltop Homes will quickly tell you people in Steamboat do care about people in trailer parks.

A loud cheer went out at the June 4 City Council meeting when Hilltop Home residents received final approval to divide the former mobile home park into 17 single-family homes.

Late in 2000, the group of 17 mobile home owners came together to purchase the mobile home park above Steamboat Springs High School that owner Leland and Illagrace Harms had put up for sale.

“The reason we jumped on the land was because of Trailer Haven,” said Karen Vail, a Hilltop Home owner who spoke before the council during the planning process. “When (the Harms) told us they were going to be selling it, that was why we put an offer out. We knew if we didn’t do that, we could end up like them.”

Before the lot was approved as a subdivision, the Hilltop residents formed a homeowners association to pay off the $675,000 loan for the entire lot, which had each homeowner paying about $300 a month.

But to get the city approval for individual lots and for homeowners to pay off separate loans, the group faced difficulties with lot sizes that were too small, landscaping requirements and too few parking spaces.

It was well worth the struggle, said Sherry Moore, who helped take the application through the city and noted the key factor was having an understanding landlord.

“I think we’re very blessed with having private owners that had a lot of compassion for 17 homeowners. They gave us first chance before it advertised on market,” she said.

But others also helped along the way, like real estate agent Karen Beauvais, who donated her commission from the sale to the Hilltop Homeowners Association and RALF, which helped secure the financing from five local banks.

As someone who did not get the chance to buy the land his trailer sat on, Lockwood holds no resentment toward the homeowners, who were spurred into action by Trailer Haven’s plight.

“That is the spirit of Steamboat Springs. I think most of us would say good for those people. It’s a great thing. I wish more of that happen,” Lockwood said.

The Trailer Haven saga left another mark on the community through a city ordinance passed in 2000, inspired by the residents and in part written by their lawyers. The ordinance makes trailer park owners present a conversion impact report to the city if they intend to change the use of the land. The owners would also need to get a conditional-use permit to alter the use, meaning they would have to obtain permission from the city and comply with certain requirements.

Complaints over the ordinance came from both sides of the dialogue, with trailer homeowners saying the ordinance was mainly cosmetic and does not do much to protect their rights. And trailer park owners claimed it is too restrictive and unfair.

Not retroactive, the ordinance did nothing to help the Trailer Haven situation, and when asked what could have been done differently with the deal, Price said she would have liked to see a lifetime membership to the health and rec center.

But it was more the chance for the trailer owners to get the opportunity to buy the property or for the SSHRA to be more upfront in their dealings that Price said would have made the biggest difference.

The six-year resident of Steamboat said she is moving on as she starts unpacking in her new rental space in Old Town. And with her, she said, she will take only the good things the gauze fabric hanging over her windows, the maple trees she discovered growing outside her trailer and the picture of Charlie Chaplin hanging in the bathroom.

The bad, she said, will stay in Trailer Haven.

“This solidified my impression of Steamboat,” Price said. “I have found that the community wishes to stay a community. But a community isn’t a few bankers, Realtors and construction people getting rich. That is not a community.”

As July 1 approaches, Carney said it is a relief for the SSHRA to be almost through with the task of being landlords and negotiating with tenants something rarely expected of a nonprofit organization.

“It was the first time that this has happened. A lot of lessons have been learned,” Carney said. “In the future, arrangements need to be made prior to the sale for whatever compensation is needed for the trailer owners.”

The SSHRA plans to start building on the Trailer Haven site by July 15 and have the three tennis courts and 11 parking spaces completed by September.

And by September, Lockwood’s yellow finch will most likely be another displaced refugee from Trailer Haven as the willow trees bordering Spring Creek are removed for tennis courts.

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