Mobile home park residents rally for affordable housing in the Northeast Heights.
By Christie Chisholm
After three months, dozens of letters and hundreds of phone calls, Amy Whitling, along with 10 other Del Rey Manufactured Home Community residents, has saved her neighborhood.
Whitling and her neighbors thwarted attempts by a private developer to purchase Del Rey and rezone it for single-family homes. Had the sale gone through, more than 160 families that currently live there would have been forced to move.
But Bill Nelson of Interstate Development Co. (the developer trying to buy Del Rey) advised the residents that they can expect another battle in the future. "Guys in my business, who walk around in suits and ties, are greedy," he said, according to local news reports, adding that if he doesn't buy and rezone the land, "there are at least five more developers out there who will."
Equity Lifestyle Properties, the Illinois-based owners of Del Rey, have been trying to sell the site for several years, unbeknownst to its residents until recently. Neglecting to fill vacancies and allowing the landscaping to wither, the company, who declined to comment for this story, has slowly let the 400-home community shrivel down to what it is today. Within the last couple months, they've encouraged mortgage companies to advertise and hold outreach meetings on the property, attempting to lure residents away. They've also permitted scavengers to roam the land, letting them take what remains on empty lots. But, until recently, Equity Lifestyle didn't have a buyer.
Nelson and his partner, Terry Corlis, have currently backed off of their plans to rezone Del Rey, which sits on 59 acres off Louisiana between San Antonio and Paseo Del Norte, yet their intentions for the future are clear. Although the two failed to return the Alibi's calls, Nelson was quoted in a local media outlet as saying that they want to purchase and rezone Del Rey at a later date, when they're sure it won't be a "mission impossible." But while Nelson and Corlis wait for people to forget about them, Del Rey residents are doing all they can to stay in the public eye.
The Game Plan
Berna Hunsley, a single mom and 18-year resident of Del Rey, was the first to discover that her community was in jeopardy. She learned it in a letter. Her friend, who lived just across the street in Jade Park, another manufactured home community, brought the piece of mail to her out of concern. Jade Park residents received the letter because they own their land as well as their homes, and live within 100-feet of Del Rey. Not having received a letter of her own (none of the Del Rey residents had, as they don't own their land, and therefore aren't required to be notified of such things), Hunsley took the piece of paper, which stated matter-of-factly that Del Rey was going to be sold and potentially rezoned. Then, with the help of her daughter, Tara Cain, she woke up early the next morning to plaster copies of the news on their neighbors' cars. By the end of the day, the park was in an uproar.
"No one knew what was going on," said Whitling, who, within a day of learning the news, emerged as a leader among residents, encouraging neighbors to band together to save the park. "We didn't know if we had to move, if it was true; [Del Rey's owners] hadn't told us anything about it. To this day, they still haven't communicated with us."
And so, left in the dark, Whitling called a community meeting, which would serve as a catalyst for resident organization. Expecting 50 or so residents to show up, over 200 arrived. The meeting gave birth to the Del Rey Action Team, comprised of Whitling and 10 other residents who volunteered to keep residents informed of Interstate's plans. With the necessary paperwork, the group would later become the Del Rey Neighborhood Association.
Other organizations soon came to stand by Del Rey's side. Albuquerque Interfaith learned of Del Rey's plight early on, and joined the community in their efforts. New Mexico Legal Aid and the Housing Preservation Project also joined forces and worked to provide affordable legal counsel to residents, as well as brainstorm ideas on how they could save the land.
Letter-writing campaigns began and dozens of pleas went out to government officials, asking for support. After three months of fighting, Del Rey residents finally got the news they were waiting for: Interstate withdrew their request for rezoning, which means, at least for now, Whitling, Hunsley and other residents will get to keep their homes in place.
Yet their win may only be temporary. At this point in time, Interstate's purchase agreement with Equity Lifestyle hasn't expired. If Interstate or someone else decides to buy the land at a later date, Del Rey residents could be in for a long, costly fight.
A Rock and a Hard Place
Joe Bramblett returned from Vietnam in 1966 minus two arms and a wife. Having lost his limbs in the war, and his wife through a divorce, he decided to start fresh and head to Eastern New Mexico University. A college graduate, he later moved to Albuquerque and found a job with the New Mexico Department of Labor working in veteran's services, where he remained for nearly 18 years.
Bramblett settled in Del Rey in 1987. All went well until three years ago, when his doctor broke the news he had emphysema. "For three years I worked hard to get my house and car paid off to prepare for retirement," Bramblett said. "Then one day, I couldn't go back to work." A couple years away from a full retirement package, he was forced to leave his job.
"I've got enough money to live here," the 58-year-old man said, "but it's not enough to completely restart." Bramblett, like many other Del Rey residents, fears the park's potential rezoning in part because he simply can't afford to move. Moving a manufactured home, he said, as simple as it sounds, is not an easy or inexpensive task.
In fact, moving a manufactured home costs upwards of $2,500. Depending on the distance, relocation costs an average of $3,000 to $6,000 for most and has cost some residents as much as $14,000, including repairs. "These homes fall apart when you move them," said Whitling. "When you're done, you have to spend thousands of dollars to restore them."
Finding a place to move their homes to is another issue for residents. Most parks won't even accept homes that are 10 or more years old, which means that many people would have to sell their homes and buy new ones to continue their way of life. Considering that most older manufactured homes would only sell for a few hundred dollars, it's not an option that many residents can afford.
"I don't have the money [to move a home], and if I did, I don't know where I would move it," said Roxy Saavedra, a 21-year resident of Del Rey. Saavedra said there are a limited number of spaces for manufactured homes available in Albuquerque, and currently there aren't enough to fit all of Del Rey's members. Because of this, many residents could be forced to move to Los Lunas, the East Mountains or the Westside—away from their jobs and away from their kids' schools.
Yet, despite the difficulty of moving, many Del Rey residents have already fled their community, worried that an exodus from the park would lead to all the available spaces in Albuquerque getting gobbled up, and leaving no place for them to move. Others have left out of fear. At least nine residents have abandoned their homes, unable to afford the cost of moving them.
"This is going to ruin their lives," said Whitling, who said that deserters will still end up being charged moving costs when the park owners move the homes off the lot. "The lenders will repossess their homes; it will cost them thousands of dollars." Other residents have declared bankruptcy in anticipation. Out of the 240 homes that sat on the land when residents learned of the potential rezoning in early March, only 165 remain.
But residents are still optimistic. The Del Rey Neighborhood Association is currently working with the national Housing Preservation Project, an organization which works to maintain affordable housing, to find ways to keep Del Rey land from getting rezoned in the future, and which could potentially lead to residents owning the land as a cooperative. In the meantime, they will wait to see if Interstate buys the land.
"If Del Rey gets rezoned, other parks in the area could too," said Whitling, who says that 1,800 other mobile homes sit adjacent to Del Rey. "They could be next, and that would be the end of affordable housing in this area."
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