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Trailers Trashed

Faced with encroaching development, trailer-park activists fight for their communities.



If trailer-park activist Virginia Marrufo Martinez ever needs a reminder of how high the stakes can be for people who live in mobile homes, she has only to look out the back window of her Rose Park residence.

Her garden is full of rose bushes that trailer park residents have dug up and given her, rather than leave them behind for bulldozers to tear up. These bushes mark the displacement of lives in the name of progress, condos and profit. Martinez saw one realtor shunt a trailer and its owner from a park onto a former sewer plant. His inability to smell meant the sewer stench wouldn’t be an issue for the new resident.

The bushes also underscore how the home in “mobile home” only has meaning as long as the land it stands on is for rent. When a park owner puts his or her signature on the bottom of a sales contract, trailer residents can suddenly find themselves one step away from homelessness. Not that the stakes end there. Among the roses is a tiny lilac bush. It was pulled out of the ground a year ago by Heathcliff trailer park resident Bart Wright. The 31-year-old was pushed out of his trailer after ownership of the park where he lived changed hands. Martinez found him a temporary home but, unable to stay there, he ended up on the streets. Months later she heard from Wright’s former neighbors that he had died.

Dubbed “Trailer Queen” by her colleagues at the Salt Lake Community Action Program (CAP), Martinez, 58, takes the fate of such folk personally. As a child, she saw firsthand how people with padded bank accounts target the powerless and underprivileged. More often than not, justice, not to mention fair play, gets swept aside.

Her adoptive Mexican parents met and married in Oakland, then moved to Salt Lake City after her father found work in the mining industry. In 1954, when Martinez was 9, her parents bought a house opposite the Rio Grande railway depot on the corner of 500 West and 400 South with a loan of $1000 from a friend. Her mother paid off the loan after making and selling tamales on the street corner. One night a representative of a local mattress company came to visit. He got Martinez’s father drunk and persuaded him to sign over the property for $10,000, having assured him that nobody else would ever buy it. The next day the railway made an offer to him of $22,000. “They tore my heart out of my system,” Martinez says. “To see that happen to your parents ... I vowed no one would do something so unfair and unjust again.”

That vow has led her to work with the residents of four Salt Lake City trailer parks facing eviction. “My job is to empower them, to get them to think what it is they can do,” she explains.

Two she counts as victories, two as defeats. Adjacent trailer parks Blue Pine and Meadow Lane, at State Street and 8800 South, housed 82 families before a developer bought the land in 2001. In that case Martinez rehoused nearly all of the families. However, the following year, out of 55 families living at Murray Cove Park, State Street and 5400 South, she moved 23 families to new homes. In 2004, she relocated 25 of the 42 families at Heathcliff Park, 984 S. 200 East.

“Every family we place is a victory,” she says.

Her current fight is being waged on behalf of the residents of Park Hill Mobile Estates at 289 East 4000 South. It has all the earmarks of being her most important battle yet. If it goes as hoped—as this article went to press victory for Martinez seemed close at hand—the Trailer Queen may have a precedent in her struggle to convince landlords that talking to their trailer residents before they sell to developers is the best order of business. The more cards up her sleeve she has, the better equipped she will be for the fights to come—and those future battles are almost sure to appear. Mobile home owners in centrally located parks face an increasingly uncertain future as land values and the demand for affordable housing climb and aging park owners decide it’s time to cash in.

While a cheap alternative to traditional housing, mobile home ownership is fraught with potential problems. Chief among them is that the land they stand on is not part of the deal. In addition, unlike houses, trailers depreciate in value. Paying $5,000 for an old trailer might seem a bargain, but take into consideration all the money spent toward maintenance and making it livable and it can quickly turn into a money pit.

Trailer owners, then, are in the unique and highly vulnerable position of being both owners of a home losing its value daily, and tenants of land that may at any time be sold out from under them. The drawbacks don’t stop there. With mortgages to pay off, increases in plot rentals can only make the situation more precarious. “I’m paying $354 in mortgage and $370 in rent” says Utah Mobile Home Association President Don Saulnier. “You can buy a home for that right now.”

Park owners are allowed by law to raise the rent every 60 days, he says. “The laws benefit the park owners. There aren’t any to help residents.” If the land is sold, the residents’ only legal protection is that they must be given 90 days notification prior to eviction. Residents then must either move their trailers to another park, or abandon them altogether.

The difference between these two stark choices comes down to the age and condition of the mobile home. “Parks are unlikely to take homes from before 1979 because they don’t meet HUD building standards,” says Salt Lake County Housing Authority Executive Director Kerry Bate. That means you must either pay a small fortune to upgrade it, or leave it where it stands for the trailer scavengers, as Martinez calls them, to buy your home for a few hundred dollars and turn it into scrap.

But let’s assume you can afford to bring it up to code. Then what? To move either of the two types of mobile homes, single or double-wides, involves tearing down, setting up, leveling and hookups, costing $2,300 for the former, $3,900 for the latter. From there the costs only escalate. Even if you can update it, an inspector must still look at the home before it leaves the park and, depending on the city, permits for moving it must be secured.

Now imagine you are 83, a World War II veteran facing back surgery, a year’s convalescence, and you live in a mobile home. Developers have bought the land. You face eviction. How would you cope with the upheaval, let alone the expenses? That’s the situation Park Hill resident Paul Brown found himself in when the park was sold at the beginning of last year. He fought for his country and has the scars to show for it: frostbitten feet and a damaged back from being blown against a tank during bombing. It will take him at least six months to recover from back surgery.

If forced to move his trailer, what will he do? Along with the $4,000 he must pay to move his home, the dismantling and moving of the trailer to a new park will mean new awnings at $6,000, replacement of his ceiling tiles at $30 each, a new $5,000 roof, new $800 skirting, new siding at $3,500 and new front and back decks between $2,000 to $3,000. As he told the Miller Creek Planning Committee when they held a meeting to discuss the developers’ plans, “I am 83 years old, I cannot afford to put myself in debt for 30 years for a new home.”

Exactly how bleak Paul Brown’s future would have been if Martinez had not come on the scene is not hard to imagine.

The Park Hill saga dates back to when Salt Lake City was still backwater enough to have a restaurant called Coon Chicken Inn, the front door of which was the tooth of a grinning African American. It was there in 1950 that Margaret Bullock met her future husband, Wayne Naylor, when he was the manager of the restaurant. She still keeps a small replica of that door among her knickknacks in a display case. According to her son-in-law, Terry Naylor, the couple paid $35,000 for 8 acres of land between 200 and 300 East and 3900 and 4000 South. Half that land they dedicated to Park Hill Mobile Estates, which they opened in 1965, renting out lots for $35 a month.

Bullock lived on site in a double-wide mobile home residents say was “magnificent,” replete with cathedral ceilings and gas fireplace. But don’t make the mistake of using the term “trailer park” in Bullock’s presence. She doesn’t mince words about how she feels about such language. She ran the park according to her own rules, and was very strict about its upkeep.

“She was always real particular about who came in,” says long-term resident LaVerle Robbins. Her set rules ranged from adults only, no junk cars, no working on cars on the grounds to no driving or parking on the grass, and no pets.

“Some thought I was an old bitch and some didn’t,” Bullock says. Wanda Smith, who’s been there longer than most, fits into the former camp. “I called her a witch,” she says, “but spelt with a b.”

Smith notwithstanding, until the late 1980s, Bullock says she had a good relationship with her tenants. Some were friends she and her late first husband met at the Masonic Temple, where he managed the catering for many years. Things turned sour in 1988. “They started telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. From then on I kept it more business,” said Bullock.

Bullock is true Salt Lake City aristocracy. Her great grandfather was a scout for Brigham Young, and there is something of the tough-as-nails frontier spirit in her take-it-or-leave-it approach to the fate of the residents of Park Hill.

Shortly after the first Hispanic family to reside in the park rented a trailer from another resident (the family has since moved out), a realtor looking for properties to develop knocked on Bullock’s door. Why did she sell? “I was 86 and I wanted to retire,” is her short answer.

The 4.29-acre trailer park was sold to Park Hill Developments in February 2004 for what residents say was $640,000. Bullock refuses to comment on the price: “It’s none of your damn business.”

Asked if she had an obligation to consider the residents prior to the sale, her response is, “Hell, no. It’s no one’s business what I do with my property. They have a month-by-month contract. Why consider them? If I drove through that park now, they’d throw rocks at my window. Even my own son doesn’t come to see me.”

Bullock now lives in a discrete, end of the road condo in Cottonwood Heights, full of glass cabinets, and one item she is proud of, a bookcase that belonged to Brigham Young. She has no regrets about her decision, indeed argues that in one way the residents have benefited. With a glint in her eye she says, “They’re more close-knit than they’ve ever been before. They didn’t appreciate the park as much as they do now.” She’s happy with what’s transpired. “If I make a decision, I live with it.”

So, of course, have her former 30 tenants. Her stepson Terry Naylor lives adjacent to the main park, but on land that is part of Park Hill. “I feel kind of at a loss,” says the affable yet earnest handyman. “I’ve forgiven her. I don’t think she had any idea the people who purchased the land intended to throw us off. But she didn’t give me, or any of the other owners, the opportunity to buy our land. She made a bad decision. My mother’s not the best businessperson in the world.”

Why didn’t she offer the residents first crack at buying her out? “I had no idea any of them had that kind of money,” Bullock says. If she had asked them, perhaps they might have been spared the letter by Park Hill Developments’ Brent Butcher sent May 28 of last year, announcing not only a rent increase of $100 to $300 as of Aug. 1, but also termination of the space agreement as of Sept. 1. Brent Butcher, who bought the property from Bullock, declined to be interviewed after consulting with his lawyer. Mike Miller, who is running the development, did not return phone calls for comment.

The developers want to build a 54-unit planned urban development (PUD), each priced, according to Park Hill residents, from a minimum of $150,000. The developers offered each resident $10,000 off of purchase of a condo, with nothing down. The only sweetener they offered to residents not interested in purchase of a condo was $1,500 worth of assistance with relocation expenses for those who wanted to move their homes off the property to another park. This sum was available only to anyone who elected to leave before Aug. 1 of last year.

After a Legal Aid lawyer told them it was a done deal, the residents phoned CAP. Martinez laid out their options—take the offer to move with the relocation money or stay and face raised rents. Form a committee to negotiate a relocation deal, she told them, contact the news media, go to government leaders for assistance, bring in other associations (like Don Saulnier’s action group). She contacted a pro bono lawyer, generated print and TV coverage and got local businesses to donate food for a local-politicians-meet-the-residents barbecue at the end of last June.

It was not the first time she had used a barbecue to get over the message that trailer park residents needed help. Food is where her family history and her crusade mesh. Understanding that, at the heart of political activism, there are human stories to be told and hungry stomachs to be filled is part of Martinez’s particular genius. For this approach she has her parents to thank. Before they were homeowners, her parents lived in a mining camp with Hungarians and Asians as neighbors. “Since they couldn’t communicate through language, they spoke through food,” says Martinez.

Her mother was a culinary star in the city’s political circles, often called upon by Democrats and Republicans to provide parties with her tostadas and tamales. In Mexico, one of her mother’s brothers had died of starvation. “My mother always said food was more important than money,” says Martinez.

Those on the receiving end of Martinez’s cookouts can attest to their effectiveness. For her first trailer park campaign for the residents of Blue Pine and Meadow Lane, she hosted 10 barbecues, grilling meat for the likes of Sandy City Mayor Tom Dolan and council attorney Wally Miller. She got them to sit down with the residents and hear their stories face to face. Some had made very poor choices, Martinez says, buying 1960s or 1970s mobile homes for unaffordable amounts (one family paid $29,000 for a broken down 1969 trailer).

Mayor Dolan’s experience with these two parks up to then, he says, was driving through them with the police chief because of drug-related crime problems. The barbecue served as an icebreaker. “We sat down and saw the insurmountable fear in their eyes,” he says. “They were living with upside-down mortgages, in homes that couldn’t even be moved, in some cases.”

Martinez took the lessons she learned from Blue Pine and Meadow Lane and applied them to Park Hill. A barbecue she held last summer introduced the residents to members of the Salt Lake County Council. Two weeks later, the residents took their case to the Millcreek Council Planning Committee when they held a public meeting to discuss the developers’ plans. According to residents who attended the meeting, Mike Miller said he would withdraw his application, evict everyone and just leave the land barren.

A July 21 letter from county planner Angelo Calacino to Miller told him that “until this issue [the relocation of the tenants] has been satisfactorily addressed, I will not schedule the application for another Planning Commission meeting to be considered.” Two days later, the residents received a letter from Brent Butcher stating that the Sept. 1 deadline for terminating Park Hill’s status as a trailer park had been suspended.

At an Aug. 25 meeting with Butcher and Miller, residents were told the rent would be going up again in November from $300 to $500. One resident said he couldn’t afford it. “That’s the plan,” was the essential reply.

The moratorium imposed on the development by Millcreek Council ended March 28.

That the residents are still there, currently awaiting news about whether Salt Lake County Housing Authority will buy the property from the developers or not, Martinez puts down to their willingness to fight, and she links that to a strong sense of community at Park Hill.

Talk to trailer park residents in Salt Lake City and it becomes clear that community, whether in a middle-class trailer park like Park Hill, or in one home to people down on their luck, is often the glue holding them together.

Park Hill residents such as Wanda Smith and Edna Ervin rely on the good will of their neighbors. Smith has lost the use of her legs, and can only get around with sticks or a frame. Neighbors constantly check on her, bringing her mail and shopping items. Her coiffed curls, spotless singlewide with its china and doll closets and elegant lamps reflect the attention to detail of someone who tied fishing flies for a tackle company at the age of 15. The sense of community for her is why, “Moving here was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

That’s a sentiment Edna Ervin would no doubt share, were she not 91 years old and suffering from the first stages of dementia. Living in Park Hill has meant she’s been able to stay in her own home. Her son, Kent, and a home health nurse check on her. The neighbors, Kent says, keep an eye on her as well. “Ron Nelson helps by mowing her lawn and doing the yardwork. The Straits, who live next door, listen for her at night and if they hear anything that is not right, Jim goes to check on her. The ladies across the street talk to her and they try to settle her fears when she is upset. My mother looks forward to petting their dog and visiting with them. These people are like a family and they watch out for one another,” he says.

Whether it is Terry Naylor taking in his girlfriend’s 21-year-old son, or Don Saulnier and his wife having their son, grandson and a 4-foot iguana move in with them after winning custody of the boy, the very proximity of living with others seems to encourage an unusual degree of altruism in trailer park life.

Even at Martinez’s toughest assignment, Heathcliff, she found residents who helped each other. “It was scary with all the drug people who lived there,” she says, “but everybody has a story as to why they ended up in trailer parks like that. There were disabled, families living on fixed incomes that couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. But they always watched out for one another.” Despite her considerable energy and commitment, she still found it hard to help some of the families. “Some were unreachable on drugs, others were elderly and frightened.”

But whether Heathcliff or Park Hill, for Martinez another trailer park torn down always means the same thing—a community that’s ceased to exist. “Blue Pine and Meadow Lane were so homey,” says Martinez as she stares at the 192-condominium development with its grey and brick walls and narrow grass borders that replaced the two parks at 8850 State St. “They’d invite me in for coffee, show me all the vegetables they were growing in their gardens.”

Each trailer park, says Martinez, has its own personality and Park Hill Mobile Estates, arguably thanks to Bullock’s exacting standards, has more than most. While many parks are extremely crowded—open your door and you hit the neighbor’s siding—between each trailer at Park Hill there’s ample space for planting trees, working on flower beds, or for light to enter living-room windows. There is a 1960s feel to the chintz curtains, the wall-to-wall carpeting, the rose bushes awaiting transplantation or reprieve, a kind of determined hopefulness, despite all the current woes which have led, say residents, to deterioration of the park’s upkeep. “For a year, I haven’t taken care of my yard,” says Naylor. “It’s like I am hesitant. You live with all this uncertainty.”

It’s not only the park that is threatened, but the active lives of many of the residents, who are faced with much more sedentary states of existence—several of whom mutter disparagingly about crocheting—if they have to move into senior housing. Ron Nelson, 71, spends three months of the year prospecting gold with his brother on a 180-acre claim in Arizona. “Won’t be able to do that anymore,” he says.

As well as facing abrupt lifestyle changes, the residents have found themselves beset by problems they have not had to deal with before. Most, like 71-year-old LaVerle Robbins, who receives $465 a month from Social Security and must work 20 hours a week to pay for $300 rent, mobile home upkeep and medicine bills, barely scrape by as it is. With the threat of eviction, they have been forced to go over their finances to find some way to pay for the move.

These aren’t the only problems that have arisen of late. Why, residents ask, did construction bins appear on the property? Why was the gas to their laundry center shut off, and part of the sprinkler system torn up? Yellowish-orange boulders, used for city landscaping, were dumped at the front of the park.

Martinez received panicked calls from residents asking if the entryway was about to be blocked. Such uncertainties and fears take their toll physically and psychologically, particularly on the elderly. Some have managed to keep a sense of humor. “I could always move in with my daughter,” says Cynthia Chadwick, “but then there’d be payback. She’d ground me every other day.” Five residents, however, have moved out since the sale.

While Martinez waits by the phone for the outcome of negotiations between the developers, the Housing Authority and the Crossroads Urban Center, she is all too aware that this situation will find a permanent resolution in the political arena, rather than on a case-by-case basis, as it’s been fought so far.

Not that there haven’t been attempts already to put laws in place that would provide trailer park residents some protection.

Rep. Mark Wheatley, (D-Salt Lake), has five mobile home parks in his district. He put forward House Bill 133 earlier this year to give mobile home owners right of first refusal when landowners want to sell. His bill never got a hearing with the Legislature’s Human Services Committee.

“I was a little naïve,” says Wheatley. “I assumed the committees were based on seniority, when actually it is the Republicans who control everything. As a freshman legislator it was very frustrating not getting an explanation as to why the bill didn’t see the committee hearing.”

He says a similar bill was presented two years before and, according to the scuttlebutt, did not get through because many politicians involved in real estate have friends who are developers. Or, as Sandy City Council attorney Wally Miller put, it “There are simply too many hands reaching in for the money.”

Changing the law to give mobile home residents legal options would shut the door on developers purchasing prime parcels of city land as park landlords put their properties up for sale.

“The land developers didn’t like the bill,” says Saulnier. “But the bill doesn’t impose any restrictions, doesn’t hurt the owners at all. They fight us no matter what we do, just on principle. The state law mandates there must be an affordable housing plan. But where do these people go if forced out of the parks? There is a real sense of impermanence about mobile home life now.”

But if some politicians have blocked giving trailer owners’ rights, others, like Sandy City Mayor Dolan, have worked with Martinez to find alternative solutions. “We had to strategize our role,” says Dolan, in reference to parks Blue Pine and Meadow Lane. “We knew there was the profit motive, but we had the leverage of zoning changes and permits.”

They were also lucky in having a developer, Gary Miller, who was concerned enough to put $400,000 into a hardship fund to assist residents. Washington Mutual, which bought the contracts on the homes, made an important contribution by writing down the mortgages to between $5,000 and $7,000 each.

Overnight it went, as Miller says, from “one of the darkest days in the whole neighborhood to one of the brightest.”

Whether the light will dawn on Park Hill once more is an open question. Looking for a solution, Salt Lake County Housing Authority Director Kerry Bate says his agency made an offer to developers last summer, but was turned down. Bate then commissioned an appraisal of the land’s commercial value and made a second offer. Butcher made a counteroffer, and negotiations continued through April. Bate has lined up public subsidies of $275,000 from both the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund and the county’s Housing Fund and is looking at three or four other grants to make up the difference. “The park can support debt from the $300 a month it generates from residents in rent,” he says. If the deal is successful, the only change in the lives of residents like Brown, Nelson and Smith will be to whom they make out their monthly rent check.

The last two weeks of April saw a breakthrough. Housing Authority technical services manager Dennis Kelsey says there has been a verbal agreement with landowner Brent Butcher to buy the property for $1.2 million. “We’re just waiting on their paperwork to make it formal,” he says. Without the paperwork, however, a last minute change of mind would still leave the residents with the threat of eviction hanging over their heads.

“If we can just get owners like Bullock to talk to the residents first before selling,” says Martinez. “If they go to the county, they will get more money than from the developers, who screw them down as much as they can.” But Bate thinks that this deal, if successful, may not be a precedent government officials will want to see put in place.

“This is a double-edged sword. It’s very costly to buy the park, but relocating residents and rental subsidies is even more expensive,” he says. Over the last 10 or 15 years he has seen the exact same problem appear every two years or so. “The government has to come up with a statewide policy. “

Given the lack of willingness in some quarters to promote change and the endless appetite of developers for land in the city center, whether Martinez’s garden will become so over-cluttered with rose bushes she will have to find somewhere else to plant them is a debatable point.

“The days of the trailer parks in this city are numbered if they don’t band together,” she says. Currently she has three bushes from Murray Cove, four from Blue Pine and Meadow Lane, three from Heathcliff and Bart Wright’s lilac bush.

When Wright took the bush out, he wrapped it in burlap and string. It still has the thread of string around it. “I don’t have the heart to take it off,” says Martinez. Her garden is a vivid testimony to how personal this work is for her.

“I will take these bushes with me wherever I go,” she says. “They mean more to me than anything. I don’t have a green thumb, but they keep on growing.”

As they begin to leaf with the warm weather, it’s possible to see, here and there, the first buds of spring.