County takes up plight of mobile home community at risk of displacement

Looking for a pro bono attorney…

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

It’s a hot, sunny afternoon and a 68-year-old woman is watering grass seeds to fill out her lawn just north of Gunnison. Even as she is sowing these seeds to improve her property, she wonders if she will soon lose her home of more than 20 years and all that she has put into it.

Residents of the Country Meadows mobile home park were recently informed the park is for sale by the owners, River Walk, LLC, and they might be forced to leave with a pending offer. Given there are hundreds of residents and the county housing situation is beyond tight, Gunnison County officials are getting involved to see if there is anything they can do to keep the residents housed.

River Walk has given residents notice that they anticipate accepting an offer on the property for a purchase price of $2.95 million after fulfilling their legal obligation to provide 90 days notice to the residents. With now only 60 days left, county commissioners pledged on Tuesday, July 20 to do what they can. It is unclear how fruitful that will be, however commissioners will consider the matter more fully during their next work session on July 27.

“I don’t want to be forced to move,” says the woman watering her grass. Her son, who identifies himself as ‘Joe Dirt,’ lives with her and takes turns with the hose when her arm gets sore. Their work is evident in the gardens surrounding their mobile home, which includes large clusters of bright yellow columbines standing over four feet high by the entrance.

“We own the building from the studs in,” says ‘Joe.’ “The park owns it from the studs out. And we can’t pick up the building and take it with us if we have to leave.”

Country Meadows mobile home park is located on Highway 135 near Garlic Mike’s and includes 72 lots and at least 57 structures, according to the county assessor. Most structures are in disrepair. The mobile home owners pay $425 per month in rent to the property owners, “And that cost went up twice during COVID,” notes ‘Joe’s’ mother.

County commissioners listened to many compelling comments from the residents of Country Meadows during the unscheduled citizens’ portion of their July 20 meeting. The comments each included a plea for help so that residents can purchase the property to secure their housing for the future.

Ricardo Esqueda, the community outreach liaison for the city of Gunnison, attended the meeting and translated Spanish to English for most attendees. Gregorio Luna spoke first.

“We are very confused because it seems we have been given three options: we either buy the property, receive money for our trailers, only 50 percent of their cost, or that we have to leave. First of all, we cannot move because our trailers are older. Second of all, we have nowhere to go because there are no other places here. It is for this reason that we ask for help, to help purchase this property,” he said.
Several other speakers echoed Luna’s plea, listing grievances with the current owner such as deferred maintenance, increased rent, eviction threats and lack of response to complaints or safety issues.

“It is very worrisome and causes much sadness,” said Maria Elvia Bejar. “For the well-being and protection of all these families, we do not want to lose our home.”

Maria Plascencia, who has lived there for 12 years, said, “We really wish to buy this property and make things better.”

Diana de La Fuente requested legal counsel and property appraisal. She also spoke of human rights and preventing homelessness. “We are a multi-cultural community,” she said. “The potential housing crisis of locals is evident. We know that neither the City of Gunnison, nor Gunnison County, are prepared for meeting the housing needs of nearly 400 people.” She also described the workforce represented in her community, including construction, maintenance and hospitality workers.

“These people deserve their government’s support. They are hardworking people,” she said.

All three commissioners were visibly moved by the testimony and eager to work on a solution.

Commissioner chairperson Jonathan Houck explained that county staff was familiar with the situation, and community and economic development director Cathie Pagano gave an overview.

“That is an important segment of our community…your strategic plan talks about developing 200 new housing units. I could certainly make an argument that losing 57 housing units would be detrimental to that goal,” she said.

Under a state mobile home oversight program, she said residents get notice of a property sale and have 90 days to organize and make their own offer to purchase it. It is not a first right of refusal, nor does the owner have to accept the offer, she noted.

A letter obtained by the Crested Butte News from River Walk Village, LLC, to the mobile home owners at Country Meadows on June 25, 2021, acknowledged the state mandates. The letter informed owners that, “River Walk Village, LLC intends to make a final, unconditional acceptance of an offer to purchase Country Meadows received June 24, 2021.“

Adam Hamilton, property maintenance manager and resident of Country Meadows, also spoke with the Crested Butte News. Hamilton says he tries to field requests from the community, but he ultimately answers to River Walk Village, who writes his paychecks. But he says even as an owner of three units there, he is not worried about the outcome.

“My understanding is that the owners were pretty particular about who they would sell to. More than 70 families live here,” he added.
Still, Hamilton agreed with his neighbors that the best scenario is for the residents to buy the land. That might require financial gymnastics.

Pagano reviewed that when the park was first listed for sale last year, the Boulder non-profit Thistle, which specializes in such matters, made two offers to purchase the property; neither was accepted. Thistle is now mired in a number of other mobile home purchase projects, but Pagano said they could offer some partial assistance, such as providing a ‘Know your rights’ session with residents.

Pagano said her department has also connected with another group that provides affordable housing loans. She said there is a small possibility for the county to institute a transitional purchase, then transfer the property to the residents. She was not optimistic, but she said she and her staff would pursue all options if the commissioners and county manager wanted to direct them to that end.
The commissioners did so.

“Everyone who has come to talk to us today is an important, respected member of our community,” said Houck, on behalf of the board. “This is a challenge to figure this out. The timeframe is small.” He said they would need to bring the topic back to a formal agenda item, and possibly involve the county attorney’s office. He and commissioners Liz Smith and Roland Mason agreed to use whatever authority and latitude they could to help.

“Developing new affordable housing is a fool’s errand if we can’t hold on to housing,” stated Houck. He also explained that county manager Matthew Birnie, who was absent during the meeting, had wanted to make sure the commissioners understood there were considerable legal risks.

“I want to understand those challenges…and I think this is a place where we lean as far as we can. This is fighting for our community. This is what our #1 job is,” said Houck. He acknowledged that the county staff is shouldering a heavy workload and this would add to it.

“But there is a time and a place where we put more on the plate and I think this is that place,” said Houck.

County attorney Matthew Hoyt said regardless of commissioners’ stance, he believes the residents “are in desperate need of legal representation.”

“All the feelers that we can put out as a county to the attorneys in this valley—which there are many—to see if someone would accept this matter on a pro bono basis, would be of considerable assistance,” suggested Hoyt.

“It will be a very big deal if it’s successful, and my fingers are crossed. But it’s a big challenge,” said Pagano. “But together, let’s try.”

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