When all the land is sold, where will mobile home owners go?
Underneath the Sea-Tac airport flight path, where planes rip through the sky, there’s a giant field of dirt, and it has a lot to say.
“Please be advised that your tenancy of the above premises will terminate…” reads a large sign posted at the corner of the field.
Around 110 mobile homes and their residents used to be here, but now in their place developers are building a large apartment and retail complex. One day, its 323 apartment units will be rented as affordable housing, but in the meantime the people who used to live here had to go somewhere else.
When it comes to affordable housing, mobile homes — a source of housing for around 9,000 households — often get overlooked.
They’re disappearing as real estate values skyrocket and land is redeveloped. The trend signifies fewer affordable housing opportunities for low-income people and added pressure on the rental housing market.
Some mobile home owners are trying to stay put.
At one house in the Firs Mobile Home Park in SeaTac, the kids watch cartoons as their mom, Martha Zamora, boils water for cinnamon tea. Zamora and her husband bought this place as newlyweds so they could be homeowners, she said.
“You can be sure that you have something that’s yours, that nobody can come and kick you out,” she said.
That’s the dream of home ownership: nobody can come and kick you out. But in 2016, the family and their neighbors got one of those park closure notices, and the residents have been fighting it ever since.
While mobile home owners own the structure of their houses, they pay rent on the land underneath it. At this park it’s $500 a month. Zamora works part time cleaning clinics and her husband works in a restaurant.
Landowner Jong Park said it’s too costly and too much of a headache to keep maintaining the mobile home park. Instead he’s gone into business with some friends and relatives to build a hotel and apartment building here.
If the Zamoras had to leave their home, Martha Zamora said she doesn’t know how her family would afford rent anywhere else.
“It’s going be, like, 80 percent of our income only on rent, so it’s too expensive for us,” she said.
Why don’t they just pick up and move their mobile home? Well, the word "mobile" is misleading, because federal regulations deem her home and many others here too old to move to another park. Usually when a park closes, the homes don’t move, they get demolished.
“Mobile home parks are increasingly an endangered species,” said Stephen Norman, executive director of the King County Housing Authority.
Since 2016, five parks have closed in the county, displacing over 200 mobile homes, according to data from the Washington state Department of Commerce.
“Land is getting increasingly valuable within the Seattle metropolitan area and many of these parks, simple economics, are worth more as a redevelopment site than they are as a mobile home park,” Norman said.
Norman’s “inner Eeyore” comes out when he talks about the future of affordable housing in the region, he said. As mobile home parks close, their low-income residents could become homeless.
In some rare cases, the housing authority steps in to preserve a park, but it depends on who’s selling it. King County Housing Authority has five mobile home parks.
“Unless you have a very willing seller who's willing not to take top dollar for it, it's really very, very difficult for us to figure out how to finance these deals,” Norman said.
Park owner Matt Marcus and his family were willing sellers of the Friendly Village mobile home park in Redmond. When Marcus and his mother decided to sell off the park, they wanted to preserve its use as senior affordable housing, so they sold it to the housing authority.
“I’ve had customers that have known me since I was a kid, and it’s hard to look at them in the face and go, 'Well sorry, your home’s being removed.' You can’t do that, it just doesn’t feel good,” Marcus said.
Increasingly, mobile home owners around the region are trying to buy the parks themselves. One model is for owners to become a cooperative. Last year, a park in Bremerton and Lakewood become a resident-owned cooperative with the help of the Northwest Cooperative Development Center, joining half a dozen others in Western Washington.
“We think it’s a great opportunity when it’s the right match,” executive director Diane Gasaway said. “When we can make the money work.”
In SeaTac, residents at the Firs Mobile Home park tell each other to keep fighting. They hold meetings at the school across the street, Madrona Elementary.
Mobile homeowner Leticia Vidales is worried, she said. One thing they can’t replace is the sense of community, like how parents pick up each other’s children after school and watch out for them. People care for each other here, Vidales said.
The residents are buying time in court. A trial is scheduled for April on whether the land owner followed SeaTac city law on relocating residents. Meanwhile, in the next few weeks, the housing authority will appraise the land to determine its value. Firs Mobile Home Park residents say they want a chance to make an offer to buy it.