TRAILER PARK NOMADS
Residents at Renton's Lake Terrace trailer park fought like hell to foil a big development deal -- even raising $1 million to buy the land under their single- and double-wides. Unfortunately, they lost.
Haynes, who has lived in lot 62 for four years -- the first trailer to the left as you pull in off Lake Washington Boulevard -- is a trim and sturdy guy with a soft Georgian accent and a solid Southern handshake. He wears bright blue jeans with a pager hanging off one of the pockets, and a fresh black T-shirt that sports the logo of his office furniture company, HBI.
Haynes is a genuine booster of life in Lake Terrace, an 11-acre trailer park nestled into a slight hill, across the street from the summer-sparkled waters of Lake Washington's Coulon Park. Like any good mayor, he's glad to walk visitors through the winding road that forms a lasso through the orbit of trailer homes, tilting up into the grassy hill and eventually see-sawing downward -- ending up back at the gravel driveway in front of Haynes' single-wide, beige trailer.
"I've lived in Seattle," he says, going into what sounds like a campaign pitch, "and when you live in Seattle you have to lock the door just to walk around to the other side of the car. Well here, I don't think nothing of walking off and leaving my car unlocked. This is just a great place to live." Haynes, whose clipped tone matches his stiff posture, looks across at Coulon Park and then back at a nearby, rusting trailer. "Nice lake view. Nice neighborhood. A mobile home, no matter how ratty it is on the outside -- as long as it don't leak and it's dry -- is a good place to live. I mean, a home's a home."
While Lake Terrace neighbors didn't elect Haynes mayor, they did elect him to be president of the homeowners' association they formed last summer. The association's main mission was to fight off Trammell Crow Residential (TCR), an Atlanta-based real estate developer that was looking to buy the land under all the trailer homes. While people like Haynes may own their trailers, they unfortunately don't own the ground beneath them. The neighbors put up a good fight -- even staging a heroic fund-raising drive to buy the land themselves -- but they eventually lost. They were given a deadline of July 2 to pack up their belongings and get out.
Two weeks before D-day, some of the 90 or so trailer homes at Lake Terrace are dilapidated and crooked with leaking roofs and unkempt lawns. Some have already been abandoned. Others are well maintained, with wide wooden decks, tidy red and white trim, and new Hondas parked in the driveways.
On the walk along Lake Terrace's dusty gravel road, Haynes rattles off the names of everyone in the park -- the people who live, or used to live, behind every door. There's the janitor from Boeing who moved in when the place opened to accommodate the 1962 World's Fair; there's 42-year-old Joel Lewis who works out of the same loading dock as Haynes at nearby SouthCenter (Joel recently packed up and moved in with his brother, Haynes explains). Next is a trailer that belongs to Dawn, who drove a bus for the city of Seattle and lived with her girlfriend Tonya from Boeing. They left just last week. Headed down to Texas. There's the young "crazy in love" couple who bought the double-wide trailer on the upper row for $28,000 three years ago.
There's also Denice Schroeder in lot 17, who lives on a fixed income and can't work because of chronically inflamed joints; the retired teacher who worked at Renton High School for 17 years and who has lived in the park since 1965; the 24-year-old newlywed father who just landed a good union job loading trucks at Safeway; and Lauren Mueller, who, along with her infant son, moved in last month, leaving her dad's house for the first time. Mueller plans to move back in with her dad.
"Come out here in another week, and half of these people will be gone," Haynes says, standing in his front yard. "They're gonna take all this and flatten it, completely level us off. Flat as a highway."
Haynes wasn't kidding. On July 2, he, along with the other residents at Lake Terrace, became a side effect of King County's development craze. The neighbors who hadn't already moved enlisted sons and daughters to help them pack what they could into cars and moving vans, and headed out. Some found apartments. Others moved in with parents or children. Still others gave up jobs and left town altogether.
"I guess the property was too expensive to waste on a trailer park," Haynes says sourly. He has good reason to be angry. After sticking it out until the last possible minute, he ended up abandoning his home, quitting his job of three years, and "throwing my keys in the lake." Leaving his trailer to be knocked down, Haynes jumped into his 1986 Honda, and with his wife Maureen, drove back to his parents' house in Cleveland, Georgia.
The developer that purchased the land (for a hefty $5.7 million) plans to build a flock of high-priced apartment buildings in place of the trailer homes. The sale was given the go-ahead after a legal settlement was reached in May. TCR, which has offices in about 30 cities nationwide, went so far as to sue the Lake Terrace Homeowners Association (and Haynes personally) for impeding the deal. The agreement dictated that all residents vacate the premises by the stroke of midnight on July 2, in return for a small settlement package. Aside from the couple thousand dollars each tenant gets from the settlement, the state provides moving assistance -- $3,500 for a single-wide trailer and $7,000 for a double-wide. Unfortunately, the most basic moving expenses run more like $5,000 for a single-wide and $10,000 for a double-wide, according to residents. If you leave your trailer behind, which most of them did thanks to a limited number of trailer park vacancies, you don't get the state assistance.
One longtime Lake Terrace resident, 50-year-old KanDee Saunders, who lives on a fixed income of $527 a month, has been "visiting" her daughter's house in Kent since being evicted. "They kept saying we were 'relocating.' Well, it's not 'relocating,'" she says. "To me it's destruction. Look up 'relocation' in the dictionary and then look up 'destruction.' 'Destruction' better describes what was done to us."
Indeed, after the big move, Lake Terrace looks like the aftermath of a terrible hurricane. Water shoots up out of busted ground pipes; abandoned porches stand alone without homes attached; plastic garbage bags cover windows; ratty looking mattresses and TVs -- even a little girl's pink bathing suit -- litter the various lots. In one of the spaces, a weathered fourth-edition ambulance driver textbook mingles with a broken-off Minnie Mouse head, a mess of gold Christmas tinsel, and a crushed Bud Light can in the mud. Aluminum trailer doors bang in the wind. Rows of electric meter readers, looking like tombstones, mark the spaces where trailer homes used to be.
The exodus highlights the flip side of King County's booming economy: The hot real estate market is destroying housing options for poor people. The average apartment in the county rents for $806, up from $590 just five years ago. The greatest rent hikes during the past couple of years have been in the lower-to-middle range: "Two years ago, close to half the units in the county rented for less than $600," says Mike Scott, an apartment market research analyst with Dupre+Scott. "Now barely a quarter rent for that." While Seattle has only 25,000 subsidized housing units to offer, its low-income population has grown by 6.4 percent over the last 10 years -- from 77,000 households in 1990 to 82,000 today, according to Seattle's Department of Housing and Human Services. "The availability of subsidized housing cannot meet demand," says a department report. (Market analysts estimate that the majority of construction over the next year will be of high-end properties in the $1,060-per-month range.)
"There isn't anything being offered out there that's conceivable for me," says former Lake Terrace resident Denice Schroeder, whose bone disease has driven her from the work force and stuck her with a $339 a month welfare check. She lived in her $10,000 trailer, paying $350 a month to keep it at the park -- with her guard dog Athena, who stays by her side 24 hours a day to warn of oncoming dizzy spells. Before she pulled out, her place was crammed with plants, bulky wooden furniture, a rocking chair, and a giant-screen TV. "It's the only home I have," she said, sitting in her living room last June. "I'd be homeless. I'd be living in my car if it wasn't for this park." Despite her predictions, Schroeder was one of the lucky few who managed to find an open space in another trailer park (The move cost her $1,600 over what the state provided in assistance).
The rentals TCR plans to build will go for $900 to $1,700 a month. "It was a good piece of property to clean up," says Gerard Shellan, one of the owners who sold out to TCR. "For a piece of property on the lake it wasn't suitable for a mobile home park. It wasn't giving the full value of the property. I guess it's a law of nature that it shouldn't be a mobile park any more."
You don't have to be Che Guevara to see that tossing a bunch of poor people into the street to make way for a fancy development is a bad idea. "I have a hard time not getting angry and bitter when I talk about this," says State Representative Steve Van Luven, a Republican from Bellevue who asked Haynes, Saunders, and Schroeder to testify in front of his Economic Development and Housing committee. "When I see citizens being thrown out on the street and losing their homes -- ¯and make no mistake, that's what this is about -- ¯I know it's unjust. When we have owners selling parks, it puts a burden on society, on the state of Washington." Van Luven tried to toughen the state's trailer park tenant/landlord laws last session, but the effort didn't get far.
A few Lake Terrace residents were able to find new parks and move their homes. Most weren't so fortunate. There simply aren't many trailer parks to move to: Currently, there are 160 in King County, a number that has either remained static or declined by six percent over the last 10 years, depending on whom you ask. And The Low Income Housing Institute reports that over 300 households in King County will be displaced this year thanks to more mobile home park closures. In addition to Lake Terrace, parks in SeaTac, Duvall, New Castle, and Lake Boren are all slated to shut down in the next year. "A lot of people look at mobile homes as being the answer to low-income housing," says Rep. Van Luven. Unfortunately, mobile home parks are being built with the frequency of new drive-in movie theaters.
Given that the demand for trailers isn't exactly overwhelming, the majority of Lake Terrace refugees sold them at an indecent loss. Or worse, like Haynes and Saunders, ended up "throwing the keys in the lake" and letting TCR flatten them with bulldozers. "Is there any place to move a mobile home around here?" Haynes asked before leaving for Georgia. "We found out there is not."
But what's bad news for Haynes and the rest of the Lake Terrace Park neighborhood is great for the former owners of the property and for TCR. The owners, Alex and Norma Jean Cugini, Nancy and Steven Harer, and Barbara and Gerard Shellan, bought the land in 1979 for $1 million and sold it to TCR for $5.7 million. That's a tidy profit of $2.3 million when adjusted for inflation.
Gerard Shellan, a retired King County Superior Court judge, is candid about the sale. "Frankly, it's a matter of economics," he says. "This particular piece of property, 11 acres, zoned for multiple housing [apartments] across from Coulon Park, on the lake.... These amenities increased the price substantially. That land had become expensive. Nobody has a right to live on the lake indefinitely for $350 a month."
The buyer, TCR Pacific Northwest, an affiliate of real estate titan Trammell Crow -- which pulled in more than $517 million last year -- stands to make a bundle on the investment as well. "The land was attractive to us," says TCR Development Associate Rob Hinnen. "The Lake Washington view; adjacent to Boeing. It's a good sight for relatively high-density housing."
TCR plans to build a 182-unit apartment complex, featuring 1,000-square-foot apartments and larger 1,150-square-foot townhouses with garages. The complex, dubbed Tamaron Pointe, will have a club house, conference center, computer room, pool with sun deck, and exercise rooms. Like the 17 other communities TCR owns or manages in the greater Seattle area, says spokesman Hinnen, it will be "Class A, competitively priced at the top of the rental community."
The residents of Lake Terrace first heard of these plans in late July 1998, when the owners sent out eviction notices to the park's 90 plus residents. It was harsh news. "I was in denial about it," says former Lake Terrace resident Schroeder. "I just really wanted to stay here. My family and my doctors are in this area. I grew up here. I love being by the water."
Her next-door neighbor, KanDee Saunders -- -whose Cher good looks have been weathered by multiple sclerosis -- ¯makes a habit of looking on the bright side. "To me, there's a purpose for everything," she says. "We don't always understand it at the time, but I go to church. I pray. Hey, I know that God has been with me since I was a little kid. And, it's like, I know there's a reason for things." However, Saunders, 50, has a hard time seeing the reasoning behind the eviction notice. "I'm not understanding this. I'm not getting the big picture here," she says.
Trammell Crow tried to soften the blow by sending out representatives to the park to help relocate residents. But the plan backfired. For Saunders, the experience with TCR's relocation team became a defining moment.
"They had someone out here in the very beginning," she says. "She gave us a list of all these parks. They tell us, 'well, there's places in Port Orchard, there's places in Eastern Washington. There's places down by Tacoma.' And it's like, no, you're not understanding. That's not where we live. And they say, 'Well, you're going to have to be more open-minded.' And one of the older ladies standing with me said, 'I want to be right here, what's wrong with just leaving us alone right here?' And the Trammell Crow woman looked at us and said, 'This park is sold. It's closed. You do have to go. We'll find a parking lot somewhere for you.'"
Saunders says she had to walk away before "something happened."
Lake Terrace residents started doing a little research, and found a loophole they hoped would save their homes. According to a 1993 state law, the property owners could not simply sell the land out from under the trailers. The law, RCW 59.23, says residents, as a formal tenant organization, can exercise the right of first refusal. That is, residents have the right to view the buyer's offer and then notify the owner that they want to purchase the park by matching or exceeding the terms. The tenant organization is required to come up with two percent of the cash within 30 days of seeing the offer. In this case, $112,000.
The tenants organized quickly. They elected Haynes their leader. A youthful man with silver and black hair, Haynes -- after a full day of work delivering office cubicles -- went door to door through the sloping hillside park of trailer homes. Visiting people like Saunders and Schroeder, Haynes collected signatures in support of starting a homeowners' association. On August 3, the Lake Terrace Homeowners Association presented the park owners with a notice signed by the required 60 percent of park tenants saying they wanted to purchase the park, and they wanted to review a copy of the TCR agreement.
The park owners, Lake Terrace Associates, however, seemed stuck on selling to TCR, and fought tenants the whole way. They repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the homeowners' association and the validity of the signatures. They refused to provide Haynes and the Lake Terrace residents with a copy of the TCR agreement. Haynes had to go through the signature-gathering process three more times before the Lake Terrace owners finally recognized the legitimacy of the signatures. Still, the owners refused to turn over the TCR agreement, arguing that the association's notice was untimely because it was formed after TCR made its offer. (The owners of the property would stall in other ways, including arguing that the homeowners' association wasn't legitimate because its articles identified it as the Lake Terrace Homeowners Assoc-iation, while an application for non-profit status identified it as the Lake Terrace Residents Association.)
"They were trying to wear us down," Haynes says. "They were supposed to be negotiating in good faith, but there was no good faith here. That kind of motivated me."
At that point, Haynes realized he needed legal help, and made a visit to the Northwest Justice Project (NWJP) on 2nd Ave. S. between Jackson and King in downtown Seattle. The King County legal aid agency -- the kind of law office that sports a giant black-and-white photo of Martin Luther King Jr. above the reception desk -- was able to represent the trailer homeowners because more than 50 percent of Lake Terrace's residents were officially "low income," living on less than $800 a month. (Haynes had to go door to door collecting income statements to prove that as well.)
NWJP attorney Hong Tran argued against the owners' claim that the Lake Terrace association offer was untimely. "If they decide a week before the sale is to close, and they can organize and raise the two percent, then they should have the opportunity to do that," she says.
Eventually, Haynes and the association succeeded in forcing the property owners to turn over the terms of the TCR deal. They received the document on January 14 -- they now had 30 days to raise the necessary funds. And they did manage to scrape together $119,000 from the Low Income Housing Institute, a local non-profit that provides financial support for low-income housing development. On February 12, Lake Terrace residents formally offered to buy the park.
Concerned that their deal was starting to unravel, TCR stepped into the picture, joining the park's owners in filing suit against the Lake Terrace Homeowners Assoc-iation, Roger Haynes, and the Low In-come Housing Institute in Wash-ington Superior Court. "They didn't form a group until after the fact," complains TCR attorney John Tomlinson. "That's not typically how a right of first refusal works. Usually an interested buyer like TCR should know that the property is subject to the right of first refusal. Well, there was no interested party in existence when TCR made their offer." Subsequently, TCR says, the company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on things like environmental impact studies before the Homeowners' Association even existed. "We had to recapture the money we had invested," says TCR's Hinnen.
More significantly, the plaintiffs questioned whether a bunch of trailer park residents could actually match the $5.7 million offer. "Based on our analysis," says Hinnen, "people who had been paying $350 a month in rent weren't going to have enough money to pay interest on any loans for the money. We were able to, because we were putting up a lot of housing with high rent."
Property owner Shellan adds, "The legal issue before the court is whether they had made a fair offer, and they hadn't. There's no comparison. They didn't have the money. We had to bring a lawsuit to determine they had no legal standing. We had to pay money basically for them to go away."
For the homeowners, however -- those who had lived at Lake Terrace for 10, 20, even 30 years -- the attempt to stay put wasn't about recouping investments or losing money. "For my clients, this was about preserving the only source of affordable housing ownership most of them will ever see," says NWJP attorney Tran. "The other side saw it as simply a money-making venture."
"They're rich," adds Schroeder. "It wouldn't make any difference to talk to them. They don't know what it's like to be poor."
In mid May, a week before the case was scheduled for court, the parties met at the plaintiffs' downtown law offices. TCR and the property owners were interested in settling. "We wanted to develop," says Hinnen. "We didn't feel like it was profitable to spend a lot of time paying lawyers. We felt we would win, but we felt like it would have delayed the project, and the rental market wouldn't have been as good as it is now."
The owners had their own reasons to push for a settlement: Shellan, in his 70s, explains, "We had to complete our agreement with TCR or they would have backed out of the deal."
Though the Homeowners' Association didn't originally see any benefit in discussing the matter with TCR and the park's owners, the group was, in reality, on the ropes. It was unlikely that they were going to be able to raise the money needed to make good on their offer. "The funding was iffy," Haynes acknowledges. The group had, incredibly, raised $1 million through public funding, but they were one of 100 organizations going after another $4 million in public grants. "If we failed there, that would have been it."
Huddled in separate rooms for 11 and a half hours, while a mediator shuttled between them, the two sides hammered out a settlement. Haynes' proposal, giving TCR and the property owners $400,000 in exchange for two extra months to raise the rest of the money, got nowhere. "They came back and said, 'fuck you,' basically," Haynes says. He was instructed by the group to accept no less than $10,000 per person in settlement money.
The best Haynes could get however, was a total payout of $300,000 to get out of TCR's way. For all his hard work, Haynes' settlement irked the neighbors. "Quite honestly, I didn't like the way it was done," says Saunders. "Roger worked hard; it's not him. It's just that I think it was a lousy settlement for as much as they could have given. It wouldn't have killed them."
The Lake Terrace settlement dramatizes just how vulnerable trailer owners are. In part, weak and unclear state law is to blame. For example, it's a matter of interpretation whether the right of first refusal applies to a group that forms after an offer is made. Inspired by the events at Lake Terrace, Rep. Van Luven and his co-chair on the Economic Development and Housing committee, Rep. Velma Veloria (D-Seattle), introduced a bill last session that would have amended the law. "What we have is a lot of high-priced attorneys representing land owners, up against tenants who have no money to fight," says Van Luven. "We have to step in."
Relying on testimony from people like KanDee Saunders, Denice Schroeder, and Roger Haynes, Van Luven and Veloria attempted to strengthen tenants' rights in a few ways. First, they tried to bring trailer park regulation under the umbrella of the Attorney General's office. This would have given the guidelines more teeth. Second, they tried to extend the amount of time homeowners' associations have to raise money for counter offers. Third, Van Luven tried to craft a law mandating that every time a trailer park community is rezoned for multi-family living -- -the first step in selling off the land to condo or apartment developers -- -another parcel of land has to be rezoned for trailer homes. "Mobil home parks are not being built at all," says Van Luven. "If you're going to close one, rezone so another can be built." The bill failed, but Van Luven says all the proposals will be reintroduced next session.
More favorable laws, however, wouldn't have helped Lake Terrace residents raise the necessary funds. "You have a group of low-income people typically trying to raise millions of dollars to match the sale," says NWJP's Tran. "They can assert their claim under the statute to get their foot in the door and say, 'here we are, you need to take notice of us,' but they still have to come up with all the money and close on the same terms. Coming up with that money -- it's not an easy task."
A week before Lake Terrace Park closed, Saunders -- still wondering where she was going to live -- leaned against the wall in her kitchen under the watchful eye of her Elvis calendar, pictures of her children, and her Jesus watercolors. "I put in an application for an apartment in the Fairwood area of Renton, up on Fairwood Hill. But I haven't heard anything. So I don't know." Trying to think positively, she adds, "But I know I'm not gonna be left out in the street. Or if I am, I'm gonna know there's a purpose to that, too. I know there's a reason for things. There's a reason for this."
King County's inflated housing market, for one, comes to mind.