After nearly four years in courts and in city council meetings, residents of the Firs Mobile Home Park are still fighting for decent relocation assistance following a disappointing settlement with the landowner, Jong Soo Park, earlier this year.
The fight heated up last week when the attorney representing 42 members of the Firs Home Owners Association (FHOA) updated a complaint alleging discrimination under federal and state housing laws against the City of SeaTac. The new version of the complaint explains in greater detail how little the city did to help the park's Latinx homeowners, who account for 60% of the city's Latinx mobile home households, navigate their situation.
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During the conversation between FHOA and the city back in 2016, the city maintained that its hands were tied. Park owned the land. If he wanted to redevelop it for hotels and higher-end apartments, which he did, then he could go ahead and do that.
Over the phone, Vicente Omar Barraza, the attorney for FHOA, says he and the residents understand that view. But he and the FHOA argue the city broke the law by refusing to enforce certain local ordinances that would have given the residents more time to respond to Park's efforts to boot them off the land. They also claim the city accelerated the timeline on behalf of the landowner. "The city acted totally impotent and refused to exercise any of its power. And we feel like their inaction reflected discriminatory intent," Barraza said.
An attorney for the city didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, but I'll update this post if I hear back.
At First the City "Pretended to Be Welcoming"
There's a lot in the complaint, but here are the highlights—or, I guess, the lowlights. FHOA claims the city failed to provide Spanish language materials at key points throughout the relocation process, publicly admonished the residents for working with tenants rights groups, and also "disinvited" those residents from public council meetings.
In an interview, FHOA member Luis Moreno filled out some of the details. He said at first the city "pretended to be welcoming," but once FHOA started working with the Tenants Union and other groups, that attitude abruptly changed. The city started to limit FHOA speaking time at meetings without accounting for translation needs, according to Moreno.
One other resident said a city worker took away a sign-in sheet from her and another resident who showed up at City Hall for public comment. As the worker swiped the sheet, she said something like, "This meeting’s not for you," according to the resident.
At an October 2016 Town Hall hosted by the city, the complaint points out, then-Deputy Mayor Pam Fernald "asserted that the families at Firs 'do not pay taxes,' apparently alluding to the fact that many are immigrant tenants."
By not stepping in to require the landlord to provide language-appropriate materials at every step of the way, by failing to enforce an early stay on the closure of the park, and by not informing the residents of their right to appeal parts of the process, FHOA further alleges the city favored the landowner, Park, over the homeowners. In one instance, FHOA claims, the city even paid for translation services on behalf of Park to help speed the process along for him. Park didn’t immediately reply when asked for comment on this incident, but I’ll update the post if I hear back.
Barraza said it could take "months or even years" to litigate the case, but ideally FHOA and the city could reach a settlement before the mobile home park closes at the end of June 2020. "At the end of the day, the families just want the city to take some responsibility for its obligations to provide affordable housing," he said.
"A Just Relocation"
Back in March, Barraza and FHOA reached a settlement between the landowner and Firs residents that would keep the park open, rent-free, until next summer. The agreement also awarded $10,000 in relocation assistance to 42 of the 48 members. (The six other members had a separate case with Park related to allegedly unfair evictions.)
But, after taxes and fees, residents say they'll only see around $7,000 of that, which will barely cover first and last month's rent, plus deposit, on an apartment they won't even own.
One evening at the end of August, seven of the residents and I met with a translator at the mobile home park to talk about how they're dealing with the upcoming move.
Mariana Cortez, a cashier who's lived at the Firs for 15 years, said it's hard to listen to the children wonder where they'll relocate. "My son, every day, is asking me, 'Where are we going?' He asks the others he plays with, 'Where are your parents going? Why can't we all move somewhere together?" Cortez said the kids even hang out around the outskirts of homeowners association meetings trying to pick up clues.
"Everyone is feeling they have to fend for themselves and go their separate ways," said Morena, a landscaper who's lived in the mobile home community for six years. "To stay in SeaTac would be great, but it’s really expensive, and the surrounding area is very expensive, so that's unlikely."
Two single moms with kids—one with four children and one with three children—said they're struggling to work enough hours to save up money for a move. Rent for the lot at the mobile home was $500 a month, but they say the two- and three-bedroom apartments they're looking at now have been starting at $1,700 a month. "I work part-time at a clothing store and only bring home $1,100 a month," said Nancy, the 39-year-old with four kids. "So I don't know how I'm going to do this."
"There’s just so much uncertainty, and the time is passing faster and faster. We’re hoping by December to have it figured out, but we don't know," said a resident who'd been living at the Firs for 15 years.
The only community member who'd been living at the Firs longer than her was an 80-year-old woman who'd moved in 20 years ago. She said she stopped working a while ago but now does what she can to make ends meet. "I sell shoes, I sell lotions, but I walk very slowly now," she said. "It's difficult to think about where I’ll go, or what will happen. My family tells me I can come live in someone else’s home, but it doesn’t sound good to me."
She said she'll miss the safe and welcoming community she'd known throughout the years, but has hopes something will work out in the end. "It's important to keep fighting, and keep fighting together," she said.