Rules focus on owners of mobile home parks

Affordable housing Wilsonville requirements would include owners paying tenants' moving costs
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
The Oregonian

WILSONVILLE -- In a groundbreaking move that is certain to land in court, city councilors decided that Wilsonville's mobile home park owners must buy their residents' homes if the parks close and the homes can't be moved.

The first-of-its-kind ordinance in Oregon would also require park owners to obtain a permit before closing, find their tenants a comparable place to live, pay their tenants' moving costs, and pay to house and feed their former tenants during the move.

Councilors acknowledged after a contentious 21/2-hour meeting Monday night that opponents probably will appeal their decision. But the action was necessary, they said, to prevent the erosion of affordable housing for low-income seniors in a region where housing prices have skyrocketed in recent years.

"When you have a fragile population like this, they are truly at risk for death and it would be extremely stressful to evict them and have no plan," said Mayor Charlotte Lehan before the meeting. "We can't just stand around and say, 'You should leave.' "

But a lawyer for one of the suburb's four mobile home park owners said city officials were illegally attempting to shove the responsibility for providing low-income housing onto the shoulders of private citizens, rather than tackling the issue themselves.

"Wilsonville is not a sovereign nation," said William Dickas. "It's not permitted to choose which rights of citizens it will honor and which it will take away."

The decision comes amid a wave of mobile home park closures in the Portland area, including the threatened closure of the 240-unit Thunderbird Mobile Club off Interstate 5 in Wilsonville. Developers and land-use attorneys say that as land for homes becomes scarce, mobile home parks are becoming prime targets for redevelopment.

Roger Ash, Thunderbird's owner, told residents in a letter this summer that the park could fetch $30 million to $45 million. So far, he hasn't received any offers, said Dickas, his lawyer.

Oregon's law

Residents of Thunderbird and of Willamette Cove, a mobile home park in West Linn also threatened with closure, persuaded state lawmakers in August to give mobile home owners a tax credit of up to $10,000 if they're forced to move. It also gives owners a break on capital gains taxes if the owners sell the parks to residents.

But Thunderbird residents wanted more protection. They donned buttons saying "Save Our Seniors" and flooded City Hall with letters saying the tax credit was inadequate to pay for relocation costs that can approach $20,000. Residents also said it's getting harder to find a place to move. According to state officials, 47 parks have closed in Oregon since 2001, leaving 1,434 parks.

Councilors showed Monday that they sympathized with residents. At the beginning of the meeting, Lehan dimmed the lights and played a slide show she prepared of Thunderbird and its residents. A recording of Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris crooning "Gulf Coast Highway" played in the background as pictures of gardens, homes and trees flashed on the screen.

Residents' stories

Residents testified they had expected to live out their retirements at Thunderbird and felt betrayed when Ash told them he planned to market the property.

"On June 6 of this year, my wife and I paid nearly half of our savings to close on a home in TMC. Four days later, we were informed that the park was to be sold out from under us," said Thunderbird resident John Cleaver. "If this was to be a sound investment by the Ash family, then they should be quite willing to return my investment."

At least one other mobile home park owner, however, said he can't afford to pay his tenants' relocation costs. Dickas said a federal court could find the ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution. Washington state passed a similar law more than a decade ago, but that state's Supreme Court found it imposed an "unduly oppressive" burden on park owners and tossed it. Wilsonville officials said their ordinance will survive because park owners can petition city officials.

The council's decision doesn't surprise people who are used to this young suburb on the edge of the urban grown boundary taking controversial stands on issues arising from growth. Residents have successfully fought state efforts to place a prison on prime residential property and tapped the Willamette River as a source for drinking water.

"They're almost avant-garde about stuff," said Pat Schwoch, executive director of the Manufactured Home Owners of Oregon, an advocacy group. "They have the courage of their convictions and I admire that."

Lisa Grace Lednicer: 503-294-5117;

2005 The Oregonian