Reported ArticleHousing

Nonprofit to Close Mobile Home Community to Build a Park

Ohio’s largest conservation land trust has been accused of purchasing a manufactured housing community with the very intention of closing it, evicting more than 100 households in the process. But proponents of the park’s closure say the land's failing infrastructure—and the benefit the property will bring to an entire city—is what forced the decision.

Photo by Flickr user Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0 Deed

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The Western Reserve Land Conservancy, Ohio’s largest conservation land trust, was an unusual choice to be the Euclid Beach Mobile Home Community’s new landlord.

The nonprofit typically preserves land by taking on projects that involve discrete, vacant properties, says Isaac Robb, the organization’s vice president of planning and urban projects. By contrast, the manufactured housing community in Cleveland’s East Side had more than 100 families living there.

But at the prompting of Cleveland City Councilmember Michael Polensek—who at the time was on a “rescue mission” to stop the property from being sold to a developer who might build high-rise apartments there or force residents to leave their homes—the nonprofit competed in a yearslong bidding process to buy the site.

“There was very much external interest in this property,” says Robb. “If you don’t act to get it under local control, you might not have that opportunity again.”

The site is, after all, prime real estate. The Euclid Beach Mobile Home Community comprises 28.5 acres of land along the Lake Erie shorefront.

“I told [the Western Reserve Land Conservancy] we can’t let this property be cut up,” says Polensek. “It’s 20 critical acres on the lake, on the East Side, and adjacent to a working-class neighborhood with a high concentration of low-income families, especially seniors. And we don’t need any more retail. I said that right out of the gate.”

Though the organization faced stiff competition from private developers and other mobile home park operators, in 2021, it ended up with a win and purchased the property for $5.8 million.

After assuming ownership, the Western Reserve Land Conservancy initiated a two-year land-use planning process that concluded in a decision to close the community and turn the property into public green space. The 100 families who live there—many of whom have lived in the park for decades—are now being forced to find new housing by the end of the summer.

The plan for the property’s future has not only provoked public ire over the displacement of dozens of households, but it also triggered a debate over the city’s landscape—who benefits and who belongs.

A Battle to Save the Community

Residents of the manufactured housing community and housing advocates have accused the Western Reserve Land Conservancy (WRLC) of purchasing the park with the very intention of closing it, casting its neighborhood plan to explore the property’s “best use” as merely a performative gesture to feign community buy-in to a predetermined decision. One reason for the accusation: a 2019 offer letter written by WRLC President and CEO Rich Cochran, which stated that they projected a “messy, expensive, legally complicated, and time consuming” process ahead to “convince residents to leave” the park.

Seven people wearing jackets and caps on a city sidewalk holding signs that say "Listen to UREB," "Save Our Homes," "Negotiate with UREB," or "5,000 Against Displacement." One person is speaking into a microphone. At the curb by the speaker is a van with WRLC painted on the side, for Western Reserve Land Conservancy.
Dozens of residents of the manufactured housing community joined together to form the United Residents of Euclid Beach, and fought for fair compensation for residents who want to leave the community, and for alternatives for those who want to stay. Photo courtesy of Robert Kazar

“[The letter] made a lot of people angry, and even more depression set in, to realize that we’d been had,” says Anthony Beard, a resident who has lived at the property since 2007. “This was the strategy and plan the entire time.”

Robb says the letter was nothing more than a typical negotiating tactic. “We were trying to get the best price as possible for the property. We knew we were competing against other mobile home operators, and we were doing our best to say that this was not going to be an economic win for whoever was taking this property on.”

While he acknowledges that “it was always an intention of ours to figure out how to have increased public access [to the lake] and green space in this part of the city,” Robb insists that WRLC didn’t know what that would look like until the land-use planning process had concluded. Per the neighborhood plan, once the community is closed, WRLC will give the site to the Cleveland Metroparks park system, which currently owns the land surrounding the park.

Cleveland Neighborhood Progress (CNP), a local community development intermediary, led that land-use planning process, which included door-to-door surveying, internal resident interviews, focus groups, and half a dozen community meetings.

“We really exhausted almost every avenue to look at solutions,” says Andrew Sargeant, CNP’s director of open space and planning. Sargeant says it was never a secret that closing the park would be explored among those possible solutions, but neither was it a foregone conclusion.

Ultimately, Sargeant says, it was the park’s failing infrastructure—neglected for decades under the previous owner—and the age of the units (many of which were built before federal quality controls were established in 1976) that forced the decision. Former residents had complained of water service interruptions, sewer backups, and standing water after heavy rains, among other infrastructure issues, and WRLC had already spent nearly $200,000 in stopgap repairs, senior vice president Matt Zone told Signal Cleveland.

But residents and their allies say WRLC wasn’t open to other possibilities to avoid displacement of the community’s residents. “[WRLC] didn’t want to talk about an alternative plan to keep at least part of the park open,” says Michael Russell, a senior attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. Russell represents dozens of residents of the manufactured housing community—the United Residents of Euclid Beach.

In addition to fighting for fair and just compensation for residents who don’t mind leaving, the resident group is adamantly pursuing a particular alternative: a smaller, modernized, resident-owned community with 21st-century amenities like electric charging stations and RV hookups.

“There’s no reason why we can’t be seen as innovators,” says Beard, a United Residents of Euclid Beach leader. “We can do everything together if we’re just given a chance. All they have to do is say yes.”

There are no resident-owned manufactured housing communities in the state of Ohio. The resident group wants Euclid Beach to be the first.

“It can be interpreted as a last-ditch attempt to stave off the inevitable—that the residents are just grasping at straws,” says Russell. “But I think that would be a misinterpretation of the group’s intent. [United Residents of Euclid Beach] members want to build something new.”

Robb says that idea was explored—then ruled out—during the land-use planning process. The costs to rebuild the site were simply too high, he says, and the park, in its current state of disrepair, was ultimately determined not worth the investment to salvage. 

“To do a consolidated footprint, not only would you have to find replacement units for a lot of this community, but you would also have to rebuild infrastructure and roads, and that was something that we continued to run up against,” says Robb.

Estimates that the land trust received through the planning process, which were shared with Shelterforce, put the figure at roughly $11 million for site replacement, and roughly the same cost for a smaller footprint of seven to nine acres, with 90 to 100 units.

A United Residents of Euclid Beach member delivers a petition to the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. Photo courtesy of Robert Kazar

Members of the United Residents of Euclid Beach say the federal Preservation and Reinvestment Initiative for Community Enhancement (PRICE) program is a potential source of funding for a resident-owned community. Russell also wondered whether green development tax credits could be leveraged to attract investment, or perhaps the philanthropic dollars given to the land trust to close the park could be reallocated to build a new one. (In July 2023, for example, the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Foundation awarded $10 million to the Western Reserve Land Conservancy to help residents move to alternative housing.)

But there’s not much appetite for either option with WRLC.

“When you actually dig into how it would work, who would pay for it, and how it would impact residents both from a disruption and cost perspective, no one actually came to the table with a legitimate, vetted alternative,” says Robb.

Russell disagrees. “I’d argue that the hardship associated with permanent relocation is greater,” he says. “WRLC [is] simply not willing to consider any possibility other than total displacement, [so] finding solutions to these problems—which I’m confident are solvable—before WRLC is willing to talk about alternatives puts the cart before the horse.”

Forced to Leave Their Affordable Homes

The main charge against the land trust is that its neighborhood plan eliminates a source of affordable housing in the community, and displaces residents—the majority of whom are retired and on fixed incomes—into a housing market that they cannot compete in.

People who live in manufactured housing communities often own their homes—which many have spent over a decade paying off—but not the land under their feet, which leaves them without the same security and autonomy that is assumed in more traditional homeownership, says Esther Sullivan, author of Manufactured Insecurity: Mobile Home Parks and Americans’ Tenuous Right to Place.

So when a park closes, “the residents are probably going to lose the home and all their equity in it,” says Ishbel Dickens, former executive director of the National Manufactured Home Owners Association, speaking broadly of what happens to residents after park closures. “In all likelihood, they will never own a home again. They’ll likely end up on a wait list for subsidized housing, or may even end up homeless.”

The housing market that the Euclid Beach Mobile Home Community residents will enter at the end of the summer will likely see them as renters, not homeowners, and they will be hard-pressed to find anywhere in the city where they will pay $400 a month—their average lot rent now—much less have a comparable quality of life. (The median list price of a home in Cleveland is around $120,000; the average rent is $1,200.)

WRLC is offering, on average, $45,000 per household for relocation and moving expenses, as well as assistance from Realty Reimagined, a nonprofit real estate firm contracted to help residents relocate.

But residents say it isn’t enough.

“I don’t think I can find [a home] for the price that they’re offering me,” says Carol McClain, another United Residents of Euclid Beach leader. “When they first started this, they said ‘a home for a home.’ That’s not what’s happening.”

According to WRLC and Realty Reimagined, the homes are being appraised for several thousand dollars more than what was expected. But because manufactured housing residents do not own the land underneath their properties, they don’t benefit from the likely appreciation of that land.

“It’s about land tenure, the same land tenure that’s putting these residents at risk of eviction, because people don’t have access or don’t own the land under them. They’re not benefiting from the appreciation of that land,” says Sullivan.  “…All structures depreciate over time. What appreciates is the land.”

There’s also a calculus beyond monetary compensation that was likely not considered, says Brent Cebul, a public historian whose book Illusions of Progress: Business, Poverty, and Liberalism in the American Century illuminates how “supply-side liberalism” tied public works to market-oriented solutions—using Cleveland as his primary example.

“When you add in the difficulties of relocation, the problems of housing costs—particularly for people in this [community], who have been living on fixed incomes—this may end up being an economic catastrophe for a number of them, which could’ve been otherwise avoidable,” says Cebul. “And that’s before we even get into the social world that they’ve been able to inhabit, [which is] going to be obliterated by this. How do you put a dollar figure on that?”

WRLC contends it is extending itself well beyond what a private developer would have done, had one bought the property. While federal law requires that owners give residents six months’ notice before a mobile home park closure, the land trust extended that notice period to 18 months as a good-faith measure toward residents.

“Hypothetically, if [we] didn’t purchase this property, another private developer does,” says Robb. “Either everyone gets displaced in six months with nothing, or, the new owners have to invest so much in fixing infrastructure that many of the most vulnerable people in the park get kicked out with nothing,” he says, pointing to the hiked lot fees that manufactured housing operators often charge to cover upgrades.

However, were the property to have been purchased directly by Cleveland Metroparks, the public agency that will inherit the green space as soon as it’s developed, residents would likely have had explicit legal protections under the Uniform Relocation Act, says Cebul. Routing the property through WRLC, a private nonprofit, could circumvent “legally actionable claims by the people who are likely to be displaced—or, at least make those claims less sturdy,” he says, and he thinks that might have been on purpose.

Robb says the reason they didn’t wait for Metroparks was purely a matter of how fast they needed to act. “There were, I think, two or three other out-of-state mobile home investors that we were negotiating against,” he recalls. “The process for a government to acquire real property, oftentimes, is just more onerous . . . The previous owner was ready to sell . . .  He wasn’t going to wait around for the city to get their act together.”

Realty Reimagined says it is doing everything it can to make sure that all households receive a fair compensation package and can be relocated before the deadline at the end of August.

The main challenge it faces in relocating residents is finding comparable housing. “We’re having trouble finding anything affordable,” says Sonya Edwards, Realty Reimagined’s executive director and principal broker.

In Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, there are 75 affordable units per 100 low-income households, and low-income renters are the most likely to be unable to affordable housing.

Some households have already left, and those who have been assisted by Realty Reimagined are happy with their relocations for the most part, according to Edwards.

“In some cases, the situations are much better on the other side,” says Edwards. “But that period of getting from point A to point B is challenging for everyone.”

As of today, around 70 households remain at the property.

Councilman Polensek insists that he tried—many times—for a different outcome. “This park ran its course due to the fact that the tenants, who lived there for years, were never able to get together and force the previous owner to make improvements,” he says. “They were paying low rent and willing to live in bad conditions because they didn’t want to see their rent increase and therefore didn’t want to take action against the property owner.”

But according to Sullivan, that’s an outlook based on a notion of rentership that doesn’t apply to the owner-occupied housing model.

“We’re not giving enough credit to the experience of having your biggest source of wealth tied to land that you don’t own,” says Sullivan. “The experience of precarity that people in manufactured home parks face in relation to landlords, and the extreme imbalances of power that they face daily—how that’s going to color any of their collective or political action—it’s difficult to understand because it’s a lived experience that many people don’t have.”

Many who are fighting to remain in place are retired, elderly, or disabled (and sometimes all three) without the financial means to get a mortgage so late in their lives. A year and a half may be enough time for many would-be homebuyers to prepare their credit and save up for a downpayment, says Beard, but for people on fixed incomes—who largely or entirely depend on Social Security, pensions, or retirement savings as their only sources of income—that timeline is nearly impossible to meet.  

Again, Polensek points to what he characterizes as the residents’ prior complacency about organizing against the previous owner. “I would say to them, ‘Are you content to live in these substandard and rundown conditions?’ A couple of their responses were, ‘Well, we’re living on the lake for $300,’” says Polensek. “I’d like to live on a lake for $300 as well but I can’t do that.’”

“I think it’s disingenuous for us to deny that low-income people want the same thing that middle-income and higher-income people want; it really speaks to our ideas about deservingness,” says Sullivan. “These people live in affordable housing, and they’ve lived there for a long time and that’s something that they cherish—why don’t they deserve to live on a lake?”

Planned Housing, But Nothing Concrete Yet

Sargeant of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress says the property was “never stable housing for people based on the ownership model and the failing infrastructure.” That’s because the community was built over a site that had been used as temporary shelter for seasonal workers of the Euclid Beach Park—an amusement park that once rivaled Brooklyn’s Coney Island in popularity. Sargeant says the lack of initial planning for the site as long-term housing did not make for safe or stable housing, even though it was affordable. “Our goal still is to provide a standard of housing through the neighborhood that is viable for people of all economic means.”

He points to a proposed infill strategy, which he says makes more sense: There are 198 vacant, publicly owned lots within a five-minute drive of the property that can provide development opportunities, especially for affordable housing.

But none of the development plans for those lots would be ready in time to receive this group of displaced residents.

“The infill housing strategy is to address vacant lands and necessary housing accommodations through the entire neighborhood,” says Sargeant. “To that effect, the strategy cannot rush to build housing to receive [the mobile home community’s residents].”

Stakeholders hope that the park will create momentum to build that affordable housing in the neighborhood, but implementation is a big unknown. “I haven’t seen anyone raise their hand to step up to do that as of now,” Robb says. Still, partners in city council and the mayor’s office are committed to that shared goal, he says.

Polensek says he’s had some encouraging talks with developers, including Habitat for Humanity, which has committed to a 10-home development project on some of Collinwood’s many city-owned vacant lots in the form of modular ranch homes.

“I am committed,” says Polensek. “I’m looking at all possibilities.”

But another manufactured housing community is not one of them—at least, not in his ward. “It’s just not feasible and it’s not sustainable,” he says.

This is probably the last time a manufactured housing community will exist in Cleveland, and once it disappears from the urban fabric, it may never be imagined as belonging to it again.

Few consider these communities a viable housing option for low-income buyers, which, Sullivan says, points more to stigma than to any practical concern as the main challenge against their widespread use.

“There are very few remaining parks, and it’s almost impossible to develop a new park because planning and zoning [regulations] stigmatize this land use,” she says. “As we lose them, we also lose them from our collective imagination. . . . It’s hard to care about the things that you don’t see.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect Ishbel Dickens’ affiliation. Dickens is the former executive director of the National Manufactured Home Owners Association.

 

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