As Council Moves to Protect Mobile Home Park, It’s Important to Remember How We Got Here

Next week, the city council is expected to adopt an emergency one-year moratorium on development at the Halcyon Mobile Home Park in North Seattle, to prevent developers from buying the property while the council crafts legislation to preserve the park in perpetuity. That future legislation, which will be developed in council member Rob Johnson’s land use committee, would most likely create a new zoning designation allowing only mobile or manufactured homes on the two properties, similar to a law Portland adopted last year.

If this is the first you’re hearing about the plight of the Halcyon Mobile Home Park,  you’re not alone. Although the park, which houses dozens of low-income seniors and their families, has been on the market since last June, it recently caught the attention of council member Kshama Sawant, who called a special meeting of her human services and renters’ rights committee last Friday afternoon to discuss her emergency legislation, which she said was necessary to prevent “US Bank, a big financial institution that does not care about ordinary people, [from] selling the property to a corporate developer called Blue Fern.”

Urging Halcyon’s elderly residents to write to the council and turn out in force for public comment at the full council meeting on Tuesday afternoon, Sawant did not mince words. “It’s important to remind the council that if they don’t act on this, they will be kicking Grandma out, and that’s going to be on their conscience, so we need to make sure that they understand what political price they have to pay for it,” Sawant said.

“It’s important to remind the council that if they don’t act on this, they will be kicking Grandma out, and that’s going to be on their conscience, so we need to make sure that they understand what political price they have to pay for it.” —Council member Kshama Sawant, urging residents of the Halcyon Mobile Home Park to write the council

The sudden “emergency” was news to  council member Debora Juarez, who said she couldn’t attend Sawant’s special committee meeting on Friday due to a prior commitment. (Sawant’s committee ordinarily meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month, although it has only met once since last July.) On Tuesday, after Sawant repeated her claim that “the developer, Blue Fern, could vest literally any day now,” Juarez took the mic to “correct the record.”

Among those corrections: Blue Fern has not filed plans to develop the property. The property is not owned by US Bank. And no development plans are in the offing.

It’s true that the property, which was owned by one family but is now part of a trust, of which the University of Washington is a beneficiary, is on the market—with US Bank as the trustee and Kidder Matthews as the broker—but Blue Fern, after inquiring about the preapplication process last October and attending a meeting with the city in December, has decided they do not plan to move forward with the proposal. According to a spokesman for Blue Fern, Benjamin Paulus, “Neither Blue Fern Development, LLC or its affiliated companies are under contract to purchase this property.”

The sudden panic—the last-minute committee meeting, the declaration of emergency, the chartered bus that ferried Halcyon residents and supporters to today’s council meeting—was, in other words, at least partly based on misinformation. Confronted by her colleagues about this, Sawant said the specific details didn’t matter, because “it is only a matter of time before another corporate developer comes along and decides to buy this property, so the residents haven’t been misled.”

Every individual decision to “save” a property, however justifiable in isolation, puts off until another day a discussion we’ve been avoiding since well before the current building boom. Imagine if the city had reexamined  single-family zoning and adopted mandatory affordable housing laws 20 years ago, back when the council was busy arguing over every dilapidated apartment building being torn down in South Lake Union. Maybe we would have built thousands of units of affordable housing, and the “luxury” apartments of that era would be affordable to middle-income renters today. Maybe residents of Halcyon Mobile Home Park, and other naturally-occurring affordable housing, wouldn’t feel so desperate at the prospect of moving elsewhere if we had built somewhere else for them to go.

Many of the residents themselves—one of whom fell down during yesterday’s council meeting, causing a brief hush in the room —appeared to believe, as late as yesterday afternoon, that they were at imminent risk of losing their homes. Several residents choked back tears as they testified, saying they were terrified about becoming homeless. These are real, legitimate fears—of nine mobile home parks that existed in Seattle in 1990, when the city council passed a series of similar development moratoria,  just two remain—but it’s hard to see how stoking them, by suggesting that the bulldozers are practically at the gate, serves the interests of vulnerable low-income seniors.

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Mobile homes are naturally occurring affordable housing, and developing them into other kinds of housing—in this case, townhouses or apartments—creates a very literal kind of physical displacement. It’s understandable that the city council, faced with the prospect of tossing dozens of senior citizens out of their homes, would do everything in their power to prevent that from happening, including creating special new zones that protect mobile home parks in perpetuity.

But there’s a larger question such parcel-by-parcel anti-displacement efforts elide: Why are apartments still illegal almost everywhere in Seattle?  Every time the city decides to preserve one apartment building, or one mobile home park, without asking about the opportunity cost of that decision, they are putting off a crucial conversation about Seattle’s housing shortage, and how to solve it. Every time the city walls off another block from development—whether it’s the Showbox, which also got the “emergency moratorium” treatment, or a mobile home park for low-income seniors—without addressing the astonishing reality that two-thirds of Seattle is zoned exclusively for suburban-style detached single-family houses, they are making a deliberate decision that this same thing will happen again.

None of these choices happen in a vacuum. Every individual decision to “save” a property, however justifiable in isolation, puts off until another day a discussion we’ve been avoiding since well before the current building boom. Imagine if the city had reformed single-family zoning and adopted mandatory affordable housing laws 20 years ago, back when the council and anti-displacement advocates were busy litigating the fate of every dilapidated apartment building being torn down in South Lake Union. Maybe we would have built thousands of units of affordable housing, and the “luxury” apartments of that era would be affordable to middle-income renters today. Maybe the residents of Halcyon Mobile Home Park, and other naturally-occurring affordable housing, wouldn’t feel so desperate at the prospect of moving elsewhere, if we had built somewhere else for them to go.

10 thoughts on “As Council Moves to Protect Mobile Home Park, It’s Important to Remember How We Got Here

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  2. Is “8300 Lake City Way” a typo? There were manufactured homes northeast of that address. Sarajane and Erika could agree on a numerator and denominator. I expect they are using different denominators; Erica may be using all residential lands; Sarajane may be using all land, including roads and parks.

  3. As you very well know, “two-thirds of Seattle is [NOT] zoned exclusively for detached suburban-style single-family homes.” in fact according to the Land Use Appendix A of the Comprehensive Plan, it’s 35%. The fact that you keep misstating this makes your argument seem weak. Can we agree on this fact and then discuss policies?

    Your argument for upzoning is flawed in two ways. First, the developers aren’t building any aapartments on these low-rise lots. You can look at the last lost mobile home park at 8300 Lake City Way to see the many unaffordable row houses for sale.

    Second is displacement. Halcyon Estates brings the issue of displacement into sharp focus: 85 low-income seniors potentially displaced and their only asset lost. No affordable housing built on site. In what universe is building a couple hundred $800k rowhouses better for our community?

    The MHA as it now stands has no an for displacement, no plan for senior or family housing and no plan for preservation, historic and otherwise.

    • She got a LOT of information wrong in this article. Kshama Sawant did NOT get us worked up over this…I am a resident here.WE contacted our council member(Juarez), and all the others, when we were informed by management that they had a potential buyer in Blue Fern Development, and that it was moving quickly. Another error is her assertion that UW owns this park. They do NOT. They are the beneficiary of the trust that owns the park. The trust is Halcyon LLC, of which 3 US Bank officers are the trustees. So, technically US Bank doesn’t own the property either, but 3 of their top officers control it. The original trustees were the family who owned it….now the only trustees are the bank officers. No one “stoked our fears”. They were stoked the minute we discovered the park was up for sale, as every one of us was insured upon buying our homes here, that the park was held in trust, and would NEVER be sold out from under us. We’ve all been around long enough to see every MHP in Seattle besides ours, and the one next door, obliterated, and apartments or condos going up in their place. Every developer says they’ll include affordable housing(Pike Place Markets gentrification comes to mind). Or seniors who are displaced are told to check out Shag…Also deemed “affordable”. These places may be affordable for someone…but not for us. This just seems to be another hit piece on Counselmember Sawant, who listened when we reached out, and has done everything in her power to save our homes. Her people meet with us regularly. Our own counselmember? She makes faces while Sawant is speaking, downplays our fears, and says it isn’t an emergency. Which as one person said in public comment, is condescending. Our property values dropped to near zero after the sale was announced. Now Blue Fern has backed out (too expensive, and virtually impossible to clean this site, as we sit atop an old landfill), and US Bank has taken us off the market for re-development(fearing bad publicity? Or realizing this area cannot be cleaned, and could create an environmental disaster by even trying). Some people think that’s reason to drop this whole issue. It ISN’T. They can decide again to put it up for sale. People that deem themselves journalists need to do better research. We have read 3 articles today, each of which has major errors…errors that would be easy to correct if only due diligence were practiced. This really doesn’t help matters in an era of people crying, “Fake News!”

      • Linda, while I understand that the residents of Halcyon are upset about the prospect of losing their homes, as anyone would be, my contention that Sawant is using inaccurate claims to scare people isn’t “fake news,” it’s literally in her own quote—she knew that what she was saying about an imminent sale was not accurate (the land went on the market last June, and the only developer who has shown an interest, Blue Fern, backed out long before the “Pack City Hall!” emails went out to her list), and yet she said it anyway. You may personally agree with her that the exact facts don’t matter because a developer is going to come along eventually, but I report the facts, including the fact that this sale stopped moving forward weeks before Sawant urged everyone to show up at the Tuesday meeting.

        I appreciate the clarification on the chain of ownership over the years and the UW’s relationship with US Bank. More info on how the UW stands to benefit if the property is sold at SCC Insight: https://sccinsight.com/2019/01/23/more-info-on-halcyon/

    • Out of curiosity, I checked your source protesting the cited amount of SFR zoned land. Based on the total acreage listed in Table A-1 in the Land Use Appendix, 35% is correct, if you include every acre of the city, even that land that can’t be developed, i.e. rights off way, power substations, schools, parks, easements, gov’t offices etc. Not really a good measure.

      However a more realistic measurement would focus on land available for private party development. By that metric, the 2/3 figure is correct. Focussing on only the land area available for private party residential development, 75% of this group is zoned SFR.

      So yes, let’s agree on the math

  4. So… to be clear, it’s PC to stop development on a mobile home park – a form of low income, single family housing – but not PC to stop development on older single family homes through Seattle… that would somehow be NIMBY and racist. And just to add to my clarity… doesn’t Seattle already have too many high priced townhouses and apartment buildings that are vacant… don’t we want to keep the affordable housing we already have in Seattle in place??

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  6. It is apparent that Halcyon residents and many other Seattle residents are not in favor of upzoning and MHA. It is also apparent the District 3 residents made a big mistake in electing Sawant to the City Council. Looking back in time to see what could of been done and how that would help in efforts to appeal to the masses that MHA and citywide upzoning is the answer is also a mistake.

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