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.

Support

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.