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They saved to buy their own mobile homes. Then the land beneath them was sold to an investor.

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Posted at 7:31 PM, Oct 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-08 20:31:30-04

"They saved to buy their own mobile homes. Then the land beneath them was sold to an investor." was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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This story was written by Lucy Tompkins and photographed by Evan L’Roy.

Carolina Velarde lived in the cream-colored, two-bedroom mobile home on lot 15 her entire life.

She attended elementary school a 10-minute walk down the street, and remembers hunting for Easter eggs with her two sisters in the woods surrounding their mobile home park in South Austin long before the trees were cut down to make way for new apartment complexes.

Velarde’s parents, both immigrants from Guanajuato, Mexico, bought the mobile home for $15,000 in 1993 and paid about $600 per month to rent the lot on which it sat. Congress Mobile Home Park was just 5 miles from downtown Austin, making it easy for her father, Jose Velarde, to commute to his job as a floor technician at St. Edward’s University, where all three of his daughters eventually earned degrees.

Velarde’s mother, Emma Sanchez, was a homemaker. The couple lived in the mobile home with the bluebonnet wallpaper in the kitchen until they both died, a week apart, in January 2021 after catching COVID-19. They left the home to their daughters.

On July 1, Velarde, who is now 29, received a letter informing her that their lease would not be renewed and they had two months to leave.

First: Family photos of Caroline Velarde's parents. Last: Velarde stands outside of the mobile home that she grew up in in south Austin on Aug. 16, 2022. Velarde and her two sisters are selling the home, after a new landlord of the property informed them that their lease would not be renewed.

Carolina Velarde, 29, stands outside the mobile home that she grew up in, at Congress Mobile Home Park in south Austin, on Aug. 16, 2022. Velarde and her two sisters are selling the home, after a new landlord of the property informed them that he would not be renewing their lease.

Carolina Velarde, 29, stands outside the mobile home that she grew up in, at Congress Mobile Home Park in south Austin, on Aug. 16, 2022. Velarde and her two sisters are selling the home, after a new landlord of the property informed them that he would not be renewing their lease. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

First: Photos of Carolina Velarde’s family. Last: Carolina stands outside of the mobile home that she grew up in. She and her two sisters sold the home after a new landlord informed them that their lease would not be renewed and they had two months to leave. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

The park had been purchased by a commercial real estate investor from California, who began notifying tenants in June that they had to move out. Residents living in RVs and campers had to be out by August, while those in mobile homes were notified a month later and had until September.

The news shocked the tight-knit community of more than 50 households, mostly Latino and low-income, many of whom have lived in the park for decades, some for generations.

“This is the last place we were with our family,” Velarde said one morning in mid-August as she packed boxes. “We will forever have an attachment here.”

As the populations and economies of Texas cities have grown dramatically over the past several decades, gentrification and rising housing costs have pushed out lower-income residents. And residents of mobile home parks — which offer affordable housing for millions of Texans — are particularly vulnerable to displacement.

Manufactured homes, the term for mobile homes built since federal standards went into effect in 1976, are the largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the country. In Texas, around 2 million people, or 7.4% of the state’s population, live in manufactured homes.

Mobile home parks give low-income families a chance at homeownership, but with a catch: They typically rent the land beneath their homes. If a landlord decides to sell or redevelop the property, people have no claim to the land they live on.

In Texas cities, that land has become so valuable that mobile home parks are being pushed out and replaced by new apartment complexes, townhomes or commercial developments.

At least nine parks in San Antonio have closed since 2014 due to unsafe conditions or for redevelopment, according to a 2020 report by University of Texas researchers. In Austin, at least four, including Congress Mobile Home Park, have closed since 2016, and Go Go Mobile Home Park — just a mile north on Congress Avenue — is requiring that all of its residents vacate by Nov. 1.

Empty lots at the Congress Mobile Home Park in south Austin, on Aug. 16, 2022.

Empty lots at Congress Mobile Home Park in South Austin on Aug. 16. New apartment buildings have been springing up around the mobile home park in recent years. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Esther Sullivan, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Denver and the author of “Manufactured Insecurity,” a book on mobile home park closures in Texas and Florida, has documented 119 such closures in Houston and surrounding Harris County between 2002 and 2011.

“As urban areas expand, the land where manufactured home communities sit becomes more lucrative to develop, so those communities are displaced to the ever further outer reaches” of cities, Sullivan said.

These communities are disproportionately made up of Latinos, who comprise 60% of mobile home park households in Austin and more than a third of manufactured home residents statewide.

“Austin has experienced decades of racialized displacement,” Sullivan added. “And instead of holding on to the housing that’s supporting a modicum of diversity, they’re allowing it to be wiped away with two months’ notice.”

Sisters Edith, Carolina, and Maribel Velarde unload the final set of small items and boxes out of their father's van outside temporary storage units in south Austin, on Aug. 19, 2022.

Sisters Maribel, Carolina and Edith Velarde carry boxes with their belongings to a temporary storage unit in South Austin on Aug. 19. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Carolina Velarde, 29, points to a paper with instructions for move-in at her new apartment, in the home that she grew up in, at Congress Mobile Home Park in south Austin, on Aug. 16, 2022.

Carolina Velarde, 29, points to a paper with instructions for move-in at her new apartment, in the home that she grew up in, at Congress Mobile Home Park in south Austin, on Aug. 16, 2022. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Carolina Velarde, 29, and her older sister Maribel load up the final set of small items and boxes into thier father's van outside their home at Congress Mobile Home Park in south Austin, on Aug. 19, 2022.

Carolina Velarde, 29, and her older sister Maribel load up the final set of small items and boxes into their father's van outside their home at Congress Mobile Home Park in south Austin, on Aug. 19, 2022. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Two Magnolia Movers workers help move a mattress out of the Velarde home at Congress Mobile Home Park in Austin on Aug. 29, 2022.

Two Magnolia Movers workers help move a mattress out of the Velarde home at Congress Mobile Home Park in Austin on Aug. 29, 2022. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

First: Carolina Velarde reads instructions for moving into her new apartment on Aug. 16. Next: Carolina and her older sister, Maribel, load moving boxes into their father’s van outside their home. Last: Movers carry a mattress out of the Velarde home on Aug. 29. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Congress Mobile Home Park has been rapidly dismantled as residents scramble to move or sell their homes and find other places to live at a time when Austin’s housing market is more expensive than ever. Rents in Austin have climbed 40% just in the past year, according to Redfin data, while home prices across Texas have increased 45% since the start of 2020 to an average of $314,000, according to Zillow.

Velarde and her sisters decided to sell their parents’ home for $5,000, the best offer they could get with the time they had, and look for an apartment.

“Selling the home to somebody is like leaving behind a family member,” Velarde said, “but we have to adapt.”

Sofia Ramirez, 43, inside her mobile home at its new location in Manchaca, located south of Austin, on Sept. 15, 2022.

Sofia Ramirez, 43, stands in her mobile home after it was moved to a new lot in Manchaca, south of Austin, on Sept. 15. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

“I have to start all over”

Sofia Ramirez, who is 43 and works as a gardener, bought her pastel green doublewide with pink accents in Congress Mobile Home Park for $60,000 in March 2020. She said the four-bedroom home — the biggest in the park — was the best she could buy near the city for her children, who are 20 and 21, without any credit. She saved for 20 years to buy a home, and paid it off in two.

She was welcomed by her new neighbors, some of whom lived in homes that have been on the same patch of land for nearly five decades. The mobile home park was annexed by the city in 1974, but homes appear to have been there as early as the 1960s, said Shoshana Krieger, project director of Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA), a group that helped the residents as they fought displacement.

Over the years, residents constructed covered porches, stairways, garages and tool sheds. Ramirez’s new home had a screened-in porch and in front of it she planted what became a thriving garden: an oasis of palms, sunflowers, zinnias, apple and peach trees, bird baths and a tall, bubbling fountain shaped like a vase. After working all day in other people’s yards, she often returned home and put on a headlamp to tend to her own in the dark.

Her neighbors liked to visit, even when she was away, she said. Especially her friend Greg Hopkins, who lived in a camper just down the road. Hopkins liked to walk his dog Tashi among the towering oak trees in the mobile home park and often spent afternoons lounging on the bench in Ramirez’s garden.

The year before Ramirez bought her home, the park’s owner was considering redeveloping part of the property to build apartments, which would have displaced a handful of households. The residents banded together and formed a tenants’ union with the help of BASTA, a city-funded advocacy group. They appealed to Austin City Council to rezone the entire property so that it could be used only for mobile homes, and won.

The victory was shared among nine mobile home parks in Austin’s urban core that were rezoned in July 2019, protecting residents from having their homes replaced by new apartments or condos.

One community, North Lamar Mobile Home Park, has since formed a cooperative and purchased the land it sits on, a strategy that offers the most long-term protection to residents.

At least 20 states have “opportunity to purchase” laws that require park owners to give notice when they intend to sell so that residents can make an offer — some even grant residents the right of first refusal — but Texas is not among them.

Congress Mobile Home Park’s new owner, Reza Paydar, who lives in California, has not publicly announced his intentions for the property and did not respond to interview requests from The Texas Tribune. The on-site manager, Dale Heintze, also declined to speak with the media.

Tenants attend a community meeting held by BASTA (Building and Strengthening Tenant Action) at the Congress Mobile Home Park in south Austin on Aug. 23, 2022. The meeting addressed next steps for a potential lawsuit against the land owners and other options for financial aid for the tenants.

Tenants attend a meeting with a group called Building and Strengthening Tenant Action, or BASTA, at Congress Mobile Home Park on Aug. 23. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Tenants attend a community meeting held by BASTA (Building and Strengthening Tenant Action) at the Congress Mobile Home Park in south Austin on Aug. 23, 2022. The meeting addressed next steps for a potential lawsuit against the land owners and other options for financial aid for the tenants.

Tenants attend a community meeting held by BASTA (Building and Strengthening Tenant Action) at the Congress Mobile Home Park in south Austin on Aug. 23, 2022. The meeting addressed next steps for a potential lawsuit against the land owners and other options for financial aid for the tenants. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Tenants attend a community meeting held by BASTA (Building and Strengthening Tenant Action) at the Congress Mobile Home Park in south Austin on Aug. 23, 2022. The meeting addressed next steps for a potential lawsuit against the land owners and other options for financial aid for the tenants.

Tenants attend a community meeting held by BASTA (Building and Strengthening Tenant Action) at the Congress Mobile Home Park in south Austin on Aug. 23, 2022. The meeting addressed next steps for a potential lawsuit against the land owners and other options for financial aid for the tenants. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Members of BASTA outlined goals for the meeting, which included addressing next steps for possible legal action and options for financial aid for the tenants. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Paydar’s other holdings include a 600-unit apartment complex in Austin called Retreat at Barton Creek, as well as Sunland RV Resorts, a collection of nine luxury RV parks in California and Florida equipped with pools, tennis courts, putting greens and spas.

If Paydar continues to use the property as an RV park, he likely would not violate the zoning ordinance that residents hoped would protect them.

The nonrenewal notices sparked tenants back into action, and Ramirez joined her neighbors at weekly union meetings.

On Aug. 29, the Congress Mobile Home Park Tenants Association filed a lawsuit alleging that the property’s new owner, Congress Corner LLC, and its manager, Paydar, had violated a Texas law that requires mobile home park landlords to give 180 days’ notice if they plan to change the property’s use.

A judge granted an immediate restraining order, halting evictions until the case could be heard two weeks later, on Sept. 12, at which point she extended the order for another two weeks. It gave the few families that remained on the property a little more time.

By then, it looked like a hurricane had swept through the park.

Where homes had stood weeks before lay scraps of wood, porch steps leading to nowhere and piles of fluffy pink insulation. Dumpsters spilled over with possessions people left behind, and stumps marked where mature trees had been cut down to clear the way for departing homes.

Hopkins’ camper was still there, empty. Residents of the park said Hopkins — the neighbor who liked to relax in Ramirez’s garden — died by suicide in his home on July 23, about a week before he was supposed to move out of the park. He was 61.

Residents of Congress Mobile Home Park gather to hold a vigil in memory of their neighbor, Greg Hopkins, in south Austin on Aug. 3, 2022.

Residents of Congress Mobile Home Park gather to hold a vigil in memory of their neighbor, Greg Hopkins, in south Austin on Aug. 3, 2022. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Residents of Congress Mobile Home Park gather to hold a vigil in memory of their neighbor, Greg Hopkins, in south Austin on Aug. 3, 2022.

Residents of Congress Mobile Home Park gather to hold a vigil in memory of their neighbor, Greg Hopkins, in south Austin on Aug. 3, 2022. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

First: A woman sheds a tear as people share memories of their neighbor, Greg Hopkins, during a vigil in his memory at Congress Mobile Home Park on Aug. 3. Last: A photo of Hopkins sits outside his trailer next to flowers brought by his neighbors. Neighbors said Hopkins died by suicide on July 23 after struggling to find a new place to live. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

His death was a shock to neighbors who were already grieving the loss of their community. They held a vigil one evening outside his home as warm sunlight filtered through the trees. They said he had been unable to find somewhere else to live.

“We need to give a voice to the people who couldn’t leave in time, like Greg,” Ramirez said. “This wasn’t fair to him.”

Ramirez found a lot 15 minutes further south in Manchaca that would accept her home. A mover charged her $10,000 to take it there; she borrowed money from friends and family to make a down payment.

With her furniture in storage and the two halves of her doublewide split apart for the move — its interior exposed as if it were a giant dollhouse — Ramirez and her son and daughter moved into their car.

The empty living room of Sofia Ramirez’s mobile home, which has been cut in half to be moved. Residents were given short notice to leave the mobile home park after it was sold to a developer.

The empty living room of Sofia Ramirez’s mobile home, which had been split in half to be moved. Residents were given short notice to leave the mobile home park after it was sold to a new owner. Credit: Jack Myers for The Texas Tribune

Sofia Ramirez, 43, inside her mobile home at its new location in Manchaca, located south of Austin, on Sept. 15, 2022.

Sofia Ramirez, 43, inside her mobile home at its new location in Manchaca, located south of Austin, on Sept. 15, 2022. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

The sole remaining flowers in a home with a large garden, that the sole tenant was in the process of destroying, in order to move out at Congress Mobile Home Park in Austin on Aug. 29, 2022.

The sole remaining flowers in a home with a large garden, that the sole tenant was in the process of destroying, in order to move out at Congress Mobile Home Park in Austin on Aug. 29, 2022. Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune

First: Sofia Ramirez looks out the front door of her mobile home at its new location in Manchaca on Sept. 15. Last: Some of the last remaining flowers in Ramirez’s garden at Congress Mobile Home Park. Most of her plants died or were uprooted when her home was moved to a new location. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Standing in her garden days before she was supposed to move out, Ramirez looked around at what was left of it.

“Everything died,” she said in Spanish. Tears welled in her eyes.

It took more than four days to move her home to the new lot. The walls cracked in the process, shingles flew off the roof, and rainwater poured in, damaging the floors. It was up to her to seal the two halves back together somehow.

On a recent evening, Ramirez walked through the empty rooms, mentally calculating how much work was left to do and what it would cost her; how far it would set her back in her plans for herself and her kids.

“I don’t know how I’ll do all of that,” she said in Spanish. “I have to start all over.”

She grabbed a broom and started to sweep.

Paola Valdez looks through messages from potential buyers of their home, while her family bonds in their living room of their home, at the Congress Mobile Home Park in Austin on Aug. 4, 2022.

Paola Valdez Lopez looks through messages from potential buyers for her home as her husband and children gather with her in the kitchen. Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune

Pushed out

For other families, leaving Austin was their only option.

Near the back of the park, Paola Valdez Lopez, 27, had lived with her two children, nephew and husband in a lime-green, three-bedroom home with a big, fenced-in yard. She grew up in the home next door, where her grandparents lived until they died two years ago.

Her aunt and cousin lived on the next lot down — a row of homes that once spanned four generations.

Valdez Lopez and her husband Edvin Orozco Aguilar bought their home four years ago for $24,000 and paid it off this year. They enrolled their 6-year-old son in Pleasant Hill Elementary, the same school Valdez Lopez attended as a child. Her husband worked a six-minute drive away for a company that makes signs for restaurants and businesses.

“It was a dream come true to get a house, especially so close to the city,” Valdez Lopez said. “When we got the nonrenewal it was like a punch in the stomach. You think you’re going to be here for a while, and then your whole world falls apart.”

She searched for apartments in her price range that would accept her four dogs and two cats but soon realized it would be impossible. In early August, she drove three of her dogs — Canelo, Queen and Penny — to the Austin Animal Center to give them up for adoption.

Paola Valdez gathers three of her four dogs, Canelo, Queen, and Penny, to begin transporting them to the Austin Animal Center on Aug. 4, 2022. Valdez said she felt like she had no choice but to put her pets up for adoption, since it would be much more difficult to find a new apartment that would allow all the pets. Besides the dogs, her family also has two cats that they care for.

Valdez Lopez took three of her four dogs — Canelo, Queen and Penny — to the Austin Animal Center and give them up for adoption when she realized it would be hard to find an apartment that would allow so many pets. Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune

A family interested in buying the Valdez's mobile home leaves after touring the property at the Congress Mobile Home Park in Austin on Aug. 4, 2022.

A family leaves after touring the mobile home that Valdez Lopez and Orozco Aguilar had advertised for sale. Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune

Paola Valdez and her husband, Evan, discuss the deal they just struck with a family interested in buying their home at the Congress Mobile Home Park in Austin on Aug. 4, 2022. If all goes well, they would recieve a cash payment for the property as soon as the coming Sunday.

Valdez Lopez and her husband give a tour of the mobile home on Aug. 4 to another family interested in buying it. Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune

She posted an ad for their mobile home on Facebook Marketplace and waited. Four days before they were supposed to vacate the property, she sold the home for $12,000, half of what they had paid for it. There wasn’t enough time to wait for a better offer.

Under the midday sun, Valdez Lopez and Orozco Aguilar watched as movers attached their home to a truck to haul it away. Their two cats were curled up nearby in a kennel. Neighbors came out of their homes to watch, shaking their heads in dismay. Valdez Lopez wiped away tears with her T-shirt.

A few hours later, the couple would pick up their children from school and drive 20 minutes south to the suburb of Buda to live with Valdez Lopez’s father until they could find a place of their own.

Other families also had to leave Austin to find housing they could afford — distancing themselves from jobs and schools and leaving behind nearby support systems. Some went to Lockhart, about 30 miles outside the city. Valdez Lopez’s cousin moved to Kyle, a town 20 miles south, the only place he could find an affordable home.

Paola Valdez-Lopez and her husband Edvin Agular hand gatorades out to the movers and Valdez-Lopez's cousin at Congress Mobile Home Park in Austin on Aug. 29, 2022.

Valdez Lopez and Orozco Aguilar hand out drinks to Valdez Lopez’s nephew and the workers moving their home at Congress Mobile Home Park on Aug. 29. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Movers works to fix old tires under Paola Valdez-Lopez's mobile home before they attempt to tow it out of Congress Mobile Home Park in Austin on Aug. 29, 2022.

Movers works to fix old tires under Paola Valdez-Lopez's mobile home before they attempt to tow it out of Congress Mobile Home Park in Austin on Aug. 29, 2022. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

A sign, originally from inside Paola Valdez-Lopez's home, sits on the ground under debris while movers work to tow the home out of Congress Mobile Home Park in Austin on Aug. 29, 2022.

A sign, originally from inside Paola Valdez-Lopez's home, sits on the ground under debris while movers work to tow the home out of Congress Mobile Home Park in Austin on Aug. 29, 2022. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Edvin Agular watches as movers tow his mobile home out of Congress Mobile Home Park in Austin on Aug. 29, 2022. Agular sold the home, and will be moving to a house in Buda.

Edvin Agular watches as movers tow his mobile home out of Congress Mobile Home Park in Austin on Aug. 29, 2022. Agular sold the home, and will be moving to a house in Buda. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

First: Movers fix the tires under the family’s mobile home before they attempt to tow it out. Several tires were flat and needed to be replaced. Next: A sign that was inside the home sits on the ground under debris during the move. Last: Orozco Aguilar watches as movers tow the mobile home away. They sold it and moved in with another family member in Buda until they can find an apartment of their own. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

These suburban cities have doubled or tripled in size in recent years as gentrification and rising housing costs in previously affordable neighborhoods have pushed mostly Black and Latino residents farther out of Austin.

“I wish the city of Austin would have helped us more,” Valdez Lopez said. “I was born and raised here, my kids are born and raised here. To have someone from California who doesn't even know Austin kick us out, it breaks my heart.”

After pressure from tenants, Paydar’s company agreed to repay two months of rent and security deposits if residents moved out and cleaned their lots by the date listed on their nonrenewal notice.

Paola Valdez-Lopez and her husband Edvin Agular look out over the remaining debris left behind after moves took their mobile home out of Congress Mobile Home Park in Austin on Aug. 29, 2022.

Valdez Lopez and Orozco Aguilar look at the debris left behind after their home was towed out of its lot at Congress Mobile Home Park. Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune

That amounted to less than $2,000 for most families. Velarde, who had lived in her parents’ mobile home with her two sisters, said she got nothing because they did not leave their home in time. She and her neighbors are still meeting to discuss further legal action.

“I want it to be a lesson to future investors,” Velarde said. “They have this idea that as low-income people we don't fight or defend ourselves.”

By the end of August, Velarde had moved into a one-bedroom apartment on West Slaughter Lane, 7 miles farther from downtown. Her younger sister Edith, 27, moved in with her — their eldest sister, Maribel, is attending college and living in a dorm. All three sisters are pooling their incomes to split the $1,500-a-month rent.

Velarde and her sister are adjusting to the quiet and isolation of the apartment complex. They still feel emotionally tethered to the dying mobile home park where they grew up, where their home still sits, empty.

“If they’d let us stay,” Velarde said, “we probably would have grown old there.”

Lucy Tompkins works for the Tribune as a housing and homelessness reporting fellow through The New York Times’ Headway Initiative, which is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/09/27/texas-mobile-home-parks-austin-housing/.

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