Twin Cities woman has plan to save mobile home park

Published 10:27 am Friday, June 10, 2016

By Tracy Mumford

MPR News/90.1 FM

Ten years ago, Antonia Alvarez bought a place of her own for $6,000.

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She moved her kids out of a cramped south Minneapolis apartment, bought some plastic patio furniture for her new porch, and realized now she had a lawn to mow.

Her house is a single-wide mobile home. It’s small, and the lot is small, but “so am I,” she says.

It’s parked — or planted — in Lowry Grove, a mobile home park in St. Anthony, Minnesota. The 15-acre park is tucked in the southeast corner of the suburb; Minneapolis is just across the street.

Alvarez’s mobile home is older than she is. It rolled off the factory line in 1962, and from the day she moved in, she’s been fixing it up. New windows, new fuse box, new cabinets. New stove, new microwave, new fridge — an upgrade from the original 1962 model that was still in the house.

She realized she’d have to fix the home’s floors when her youngest daughter, Melina, kept hitting a snag under the carpet as she rode her tricycle back and forth in the living room.

She pulled back the carpet — and fell through the floor. Only the carpet had been keeping it together. It was raining outside when she fell, Antonia remembers, because that’s also the day the roof began to leak. She replaced that, too.

The bathroom wall is one of the only original things left, its classic gold starburst pattern a last remnant of the ‘60s.

By Alvarez’s count, she has put more than $30,000 into the home over the decade she’s lived there. And her list isn’t done yet. She was planning to put in a new furnace this winter.

“It’s my plan,” she said. “But now it’s no more plan.”

This winter will be Lowry Grove’s last. In April, residents received a letter saying the 70-year-old park will be sold and closed. Homes that can be moved will be towed to other parks, but many, like Alvarez’s, are too old. They’ll be demolished.

Minnesota statute 327C.095 governs the closing of mobile home parks: Residents must receive at least nine months’ notice of the closure. A public hearing must be scheduled. Displaced residents may be eligible for payments from the Minnesota Manufactured Home Relocation Trust Fund. Payments could range from $2,000 to $20,000.

And there’s a right of first refusal, buried in the law: a Hail Mary no one in Minnesota has ever pulled off — a last-ditch effort that would keep Antonia Alvarez in her corner lot, under the big trees.

She’s determined to do it. She just needs $6 million.

The right of first refusal gives park residents the opportunity to organize and buy the park themselves. Fifty-one percent of the homeowners must sign on, and they have to match the terms and conditions of the buyer’s offer.

For Lowry Grove, Continental Property Group offered $6 million.

Other mobile home parks in Minnesota have been purchased by their residents. Northcountry Cooperative Foundation, based in Minneapolis, has helped eight parks form co-ops and transition to a resident-owned model. More are in the works. But none of those parks were under a purchasing agreement, like Lowry Grove. They had the time to seek out financing, said Warren Kramer, Northcountry’s executive director.

Under the right of first refusal, Lowry Grove residents have just 45 days — ending Saturday.

To meet the deadline, Alvarez has rallied her neighbors. Many are immigrants, like she is. Single mothers. Retirees. There’s a woman whose husband was deported last year — Lowry Grove is the last place they lived together. There’s a man who bought his trailer 30 years ago, and thought he’d stay there until the end.

In all, 95 mobile homes are planted in Lowry Grove, and those who aren’t ready to let it go have gathered on Alvarez’s porch every Friday since those letters about the sale were sent out in April.

Organizing like this is what Antonia Alvarez does: putting the call out, rallying people behind a cause. Ten years ago, just after moving into Lowry Grove, she co-founded Asamblea de Derechos Civiles, a nonprofit focused on the issues of immigration reform, transportation access and housing. She cleans houses to pay the bills, but Asamblea is her passion.

She organizes rallies and campaigns on issues critical to low-income and immigrant communities. She flips through her phone, past pictures of her standing with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, Sen. Bernie Sanders, President Barack Obama.

For the Lowry Grove campaign, she keeps a whiteboard leaning against a tree by the park’s main drive, updating it with the latest developments: “Meeting Friday.” Getting the 51 percent of residents to form the co-op was easy, she said — finding the money to buy the neighborhood is not.

Alvarez and her neighbors have mailed appeals to Minnesota foundations and philanthropists. On the top of the packet is a letter from Alvarez. Then, letter after letter — 30 in all — from kids who live in the park.

“Our dream is to become a cooperative where we all own the land together,” Alvarez writes.

“Save the Grove!” read the letters underneath, in brightly colored markers.

“I like it here,” says another. “I don’t want to go.”

So far, they’ve only received “no’s.”

An inevitable — and imminent — sale

When Alvarez sits down with her daughter Melina to a meal of beans, tortillas and hot dogs, it’s dinner for two. But there’s a third face at the table: Traci Tomas.

Tomas is the president of Continental Property Group, the developer who is planning to buy the park. A poster of her face hangs in Antonia Alvarez’s kitchen, her office phone number and address written out in block letters.

Tomas has become Alvarez’s focus as she tries to stop the park’s closure. If the residents can’t raise the $6 million, maybe they can convince Continental to maintain the park, Alvarez says. Maybe just for another year or two. Maybe longer.

In May, Alvarez and Asamblea chartered a bus to Continental’s Wayzata, Minnesota, office, bringing along more than twenty Lowry Grove residents, unannounced, to plead with Tomas to keep the park open. They also brought more letters, from the roughly 80 children who live in the park.

Tomas listened to their stories. She understands the ferocity of their appeals. A house is “such a personal thing,” she said.