Written By: Nick Licata
A year ago, in March 2018, three young female filmmakers (ages 13 – 15) made a short film to call attention to how their largely Hispanic low-income community in the Firs Motor-Home Park in SeaTac was being threatened with demolition.
The owner planned on building a hotel and apartments on the park and evict the 170-some residents, including 90 children. Most of them attend the Madrona Elementary school across the street, which has over 50% of Latino students, and all who attend are eligible for the low-income 100% free lunch program. It’s a school that will help open the doors for more opportunities to them since it provides a dual language program and assists their children with special needs.
To keep the community together and their children attending this school, State Representative Mia Gregerson and Tenants Union organizers, helped the community raise money from the film and from many other activities to force the owner to either change his plans or provide sufficient funds for the residents to find a new location for the entire community. In particular, they wanted to create a nonprofit or community-ownership model for the park that promotes community control and self-determination while preserving affordable housing for all of SeaTac residents.
After the community concluded an 18-hour negotiating session last week, the Firs Home Owners Association agreed to each of the 42 households in the park receiving $10,000 to help their transition to a new home. They also can remain in the park free of rent for at least a year, while the new development begins to take shape on paper.
While the settlement was the best they could achieve, the community released a statement saying, “It is an injustice that our landlord is allowed to close our park and profit from destroying our homes without giving a fair compensation. The same injustice has befallen countless communities and will happen again to families just like ours.” The number of mobile home communities is being reduced as land values go up and the land that these communities occupy is being developed for greater profits. Motor-home parks Bow Lake (457 spaces) and Angle Lake (64 spaces) currently face that risk.
The Firs HOA says it wishes to keep South King County as a place where low-income families can live with dignity. They state, “We are not asking for charity or for a gift of public funds. Instead, we are working together to create conditions of possibility so that low-income, working, and immigrant families can enjoy the stability and dignity of homeownership.”
Unfortunately, this is not an easy task. Representative Gregerson recognizes that “The policies in government are not set up to help large communities who are identified in the system as being low income or very low income.” From her own experience, she has found that these communities have different needs from working with older white adults. “They make decisions differently and the amount of “spare” time is different.” Complicating the process is that financial institutions and nonprofits don’t know how to “pre-qualify” people these communities in the traditional way, despite their collective value being worth millions of dollars when pooled together.
Rep. Gregerson perceptively notes that there is an underlying structural condition in our country that has resulted in the scales of justice being distorted by the influence of money as manifested in the growing power of corporations. One of the major principles, but not the only one, governing our democracy is the protection of wealth, i.e. property. But the growth of money’s influence as Rep. Gregerson reasons is why the argument that Corporations are NOT people is a good fight and worth fighting.
There is also a countervailing principle of our democracy is to protect the common welfare of all within our country. It was that principle that was smothered in the treatment of the Firs Motor-Home Park when one person’s financial interests outweighed the living conditions of 42 low-income households. Those involved in the negotiations said that the Firs owners, Mr. Park, rarely showed his face to come to a meeting; he just paid the lawyers’ fees and waited it out. Mr. Park is not a bad person. His relationship with the residents of the park was apparently non-controversial but when he was charged with being insensitive to the loss of their homes, he replied “I feel badly but cannot give charity,” he said in an interview. “I’m a businessman.”
That statement gets to the crux of not only the Firs crises but the crises that affect mobile-home park residents, or tenants in apartment buildings. Neither group owns the land they live on; like so many fallen leaves they are tossed about by the winds of the market place which determines the highest value that land can bring.
The Firs community now plans on using the time and money they received in the settlement to seed a housing project for all of them. But they cannot do it alone. They need public support to find a location and create a residential model, such as a land trust, to keep their community together. For these reasons, they have asked that the $2.5 million allocations in the Housing Trust Fund that had been set aside last year to assist them, be extended for another year; and that it be expanded to allow for the purchase of a new property and the development of affordable housing there.
If you wish to support their effort, please call your state legislators 1-800-562.6000 and the Senate Ways and Means Committee (360) 786-7644. Ask them to re-appropriate the $2.5 million Housing Trust Fund allocation in its proposed Capital Budget for the Firs Mobile Home Park community. That will allow them to rebuild at a new location, which will help address South King County’s vanishing affordable housing.