Fort Collins City Council on Tuesday gave initial approval to specialized zoning for mobile home parks, one prong of a sweeping strategy to prevent park closures and shift the power dynamic between mobile home park owners and their residents.
Council directed staff to work on the zoning change and a host of other short- to long-term policy and program changes after a staff presentation at Tuesday’s council work session. Members also asked staff to gather information about two novel approaches: licensing parks as businesses for more effective regulation and initiating a city purchase of a park.
In the short term, council wants to tackle what they understand to be the most pressing issues at mobile home parks: addressing tree maintenance at parks where overgrown or falling trees are damaging homes and vehicles, moderating some residents’ out-of-control water bills that don’t align with their actual water usage, and protecting residents from retaliation and eviction as the city works on longer-term reforms.
“So much of this is fundamentally just wrong, to let people in our community live like this,” Mayor pro-tem Kristin Stephens said, describing a photo of a falling tree at a Fort Collins mobile home park held up by a chain because the property owner hasn’t removed it. “I understand the issue of private property rights, but why should somebody have to chain a tree back so it doesn’t fall in their kid’s bedroom? It seems absurd, but not in a funny way — in a horrifying way.”
Council members put a one-year moratorium on park redevelopment in August, but it will end sooner if council enacts policy changes before August 2020. The zoning change is expected to come to council in April; its passage would end the moratorium.
There are 10 mobile home communities in Fort Collins and another 14 in its growth management area, which will likely be annexed into the city in coming years. The 24 parks account for about 3,550 sites, 1,400 of which are currently in city limits.
Council wants city staff to move forward with more than a dozen options to address mobile home park preservation, organized by short-term (in the next three to six months), mid-term (in the next seven months to a year) and long-term strategies that might need more resources.
The problems to be solved
Mobile homes aren’t subsidized affordable housing, but city staff consider them a private extension of Fort Collins’ affordable housing stock. The total of sites within Fort Collins and its GMA is roughly equal to the number of affordable housing units in Fort Collins today.
But unlike residents of subsidized housing, Fort Collins mobile home residents are especially vulnerable to unfair treatment by property owners.
They either own or rent their homes, but they always rent the land the home sits on. The scenario presents more of a power imbalance than the typical renter-landlord relationship because it’s expensive and sometimes impossible to move a mobile home out of a park. Older homes aren’t always movable and might not be new enough to meet the requirements of other parks. At least one park in Fort Collins doesn’t allow mobile home owners to remove their homes from the property, according to La Familia/The Family Center, which has a self-advocacy program for local mobile home residents.
As a result, some residents are effectively “captive” in their communities, deputy city manager Jeff Mihelich told council.
On top of that, Fort Collins’ supply of mobile home sites has remained largely stagnant for decades. A park hasn’t closed since 2012, but five parks have closed in the past 23 years, displacing 461 families. All the parks were redeveloped into commercial or residential projects.
Residents reported a litany of other issues to community groups and council members: Many residents face lot rent increases multiple times a year because their leases are month-to-month. Some parks have no manager on the premises or no bilingual staffers to communicate with residents who speak little or no English.
Unmaintained trees present safety issues and damage homes and cars at some parks. Some parks present residents with unexplained surcharges for infrastructure work on the property, and most parks have one master meter for utilities, so there’s no way for residents to ensure they’re paying their fair share of utility bills. Some park residents said they fear or have faced retaliation (arbitrary enforcement of rules, verbal attacks, threat of eviction and unexplained bills) for attempting to go to the city or neighbors with their grievances.
The issues aren’t universal for mobile home parks, and every park is unique, staff noted. But a key theme across parks is residents’ fear of displacement, social policy and housing program manager Sue Beck-Ferkiss said.
How a zoning change could help
Most mobile home parks in Fort Collins are zoned low-density mixed-use neighborhood or service commercial. Both districts allow a range of housing types and commercial uses, which makes them easier to redevelop.
Staff said creating a manufactured housing zone district is the most effective way to preserve mobile home parks. Specialized zoning could insulate them from the risk of closures caused by redevelopment because anyone seeking to redevelop a park would have to go through a lengthy public review process and persuade city leaders to rezone the land.
Any zoning changes will need to be carefully executed to avoid overstepping on property owners’ rights, staff noted. Too many limitations on zoning could also lead to legal challenges. That’s why staff is suggesting a range of uses for the manufactured zoning district, including duplexes and single- and multifamily homes.
Council funded several programs for mobile home parks in 2020 and will likely devote more funds to their efforts in 2021-22. Staff have already started work on:
- A manufactured housing community handbook and website for owners and residents that will answer common questions, identify responsibilities of each group, offer resources for mediation and financial assistance/incentives and include a calculator and formulas to improve water billing.
- Neighborhood liaisons for the highest-need parks. The liaisons are city or partner staffers assigned as points of contact for each park.
- Mini-grants for neighborhood improvement and community building. Council allotted $50,000 for the grants, which the city will start dispersing in 2020 for things such as translation services, sewer-scoping, tree maintenance or upgrading community amenities.
Larimer County, state take action
Also in 2020, Colorado will begin a statewide program including registration of mobile home parks and a complaint system for residents.
Some council members pushed staff to think bigger in terms of reforms. Pad rent control is currently preempted by state law, but council member Emily Gorgol suggested negotiating grants for parks to cover things like tree maintenance as long as the owner keeps rent stable for a set period.
“These parks make a million dollars a year,” she said. “It’s not a cost burden to trim their trees.”
Most of the mobile home parks in Fort Collins and the GMA are owned by large corporations or investment groups based outside of Northern Colorado, according to a Coloradoan analysis of property records.
Council member Ken Summers said the city should consider buying parks from willing sellers to ensure livability standards are being met. He compared it to Fort Collins’ land bank strategy.
“If we’re going to preserve manufactured home parks, it would be a whole lot easier if the city just owned it,” he said. “We wouldn’t have to worry about private property rights, rising rents or all these other rules and regulations.”
City staff plan to do targeted outreach as they develop recommendations for the new zoning district, which they will present to council as soon as April 2020.
They want to coordinate with Larimer County on zoning and other mobile home policies because the county has jurisdiction over the 14 mobile home parks in Fort Collins’ GMA. County commissioners are also discussing mobile home park policy changes and are considering whether to adopt reforms for all unincorporated areas or take an individualized approach to specific areas.
City Council’s short-, mid- and long-term options
Here are short-term, medium-term and long-term actions the Fort Collins City Council could take:
Short-term: Clarify who’s responsible for maintenance and infrastructure costs at parks, create more transparency in utility billing for parks that are master-metered (when utility use for multiple units is measured with a single meter), change city code to create consistent policies for property and tree maintenance in mobile home parks, home-sale protections, protect residents from retaliation by park owners and management, change city code to limit required upgrades for mobile homes, abate sales tax on mobile home purchases.
Mid-term: Work on consistent guidelines for building and maintaining accessory structures (fences, sheds, patios, etc.), create a local complaint system, incentivize mediation between park owner/operators and residents, enforce or clarify homeowners and tenants’ rights to privacy in mobile home parks, provide more funding for mobile home community grants to cover infrastructure projects.
Long-term: Require or incentivize mobile home park owners to plan and budget transparently for community maintenance, enforce individual metering for water use to verify billing and hold mobile home park owners accountable to Fort Collins Utilities standards for infrastructure, establish community liaisons for all parks, and work on sale notice and purchase opportunities for park residents.
Jacy Marmaduke covers government accountability for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @jacymarmaduke.
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