Movin’ On Up
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Mobile home parks don’t have a great reputation. Their residents are stereotyped as poor and uneducated “trailer trash,” and if a mobile home park makes the news it is usually because it has been destroyed by a tornado or flood.
This is a misperception. Mobile homes have long been an affordable housing option for lower- and middle-class working families and residents. And there’s a lot more to trailers than just trash. In a place like Pitkin County, where the billionaires continue to push out the millionaires, mobile homes play an important role in housing the working classes.
Mobile home parks are sprinkled throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. And in an area where affordable housing is notoriously difficult to find, these parks are full of hardworking residents fulfilling the basic dream of owning their own home. Around here, mobile home parks are some of the most unique and close-knit neighborhoods.
In fact, a trip to three local mobile home enclaves ” one in Aspen, one in Basalt, one in Carbondale ” can teach quite a bit about the valley’s economy, work force and changing demographics.
In Aspen, a mobile home park has come to embody the town’s wealth and inflationary pricing, with trailers now listed at more than $1 million.
Two mobile home parks in Basalt now find themselves stuck in the path of unstoppable change, as the town goes through a process of urban renewal and gentrification.
And in Carbondale, a park sitting quietly at the entrance of town provides a model of stability in a rapidly changing valley.
Smuggler, nicest park in the country
The Smuggler Mobile Home Park, nestled at the base of the Smuggler mine overlooking Aspen, is difficult to find. This is not because it is small (it takes up three streets) or because it’s hard to access (it’s just off Gibson Avenue). It is hard to find because it is nearly impossible to recognize as a mobile home park.
The Smuggler park represents suburbia in all its wholesome banality. Neat, medium-sized homes, decorated for the holidays with wreaths and holly, line one-way streets with faux-rustic names like “Maple,” “Cottonwood” and “Oak.” Friendly residents greet each other by first name, and passing drivers slow to ask their neighbors about last Sunday’s Broncos game.
“You know, I’m pretty sure this must be the nicest mobile home park in the country,” says park resident Kirk Baker. “I love it.”
Unlike most mobile home parks, where residents own their trailers but rent the land their trailers occupy, Smuggler is owned by the residents, who pay modest dues for utilities, garbage pickup and snow removal. Most of the homes are “modulars,” houses placed on foundations that allow a larger and more conventional living space.
Baker, a Smuggler resident since 1985, lives in one such modular with his family. It is a pleasant, cozy home, hardly recognizable as a trailer. Inside, the carpeted living space is crowded but not cluttered; there is even space for his wife, an amateur painter, to pursue her hobby. A canvas and easel rest in the living room, illuminated by bright shafts of sunlight streaming through large windows that look out on the town below.
Baker loves the close-knit community of the park. Most of the inhabitants are longtime residents who work in town. Professions vary (ski instructors, nurses and county employees all live on Baker’s street) but almost every resident has some form of reliable and profitable employment. Baker knows nearly everyone by first name and is friends with most of them. For his recent 50th birthday he held a block party for his neighbors, which he says was well-attended.
There is some conflict in the Baker household over the mobile home park. Baker’s wife, who refused to be named in this article, doesn’t like living in a trailer park, something which just confuses Baker.
“She’s embarrassed and thinks it’s claustrophobic, living so close to other people,” Baker says. “But I love living here because I know all my neighbors. We have a nice house on a nice block ” that’s always been my dream.”
Although the Smuggler park was designed with affordable housing in mind (you have to work in Pitkin County to live there), there are no limits on property appreciation, which means home prices in the park have skyrocketed over the last 15 years. This week a family who installed a modular home in the park said the project cost them around $550,000. A home in Smuggler was recently listed at $1.2 million.
Pat Simpson, a park resident and real estate agent, recently helped close the sale of a neighbor’s mobile home. It was one of the few remaining single-wide homes. Old and rickety, without any pretense to glamour (the taillights are still glued to the back), it sold for $400,000.
“It may still have its taillights, but you never know what’s inside,” Simpson says. “There could be granite counters in there and you’d never know. Location is obviously key to real estate, and with nice homes, nice neighbors and views overlooking Aspen, Smuggler park is almost as good as it gets.”
Basalt in transition
The first mobile homes are generally believed to have belonged to traveling bands of 16th-century Gypsies, who would use horses to cart makeshift houses around Eastern Europe. Often they relied on landed aristocrats, who would allow the Gypsies to live on their property in return for their tilling the land.
In a sense, the legacy of serfdom remains for many modern mobile-home owners, who reside in trailer parks at the mercy of landowners. Nowhere is this more evident than in two mobile home parks in Basalt.
Unlike Smuggler, where residents own both their trailers and the land the trailers sit on, the residents of the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park and the Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park own only their trailers and pay rent on the land.
Like any tenant, these trailer owners rely on landowners to let them stay. The difference for trailer owners is that, in the event of an eviction, they would be hard-pressed to relocate their trailers.
Along with the fact that there are currently no available spaces for trailers in the valley, many of the trailers in Basalt were built before new building codes were introduced in 1976; there are few mobile home parks in America, let alone the valley, that would make space for these homes.
That means, unless they’re somehow compensated, evictees would lose all the equity in their homes.
The residents of the 90 households in Basalt’s two parks are on notice that their days by the Roaring Fork River are numbered. In February 2002 the town released its “River Corridor Plan,” which stated that the houses were in danger of a 100-year flood and must be relocated.
The residents’ future is now in the hands of the park’s owners: Rene Richie of the Pan and Fork, and David Fiore of the Roaring Fork. They can evict the residents at any time. And although the city has a “replacement housing” ordinance, which states that landowners must replace any affordable housing they raze with a similar number of new units, there is no guarantee that the trailer owners will end up in the new housing.
“We are in the hands of Fiore,” says Brian Stahl, the president of the Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park homeowner’s association. “We’re lucky because it seems he is a benevolent owner who wants to make sure we are taken care of. But still, it’s a very uncertain time.”
In the Basalt parks, there are no modular houses. Although the Roaring Fork park is considerably better maintained than the Pan and Fork, the trailers in both parks tend to be old and rundown. And there is clearly hardship here; as Stahl talks, an Eagle County vehicle arrives with prenatal nurses who provide care to mothers who can’t afford health care. Almost all the residents in the parks are Latinos and the majority do not speak English.
Stahl is ready to leave his mobile home. He doesn’t like what he terms “linear living,” occupying small spaces connected to a single narrow corridor. Still, he’s deeply concerned about losing the equity of his trailer.
“There’s not much I can do now,” says Stahl. “All I can do is wait and see.”
Janet Mitchell, a real estate broker who specializes in mobile homes, calls the situation of the Basalt parks “unconscionable,” and believes the real issue is not flood danger but rather municipal efforts at gentrification. Stahl agrees.
“We are right at the entrance of town,” Stahl says. “I think there is a flood danger, but I also think the city is kicking us out because they find the parks to be an eyesore. They want to turn this into open space or something else nice to look at.”
Stahl gazes over the mobile home park and takes a last drag on his cigarette. He exhales a deep sigh. Soon, this area will look entirely different, and the homes that stand now, dimly lit in the late November gloom, will be only ghosts.
“The valley is changing,” Stahl says. “We reflect that. The big story here is transition.”
Carbondale ” the stable community
The Mountain Valley Mobile Home Park in Carbondale is one of the more established parks in the valley. It follows the same model as the Basalt parks in that residents own their trailers and rent their lots. But whereas Basalt’s parks are caught in the current of change, Carbondale’s Mountain Valley park is one of the most stable mobile home parks in the valley.
Approximately 250 people inhabit the 64 units in the park, and the residents appear to be a cross section of the valley’s lower- to middle-income population. There is a fairly equal mix of Latinos and Anglos, as opposed to the overwhelmingly white Aspen park and the predominantly Latino parks in Basalt. There are some families and some single professionals. In one driveway you might find a new SUV, in another, a rusted sedan.
One double-wide trailer in Mountain Valley recently sold for $120,000. Few of the homes are modulars, but many are quaint and well-maintained. The streets are paved, speed bumps help keep the neighborhood quiet, and most residents respect the suggested 10 p.m. noise curfew. No dogs are allowed, which takes away from the neighborhood feel, but many residents take walks around the park and wave cheerfully to neighbors and children in their yards.
Like the Basalt parks, Mountain Valley is right at the entrance to town. Also like the Basalt parks, the trailer lots are leased by a private owner who could sell the land at any time and evict the inhabitants.
This happened at the nearby Bonanza Mobile Home park in May 2001, when residents were given 10 months eviction notice by Basalt businessman Ed Podolak. The evicted residents were given a small amount of cash, about enough to cover three months rent in a local condominium.
Unlike in Basalt, however, there is no flood danger to place the Mountain Valley residents at risk, and park owner John Cooley says he has no intention of selling the land.
“I’ve had lots of different people offer me lots of money for the park, including the city,” Cooley says. “They thought it was an eyesore and wanted some other development there. But this is a strong, longstanding community. I don’t think I’d sell the park anyway, but I certainly wouldn’t sell it unless the people were guaranteed replacement housing.”
Larry White, a Garfield County worker and volunteer firefighter, owns a mobile home on a corner lot. It is a modest home, but the spectacular views of Mount Sopris and White’s addition of a sunlit patio make it feel larger and more impressive. White’s interior is attentively designed and decorated, with vaulted ceilings and family pictures alleviating the cramped feeling. He is not particularly close with his neighbors, but he does know a few of them by name.
White describes the owner of the park as firm but fair. Cooley takes an active role in the Mountain Valley community, visiting frequently to check on the park’s condition. He also initiated an incentive program to reward residents for the “best kept” and “most improved” yard.
White, a soft-spoken man who lives on his own, says he is happy with life in the park.
“I feel lucky to live here,” White says. “Like for many people, a mobile home was my best shot of owning a nice house. I’m proud of it.”
Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is email@example.com
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User