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Future uncertain, residents file lawsuit to keep mobile home park open

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Antonia Alvarez gives a tour of Lowry Grove.
Lowry Grove resident Antonia Alvarez leads Aeon president Alan Arthur on a tour of the park alongside other nonprofit representatives and residents on June 9. The following day Aeon helped the residents invoke the right of first refusal, putting forward the money needed to match the selling price of the park.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Over the course of a month, the residents of the Lowry Grove mobile home park have gone from thinking they'd lost their homes, to thinking they'd saved them, to thinking they'd lost them again. Now, the future of their homes is in the hands of the court.

Lowry Grove, which is located across the street from northeast Minneapolis in St. Anthony, Minn., has almost 100 mobile homes parked on its 15 acres. When residents received a letter in April, saying the land beneath their homes would be sold to a developer, many thought that was it: Time to pack up. Move on. Find a new park, or a family member to crash with.

But some residents refused to accept that — and they tried to use a little piece of state law to keep the park open. A Minnesota statute says residents have the right to match a buyer's offer, if the buyer intends to close the park. So: If they could raise the funds, they would have the chance to buy the park themselves and keep Lowry Grove in operation.

It's never been done before in Minnesota, and it was daunting: The residents would need to come up with $6 million of financing in just 45 days. 

But in an 11th-hour move, the residents thought they just might have pulled it off: On the afternoon of Day 44, Aeon, an affordable-housing nonprofit, submitted a purchase agreement to the park's owner on behalf of the residents.

For Lowry Grove homeowners like Antonia Alvarez, who had helped to organize the park-saving effort, it seemed like a reprieve. Aeon planned to purchase the park and keep it open.

Antonia Alvarez takes a photo of residents.
Upon finding out that the park was for sale, Antonia Alvarez took the lead in organizing residents in an attempt to save the park.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Alvarez and her neighbors gathered on her porch that Friday afternoon to hug and share the news and let out a breath they'd been holding all spring. They planned to meet again that Monday evening to really celebrate — Monday was also Alvarez's 46th birthday.

But by 11 on Monday morning, the park's owners had rejected Aeon's offer and sold the land to Continental Property Group, based in Wayzata. Traci Tomas, the president of Continental, signed the closing documents to purchase Lowry Grove.

Tomas had heard about the last-minute effort for the residents to buy the park, she said, and her legal team advised her to move forward.

"In my mind, I had an agreement, and I needed to close today — and I closed today," Tomas said that afternoon.

But Aeon and some of Lowry Grove's residents are now questioning the legality of that sale.

"The residents and [Aeon's] legal advisors believe that what the seller and buyer of Lowry Grove did to close on the sale was illegal," said Alan Arthur, Aeon's executive director.

Phil Johnson, the previous managing partner of the park, was unavailable for comment.

After purchasing the park, Continental sent an official park closure notice, required by the state, to residents. It gives residents nine months to vacate. They will need to move their homes to new parks, or, in the case of structures that are too old to move, leave them behind entirely to be demolished.

Alvarez and many other Lowry Grove residents still aren't ready to accept that fate.

This week, Aeon's legal team and the nonprofit Housing Justice Center filed a lawsuit against the park's original owners, Lowry Grove Partnership, LLP, and The Village, the company Continental established to redevelop the park.

The suit claims that the original owners had a legal responsibility to accept Aeon's offer, and that the park closure notice that Continental sent out was invalid.

The Lowry Grove struggle is representative of a larger issue statewide, as mobile home parks close, taking affordable housing stock with them. According to a report from the Metropolitan Council, no new parks have been built in the state since 1991, and ten have closed.

Those closures disproportionately tend to affect Minnesotans of color, the report reveals: While households of color make up only 10 percent of the state's population, they make up more than half of residents affected by park closures. 

Twenty-six percent of homeowners at Lowry Grove are Latino, according to the lawsuit. The park is also home to many seniors and others on a fixed income. 

For those residents, Monday's filing could mean keeping the park open, but it also means more months of uncertainty. One resident has already relocated his trailer; it's unclear if the suit will affect relocation cost payments for others who want to leave. 

For parents worried about changing schools, there's no easy answer: They can wait and risk transferring their children mid-year, or move now and risk it.

It could be months before the suit brings residents a resolution.