Minnesota Attorney General: Lowry Grove mobile home park should not close

Barb Biorn's garden in Lowry Grove.
Barb Biorn's garden blossoms outside of her home in the Lowry Grove mobile home park in June. A 36-year resident of the park, Biorn painted a sign for her garden that reads "Anatevka," a reference to the musical "Fiddler on the Roof," when she learned that the park would be sold.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In a rare move Friday morning, the Minnesota Attorney General's office waded into an ongoing legal battle over the fate of a Twin Cities mobile home park.

The case began in June, when the Lowry Grove mobile home park was sold to a developer, which has plans to shutter the park and redevelop the land. State law offers residents the opportunity to prevent such a closure by buying the park themselves to keep it open. In the suit, Lowry Grove homeowners argue that their right to buy their park had been denied.

The Attorney General's office agrees: It filed a friend-of-the-court brief Friday morning, arguing that the sale and impending closure violate state law, and that the park — a critical source of low-income housing — should remain open.

Lori Swanson
Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson addresses
Jim Mone AP file

"Manufactured housing offers many people the only realistic opportunity to become a homeowner," the brief said. It added that the June sale to the developer "shows subterfuge and a design to circumvent residents' rights."

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The lawsuit was filed in Hennepin County District Court on behalf of the residents of Lowry Grove, a 15-acre, 95-home park in St. Anthony, Minn., that sits just across the street from northeast Minneapolis.

The residents there have spent the last four months in limbo, as the sale and potential closure of the park has unfolded.

The saga began in April, when residents received a notice that the park would be sold and redeveloped. A closure would force homeowners to tow their houses to a new park — or, in the case of dozens of Lowry Grove's older homes — leave them behind to be demolished.

In Minnesota, state law provides mobile home park residents facing this threat of closure or redevelopment the right of first refusal. If residents — or a nonprofit organization acting on their behalf — can match the sale price, they have the right to purchase the park instead and maintain it.

That right is at the center of the Lowry Grove residents' lawsuit.

In an eleventh-hour bid this June, Aeon, a nonprofit organization that focuses on affordable housing, agreed to step in and match the $6 million sale price offered by The Village, LLC. Aeon's bid was submitted on a Friday afternoon — by Monday morning, the park's owners has rejected it and finalized the sale to the developer. As the new owners, The Village promptly sent out an official closure notice, giving residents the state-mandated 9 months to relocate.

Residents responded by filing suit against the park's buyer and seller. Friday morning, the Attorney General's office added its voice to the court records.

The sale, as it was conducted, violates the state statute, the brief argues, and the new owner should be prevented from closing the park.

"Any other conclusion would allow developers to circumvent residents' rights and continue the eradication of manufacturing housing in Minnesota," it states.

The office files amicus curiae briefs like this in district court less than once a year, said Prentiss Cox, an associate law professor at the University of Minnesota. Cox, who worked in the state Attorney General's office for 15 years, said the office typically weighs in when a case reaches the state's higher courts. In this case, Attorney General Lori Swanson said she decided to act sooner because "people's lives are in the balance."

Minnesota's widespread shortage of affordable housing — and its dwindling mobile home parks — also factored in to her decision.

"We know that in the Twin Cities we have a real lack of adequate supply of affordable housing, and mobile home parks can be a good form of affordable housing," she said.

Lowry Grove, in the affluent suburb of St. Anthony, Minn., offers mobile home owners opportunities that are difficult to find in other affordable housing situations — especially other mobile home parks. It's located directly on mass transit lines, and sits just six miles from downtown Minneapolis. It's within walking distance of grocery stores, and it falls in the St. Anthony-New Brighton School District. According U.S. News & World Report, St. Anthony Village Senior High is the third-best high school in the state.

Residents of Lowry Grove wrote letters to Swanson's office, explaining their circumstances and what they stood to lose if the park closed. She received more than 25 in all.

"People are having great doubt about what schools their kids are going to be going to, where they're going to be living next year, can they even afford to stay in the Twin Cities," she said. "People are making really consequential life decisions about their children's education, what jobs they're going to hold, what community they're going to live in."

This fight is a new one for the courts. This particular piece of state law has never been tested, to Swanson's knowledge. That's another reason her office authored the brief.

"It's really a case of first impression, in many ways," she said, "where we've had this statute on the books but it really hasn't been exercised or utilized over the years."

It's used so rarely, Swanson said, because it sets up a daunting task for residents to match the sale price of a park. For Lowry Grove, it meant that a group of people who pay $440 a month in rent rallied to raise $6 million — in 45 days.

"There's a real uneven bargaining power between the residents, on the one hand, and the developer on the other hand, and we felt it important for the state to weigh in and explain how we view the statute," Swanson said. "Under these circumstances, with all that has gone on, the park should not be allowed to close."

Traci Tomas, vice president of The Village, the company that bought the park, said in a statement Thursday that she was aware that the attorney general's office would be offering its opinion on the case. "The Village LLC has followed the state statute and will continue to do so," she said.

Tomas said The Village has already worked with four homeowners to move out of Lowry Grove, and has pending plans to help another eight. She said the company had provided those homeowners with more money in relocation costs than they would be paid by a state relocation fund that was created to assist homeowners when parks close.

The seller in the case, Lowry Grove Partnership LLP, did not return calls for comment.

The case is scheduled to go before a judge at the end of August.

Correction (Aug. 11, 2016): Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story was incorrect on the amount of time Lowry Grove residents were given to raise the $6 million. They had 45 days. The story has been updated.