Judge's ruling a blow to residents hoping to buy, save their mobile home park

Barb Biorn's garden in Lowry Grove.
Barb Biorn's garden blossoms outside of her home in Lowry Grove this June. A 36-year resident of the park, Biorn painted a sign for her garden that reads "Anatevka" when she found out about the sale of the park. The sign refers to the town from which Jews were expelled by Russians in last act of the play "Fiddler on the Roof."
Evan Frost | MPR News

Residents of the Lowry Grove mobile home park were dealt a blow Thursday, as a judge issued the first ruling in their case to keep the park open.

District Judge Joseph Klein ruled that the residents' lawsuit against the park owners can proceed, but any potential damages will be limited to monetary compensation.

Monetary compensation — reimbursement or coverage for things such as moving costs — isn't what the residents are seeking, though. What they want is the opportunity to buy the park themselves — and keep it open.

Under Minnesota state law, residents do have that right, under certain circumstances. When mobile home parks are targeted for closure or redevelopment, residents have the right of first refusal: If they can match the sale price, they can buy it themselves.

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That's what Lowry Grove residents had planned to do this June, when they arranged for an affordable housing nonprofit, Aeon, to submit a purchase agreement on their behalf. Aeon matched the $6 million sale price, but the park was sold instead to The Village LLC, which plans to replace the park with higher density housing.

The residents' lawsuit against The Village and the previous park owner claims that this sale violated their rights.

Whether the court agrees that it was a violation is still to be determined. What Klein's initial ruling does is narrow the remedy for the approximately 90 households still living in the park. Even if the court agrees that the residents' rights were denied, any response would come in the form of a check rather than the chance to keep their homes.

They're called "mobile homes," but a large portion of the houses in Lowry Grove date back to the 1960s and '70s and can no longer be moved. They wouldn't survive being transferred to a flatbed truck, but they also wouldn't likely be accepted into another park in the area because they're so old. Lowry Grove's closure would mean many families will be forced to leave their houses behind.

For many residents, it also means leaving St. Anthony, Minn. permanently. Affordable housing like what the park offers "just doesn't exist," according to their city planner. Lowry Grove residents pay approximately $440 a month to rent what they view as an ideal location: The park is within walking distance of a grocery store and mass transit lines. It sits just six miles from downtown Minneapolis, and is situated in one of the best school districts in the state. Those conditions, at that price, are difficult to duplicate anywhere in the state.

Some residents, however, are ready to leave. An estimated eight homeowners have already left Lowry Grove after striking a deal with The Village, the new owner. They cite concerns about the property's upkeep: bad roads, bad water, overgrown landscaping. The park is about 70 years old, and it shows its age. Meanwhile, the neighborhood around it has been booming. It's bordered on one side by an affluent area of northeast Minneapolis and on the other by newer developments.

The desirability of the area is one of the things that drew The Village to the property. Traci Tomas, the company's vice president, issued a statement after Klein's ruling:

"From the beginning, we've realized that this is a difficult situation for the residents. That has never been something we've taken lightly," she wrote.

"We will continue to move forward with the development as planned from the beginning. Right now, we are focused on those who have expressed a desire to complete their move before winter sets in."

The Village filed a preliminary draft of its plans to redevelop the land with the city of St. Anthony in late August. The plans will be discussed at an upcoming hearing in October. They call for building five apartment buildings with a total of 800 units, and 37 townhouses. Right now, the 15-acre park holds about 90 mobile homes.

Preliminary plans for the Lowry Grove land
The Village LLC presented preliminary plans for the land under the Lowry Grove mobile home park to the city of St. Anthony in August.
Courtesy of The Village LLC

The Village's plan for those 800 units includes a mix of senior housing, market-rate housing and 90 units of affordable housing. While that number closely matches the current number of households on the land, it doesn't specify how large those units will be. The majority of the mobile homes on the land have at least two bedrooms.

For now, attorneys representing Lowry Grove residents and Aeon are still determining their next steps. Residents have until February to leave the park.

"I'm very sad," said Alan Arthur, the CEO of Aeon. "We see this as the first battle. We don't know if there is a potential for a second battle. ... We'll meet, we'll figure out if there's a next step, a next battle, a next fight — or not."

Lawrence McDonough,who spent 30 years representing tenants' rights and is now a pro bono counsel at Dorsey & Whitney, is not affiliated with the case, but he is keeping an eye on the precedent it will set. It is the first time this piece of state law that gives mobile home park residents the right of first refusal has been tested.

"If all they have is the [monetary] damages remedy, then it sends a signal out to park owners that they can kind of play loose with this," McDonough said. "As long as they're willing to get their checkbook out."

Document: The Village's plans to redevelop Lowry Grove

The Village LLC presented preliminary plans to redevelop the land under the Lowry Grove mobile home park to the city of St. Anthony in August.