St. Anthony approves Lowry Grove mobile home park closure; HUD may step in

Lowry Grove resident Antonia Alvarez leads chants.
Antonia Alvarez leads chants as she and other Lowry Grove residents and supporters demonstrate outside the St. Anthony Community Center Tuesday.
Sam Harper | MPR News

The Lowry Grove mobile home park in St. Anthony, Minn., has been open for more than 70 years, but residents are hunkering down now for what may be the park's last winter.

The yards have filled with falling leaves, the streets are pocked with puddles, and the number of gaping holes where mobiles homes once stood is growing.

In June, a developer, The Village, purchased the park and issued a closure notice, giving residents until March 15 to move out. Slowly, the park is emptying: The Village has struck deals with 38 of the 95 homeowners to relocate. Their homes have either been towed away to other parks, or — if they're too old to be moved — they've been demolished in place.

The new gaps in the tight rows of homes look like pulled teeth, and the view has been shocking for some long-time residents who are still fighting the park's sale and closure.

"You come home and your neighbor is gone," Antonia Alvarez said of the demolitions.

Alvarez, who has lived in the park for 10 years, has led the residents' fight against redevelopment. They've tried every tactic they know: Fundraising, letter-writing, protests — a lawsuit.

Minnesota state law gives mobile home park residents the right to purchase a park to prevent its closure — but when Lowry Grove residents attempted to do that, their purchase agreement was turned down. In response, they filed a lawsuit to insist on their right to buy it — but a judge ruled that even if there was wrongdoing involved in the deal, the sale would not be reversed. Residents then appealed to St. Anthony's City Council, which, by law, must hold a public hearing to confirm the park's closure.

Tuesday night, after two hours of emotional testimony from park residents, the council voted to proceed with the closure process. Mayor Jerry Faust said it wasn't within their power do anything differently, because it was a private business transaction.

"For those of you that are bible study people, this is kind of like King Solomon trying to cut that baby in half, because no matter what happens, you're probably not going to make everyone happy," Faust said at the hearing. "We can't save Lowry Grove and give it back to the people. We don't own it. We never have, and we never will."

Traci Tomas listens to Marisol Merino.
Traci Tomas (far left) listens as Lowry Grove resident Marisol Merino (far right) speaks at St. Anthony's city council meeting Tuesday "I am here because it is not fair what you are doing to us," Merino, a single mother of four kids, said. Lowry Grove offers her an affordable place for her family to live, she said.
Sam Harper | MPR News

Traci Tomas, the vice president of The Village, praised the council's decision to not delay the process any further. In accordance with state law, the council appointed a neutral third party who can now act as a resource for the soon-to-be-displaced residents and walk them through applying for funds from the Minnesota Manufactured Home Relocation Trust Fund.

The Village has already paid some residents more than the maximum required by state law to relocate.

"The average paid to purchase or move a home has been approximately $8,350 per mobile home," Tomas said. "I believe there isn't any amount that will be enough for a group of residents that don't want the park to close. However, the park will close."

Even after the wrenching council hearing, though, Alvarez and other residents have not given up. And they may have a new ally in the federal government.

John Meade, an enforcement branch chief for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, issued a letter last week saying that HUD would investigate the park's closure as a violation of the Fair Housing Act. The complaint has not been officially filed, but Meade's letter asked that the developer "refrain from taking further action to effect the removal of residents from Lowry Grove during the pendency of the investigation."

Tomas says her company has yet to hear from HUD, but she will consult with her legal team if and when they are notified of the investigation.

Meade's letter said, if necessary, HUD would "refer the matter to the Attorney General with a recommendation that a temporary restraining order be sought."

While it gives some hope, the HUD investigation also extends the period of uncertainty in which the remaining residents of Lowry Grove have found themselves. Winter is coming. School is in full swing. A potential move gets harder with each passing month.

Retired postal worker Scott Anderson is unsure of what he'll do if the park really does close. He lives in Lowry Grove with his two teenaged grandchildren, and he hasn't been able to find any comparable affordable housing nearby. His house can't be moved, and the relocation funds cover only a fraction of the cost of a new mobile home in a different park.

"At 65, raising two kids on a not-very-good-sized pension, those numbers do not work," he testified at the hearing Tuesday night. "I spent 57 years of my life working, not being a bum, not being anything other than a worker ... And now I'm going to end up on the street, under a bridge."

Lowry Grove closure: Next steps

The Village LLC submitted preliminary plans to redevelop the land under the Lowry Grove mobile home park to the city of St. Anthony in August. The plans will be discussed with the city council on Oct. 24.

Correction (Oct. 12, 2016): Scott Anderson was misidentified in the original version of this story. The story has been updated.

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