After a hearing/rally last Friday, this afternoon Council member Sawant introduced a bill that would place an emergency 12-month moratorium on the conversion of mobile-home parks in Seattle to other uses.
The bill is being introduced out of concern for the fates of the 85 residents of the Halcyon mobile-home park in north Seattle. Halcyon is a 55+ senior community, and many of its residents are low-income. The park’s owner recently died, at which point the property transferred ownership to University of Washington. UW has decided to sell the property, and has engaged US Bank as trustee to handle the sale; US Bank in turn has enlisted Kidder Matthews to market it. The 2019 assessed value for the property is just under $4 million; Kidder Matthews is asking $22 million, conceivably based on the redevelopment potential of the 7.5 acre lot. The property is zoned “C1-40” commercial.
The Halcyon residents have heard that there is a pending sale of the property to Blue Fern, a Kirkland-based developer, and that Blue Fern has already had a pre-permit-application discussion with the city and could file a permit application imminently. Doing so would “vest” the company’s application under the existing zoning and development standards. As with the Showbox sale, Sawant wants to use the Council’s legislative powers to block the redevelopment plan before it vests, preferably through a zoning change that will protect existing mobile home parks. But since that will likely take a while, she wants the Council to declare an emergency moratorium now to buy them time for the legislative process to run its course.
The Halcyon residents now believe that they are in imminent danger of eviction. However, in meetings this morning and afternoon, Council members Juarez (whose district includes Halcyon) and Johnson (whose committee handles zoning issues) injected a few factual corrections into the conversation:
- According to Juarez, who said she spoke with UW and US Bank, there is no pending sale of the property. (Erica Barnett spoke with Blue Fern this afternoon and confirmed that they do not have a pending sale agreement)
- At one point a developer inquired with the Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) as to what the permit application process is, but SDCI has had no pre-application conversations or filings related to Halcyon.
- If and when the property is sold, under state law the owner must give the residents an official eviction notice 12 months in advance if the eviction is due to converting the property to another use. Under Seattle city law, before the owner can send out the 12-month eviction notices, it must file a “relocation notice and plan” along with the new master use permit application, and have it approved by SDCI.
In other words: with no pending sale and an enormous of pipeline of bureaucracy after it does, the residents aren’t in any danger of being evicted anytime soon — in Juarez’s estimation, it would probably take 2 years once a sale is announced. That certainly raises a question as to the urgency of the current situation, and whether it requires an emergency moratorium.
There is no doubt, however, that for the residents of Halcyon, eviction would be catastrophic. Their homes should more accurately be called “manufactured homes,” not “mobile homes;” most are not meant to ever be moved again once delivered and installed with plumbing and other utilities. Even the ones that are technically “mobile” would cost thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars to relocate to another mobile home park (if one can be found with an opening). In many cases the residents have their life savings in their homes, and if evicted would lose it all. Adding insult to injury, in Seattle’s current housing crunch many of the Halcyon residents are at high risk of becoming homeless if evicted. Mobile-home parks have long been recognized as a valuable source of low-income housing worth protecting — even if the efforts to protect and preserve them have not been entirely successful. But even if eviction isn’t imminent, as one public commenter pointed out today the residents have already lost much of the equity in their homes just because the park is up for sale.
Legislators have certainly tried to protect mobile home residents. Mobile home park lease agreements work a little differently from apartment leases: under state law, they are automatically renewed, and tenants have far more flexibility than landlords in breaking (or not renewing) a lease.
In 1989, the Washington Legislature established a mobile home relocation assistance fund, and required mobile home park owners to pay into it; but in 1993, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that requirement to be unconstitutional. The fund lives on, though it is unclear how much money remains in it. The Legislature also passed a law granting mobile home residents the first right of refusal if their park became for sale, but the state Supreme Court struck that law down as well.
Some cities, on the other hand, have tried to protect mobile home residents through zoning laws, most notably by establishing a special “mobile home park” zone that restricts the uses of those properties to discourage redevelopment. The City of Portland created such a zoning designation last August. But the precedent-setting one as far as Seattle goes is Tumwater, WA; their zoning ordinance was challenged in federal court and affirmed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2012.
Seattle has been down this path before; in fact, from 1988 to 1990 the City Council enacted then extended multiple times an emergency moratorium on redeveloping mobile home parks. This Seattle Times article on the effort could have been written today — all the way down to the discussion of the lack of affordable housing, and the Halcyon park playing a central role. However, that effort fizzled: in the end the Council let the moratorium expire without ever passing any permanent protections.
Adding the zoning is a bit trickier than it seems. Both Portland’s and Tumwater’s “mobile home park” zone definitions includes a handful of other allowable uses besides mobile home parks. Portland’s allows single-family residences; Tumwater’s also allows for single-family residences, as well as parks, trials, open spaces, family child care homes, and child mini-daycare centers; it also allows “conditional uses” including churches, wireless communications facilities, cemeteries, child day care centers, schools, community centers, group foster homes, and B&Bs. Reading the 9th Circuit ruling, it’s clear that having other available uses played a key part in the Court’s decision that the new zone designation did not unduly restrict the owners’ property rights. But that presents a problem for the Council: if it limits its zone to only mobile home parks, it may set itself up for a new legal challenge outside the 9th Circuit’s precedent; but if it doesn’t, then it might not protect the Halcyon from development in the end.
Sawant’s moratorium has been referred directly to the full Council for consideration and a vote next Monday afternoon, and will likely pass. As for the work on permanent legislation over the next year, Juarez and Johnson made clear today that they want it “done right,” which to them means letting Johnson take the reins and guide it through his committee. Johnson said that he intends to offer an amendment to Sawant’s bill net Monday to make that the official plan.