Two and a half years in, preserving Seattle’s mobile-home parks still proving elusive

In January of 2019, the City Council madly scrambled to pass an emergency one-year moratorium on redevelopment of mobile-home parks when the Halcyon, one of only two remaining in the city, was up for sale. That moratorium has now been extended three additional times, and it’s likely that a fourth extension will be passed next week as the Council struggles to enact more permanent zoning changes to prevent the current residents from possibly being displaced.

Mobile-home parks, or perhaps more accurately as Councilmember Juarez prefers to call them, “manufactured home parks,” have a complex and troubling business model. They are hardly mobile: once delivered, installed on a concrete foundation, and hooked up with plumbing and electrical wiring, they are essentially permanent until demolished; few are ever transported to a different location as they would not survive relocation. The owner of the home pays monthly rent to the owner of the mobile home park for a lease on the underlying land, but has no rights to keep their home at that location if they ever stop paying rent or if the park owner decides to discontinue renting the site. When that occurs, the home owner essentially loses all value of their home: they can’t keep it there, and they can’t move it. They can sell (or rent out) their home to someone else as long as they can lease the underlying land — and then one day it all goes away, including all equity in the home itself.

The two remaining mobile home parks in Seattle, the Halcyon and the Bella Bee, are adjacent to each other in the Bitter Lake neighborhood and together host about 140 manufactured homes, many dating back to the 1960’s. Advocates consider the homes to be important low-cost affordable housing especially for elderly and retired individuals. Some of the parks’ residents have lived there for decades.

While the State of Washington has a program to provide relocation assistance for mobile-home owners who are displaced when a park is redeveloped, the critical shortage of affordable housing in Seattle means that if either park were to be redeveloped (as the prospective buyer of the Halcyon in 2019 intended to do) many of the residents would be displaced out of the community — and likely out of Seattle entirely. Thus the effort by residents and housing advocates to intercede to preserve Seattle’s last two mobile-home parks.

The moratorium passed by the Council in Janaury 2019 requested that the Office of Planning and Community Development develop a plan for new zoning to preserve the sites. That effort dragged out through 2019, but picked up steam in early 2020 — until last summer when the Mayor’s Office decided not to move it forward.  Councilmember Juarez, whose District 5 includes the two mobile home parks, picked up the ball and in partnership with Councilmember Strauss, who chairs the Council’s land use committee, continued to pursue it.

At their direction, Council staff drafted an “overlay district” for the two sites that would extend for the next 50 years. It would restrict their use mainly to mobile home parks, with a small portion allowed to be developed into commercial uses (the underlying zoning is commercial). But the proposal goes further: if at any point 25% or more of the site is redeveloped or undergoes a major renovation, then an additional set of zoning restrictions kick in, including height and setback limitations and requirements for residential amenity areas.

Following state law, last month the Council published a SEPA “Determination of Nonsignificance” (DNS) for the proposed overlay district plan. That kicked off a one-month period for public comment and/or appeals. And last week, the owner of the Bella Bee park did, in fact, file an appeal with the Hearing Examiner based on a comment letter he sent to the council raising several objections. Notably, he does not seem to be arguing for the right to redevelop the site into something more lucrative; rather, he argues that the restrictions included in the proposal will make it more difficult for him to continue operating it as a mobile home park. He also argues that there are several significant factual errors in the SEPA checklist, including that it misstates the existing zoning designation for his property.

One of the peculiarities of the two sites is that they sit on top of a former city dump that continues to emit methane as the buried landfill decomposes over a period of decades. Among the issues that the Bella B owner raises is that the proposed overlay district will make it more difficult to deal with ongoing mitigation of the methane emissions, especially if a future remediation effort would affect 25% of the existing sites and thus trigger the new zoning restrictions. He argues that the SEPA checklist published by the city fails to adequately address methane emissions and how to properly allow for ongoing mitigation, as well as what the effect of the zoning changes will be on the businesses operated by the two existing owners.

Since an appeal has now been filed, the overlay district legislation is automatically on hold until the Hearing Examiner can hear the case and rule. If the ruling goes against the city, the Council will need to rewrite the SEPA checklist and either complete a full Environmental Impact Statement or revise the overlay district proposal. Even if the Hearing Examiner affirms the adequacy of the DNS, that process will likely take months. So with the current six-month extension set to expire in July, this week Councilmember Strauss is introducing another six-month extension of the moratorium. Rather than run it through his committee, it will go straight to the full City Council for ratification next Monday. In the meantime, Strauss has scheduled a public hearing on the overlay district bill during his committee meeting this Wednesday. Public hearings are a required step for land-use regulation changes; perhaps in a bout of optimism that the Hearing Examiner will ultimately rule in the city’s favor, Strauss is getting the paperwork done so that he and Juarez might eventually get to move it forward.

Even if everything tips in favor of the city and the overlay district is passed as currently drafted, it may face one more hurdle, a legal challenge unrelated to the SEPA regulations. A small zoning change that affects a tiny area is known as a “spot zone,” and spot zones are generally found to be illegal. That was the outcome when the Council attempted to extend the Pike Place Historic District overlay zone to include the Showbox site in order to prevent it from being redeveloped, and if the Bella Bee owner chooses to sue the city, there’s a very good chance that the outcome would be the same. Given that the two properties are within the Bitter Lake Urban Village, have long-standing commercial zoning designations, and were thoroughly studied and recommended for further commercial upzoning as part of the city-wide MHA upzone studies, the city would have a difficult time arguing that the overlay district is anything other than an illegal spot zone intended to prevent redevelopment of the specific sites that would otherwise be legal and consistent with the existing zoning.

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