A sagging chain link fence separates the residents of Mission Trail Mobile Home Park from the steep slope leading down to the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. It might as well be a prison fence that separates two very different worlds.
Along the Mission Reach, joggers, bikers, and families pushing babies in strollers and walking dogs move along the river path, enjoying the riparian restoration and the many recreational amenities that came with the $245 million Mission Reach Improvement Project, completed in October 2013.
(Read more: San Antonio Celebrates the Mission Reach.)
The trailer park sits above and apart from this verdant linear park that courses through the heart of the city’s Southside and links the historic Spanish Missions. The trailer park, nearly 21 acres, is divided into 200 lots, many empty and overgrown. Perhaps 20 of the mobile homes are severely dilapidated, boarded up and unoccupied. Some are in a state of near collapse. The few public spaces in the park are strewn with debris. Mission Trail Mobile Home Park is a picture of poverty and blight.
Even residents complain of the park’s shabby conditions and poor upkeep, the smell of leaking sewage, standing water after storms, and the general neglect and poor maintenance that has characterized the behavior of the owners, Mission Trails MHC LLC, an entity affiliated with Colorado-based American Family Communities.
The company’s website invites prospective residents even still: “Mission Trails Mobile Home Community is a friendly, safe community just 15 minutes from downtown with country charm. We are across from the Riverside Golf Course and next to the newly renovated San Antonio Riverwalk. Come enjoy our in ground swimming pool, play areas for your children, basketball courts and picnic area.”
Compare the photographs taken by the Rivard Report on Thursday (see below) with those displayed on the company’s website. I wondered, while photographing the mobile home park Thursday, why city inspectors had allowed the landlord to treat its tenants and property with such indifference and contempt over the years.
Dozens of the park’s residents filed into City Council chambers Thursday, organized by the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, to protest the sale of the park to White-Conlee Builders, which has previously built two other projects in District 3, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran’s district.
Some of the residents spoke in Spanish, others in English, but each beseeched Mayor Julián Castro and council members to vote down the sale and leave in place the current residents. Each speaker was loudly applauded by fellow residents, while an organizer called them, one by one, to approach the dais and address City Council for 90 seconds. There was a staged quality to the protest, and one wonders if the participants really understood the political drama in all its complex dimensions.
Christian Amador, 22, a self-proclaimed DREAMer, college student and McDonald’s worker, was the first to speak against the project. He said residents learned of the sale only when city zoning hearing agendas were posted.
“We are going to lose our homes, most of us own our mobile homes and we pay city taxes,” Amador said. “In our eyes, you are not helping us, you are destroying a community that has been there for more than 50 years.”
Amador invited Mayor Castro, who he described as his “hero,” to “come visit my mobile home. It doesn’t look appealing on the outside, but to me it is heaven.”
White-Conlee Builders, a San Antonio multi-family developer, plans a four-story, 600-unit Class A multi-family complex, with “mission style” units renting on average for $1.50 a square foot – well below rates being paid on Lower Broadway in and around The Pearl Brewery complex but well above anything else in the area located less than two miles from Roosevelt Park near the empty Lone Star Brewery. The local company and its $75 million project, in some ways, is bearing the brunt of resident anger over years of ill treatment by their absentee landlord.
The restoration of the river has sparked growing investment and developer interest in riverfront properties from the Museum Reach north of downtown down through the Mission Reach and the Southside. Less than two miles north of the Mission Trail Mobile Home Park is the former site of the Rolling Home Trailer Courts at 519 Roosevelt Ave., set to become 28 affordable town homes in early 2015.
[Read more: One of the Last Inner City Trailer Parks Going Condo.]
Riverside Golf Course, a municipal tract owned by the city, is located across from the mobile home park, and the handsome red brick Blessed Sacrament Academy and newly constructed Concepción Sports Park, operated by the San Antonio Catholic Archdiocese, are located on either side. The restored Mission Concepción is located nearby.
Attorney Bill Kaufman, representing White-Conlee, said the developer was unmatched in its investment in the district and had offered the mobile park tenants generous financial support to relocate to other mobile home parks or available properties.
“We want to make perfectly clear that no tenant will be forced to move for nine months from today,” he told Council. “In addition, the buyer has agreed, in writing, to pay for moving expenses and hookup costs at other area trailer parks.”
Kaufman said at least one area trailer park had offered to provide trailer spaces to new tenants for $90 a month, compared to $300 a month they now pay at Mission Trail. Residents rent on a month-to-month basis and do not have contracts giving them rights beyond 30 days.
“Since some of the trailers are too deteriorated to move, the buyer will pay those owners some subsidy not less than $2,000 to move to other accommodations,” Kaufman said. “The statement that someone will be thrown out of their home is not true.”
Kaufman’s assurances seemed to fall on deaf ears, even translated into Spanish. Some residents claimed in their remarks Thursday that they believed they were being forcibly displaced to make way for condos.
“Hay una comunidad que necesita su apoyo, señor,” said one woman resident, speaking in Spanish as she implored Mayor Castro to act on behalf of the protesting residents. “No es justo lo que querian hacer. Muchas gracias.”
“I don’t want to move and I don’t want to change schools,” a young girl wearing a Fiesta head garland told the mayor, her voice quavering, her face barely visible behind the podium.
Other adult park residents broke down while addressing the Council, their words and emotions communicating the fear of leaving familiar surroundings and neighbors, however squalid their living conditions.
“Condos are fine for downtown, but don’t move them to the Southside where they don’t belong,” said another resident.
Terry Boyd, District 3 Zoning Commissioner, also spoke. He said conditions in the park were poor, and that the out-of-state owner was not interested in addressing the problems.
“He wants to sell the property, and eventually he can not renew the residents’ leases and he can evict them,” Boyd said. “This is a $75 million economic development project. This is another great opportunity to enhance the Southside and bring economic opportunity to the area.”
“The bottom line is these people do not want to move, this is their home,” said Maria Davalos Salinas a few minutes later. “The Southside will never be the Northside.”
Former City Councilwoman María Berriozábal was one of several non-residents of the mobile home park who spoke. She was highly critical of the process that brought the two sides to the hearing Thursday, saying Spanish-speaking residents were left in the dark until it was too late to change the minds of council members who favor the project.
“You’re talking about a community, and it needs to stay together,” she said, predicting that other such displacements would befall people and communities everywhere within the Inner City Reinvestment Policy (ICRP) area, which constitutes 18 percent of the city. “When I first heard of ‘The Decade of Downtown’ I thought it was about downtown, but it’s not just downtown. It’s all over.”
Click here to view the ICRP map.
Graciela Sánchez, the Esperanza Center director and a frequent protestor and critic of urban core development projects, was one of the last to speak as a non-resident of the mobile home park. She read a proclamation that criticized city staff and council members, as well as Kaufman and his client, for both the project and the process.
Sánchez said 336 residents, 123 of them SAISD students, will be displaced by the sale and project. Others believe the numbers are lower, with only 107 mobile homes still occupied in the declining park.
Then it was time for City Council representatives to speak.
“I want to make clear I am for all of District 3, and I’ve had conversations with all the neighbors of this property and they are overwhelmingly in support of it,” Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran said after the one hour and 45 minutes of the citizens to be heard segment.
Viagran noted that not approving the deal would leave tenants vulnerable to displacement by the current property owner without any financial support who then would be free to sell to a developer without any obligation. “We have stipulated that no construction can begin until every tenant is situated into a new residence,” she added.
District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal made a rare “friendly motion” contrary to Viagran’s wishes and moved to delay a vote until May 15.
“It’s my understanding that all of the information being heard today by the Council is being heard for the first time by residents, so I’d like to make a friendly motion to postpone the decision … until May 15,” Bernal said. “I want to make it clear the choices are not easy ones, the issues go well beyond zoning, but I think it’s in everyone’s interest to postpone the vote today.”
District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales addressed the audience in Spanish, sympathizing with their plight, and pledging to make sure they were assisted in any transition. She emphasized, however, the need for Viagran and all inner city council members to attract investment, to support economic development, to attack poverty and elevate the quality of life in their parts of the city.
District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor spoke in support of Viagran, saying the inner city council districts need new housing investment to provide for better neighborhoods and additional school funding. “Nobody is saying the Southside has to be like the Northside, nobody is saying the Eastside has to be like the Southside,” Taylor said.
District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez voiced support for Viagran and the delay. “I believe the deal Councilwoman Viagran has negotiated for the neighborhood is a good deal, and I don’t believe the neighborhood understands what a good deal it is,” Lopez said. Taking time to educate residents, he suggested, could provide broader acceptance of the development project.
District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher also agreed with the delay, as did District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg, who joined Mayor Castro in chastising the Esperanza-led group for repeatedly disrupting the meeting with verbal disruptive protests from the audience.
Mayor Castro talked about the inherent tensions between property owners, inner city redevelopment and community traditions.
“I agree with my Council colleagues, listening to the people here today, who say there just hasn’t been enough time to make a decision between the choices we face,” Castro said. ‘This is one zoning case, but I agree with the people who say these issues are going to present themselves to us over and over again in the coming years. How do we preserve our neighborhoods and still allow for development?”
Like the others, Castro expressed fear that not acting on the zoning case might open the door for the absentee property owner to evict residents without any financial inducements.
“I agree with Councilman Bernal that we should not decide this today, and therefore, am fundamentally for a 30-day delay,” he said.
The mayor then called for a vote on Viagran’s motion to approve the zoning change. Councilwomen Viagran, Taylor, Gonzalez voted in favor, as did District 9 Councilman Joe Krier. Mayor Castro and the other five council members voted against the motion. District 7 Councilman Chris Medina was absent, fulfilling his military duty as a reservist.
“That motion failed,” Castro announced, calling for a vote on the motion to delay.
The second motion for a 30-day delay passed. Only Krier opposed it. The decision was met with loud applause from the mobile park residents.
“I must say, Mr. Kaufman, between now and the 30-day delay, there needs to be a tremendous amount of communication between the project developer and the residents,” Castro said.
He then adjourned the meeting to the sound of further applause. The crowd filed out, while Castro, Viagran and Bernal informally caucused for several minutes afterwards.
The vote bought the Esperanza and residents a brief respite, but probably did not change the ultimate outcome. It would seem less than responsible for officeholders to favor a blighted, half-empty mobile home park over a major Class A residential development, the first of its kind on the Southside. Such a decision also would expose the remaining park residents to eventual eviction by the current owner without any financial assistance. One wonders if the residents really understand the stakes at play and the preferential deal Viagran skillfully negotiated on their behalf, or if they are pawns being played in a larger political struggle between forces for and against redevelopment of a fast-changing urban core.