Council Delays Vote on Mission Trail Mobile Home Park Redevelopment

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Trailers in the Mission Trail Mobile Home Park at 1515 Mission Rd. on April 17, 2014. Photo by Robert Rivard.

 

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.)

A young boy curiously admires the Mission Reach during its grand opening ceremony on Oct. 5, 2013. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A young boy curiously admires the Mission Reach during its grand opening ceremony on Oct. 5, 2013. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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.

"La Danza de Matachines" at Mission Concepción. Photo by Peter Ray.

“La Danza de Matachines” at Mission Concepción in December 2013. Photo by Peter Ray.

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 and author María Berriozábal.

Former City Councilwoman and author María Berriozábal. RR file photo.

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.

District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca J. Viagran

District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca J. Viagran. (The Mission Trail Mobile Home Park is in District 3.)

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.

Mayor Julián Castro

Mayor Julián Castro

“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.

 

Related Stories:

One of the Last Inner City Trailer Parks Going Condo

Urban Blight: Reaching the Missions off the Mission Reach

South of Southtown: Life on the Other Side of the Tracks

14 thoughts on “Council Delays Vote on Mission Trail Mobile Home Park Redevelopment

  1. I found this –
    http://start2.occupyourhomes.org/petitions/tell-the-city-of-san-antonio-we-will-not-be-moved-for-their-decade-of-downtown-no-nos-moveran

    I support their fight but I can’t say I agree with their sudden sense of urgency to take action.

    It’s a little late is it not.

    The properties are in shambles; they could have been maintained. The property doesn’t belong to them; they could have moved on. They’re paying taxes for something that doesn’t belong to them; they could have had ownership of something cheaper with hard work and determination. There are always other options especially in San Antonio. Complacency is what lead to this.

    I hope that Hispanics benefit from all the development along the river. I wish those tenants the best of luck with finding a new place to live. I also hope others learn from this.

  2. Keep driving south on Mission Rd towards Southcross and you can see another example of a badly neglected property with families living there….

  3. No one wants to be forced from their home. I am sorry/sadden by these folks hard choice to make. // Think long term, not short. This part, to me, is the most telling : ” 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.” this = no choice.

  4. I appreciate seeing the Rivard Report cover this issue as a part of your commitment to cover stories in the urban core of the city.

    The tone of this story, however, leaves a lot to be desired. “Even residents complain”? Why would the people most affected by the conditions of their housing be *less* likely to have complaints, as your framing implies?

    Or how about “one wonders if the participants really understood the political drama”? Are the residents of Mission Trail inherently deficient in some way? Why would the residents not understand an issue that they’ve lived with for years?

    The tenants are not to blame for the poor management of this property – as someone who deals for a living with the deferred (and neglectful) property maintenance forced on low-income households by irresponsible landlords, it saddens me to see the Rivard Report take such a dismissive view of the legitimacy of community concerns.

    It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that this property was neglected to save costs while waiting for favorable terms for a sale, and that the owner was fully aware that maintenance that improved the lives of the tenants would not appreciate the property value if it were being sold to a developer for land value.

    And unfortunately, the city is allowing themselves to be complicit in this neglect – by putting the concerns of real estate developers above those of the residents, and by failing to require any meaningfully affordable options in a new development.

    The Mission reach is a wonderful asset for the City of San Antonio and the people who call this region home. Let’s work harder to make sure that we can all share in the benefit of this park, and create effective policies to preserve housing options for the Southside community for the future.

    • Daniel
      I might not have been as clear in my deadline writing last night as I intended. I definitely see the tenants as victims. They are victims of an indifferent, absentee landlord. They are victims of city inspectors not requiring maintenance of the property over the years.The residents obviously came to City Hall not knowing or understanding the terms they were being offered by the developer as part of the sale, whether one agrees or disagrees with the fairness of those terms. They also did not understand that the city can deny a zoning change, but it can’t stop the owner from selling the property. Without leases, these tenants are subject to an abrupt move without any compensation at the hands of the landlord. Why the various parties — city staff, the residents’ council rep, the Esperanza — didn’t communicate all those issues and terms before yesterday is one of the questions I tried to pose in my story. There is now a 30-day window for tenants to come to a full understanding of the situation. Ultimately, they will conclude a move is inevitable, but they should be in a position to make that move on the best possible terms. I intend to write a follow up opinion piece arguing that the proffered terms be improved. The developer is not the bad guy here, in my opinion. As all of the inner city council members stated yesterday, they need investment in new housing to improve neighborhoods, remove blight and add to the tax base to improve schools. The villain here is the existing landlord who was allowed to take the residents’ money every month for years and give them little or nothing in return, and by placing them on month-to-month leases, leave them vulnerable to the situation they now face. $300 a month for a small pad of unkept land? That’s a ripoff. They deserve better and by moving out of the squalor on decent terms I hope they find it. Thanks for writing. We always welcome thoughtful criticism like yours. –RR

      • The city denying a zoning change is not the same as the city preventing a sale, true enough.

        But without the zoning change to raise the highest allowable use of the property, there is no sale, and all parties know that. The city’s agreeing to change the zoning is a critical component of this deal going through.

        The seller and the developer certainly understand that – which is why their rhetoric is focused on their concern for community and the improvements to the tax base or the removal of blight. These are not terms that show up on a pro forma budget – they are the keys that open doors at City Hall, and make the rest of the business plan possible.

        But they also ring hollow to me, and to a growing number of community members on the South, East, and West sides. Voters understand that our tax dollars are enabling this development – through tax incentives, below-market land prices, or favorable contracts for services. The developers who benefit from this status quo are each a single voice with clear demands a soapbox.

        On the other hand, the members of the community (in Mission Trails as well as in the surrounding neighborhoods) are many voices, and are going to take more time and effort from the city to satisfy. But ease is not a good basis for policy.

        The city needs to have an honest conversation about the real cost of development like that proposed for Mission Trails, and consider other uses of those resources. Would a fraction of the money in tax incentives be better spent to maintain or rehabilitate existing affordable housing options? Would the city and tenants be better off if the land were purchased by residents through a land trust or mutual housing association?

        And I’ve seen multiple references in the story and comments to the idea that the residents should have a goal of winning the best terms for the purchase. But who are these best terms intended to benefit? If the answer is the developer and seller, than minimal concessions to residents to buy good PR is sensible.

        But if the benefit is supposed to accrue to the city, the neighborhood, or the residents, then we should be talking about how the developer will be required to maintain a similar number of units that are affordable to households earning incomes that reflect the neighborhood. And I am very skeptical that any of the resulting units will be within reach for a household at 50% AMI.

        • Roger

          Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I disagree with you on the zoning change being necessary for the land sale. In fact, I’d argue the sale of the land is a certainty. If the developer can’t do the 600-unit multi-family, someone else will come along to buy the property and build townhouses. The deal won’t be as lucrative, but 21 acres on the Mission Reach is a very appealing property. By comparison, the Pearl is 22 acres.

          What I am not reading in the comments from people protesting a development deal is any condemnation of the current “community” conditions there, which people are romanticizing. Where was all the outside concern prior to now to the abject living conditions endured by the residents? The place is trending toward squalor, and people there are paying too much money each month for terrible living conditions and an uncertain future. Their lives will be better elsewhere, even if it means adapting to dislocation and change. This is an incredibly complex dilemma, but I’d say some of the people lashing out with simplistic rejections of positions other than their own are not thinking through the complexities. I do appreciate your comments. –RR

          • I’m not sure that continuing to question whether the residents understand what’s happening is going to shed any light on either the proposal or the response.

            I also question the value of using scare quotes in referring to someone else’s community, or referring to their position as simplistic – I would invite you instead to consider the complexities of the experiences of the residents and the complexities of their decision to speak out.

            There are core elements that the residents are complaining about, all of which are a reasonable way to look at the situation:

            1. The rents they have paid to a landlord have not kept up their property. But despite a not-so-great landlord, this is still home.

            2. The land they live on might be sold to a real estate developer.

            3. The city is considering whether or not to help sweeten the deal for the developer.

            4. If this goes through, the new housing being developed is going to be priced out of reach.

            The fatalistic focus of the residents’ critics has been that a change is going to come, so why not try and get a little bit for the residents out of point three (like the moving assistance).

            But point four is the real issue, and one not unique to this property. The argument isn’t one that’s against “economic development” or in favor of “blight”. It’s about displacement, and being left out of the process.

            And if the zoning change weren’t important, it wouldn’t be brought before the Council. Would the property be sold at some point for a redevelopment? It’s possible. Would this deal go through? My guess is that the numbers say no.

  5. I couldn’t imagine being told my home made the neighborhood look bad and that I needed to leave to bring in more artists, better schools, and a safer environment.

    There are already artists that make murals, and restore classic cars, they didn’t go to art school but their still artists. There are already excellent teachers that teach kids working night shifts at Jack in the Box. There are arrests for victimless crimes like possession of marijuana.

    Before we start ‘improving’ things let’s make sure we know what the actual problem is. If the solution is bringing in more wealthy mostly white residents, then why does it follow that they receive preference for city resources? The schools and housing we can’t afford to fix suddenly becomes the $100 million deal we have to sign.

    Our corporate hero HEB pays $7.5/hour for part time work. Costco starts at $11.50/hour for all positions, with 88% benefit enrollment. But we continue to give sweet heart deals to HEB to improve the community. They are so well loved they even have a float in every major parade, not even Frost Bank has that kind of love. Would it hurt to let other grocery stores in?

    Hiring more city employees, fixing schools, and creating affordable housing also improve neighborhoods and help communities. We’ve somehow jumped from helping people, to beautifying them with new residents and urban renewal. As though being poor was a choice and poor people need wealthy mostly white people to show them the enlightened way.

  6. Because sometimes it’s easy to be against change just as a knee jerk reaction, I sometimes find it helpful to imagine if the situation were reversed.

    That is: what if this were an empty tract that a developer wanted to have re-zoned to be a mobile home park?

    The answer is easy: neighbors would fight it. Planners would argue that it’s not in the neighborhood master plan or suitable development for the neighborhood or along the river.
    And activists would say, why do you always allow these uses in the south/west/east sides? We want nice market rate housing like they have on the Northside.

    I don’t have a problem with the residents trying to get the best deal they can, but the end result for them is inevitable, and for Esperanza to advise them differently is not doing the residents any favor.

  7. I spoke on behalf of Esperanza at the council meeting and have worked with the residents from the beginning to support their efforts to organize. As such, it’s important to correct an important error in this piece. Esperanza Peace and Justice did not organize residents to this meeting. Residents were already organized against the proposed rezoning when I and two other persons (one who works with a different community organization, the other unaffiliated with an organization but who is active in her neighborhood association) visited the Mission Trails community to offer our support–which began with asking what it was that *they* wanted to do. Over time, a broad coalition of several groups formed to support and facilitate resident organizing; the woman at the front of the room coordinating speakers, for instance, has been a central part of this coalition, but is primarily affiliated with a different organization, not Esperanza. More importantly, though, organizing efforts have been driven by the Mission Trails Resident Council, who speak for themselves and their own interests.

    • They have been organized since February according to the website I provided on my comment above. The article, from the beginning, portrays these residents as people to be pitied rather than community members or stakeholders.

      They have nine months. Let us see what actions they take. They know their situation. It is in their best interest to change it.

      Moving them to another trailer park defers the problem. They are not homeless but they are only a step away. What is the solution?

      What is it? Is it an attitude? Is it a set of beliefs? If the goal of social welfare and equality/justice programs is to help those in need then I believe the goal should be to help these people change their attitude – their views of the world. They should be encouraged to seek a better way.

      http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-poverty-mentality.htm

      http://urbanintellectuals.com/2013/09/05/7-symptoms-poverty-mentality/

  8. Thanks for providing another side of the story, Bob! It seems that no one else in the media has bothered to drive through the trailer park and provide a look at its dilapidated infrastructure.

    It seems that so far, no one as addressed the elephant in the room: these people do NOT own the land upon which their mobile homes (aka “manufactured housing”) sits on. It’s an unfortunate — but true — reality. As such, the do not share the same rights that property owners do (even though that right can be upended through eminent domain, but that’s another story…)

    To be sure, unlike the case of French & Michigan, this is a true case of gentrification. But is it acceptable to maintain a condition of urban blight for the sake of the tenants? There are numerous mobile home communities in San Antonio that are in much better condition than this, and although the residents may endure short-term grief over being displaced, they will ultimately find that better living conditions actually improve their lives in the long run.

    Yes, this is a complex situation. But the bottom line is that these people are tenants, and ultimately it is up to the property owner to do with the property as they see fit. That is the unfortunate reality of our capitalist system, and if it is undermined, it is to the detriment of us all…

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