Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Opponents of City Council’s 2014 decision to rezone the blighted Mission Trails Mobile Home Park community, which included numerous abandoned and vacant mobile homes, now assert in a report that the closure negatively impacted residents who accepted cash payments from the property’s new owner and agreed to relocate.
The trailer park, long neglected by its previous out-of-state owner and ignored by City Code Enforcement and community groups, was purchased by San Antonio-based White-Conlee Development with plans to develop the Mission Escondida Luxury Apartments, a 600-unit mixed-use development. The project has yet to clear all the necessary approval levels.
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, whose District 3 is home to the site, was one of six council members who voted to approve the rezoning in 2014.
“Everybody moved out of that trailer park two years ago and we didn’t evict anybody,” White-Conlee Development partner Scott Weems told the Rivard Report Tuesday. “We spent over $900,000 dollars to find [residents] places to live…No one was forced out. They all took the money and left.”
White-Conleee also paid for trailer moving costs and negotiated discounted rental rates at other mobile home parks for the residents.
The report released Tuesday was conducted by Vecinos de Mission Trails, a nonprofit specifically organized to support the displaced residents of Mission Trails. The group was not active in the Mission Trails community in the years when the former owner allowed conditions to badly deteriorate. The report includes a chronological account of City actions and resident organizing and offers policy recommendations to prevent further displacement “as downtown redevelopment continues unmitigated by protections for the most vulnerable residents.”
Click here for the 100-page report.
The report’s authors assert that the sale of the property disrupted a largely settled community of mobile homeowners, leading to high rates of housing insecurity (multiple moves and/or overcrowding) and significant rates of homelessness, loss of friendships and social networks, increased housing burden, negative financial impacts, decline in health, increased anxiety levels, and more.
The Rivard Report has not had the opportunity to carefully review the report, but opponents to the sale on previous occasions have exaggerated the number of residents who lived at the trailer park and downplayed the blighted conditions, crime issues, and problems with dumped garbage, standing storm waters, and other health hazards.
The study is based in part on 51 interviews conducted with former Mission Trails residents, according to Marisol Cortez, principal author of the report and co-founder of Vecinos de Mission Trails. Approximately 300 residents lived in Mission Trails, Cortez said during a press event Tuesday, and 106 mobile homes were displaced.
Visits to the trailer park by Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard months before its closure found far fewer trailers occupied and far fewer residents living there. One resident later told Rivard that numerous people were claiming to live there who were no longer residents in hopes of receiving a cash payment from the new owners.
“We felt strongly that there needed to be a way to document what happened, to collect data that would really show what happens when people are displaced,” Cortez said. “[It’s a] way to make that disappearance visible, where they went, what happened to them, and the lasting impacts of that.”
Cortez hopes the data can inform both policy and organizing to prevent another situation like the one at Mission Trails from happening again. An important part of the study, Cortez explained, sheds light on how the funds allocated by the developers were insufficient to enable families to relocate or establish themselves at a new mobile home park.
Residents received an average of $4,451 in relocation assistance, compared to the roughly $7,200 promised by developers, according to the study.
“There was never enough money to satisfy,” Weems said. “We spent months on this plan. The city signed off on it and every single person signed off. We gave everyone $2,500 in cash and relocated trailer parks to newer and better lots, we paid the moving companies to move them, and every single person took the money and left.
“Some trailers were so old they couldn’t be moved, we bought them and repaired some of them – we did whatever it took to help people relocate. They may have had problems later but every single person there took our incentive agreement and left voluntarily.”
Viagran, who did not attend the press event and has been criticized for her rezoning vote by candidates challenging her in the District 3 City Council race, rejects claims that she ignored the needs of the trailer park’s residents.
“I worked day and night to help residents transition out of the mobile home park, get cash assistance, and move their trailers to new places at reduced rates,” Viagran said in a statement Tuesday. “I walked the park, knocked on every door, and listened to everyone who wanted to talk. The assistance they got was based on their specific needs, on a case-by-case basis. Since then, I’ve spent countless hours with community members, activists, and experts looking for concrete steps we can take as a city to ensure residents are protected in the future.”
Jessica O. Guerrero, one of Viagran’s opponents in the District 3 race, assisted with research for the report. Viagran believes that the timing of the report, “makes it clear that the goal is to influence an election” rather than solve the problem at hand.
“The residents at Mission Trails Mobile Home Park experienced real pain and hardship. Rather than exploiting that hardship for political gain, we should be focused on finding real public policy solutions at the City and State level that protect residents and help them thrive in growing, improving neighborhoods,” Viagran said. “Though it would have been politically easier to let the residents get evicted without help, that wasn’t the right thing to do. In the future, I hope we can focus on what is right for the people involved, not what is right for someone’s campaign.”
Some former residents of Mission Trails and other Southside residents struggling to stay in their homes and neighborhoods joined the report’s author at a press conference to talk about their experiences. They described feeling betrayed or ignored by City leaders.
Manuel de la O, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran, was one of the last residents to move out of Mission Trails. He said he received $2,500 from developers, which he used to buy a van and put his belongings in storage.
“I was moving from apartment to apartment. I finally have a home now, but it took a lot of suffering,” he said. “It was like a bully moving you out of here.”
Sherry Posey, 53, lived at the mobile home park for seven years and said she lost a lot of close friends due to displacement. She is currently renting a home for $600 a month, plus utility costs.
“A lot of us didn’t get what we were supposed to get,” Posey said. ” … The [developers] push innocent people out into the street, the kids’ lives are being destroyed, and veterans are having a hard time finding a place … You have to think of the consequences of who you’re hurting and who you’re destroying.”
Cortez said the study can serve to help people look beyond District 3 to understand the system that caused the situation.
“It’s larger than Viagran, even though I don’t agree with the way she responded to the situation,” Cortez said. “What we have to disrupt is the logic of that system in the name of pursuing development or progress. It’s not just the case of Mission Trails – certain interests prevail over the interest of community.”
District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg and Manuel Medina, two of the 13 candidates vying to unseat Mayor Ivy Taylor in the May 6 election, also attended the Tuesday event.
“One part is communication with the residents and how we establish coordination with organizations to provide assistance … and the other part of that is leveraging … resources to provide displacement resources,” Nirenberg said, adding that a comprehensive housing policy is needed to prevent displacement. Nirenberg, who voted for the rezoning, said that “knowing what we know now,” he would have voted “no.”
“Had we known then what we know today, things would have played out much differently,” he said. “We were ill-equipped to handle the needs of this community … this has been an ongoing learning process.”
In Medina’s view, “it’s powerful economic interests and out-of-town developers that run City Hall, and we need to change that.” He said he would have taken the people’s side and worked toward keeping the residents in their original homes.
Mayor Ivy Taylor did not attend the press event. Her office released the following statement Tuesday evening: “Mayor Taylor is moved by the plight of the former Mission Trails residents. She’s working to strengthen San Antonio’s vulnerable neighborhoods through the SA Tomorrow master plan – to ensure residents can stay in their homes despite pressures from a heated real-estate market.”
According to Cortez, getting the City to enact preventative rather than reactive policy solutions is key to ensure something like Mission Trails doesn’t happen again. Part of that involves changing laws to allow resident right of “first refusal” in the case of a proposed rezoning or sale, she added. On a local level that means cities partnering with organizations to provide the kind of technical assistance and access to capital that allows mobile home residents to acquire and collectively manage their parks.
“This is happening in cities around the U.S. and the world, and we have to recognize that,” Cortez told the Rivard Report. “The people that have been most impacted by these decisions need to be at the table and crafting the solutions – they are the experts of displacement.
“The process that has unfolded after – like the creation of the Mayor’s Task Force on Gentrification and the Housing Commission that formed out of the task force – it’s not accountable to the people that went through it,” she added. “We need those voices to come up with accountable solutions.”