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Op-Ed: The looming crisis for Hilltop and Penn State Mobile home communities

Editor in Chief’s note: Ordinarily, we as a newspaper would not run an op-ed on the main page of our website. Due to the extraordinary circumstances, however, (the College Township meeting is tonight and this letter directly addresses an issue to be considered there) the matter was deemed important enough to place front and center.

Last year, our friend Barbara took out a $10,000 loan to buy a trailer at the Penn State mobile home park on North Atherton, for her and her then-1-year-old daughter to live in. Like us, Barbara is from State College. We all went to high school here, our families live here, we live here. Barbara is a hard-working, bright, funny woman trying to improve her life by creating a secure, happy home for herself and her daughter. She’s taking an evening phlebotomy course while waitressing days at a local restaurant. When Barbara took out that loan and moved into the trailer, she was making a fresh start after a divorce. It seemed she’d found a long-term home in a town that does not offer a lot of low-income housing options.

 

Now, with the announced closing of Penn State mobile home park after owner Daron Dibert sold it for $6.225 million to local developer Heidi Nicholas, Barbara and over 100 other residents are being forced to relocate. These families are not being offered any financial compensation (though a “relocation coordinator” has been assigned to help them with paperwork). If the residents are unable to move their mobile homes by July 2013 they’ll be forced to pay for the demolition of those mobile homes or else face a fine. For Barbara to move her trailer to another park—the only affordable one she’s found is in Centre Hall—will cost $10,000, according to an estimator who visited her last week. Barbara will almost assuredly end up walking away from (and paying to demolish) her home, and will spend the next few years paying off the $8,000 she still owes on the loan while struggling to make ends meet somewhere new.

Last Wednesday, Governor Corbett signed House Bill 1767, State Representative Robert Freeman’s Manufactured Home Community Rights Act, into law. The new legislation promises to make life a little more secure for people like Barbara, those ¾ million Pennsylvanians who are owners of manufactured housing on leased land in mobile home parks. Among other things, House Bill 1767 requires mobile home park owners, when closing communities, to provide financial compensation: $4,000 for a single and $6,000 for a double house and $2,500 or the appraised value for a home that cannot be moved. It would, in other words, make it impossible for people like Daron Dibert and Heidi Nicholas to make the deal they just did.

It is not illegal to sell land and make a profit, or for the new owner of that land to redevelop it and make a profit. It’s not illegal to evict all the residents of a mobile home park from that land. Unfortunately, though, it would appear that threat of this legislation hastened the sales of the Penn State mobile home park and, right on its heels, Hilltop mobile home park, where just last month residents were given until February 2013 to relocate. It’s a pretty distasteful thought: rushing to make quick business deals to avoid having to follow laws that require you to treat people humanely when you’re displacing them and in many cases compelling them to abandon their homes. In a further appearance of bad faith, the Penn State mobile home park was selling trailers for use in the park as recently as two months prior to the announcement of the park’s sale and subsequent closing. On September 27, attorney Stephanie Cooper sent a letter to Heidi Nicholas on behalf of the residents of Penn State mobile home park, detailing the hardship that has been placed on the residents and asking Nicholas to meet to discuss some sort of settlement. The letter has been met with silence.

 

At Hilltop, residents have been given even less: with only five months to leave their homes, they don’t have the benefit of a “relocation coordinator,” let alone any financial assistance. On October 12, an “Indiana student housing development company” requested College Township rezone the Hilltop site, which is currently zoned only for mobile home park use, to allow other uses. Hilltop residents hope that the passing of House Bill 1767 will help them save their community, and have proposed the forming of a residents’ cooperative to purchase the park and establish it as a secure neighborhood and a housing resource. They’ll make their case at the November 15th College Township meeting.

 

Many of us think of State College as a kind of haven, or at least we did before the horrors of last fall. As our community continues to try to heal from that great wound, we believe that we have another laceration being dealt, right now, to some of the most vulnerable among us. But, unlike before, we still have a chance as a community to make this situation better. We can urge College Township to refuse to rezone Hilltop and help residents in their battle to save their homes (and we can show up at the November 15th meeting). We can pressure the mobile home park owners to compensate residents the way they would have been required had these deals gone through just a few months later. We can help the families being displaced as they try to figure out the next step. And we can pressure local developers to care less about profit and more about whether or not a single mother and her child—and the 200 additional families being affected—have a place to call home.

 

Carolyn Turgeon

Jill Gleeson