For a small fraction of what a standard house costs in the Pacific Northwest, a notoriously expensive corner of the country, they could own a cozy little home and lease the narrow sliver of ground beneath it for a few hundred dollars a month.
“All you had to worry about was paying your rent on time, and thinking about who you’d leave this shelter to after you were out of it,” said Eloise Micklesen, 74, a Halcyon resident. “But that changed last year, in July, when all of a sudden we were up for sale.”
The voracious Seattle real estate market, which had already wiped out almost every other mobile home park around, had finally come for Halcyon. A developer offered the owners $22 million, with plans to build 200 pricey townhomes on the 7.5-acre property near the city’s northern border.
That deal fell through, but the property is still for sale, and Micklesen and her neighbors know now that their community, and their way of life, are on borrowed time.
These days, mobile home or manufactured home communities — please don’t call them trailer parks, residents say — are most often associated with rural areas. But they have played an important role in many cities and suburbs as well, especially those that grew rapidly after World War II, by bridging the gap between the transience and high density of rented apartments and the permanence and high cost of owning conventional houses.
But successive waves of development in those cities and suburbs in recent decades wiped away many urban mobile home parks. Seattle has just two left: Halcyon, geared to retirees and empty-nesters who are 55 and older, and the Bella-B Mobile Home Park next door, home mostly to working-class families.
For many Halcyon residents like Micklesen, moving out would mean walking away from their retirement plan. Many of the park’s mobile homes long ago stopped being truly mobile: some have additions, or features like covered carports, that would make them unsafe to tow, and others are simply too dilapidated to move.
Halcyon, with its entrance off a dead-end street, offers a quiet respite from the auto repair shops, mom-and-pop restaurants and budget motels a few blocks away on Aurora Avenue. Residents gather at the park’s clubhouse to play bridge or exercise with donated gym equipment in the dimly lit basement.
Micklesen helped organize residents to oppose the park’s demise, and persuaded the Seattle City Council to put a moratorium on any sale of Halcyon or Bella-B until January 2020 while it considers possible zoning changes. Micklesen said the residents were also talking to a potential buyer who would keep the park as it is, though it was not clear whether that buyer could make a big enough offer to satisfy the current owner, a trust overseen by U.S. Bank.
A spokeswoman for the bank declined to answer questions about the Halcyon property. The owner of the Bella-B park, Yacov Sinai, said he was not planning to sell.
The uncertainty over Halcyon’s future has left some residents in limbo, unwilling to put money into repairs but afraid to move far from familiar routines and easy access to services like the Social Security office and the veterans’ hospital in Seattle.
Micklesen said she moved to the city from Alabama more than 50 years ago. She bought and fixed up houses and ran an auto repair shop, and then settled in Halcyon in 2003. These days she teaches art at a nearby senior center and spends much of her time caring for other residents, some of whom are 20 years her senior.
“I don’t want to go anywhere because my life is here,” she said.
Seattle’s blue-collar roots, first as a community of fishermen, boatwrights and lumber mills and then as a Boeing company town, are long past. The city has reinvented itself as a tech hub, and the problems that dominate the conversation at City Hall are homelessness and a shortage of affordable housing, which are not unrelated.
Evidence of the changing city is visible just outside Halcyon’s fence. A sign at the towing lot just to the west announces plans to build 19 new three-story town houses; in the green strip between that property and the mobile home park, a cluster of homeless people have set up tents.
There were a half-dozen mobile home parks in the neighborhood as recently as the 1980s; by 2007, there were just five left in the whole city. The most recent to close, a 63-unit community not far from Halcyon, was redeveloped in 2017 as multifamily housing.
In the city of SeaTac, Washington, home to the international airport between Seattle and Tacoma, about 50 families living in the Firs Mobile Home Park spent nearly three years fighting the owner’s plans to build a motel on the 6.67-acre site. They ultimately agreed to move out in June 2020, after the owner promised to pay each family $10,000 and to waive their rent. Jong Soo Park, the president of the company that owns the park, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Veronica Garnica and her husband paid $12,000 for a home in the Firs in 2004. They built a fence around the little yard that came with it, put a roof over the concrete patio, and started a family. A few weeks ago, her three children adopted a puppy. By this time next year, their home will probably be bulldozed.
Garnica, 42, said she did not know yet where her family would go, but she doubted she would find anything to compare to their corner lot with its two towering evergreens. An elementary school is across the street, the middle school and high schools are only a short drive away, and she and her neighbors watch one another’s children and keep an eye on their neighbors’ homes.
“To live in an apartment would be very expensive, and my children wouldn’t have the freedom they do here,” Garnica said. “Here, it’s beautiful in the shade. It’s like a park for the kids.”
Omar Barraza, a lawyer who represented Firs residents as they fought redevelopment, said the alternatives for them were unattractive. Apartments are often not a good fit for families with children who need space to play, he said, but houses may be out of reach financially, especially for the many immigrants living in the Firs, who might have trouble getting a mortgage.
“They’re the backbone of our labor economy, and we’re pushing them farther and farther out on the margins,” Barraza said.
Of course, owning a mobile home on rented land has always come with the risk that the landlord would one day sell or redevelop the property, though that prospect seemed less dire when alternative sites were plentiful.
At the Halcyon park, Jim Dick said he had to put a lot of work into his place when he moved in eight years ago. One-quarter of the roof had to be replaced, he said, and the structure “was really a mess.” Now the skirting is starting to bulge.
He would like to finish replacing the roof and level the home, which would make him eligible for a city grant to make it more energy efficient, he said. But he’s reluctant to put any more money or work into a building he might soon have to abandon.
“All of a sudden it was like, everything is on hold,” said Dick, 58, who plays bluegrass banjo and guitar and works at a nearby Lowe’s store. “The whole house is tilted this way, and I need to get it leveled somehow, but I might not be here next year. Why would I want to put any effort to do that?”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.