Our View: New focus on mobile homes

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Steamboat Springs City Council members said last week that they want to increase protection of mobile-home owners and encourage new tenant-owned mobile-home parks. In our estimation, the former is political folly while the latter is where the city should focus its efforts.

Nearly 450 mobile homes sit in the city limits of Steamboat Springs and represent about 6 percent of the city's housing. Most of the mobile homes are in parks that are decades old and are now surrounded by development that threatens their already tenuous future.

Mobile homes are the most affordable housing in a high-cost area. Without them, many who work in Steamboat Springs would not be able to live here.

The problem, for the most part, is that mobile-home owners do not own the lots on which their homes sit. When Trailer Haven sold, 11 families lost their mobile homes so that the Steamboat Springs Health and Recreation Association could build new tennis courts. Now, more than 30 families in Westland Trailer Park are losing their homes to a mixed-use development planned along the river. In both instances, City Council members expressed sympathy for the mobile-home owners and lamented the loss of some of the city's increasingly scarce affordable housing. But the fact is the city could not -- and should not -- unfairly restrict the property rights of mobile-home-park owners.

More than 100 people, many of them mobile-home owners concerned about their future, crammed into City Council chambers last week to hear the council discuss this divisive issue. Council president Paul Strong advocated giving mobile-home owners the first right of refusal if a park owner decides to sell. That's a nice thought, but unrealistic -- if mobile-home owners had the financial resources to purchase the land, they wouldn't be in mobile homes to begin with.

Councilman Steve Ivancie suggested requiring developers to have no net loss of affordable housing if mobile-home parks are converted and to provide a relocation plan if the parks change use. But such restrictions likely would constitute an unfair burden on the landowners and, as city attorney Tony Lettunich noted, may not stand up to legal challenges.

The problem is not that old mobile-home parks within the city are disappearing. As we have noted, there is little the city could have done differently in the past -- or in the future -- to prevent mobile-home park owners from selling their land.

The problem is that this type of affordable housing opportunities have not been replicated in years so that when mobile-home parks disappear, there is no place for the families to turn.

If the city truly wants to offer a serviceable alternative to existing mobile-home owners, it must take the lead in, as Strong said, encouraging new park development that will allow the mobile-home owners the opportunity to individually or cooperatively purchase and maintain their own mobile-home sites. One way to do this is to really get serious about removing the obstacles to development in the West of Steamboat Springs Area Plan.

Though the City Council discussed the area plan last week, little was accomplished and no one made the necessary public effort to couple the future of our mobile-home owners with development on the west side of Steamboat Springs. The city could make several purposeful decisions to help break the laggardly pace of growth reform under the area plan.

First, the city must remove the plan's assessed improvement district tax that helps cover the costs of extended city service coverage. As Strong opined, it is unfair to have residents in one part of the city, especially those living in the area identified as the best location for affordable housing, pay more taxes for the same city services.

Second, the city must be open-minded about the east-to-west requirement. Any proposal for a new mobile-home park in the West of Steamboat Area Plan should be considered seriously, regardless of whether it meets the east-to-west requirement.

Lastly, though mobile homes are a key component of the housing equation in Steamboat Springs, the City Council and mobile-home owners must come to grips with the reality that some of the city's mobile-home parks are not going to survive.

It probably won't be long before Dream Island homeowners face similar threats as those encountered by home owners in Trailer Haven and Westland Trailer Park.

Rather than trying to prevent the inevitable market-driven changes, the City Council's energies would be better spent aggressively championing the development of new parks in better locations where the mobile-home owner has the opportunity to own the land and become a part of the Steamboat dream.

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