Bruce Kleiman met his wife, Lindsey, when she walked down the street to his mobile home one New Year's Eve more than 15 years ago.
"She came for the party and never left," Kleiman said Friday while standing on the corner of Fourth and Yampa streets, outside the trailer he has owned since 1981.
Next month, the party officially ends for Kleiman and the other 100 or so residents of Westland Mobile Home Park. To make way for Riverwalk, a residential and commercial development that could break ground in March 2007, Westland residents must vacate by Sept. 26.
The neighborhood covers more than two blocks of Yampa Street. Residents were first notified of future development in April 2003, when Riverwalk Steamboat LLC, managed by Jim Cook, began proceedings to purchase the more than 2-acre site.
The sale was finalized in January 2005 for $2.5 million. In June, the Steamboat Springs City Council approved Riverwalk's final logistical hurdle, clearing the way for construction of a project that will include 72 residential units, 35 hotel rooms, seven units of affordable housing and more than 32,000 square feet of commercial space. Riverwalk also will include public river access and plazas, a fountain for children and 108 underground parking spaces.
All but one of the 39 homes at Westland will be demolished. One mobile home will be moved to another site. Owners of mobile homes own only the home - not the land underneath it - and most of the homes are too old or structurally unsound to move.
Kleiman said Friday that he is "one of the lucky ones." He owns 70 acres of land in North Routt and has lived there since
1990 while renting his trailer for $400 a month. While Kleiman and other Westland home owners will be compensated an average of $19,400 - money that Riverwalk Steamboat LLC is not legally obligated to give, but was agreed upon with city officials as part of Riverwalk's housing plan - several homeowners face unpaid rents, bills or outstanding liens on top of the struggle to find new affordable housing in the Steamboat area.
"It's a very heartbreaking scenario," said Elizabeth Black, executive director of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority. "It certainly points to the critical need, or lack of, appropriate housing in which to relocate these residents. It would be so much easier if we had (housing) inventory that matched the residency. We're doing our best, but quite frankly, we don't have a lot to offer them right now because we don't have a significant number of units."
Kleiman put it simpler.
"I'm going to miss this place," he said, standing under a tall pine tree that towered over his trailer. Kleiman often decorated it as an outdoor Christmas tree.
"This was the first tree in the park."
Shelves and all
At one time, Westland was home to as many as 150 people. After the sale was announced in April 2003, the park's population began to slowly decline - along with the condition of the neighborhood.
"This used to be a nice place to live," Kleiman said, looking around at several dilapidated trailers and abandoned lots on the street. "Everyone's been kind of letting things fall apart for the past year and a half."
Christina Allevato lives on the east end of Yampa Street in a trailer with a porch overlooking the river. She said many Westland residents are leaving Steamboat.
Her neighbor, carpetlayer Bryan Phillips, is moving to Denver with his wife and teenage daughter. Allevato has lived in her three-bedroom trailer for 17 years, and she said the Phillipses have lived next door the entire time.
Cyndy Tuck rents a trailer on Yampa Street west of Fourth Street. She is the owner of Books & Booty, which is in a building on Lincoln Avenue that recently was sold. Tuck said she plans to move her home and her business to Tucson, Ariz.
"I'll probably just pack up my business and go," she said this week. "Books and shelves and everything."
Several months ago, 18-year Steamboat resident Chris Lewis left Westland with his family and moved to Hayden, where he helped build a home for his family through the Housing Authority's Hands on Housing program.
But not everyone is leaving town.
Two doors down from Tuck, carpet cleaner Elliot Vazquez rents a trailer with a roommate. They pay $800 a month. Vazquez said he probably will move to White Haven Mobile Home Park in west Steamboat.
"We're not too worried about it," he said.
On the dotted line
Vazquez and his roommate will receive $1,000 as compensation for relocating. All Westland residents who rent their homes will receive the same amount. And although $19,400 is the average allocation for each Westland homeowner, the actual amount given to each will be determined by a city-approved formula that takes into account factors such as remaining mortgage and assessed home value as of 2003. Home values dipped after the sale announcement, Black said.
"2003 was the last year of the highest value," Black said. "That's our baseline."
The Housing Authority asked homeowners to fill out questionnaires and provide financial information to assist in the compensation process.
Black said that as of Friday, her office had contacted every Westland homeowner.
"The application wasn't too bad," Kleiman said about the process. He has yet to learn how much he will be compensated.
Sitting on her back steps Friday afternoon near the gardens and the fire pit in her small yard, Allevato received a phone call from Black. Black told her the compensation money had officially "gone through" and would be available for payments - after a property is vacated and the home is inspected.
Allevato said it was good news, but it doesn't make it easier to move right now.
"As of today, we don't have any money, and we have to be out Sept. 25," she said.
Allevato is moving to a one-bedroom apartment in the Riverside complex. She will pay $950 a month for 600 square feet. She pays $355 a month for her 1,000-square-foot trailer.
"I still haven't paid the first month's rent," Allevato said about her new place.
Mobile home ads from a recent edition of the Steamboat Today sat on the counter in Allevato's kitchen. The cheapest home listed was $32,000. The most expensive was $52,000.
Looking at the prices, Alle-vato said she is glad she stayed in Westland for as long as she did.
She stayed to fight for more money.
Riverwalk Steamboat LLC - consisting of Cook, Den-nis Collins, Richard Katz, Terry Drahota and Brandt Vanderbosch - initially offered a payment of $4,000 to Westland homeowners. Vanderbosch's firm, Vertical Arts, is designing the Riverwalk project.
Riverwalk attorney Jill Brabec said eight homeowners accepted the initial offer.
A case to be studied
Over the past two years, Allevato has become the de facto representative for Westland residents. She met several times with Housing Authority officials, Cook and the City Council.
Now at the end of the road, she said Friday that she worries about the fate of other mobile home parks - and their residents - in Steamboat.
"I think the city should set a new ordinance protecting mobile home owners," she said. "What happened at Westland was a gift - the rest of these people may not be as fortunate as we were."
Black said Westland residents should be able to collect their payments within the next two to three weeks.
Brabec praised the Housing Authority for its diligence and huge amount of work.
"I think the Housing Authority has done a great job of working with the mobile home owners," Brabec said. "They really deserve to be commended for that."
Black said Westland provides a valuable lesson.
"I hope this case prepares us to anticipate similar zoning issues with other development projects," Black said. "We really need to address what we are missing right now, in terms of appropriate housing projects - and we need to do that right away."