Another Trailer Park Faces the Potential Bulldozer
An Editorial Commentary on Sedona's Affordable Housing Crisis
By Catherine J. Rourke
October 21, 2007
First report published May 7, 2006
When the economics of real estate greed and the opposition of a favored few drive out the dwellings of the working stiffs, we've crossed a line in the idea of community.
– Alphonso Jackson, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Part One - Voices of Exasperation
Do you currently live in one of Sedona’s few remaining trailer parks? If so, local development trends indicate that you’d better start packing your bags. Beware, the condos are coming.
Oak Creek Mobilodge, situated off Highway 179 near Copper Cliffs, is the next one slated for extinction. Proposed for redevelopment as The Falls at Oak Creek, the project would displace 59 families currently living in trailers on the site grandfathered into the city code as “single family residential” zoning.
Mobilodge landlords Don and Cathy Campbell and their project designer – Santa Barbara-based Hochhauser Blatter Architecture and Planning – filed a request with the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission in March for a “planned residential development” zoning change that would allow them to turn the trailer park into 50 condominiums, with another eight units designated as “affordable.”
If the city approves the developer’s rezoning proposal later this summer, the Mobilodge’s low-income residents face eviction in a housing market that offers them few, if any, affordable alternatives. In Part 1 of this series,we interview current residents about the prospect of losing their homes.
Home sweet home
Making the steep descent into the Mobilodge is like entering Sedona’s underworld. Rows of shabby trailers line the bottom of a deep gulch that sits on nearly four acres along Morgan’s Wash on Oak Creek.
Oak Creek Mobilodge Rourke photo
Residents of these mobile homes, most of whom work in low-paying local tourism and
hotel-restaurant jobs, say they have no idea where they will go if the city approves their
landlord's zoning change request to make way for condos on their home sites.
No sweeping red rock vistas or creek-side patios here; no Feng Shui or Santa Fe design either. Forget about wraparound decks, palatial square footage and infinity pools with rock waterfalls. What you see are nondescript, colorless dwellings, dirt driveways, older-model vehicles and overworked hands.
Weary faces in hotel uniforms emerge from this underbelly of the city, making their way to Job No. 2 or 3. Their sweat spins the economic wheels of profit for timeshares, tour operators, multinational resort chains and restaurateurs who thrive on their minimum-wage and sub-minimum wage labor. Home to many of the city’s service workers and Mexican immigrant families, Oak Creek Mobilodge is where they find rest in between multiple jobs juggled to pay the rent.
Nameless, faceless and potentially homeless
Sentiment among these residents can be described as "exasperated" and “fed up,” with many noting that they feel like “strangers” in a city that “has turned its back” on them. Affordable housing topped a list of gripes including low wages, high gas prices, stagnant jobs, inadequate health care and the “overwhelming cost of living.”
Though living in the shadow of seven-figure homes on the Palisades above them, residents said they feel “light years apart” from their affluent neighbors. “It’s like we’re a leper colony down here that no one wants to acknowledge,” said Robert Curley, a hotel front-desk attendant who lives in a tiny trailer. “Even though we do their dirty work, I’m sure the rich would like to push us out because we‘re an eyesore.”
While a far cry from the palatial homes that sit above them on the nearby Palisades,
Mobilodge residents say they cherish their humble abodes that make it affordable for them
to live in Sedona. Without these units, many fear they may have to leave the area altogether.
Another resident of the sordid trailer park who, like most of her neighbors, refused to identify herself for fear of eviction by her self-described "slum landlord," asked: “Where are our housing officials, community groups and church leaders? All they talk about is immigration because it’s cheap labor for them. They ignore the rest of us who are losing our jobs and housing because of it. None of ‘em ever come down here to talk with us, but I‘d be happy to give 'em the grand tour and a reality check.”
Dave R. represents the epitome of Sedona’s housing crisis. His sub-minimum waiter's wages at a nearby restaurant with an obscenely overpriced menu barely pay the rent. Yet an hour's wage couldn't buy Dave a burger or burrito in his own workplace. Educated and articulate, he came to Sedona to escape the smokestacks and blizzards of Pittsburgh but couldn’t find a decent job in his field. Shortly after renting a space at Hawkeye Trailer Park, he was forced out to make way for The Preserve, a high-priced condo development slated for the hideous Hawkeye site.
“The developers have yet to turn a single shovel of dirt because they can’t find anywhere to stick their token affordable housing units,” he declared, as his neighbors nodded in agreement. “They just pulled the rug out from under us.” Dave now faces a similar situation at the Mobilodge.
“The city says it wants affordable housing but caves in to the greedy developers who are destroying this town,” he said. “People look down on us because we live in trailers, but where else can we go?”
Another resident added: “This is our home, even it’s a trailer park. I won’t live in Cottonwood and let the gas prices eat up my hard-earned money. There‘s a lot of hard-working families here who deserve better.”
“Uprooting working people to build expensive condos for those who neither work nor live here is crazy,” said one young woman who also refused to give her name, explaining that she works as a shop clerk in Uptown Sedona. “We will go where we can afford to live and work and be treated with respect. You will wake up one morning and there will be no one to serve your latte. And I wonder if anyone will even care.”
A moral obligation
Communities flourish when they're economically integrated and when housing is available for all pocketbooks. How we house the least of our people who toil for such small sums on our behalf is a moral obligation. As such, we cannot leave the issue solely up to the city or developers, nor lose our sense of community.
The "Housing Vision" component of the City of Sedona Community Plan states:
Since existing mobile home parks provide some of the most affordable housing options to low and moderate income households, retention of this housing is very important. If these areas are re-developed, the existing housing densities should be retained regardless of housing type if upgrades to current housing and/or site conditions are provided and the housing units are and remain affordable to low and moderate income households.
A collective approach that is anchored as a community-wide moral responsibility -- instead of leaving matters in the hands of a few power brokers who have little idea what it‘s like to roll coins for food and gas -- would strengthen that vision and the chances for affordable housing solutions.
The workers and families who live at Oak Creek Mobilodge are a gift to us. We must stand by them instead of banishing them. At the very least, we don't need to give any more developers another reason to go "zoning shopping" in the future.
Part 2 - Can You Afford to Live Here?
The search continues for local housing solutions
by Catherine J. Rourke
Published May 21, 2007
We must not build houses; we must build communities. - Mike Burton, architect
It’s a local and national epidemic for which there seems to be no cure.
The lack of affordable housing – much like the lack of affordable health care – often pushes hardworking families into the street. And, as landowners across Sedona feverishly redevelop the area’s few remaining barrios into luxury condos, the question remains: How will Sedona attract and house its work force without relying solely on immigrant labor?
Complicating local matters is HB2779, a state bill that mandates the toughest employer sanctions in the nation by punishing those who knowingly hire undocumented immigrants. Signed into law earlier this year, it spells trouble for local businesses that rely on their cheap labor as many workers abandon Sedona due to the lack of livable wages and affordable housing.
What happens when workers start leaving? The answer to that disturbing question was recently posted on the storefront of one local retailer: We are currently closed due to the short staff we are experiencing and will not re-open until tomorrow.
Part 1 of the series highlighted some of the exasperated voices of 59 low-income families at Oak Creek Mobilodge who face possible eviction if the city approves their landlord’s zoning change request to redevelop the trailer park into condominiums. Most of their voices still remain silent out of fear, some say, of retribution from what they describe as a "vindictive landlord" evicting tenants who have spoken to the press. As one resident put it: "Either way, we're evicted, so maybe we have nothing to lose if we start talking to reporters."
Mobilodge resident Laurie, with best friend "Lobo," says, "This is our home." She
notes that many of her fellow residents have already been displaced from other
trailer parks, such as Hawkeye, to make way for condos that have failed to materialize.
The story now turns to the definition of “affordable” and efforts to turn that principle into mortar and bricks.
Affordable for whom?
Don Campbell, who purchased Oak Creek Mobilodge in 1979, notes that the city’s housing policy mandates that 12 percent of his redevelopment must consist of affordable units. He emphasizes that 16 percent of them will remain affordable, exceeding the city’s standard by 33 percent. That means a total of eight condos will fall under the "affordable" designation.
Campbell notes that the existing 59 tenants will also be given "priority" in purchasing the eight affordable condos. “In addition, covenants attached to these units will ensure they remain affordable in the future,” he said.
Campbell has refrained from any further comment to the Observer and did not return any calls by press time.
According to the project architects, “sales prices would follow city of Sedona standards, with 75 percent priced for moderate-income earners, from $151,400 to $189,800 (based on 115 percent of area median income), and 25 percent would be priced for low-income earners and priced from $84,800 to $109,800 (based on 75 percent of area median income).”
Affordable housing? Some of thee units, designated as par of the "affordable" housing component
of another prior development, rented for $3,000/month, according to the classified listings. Rourke photo
While these prices could be defined as reasonable, by comparison, in light of the average price of a Sedona home, is it realistic to label the condos "affordable" for low-income workers? What classifies low-income wages here - $12 an hour? Minimum wage? Would a bank finance Rosie, a hotel maid earning $8/hour, or Julio the dishwasher at $6.75/hour, or even Ted the reporter at $10 an hour? What about taxes, closing costs and other fees?
Mobilodge residents report that they simply cannot afford even the lowest-priced units, along with many of the city’s presumed “middle-income,” white-collar workers – such as teachers, journalists and office administrators – who report average earnings of $10-$13 per hour. When asked, many of these “professionals” admitted that they too struggle to make ends meet, especially local housing rental costs, on their substandard paychecks.
High prices or low wages?
According to the city, the median annual household income in 2006 was $49,000. Does this figure strictly represent local work force wages or does it also include the Social Security and stock income of affluent retirees? And, can we accurately base affordable housing prices on it?
Do the math and the figures just don't add up to an affordable housing equation.
Sedona economic analyst Bob Eggert reports that 65 percent of local workers are employed in "low-wage" retail, tourism, foodservice and hospitality jobs where pay rates average from $3.75 to $9 per hour. Do the remaining 35 percent sell timeshares and real estate? If so, then the median income paints a distorted picture, reflecting income from affluent retirees rather than the actual low wages of everyone from reporters to waiters and dishwashers, most of whom border on poverty level.
The Sedona Housing Affordability Gap chart indicates that workers need to earn $64/hour to afford a $500,000 median-priced home.
Furthermore, the average $1,200/month local rent – low by today’s economic standards – requires an income of $23/hour, or $47,840 annually – rare for the majority of local workers earning a minimum wage of $5.15 at the time of this writing. Where does that leave Robert with his $2.13 an hour waiter job? In trailer parks like this one slated for demolition.
It also reports that average wages in the retail sector are 65 percent of the median income, and those workers can only afford a rent of $560, or a house price of $67,000.
The national measure of affordability is whether a household can spend 30 percent or less of its annual gross income for housing and utilities. Is this an archaic formula that ignores enormous living costs and stagnant incomes? Or is it merely an unrealistic standard set by well-heeled officials for whom such prices represent pocket change in comparison to their multimillion-dollar homes – or what they could be charging for those condos?
Perhaps these numbers are in serious need of re-analysis before the city can begin solving its housing crisis. Certainly it leaves Sedonans to wonder who will be serving their hamburgers in the future, and one educated guess is that Dave will be forced to leave town, with his waiter job replaced by an undocumented Mexican immigrant.
Sedona isn’t just red rocks, shops and galleries. Sedona is its people – all of us – who deserve the basic human right of a decent place to live.
Are we creating a city where economic inequality has escalated to rampant extremes, where a growing sector of the splendidly wealthy use the city as a zoning "vending" machine? Are we supporting a new caste system in which the gentry reigns over low-wage immigrant coolies who have become the servant class of “alien” untouchables or new plantation slaves in a culture still stuck in a Versailles-style "let-them-eat-cake" mentality" of have-mores and have-nots?
There's something amiss when affordable housing takes on the cast of a necessary evil, rather than a desirable element to attract a middle-class work force. And there’s something perversely wrong when $700/month shoeboxes and rat traps become $500,000 condos that sit not in majestic red rock aeries but right on the main drag within earshot of traffic -- or even in the underbelly of the city at the Mobilodge trailer park site under the upper-crust Palisades.
As a community issue, housing must involve every local economic faction - trailer park residents, wealthy retirees, local businesses, middle-class professionals, Mexican immigrants, the working poor, interfaith leaders and sustainability groups - working together to break new ground.
For some, Sedona’s land is nothing more than a gold mine to be dug out. This heinous blend of economic oppression and environmental ravage distilled by a group of power brokers hoarding the lion’s share of Sedona’s pie will never result in a balanced, flourishing community. The camel’s back has got to break somewhere and housing, along with HB2779, may very well be the straw that snaps it.
Catherine Rourke is a public service journalist who writes investigative reports about socioeconomic and work-life balance issues and who volunteered on Sedona‘s first Affordable Housing Committee in 2001. E-mail editor@SedonaObserver.com.
2010 EDITOR'S POSTSCRIPT
The Oak Creek Mobilodge was closed and the tenants were displaced to make way for condos. The land has remained vacant since the project investors went into default during the 2008 economic downturn and the bank took ownership of the property.
The Observer report was accurate in its projections... Dave left town and his employer replaced him with an undocumented immigrant.
COMMENT ON THIS ARTICLE
It's about time someone told it like it really is here! Everyone here loved your story and we feel bad that you got such a cold reception and runaround from us when you first came down here to write the story. I know we almost ran you out of here but you insisted on convincing us of your sincere desire to get our side of the story and now we are glad you did.
No one has had the guts to come down here -- NOT EVEN ONE OF THE CITY'S AFFORDABLE HOUSING COMMITTEE MEMBERS! -- and hear our side of things and we thank you for being the only one willing to listen and write about our concerns. We have not had good experience with a reporter in the past who botched the story and told it from the developers' view who are trying to run us out of our homes so they can build their fancy condos and jack up the profits here. You are the first one to come along and tell it from our view and how we feel about being kicked out of our homes in a town where there's no affordable place left to go.
Since most of the people here don't have computers (can't afford them), I had them come over to my place so they could see your story and everyone is touched that finally there is a somebody willing to get our point of view. Nobody in the city cares about us or what happens to us. Thanks and we all hope you will continue to stay on top of this and let people know how the little guy is being pushed out of this town by greedy landlords and developers.
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