More than 50 residents facing eviction from a north Aurora mobile home park pleaded with City Council members for help this week, in another attempt to stop the park’s owner from forcing them out.
“I feel like I’m abandoned. It’s breaking my heart,” Petra Bennett, a 17-year resident of Denver Meadows Mobile and RV Park, told Aurora City Council members Monday night. “But you, as the leaders of the city, have a choice to help low-income communities like us. So I beg you, choose.”
The park’s longtime owner, Shawn Lustigman, wants to redevelop the property and has given residents until Sept. 30 to move.
Denver Meadows, one of 12 mobile home parks in Aurora, is home to about 60 families, according to 9to5 Colorado, the nonprofit that has been helping organize residents to fight the eviction. Organizers say that about 40 other families have moved out since early 2016 when Lustigman informed residents that their days in the park were numbered.
Lustigman has said he wants to take advantage of the property’s now-prime location near light rail and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center by rezoning the land for transit-oriented development. The park sits on about half of the roughy 20-acre property. According to the Adam’s County assessor’s office, the land under the mobile home and RV park has an assessed value of almost $5 million.
Residents and local housing activists have been fighting Lustigman’s plans on multiple fronts, including filing a lawsuit alleging harassment and attempting to buy the park themselves. In April, the Aurora City Council placed a 10-month moratorium on development, delaying all rezoning decisions until March of 2019. That decision has given some residents hope that rather than sit on empty land, Lustigman will push their move-out date to early next year.
But it’s unclear whether that would happen. Lustigman and his management declined to comment on the situation when reached by phone last week and again Wednesday.
“I have nothing to say to you, so don’t bother,” Lustigman said. “If you want to call my lawyer, you’re welcome.”
His attorney, Mark Shaner, is on vacation and did not respond to an email from The Independent for comment.
Denver Meadows Mobile and RV park sits on a long slice of land between I-225 and Fitzsimons Parkway. An R-line light rail station sits near one end, the Toll Gate Creek greenbelt lies at the other. Latino families with children make up nearly all residents and empty lots and vacated trailers sit among tree-shaded yards, which are filled with brightly colored tricycles, plants, picnic tables and porches.
Residents in the park own their homes, but not the land beneath. They pay rent for their spots.
Lustigman first announced the park would close by June 30, 2018. Later, park management pushed that date back to the current closure date of Sept. 30, a decision, said 9to5 organizer Andrea Chiriboga-Flor, that likely had to do with what she said was the owner’s initial failure to notify residents in writing as state law requires.
Lustigman has said giving the residents two-years notice before closing the park is more than fair. He told Denverite his property taxes are on the rise, and he’s ready to retire.
Residents tried to buy the property themselves and become a resident-owned community (ROC) through Thistle Communities. Thistle is a private, non-profit organization that develops and manages affordable housing options in Boulder County. In October 2017, Thistle put a $20.5 million offer on the table on behalf of the residents, according to Thistle Executive Director Mary Duvall.
Duvall said Thistle made an offer based on the owner’s asking price of about $35 million, but that Lustigman rejected it, saying it wasn’t enough.
“We are working to try to see if there’s another site in the city of Aurora to be able to develop as a mobile home community, primarily to house the people of Denver Meadows,” Duvall said.
Duvall said city leaders have been “incredibly supportive” of the Denver Meadows community and Thistle’s efforts.
As gentrification continues across the Denver metropolitan area and mobile home parks close, some of the last affordable housing options go with them. In an effort to preserve those options, the City of Boulder adopted a policy that would stop rezoning mobile home parks. The city has even teamed up with Thistle to purchase a mobile home park in central Boulder and subsequently converted it into community land trust homes. In a community land trust, Duvall said Thistle owns the land but homeowners run a corporation and manage the park finances and operations themselves.
Chiriboga-Flor argues that ownership of the land does not, in itself, suggest a guaranteed right to rezone and displace families.
“Shawn bought this park zoned as mobile homes,” Chiriboga-Flor said. In doing so, she said, he took the chance that the city of Aurora might never allow it to be rezoned.
“Waiting for the tornado to drop”
In January 2018, 14 residents represented by attorney Kathleen Byrne filed a collective lawsuit against Lustigman, alleging “abuse, harassment and retaliation” by park management in attempt to force them to leave. The suit described rent hikes, new parking restrictions, and general loss of privacy. The first hearing was in February.
Resident Shannon Holloman, 40, was not one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit, but said Byrne was willing to represent her. Holloman has lived at the Denver Meadows for three years and had a laundry list of examples where she said management harassed her or members of her family. That harassment, she said, included a mobile home staffer driving a golf cart into her husband’s leg. While her husband suffered no major injuries, Holloman said the staffer simply drove away, offering no apology.
According to the lawsuit, rent prices have increased twice since residents mobilized in 2016. Holloman said she now pays $890 for her lot space.
Those who still reside in Denver Meadows say they have few choices: to move their homes — many of which are simply too old or too settled to move without the risk of destruction — or walk away from a home they’ve invested in and try to find affordable housing elsewhere.
Holloman, who says she will have to walk away from her home due to its age, said she will be out $16,000.
“It’s like for two years, we’ve had a funnel cloud over our trailer park, and I’m waiting for the tornado to drop and just just wipe everything out,” Holloman said. “It’s scary to think I’m going to lose all the money that I spent out here.”
Petra Bennett, the 17-year resident of Denver Meadows, said she has not finished paying off her home at the park, and come September, she’ll have to leave without it. The home is in good shape and could be moved, Bennett said, but there’s nowhere to go.
“No other park close by is receiving any homes from private persons,” Bennett said. “And the cost of moving my home, at best, is $18,000.”
Even if she were to find land zoned properly or set up for a mobile home, she said she doesn’t have enough savings to cover the costs of moving her home.
”I am going to owe $42,000 and have no home,” Bennett said. “I found something that’s gonna cost me $700 more, which puts me down to $111 a month for food for myself, which I can’t live off.”
In April, the City Council created a mobile home task force to “study the lack of affordable housing in Aurora and make recommendations regarding solutions to the displacement of mobile home park residents due to closures, rezonings and redevelopment.”
The task force is doing its work during the 10-month moratorium, but whatever solutions it comes up with are likely to be too little, too late for Denver Meadows residents, 9to5 organizers said.
At Monday’s City Council meeting, several residents said they are no longer hopeful they will be able to stay in their homes. Instead, they asked council members to create other affordable housing options, namely opening another mobile home park or, as a last resort, providing $2 million in relocation money.
In Denver, the city and a developer provided relocation assistance to residents of two mobile home parks. The city closed both parks in 2015, citing public health and safety issues.
The fate of Denver Meadows was not on Monday night’s City Council agenda. Council members took no action and said little in response to residents, though councilwoman Allison Hiltz argued that everyone who showed up to speak on Denver Meadows should be given time to do so. For about two hours, they did.
“We need to not be afraid to step up and say, this is happening because we didn’t address it two years ago, and we need to do something about it,” Hiltz told The Independent in a later interview. “I would like to see us buck up the money to do what’s best for everybody involved.”
Lead photo: Denver Meadows residents planned an action before the Aurora City Council meeting Monday Aug. 6. By Rachael Long