For many Coloradans, the purchase of a single- or double-wide trailer represents their variation on the American dream of home ownership and a slice of financial equity, even in the midst of an affordable housing crisis.
But in Ouray, Lillian McMurrin’s experience stands as a cautionary tale of how the relationship between mobile-home park resident and park operator — not to mention the city that provides utility services — can play havoc with that investment.
McMurrin, 63, worked hard to make her mother, Beulah Scott, as comfortable as possible in retirement, helping her purchase a mobile home on the banks of the Uncompahgre River for $20,000 in 2013 to secure her escape from constantly rising rents and ensure she was within walking distance of pretty much everything.
The price was only slightly less than the unit sold for new in 1994. It provided a convenient home in space 6E of the 4J Trailer Park.
McMurrin’s roots run deep in Ouray. Born and raised here, her grandfather was the night watchman at the Camp Bird Mine and her grandmother worked at the boarding house. Her father was killed in an avalanche on Camp Bird Mine Road in 1958 when McMurrin was 2 years old.
Her mother cleaned condominiums in Telluride until she retired in 2012 at the age of 79. Scott stopped working, but she was afraid if she stopped moving she’d stop living. The purchase of the mobile home allowed her to continue to live on her own and walk everywhere.
One day, someone who found Scott walking around town alone reported to social services that she was being neglected. McMurrin said social workers determined she wasn’t being neglected but concluded she couldn’t be out on her own unchecked. So McMurrin bought an identification tag for her mother and a GPS-enabled watch for herself that allowed her to monitor her mother’s movements.
Scott died on April 19 at the age of 86. But McMurrin found herself stuck with paying monthly utility bills on the single-wide at the demand of the city of Ouray despite the fact that no one was living in the mobile home or using the services.
“I just feel like I’m being suffocated and I don’t feel like I’ve had a chance to process my mother’s death or anything else,” McMurrin said, tearing up while talking outside the home where her mother lived for seven years.
City officials said they were simply enforcing city code, which requires that monthly water and sewer charges continue until a property is disconnected from the system. That provided little comfort to McMurrin, who just paid $800 for her mother’s funeral and struggled to make ends meet as she faced the prospect of losing her job when the attorney she worked for retired.
Adding to her difficulties was the fact that her mother had signed an amended lease in 2017 that included a provision stating if a trailer was more than 20 years old and a transfer in ownership occurred, it couldn’t stay in the park.
Scott’s unit fit that description, so McMurrin began to look at her options.
She was quoted a $1,000 price to just to have the wheels put back on the trailer to transport it elsewhere — a prohibitive expense that didn’t include the rest of the transport fees, which typically run in the thousands of dollars.
McMurrin placed an ad offering the trailer for free to anyone who could haul it away. Glen Birt, from Grand Junction, took her up on the deal and planned on having Scott’s old unit as a backup home in case his own double-wide didn’t pass inspection, she said.
Though they agreed he could have the trailer in May, he wasn’t able to truck it away until last week, which left her liable for the utility bills and rent. For more than three months, she had paid her deceased mother’s water and rent bills — $357 per month — even though no one lived in the trailer.
It turned out Birt’s double-wide passed inspection, and he parked the trailer in Delta and advertised it for sale – for $16,500. McMurrin suspects he could get that much for it, if he replaced the carpet.
But McMurrin received nothing for the single-wide, though Birt compensated her $1,000 for the hot-water heater and the washer and dryer.
She counts the rest of the home as a total loss.
This story is part of “Parked: Half the American Dream,” a first-of-its-kind collaboration more than a dozen Colorado news organizations. Newspaper, online, radio and wire service journalists fanned out across the state to focus on the evolving landscape for mobile homes — Colorado’s largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing. Contributors to this project, organized and led by The Colorado Sun, include: The Aspen Times, Associated Press, Aurora Sentinel, Colorado Independent, Cortez Journal, Delta County Independent, Durango Herald, Fort Collins Coloradoan, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Greeley Tribune, KUNC, Montrose Daily Press, Ouray County Plaindealer and Steamboat Pilot & Today.