Bellingham considers how to protect some of the most affordable housing in the city

With 218 spaces, Lakeway Mobile Estates is the largest manufured-home park in Bellingham

As the housing boom squeezes manufactured-home parks in the region, the City Council is looking in 2019 at preserving the 10 parks in the city for affordable housing, including Lakeway Mobile Estates at 1200 Lincoln St., Bellingham, Wash.
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As the housing boom squeezes manufactured-home parks in the region, the City Council is looking in 2019 at preserving the 10 parks in the city for affordable housing, including Lakeway Mobile Estates at 1200 Lincoln St., Bellingham, Wash.

When Fred Sheppard moved to Bellingham from Texas six years ago, he bought a manufactured home in Lakeway Mobile Estates for $13,000 and spent as much to upgrade it.

He rents the land beneath his mobile home and, after increases, he now pays $604 a month for his space in the manufactured home park that is for residents who are 55 years and older. That doesn’t include utilities.

“It’s like owning your own house. We live privately and independently,” Sheppard told The Bellingham Herald about life in the mobile home park at 1200 Lincoln St. in Bellingham.

He wants it to stay that way.

Sheppard, a resource development manager for the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity, is among the Bellingham residents keeping an eye on the City Council’s desire to preserve such parks, which offer affordable housing against a backdrop of increasing rents and surging home prices that have made housing the top issue in the race for mayor.

There are 10 existing mobile/manufactured-home parks on 129 acres in Bellingham, and they have about 894 homes spread among them, according to city of Bellingham data. Most of the people who live in them are in low-income or fixed-income households.

With 218 spaces, Lakeway Mobile Estates is the largest. It is reserved for those who are 55 years and older.

Manufactured homes, including those on individual lots outside of mobile home parks, are 2.5 percent of the housing in Bellingham, yet they make up 16 percent of its affordable housing, according to city of Bellingham data.

“These are some of the most affordable housing in the city,” said Greg Aucutt, assistant director of the Bellingham Planning and Community Development Department.

But residents are vulnerable.

“They own the unit but they don’t own the dirt underneath it,” Aucutt said.

The exception is James Street Estates, where residents own the manufactured homes and the underlying land.

If other parks are sold, the new owners are able to develop the land into something else, forcing residents to move.

Speaking specifically about his park, Sheppard indicated moving a home would be costly and that some of the older homes would fall apart during a move anyway.

“And where are you going to move it to?” Sheppard said.

Aucutt agreed, saying existing manufactured home parks in Bellingham were full and no new ones were coming online.

Such parks in Bellingham aren’t the only ones getting squeezed by rising real estate prices amid a housing boom. It’s a concern for Western Washington, and the Municipal Research and Services Center has written about how nonprofits and municipalities have stepped in to preserve them in the region and in other states.

The center is a nonprofit that provides legal and policy guidelines to local governments in Washington state.

In April, the city of Kenmore protected its six mobile home parks by creating new zoning — manufactured housing community — to restrict their redevelopment for a number of years, according to The Seattle Times.

In Bellingham, the City Council also has been delving into how to preserve such parks.

Doing so could take until 2021, so the City Council in June unanimously approved an immediate one-year moratorium on new applications to redevelop or convert existing mobile home parks in Bellingham to some other use.

That decision was done as an emergency moratorium, which required the City Council to hold a public hearing within 60 days. The hearing is set for Monday, July 15, at which time the council could keep the moratorium in place, rescind it or modify it.

A Mercer Island man, who said that he owned eight parks in Washington state that he managed, agreed that the need for low-cost housing was critical as was providing opportunities to expand their availability.

But moratoriums and restrictive rules and regulations would only hurt residents, Edward Epstein wrote in his letter to the City Council.

“I firmly believe the emphasis should be on creating more low-income and low-cost housing,” said Epstein, owner of Robin Lane Mobile Home on North Chuckanut Drive, adding that what was needed was a rethinking of “bureaucratic hurdles.”

“The need is great and government should not be a deterring factor in implementing and satisfying that need. Reduce the red tape so the need can be satisfied quickly.”

After the one year is up, the City Council could extend the moratorium for six months at a time.

The moratorium doesn’t affect repairs or maintenance.

As for what the City Council could ultimately do to preserve such parks, that may include:

Working with park residents, nonprofits and the private sector to buy manufactured home parks.

Changing the zoning so the use is limited to such parks.

Facilitating the creation of new parks.

No final decision has been made.

Different efforts could be used for different parks, Aucutt said.

The city’s efforts also occur amid long waiting lists for public housing and for affordable homes, including for the north Bellingham townhomes project for low- to moderate-income residents that are being built on Telegraph Road.

The project is a collaboration between nonprofits Kulshan Community Land Trust and Habitat for Humanity.

Dean Fearing, land trust executive director, said there are up to 50 people on the wait list to buy a home through his organization’s program.

He said there have been community land trusts around the country that have helped preserve manufactured home parks.

“I’m hoping we have a place at the table when that comes up here in Bellingham,” Fearing said.

If you go

A public hearing on the City Council’s one-year moratorium on the redevelopment or change of use for any of the 10 mobile home parks in Bellingham is set for Monday, July 15.

The hearing will be at City Council Chambers in City Hall, 210 Lottie St.

City Council meetings start at 7 p. m.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.