Centerville residents facing eviction in the middle of a pandemic, but not without a fight

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lindsay Duncan has been packing up the belongings of her home at Centerville Mobile Estates in Centerville on Monday, July 13, 2020. The residents of the community face eviction due to a possible sale of the property.

Centerville • When she opened the eviction letter in March — a little more than two weeks after Utah’s governor first issued an emergency declaration over the coronavirus pandemic and five days after a 5.7-magnitude earthquake rocked the Wasatch Front — all Lindsay Duncan could do was cry.

She cried for her two children, who had painted their bedrooms and made the mobile home park in Centerville their home. She cried for her neighbors, the roughly 44 families who would also be displaced by the town home development planned for the land where the park now sits. And she cried because she knew she would not be able to afford a home in that development, or maybe anywhere in Centerville, where low-income housing options are few and far between.

“I think they were hoping that most of these people would just cut their losses, leave their homes and go. I think they thought [the residents] would [go easy],” she said of the developer.

But after the initial shock wore off, “when I got the letter, I just thought, ‘I’m not going to walk away with my tail between my legs,’” she said.

Over the last few months, Duncan and other residents at the park have begun organizing to save their homes from development. They’ve spoken out at government meetings and conferred with attorneys about their options. And on Monday, they protested outside of the Centerville office of CW Land Co., the developer of the planned town home development, with homemade signs and two demands.

First, they want CW Land Co. to walk away from the land deal, which is not yet final. And if the company won’t, they want it to fairly compensate residents, many of whom are older and on fixed incomes, for the homes they’ll likely have to walk away from.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rebecca Hernon protests possible evictions in front of the offices of C.W. Land in Centerville on Monday, July 13, 2020.

Mobile home residents lack full protections under state property rights laws, since they don’t own the land beneath them. But since they own their homes, they also aren’t covered by renters rights.

Connie Hill, past president and current treasurer and secretary of the Utah Coalition of Manufactured Homeowners, said residents in the state’s approximately 314 mobile home parks have few options once a landowner decides to sell.

“Unless they actually buy the park from the current owner, that is their only way to avoid [eviction],” she said. “But they would have to actually band together as a group and buy the property, forming what we call a co-op.”

That’s not unheard of. Residents at Applewood Park in Midvale purchased their land in 2017, Hill said. And though residents in Murray’s Winchester Estates were unsuccessful in purchasing the site themselves as it became slated for development and closure, they eventually drew interest from a California-based group that purchased the land in early 2017.

As the residents in Centerville weigh their next steps, some have the option of selling or moving their mobile homes to a new park. But with moving costs ranging anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, few of the residents — many of whom are on fixed incomes — could afford to do that.

Others have no choice but to walk away, since federal regulations prohibit moving manufactured homes built before June 1976.

“It’s a misnomer being a mobile home, because some of them just can’t be moved,” Duncan noted.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shaunna Summers and Brandi Dudley protest possible evictions in front of the offices of C.W. Land in Centerville on Monday, July 13, 2020.

That’s the case for Brandi Dudley, who has lived at the park for 16 years and whose manufactured home was built in 1973. She said she’s put thousands and thousands of dollars of “sweat equity” into the home but now faces the prospect that she’ll see no return on that investment.

CW Land Co. has offered $2,000 to residents who leave by Oct. 1. But that amount likely wouldn’t be enough to get into a new place, Duncan said.

“You can’t even get into an apartment for that, you know what I mean?” she said. “First [month’s rent] and last [month’s rent] and deposits. And we own our home. Why should we go from owning a home to having to rent?”

Giving each resident $50,000 would be a “drop in the bucket” for a big corporation like CW Land Co., Duncan argued. But it would “do a lot for a lot of people” at the mobile home park.

CW Urban President Darlene Carter noted in a statement that the company is not currently the owner of the Centerville mobile home park but is under contract to purchase the property at a later date and will reach out to residents to provide updates when “we will be able to clearly plan our path forward.”

“We are sensitive to the plight of the residents who will need to relocate,” she said. “We realize the seriousness of the situation and, following our purchase of the real property, we will be fully committed to assisting the residents, logistically and financially, to find new housing arrangements.”

Carter did not provide more specifics in a follow-up question about what that commitment might look like, noting that compensation would be determined “after we take ownership of the real property.”

For residents at the mobile park, the fact that the sale isn’t final yet amid pending legal disputes is their last hope for keeping their homes.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Centerville Mobile Estates in Centerville on Monday, July 13, 2020.

Jordan Bledsoe, an attorney with Stoel Rives who’s representing Rulon Harrison, one of the owners of the mobile home park, told The Salt Lake Tribune that his client is disputing the legality of the property sale.

The company’s articles of organization require two members of the company to agree to the sale, but Bledsoe says co-owner Cecelia Foxley, a former commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, did not get her brother’s permission to sell the land. Another sibling had signed on to the sale and is claiming that she is still a member of the company, though Bledose says there are documents showing that Harrison and Foxley are the only two members after the other siblings were bought out in 2018.

The siblings and CW Land are meeting for a mediation hearing on Wednesday to see if they can resolve the dispute without litigation. Foxley did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday from The Salt Lake Tribune.

Bledsoe said his client may be amenable to selling the property but that Harrison would want to ensure the tenants are compensated fairly for their homes in that case.

“Rulon’s main concern is if the land sells to CW Land or the mobile home park sells to CW Land that the tenants, many of them will lose their homes and others won’t be able to relocate their mobile homes to different parks because their homes are too old,” he said. “And some won’t be able to stay in Centerville. They’ll have to move away from their schools and friends because the mobile home park is the only affordable housing in Centerville.”

Most residents at the park are paying lot fees between $250 and $550 a month — a far cry from most rent prices in the area as costs continue to go up across the state amid low vacancy rates and an affordable housing crunch.

Inge Richins, who has lived in the mobile home park for 20 years, is still paying a mortgage on her manufactured home, which she anticipates will be down to $8,500 by January, when the residents are told they’ll need to be out. And if she wants to keep her good credit, she’ll have to continue paying on the trailer even after she’s walked away from it.

Still, Richins feels lucky. She and her husband plan to move with their three dogs into her daughter’s basement apartment, which is empty.

Other people, she said, face homelessness.

“These people in this double-wide trailer, they’ve already left,” she said, pointing to a manufactured home near the front of the park. “They were here 30 years or so. But they went from a rent of $257 to $1,300. I guarantee that half of the people here couldn’t even touch that.”

Richins said one of her neighbors, an 88-year-old woman facing the prospect of starting over near the end of her life, “just keeps saying: ‘I want to die before it happens.’”

“It just breaks my heart,” Richins said. “It’s just a sad thing. Some people just struggle. And some people don’t have what it takes to be successful. You know what I mean? But they work and they work hard and still struggle. And I think there should be homes for those people still around.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inge and Gary Richins at their home of twenty years in Centerville Mobile Estates in Centerville on Monday, July 13, 2020. The residents of the community face eviction due to a possible sale of the property.

Correction • 10:40 p.m.: A previous version of this story misstated the timeline for the governor’s executive order. It was issued March 6.