TRENDS Podcast: Mobile Home Residents Face Water Quality and Infrastructure Issues

The TRENDS podcast is a collaboration between the Community Foundation of Boulder County and KGNU. It dives deep into the community’s most pressing issues and explores the changes happening throughout Boulder County through the experiences of community members, especially those often rendered invisible by commercial media, to shed light on community challenges, solutions, and pathways forward for the county and the country.

 

 

“I feel like Boulder has a lot of protected areas, you know, and I feel like Boulder protects a lot of land, you know, I know a lot of open spaces, parks, so I feel like protecting someone’s home would be a great thing, you know?” — Adrian Duran.

 

In Boulder, the median home price has more than doubled during the past 15 years, and is almost one million dollars.

The rest of the county has seen sharp housing increases too. Longmont which has traditionally offered the cheapest housing in the county now sees the median price of a single family home at more than four hundred thousand dollars, nearly twice what it was 15 years ago.

Things aren’t much better for renters. Census data shows that more than half of renters in Boulder County spend more than a third of their income on housing costs. And there is one group that is at the intersection of home ownership and home renting. Those that are living in mobile home communities.

Mobile homes, or manufactured homes, are one of the last affordable housing options. There are 4 manufactured home communities in the city of Boulder and about 25 overall in the county and they are home to thousands of families. Analee Perez moved to the park when she was 2 years old. Her mother, Soledad, still lives there.

“It’s really nice. It’s really calm. It’s a great, we have a yard to play in.”

Orchard Grove is one of the four parks within Boulder City Limits. Analee had a happy childhood here. It is a strong community with neighbors helping neighbors and people looking out for each other. But residents have faced challenges.

“If Boulder has standards for water and sewer infrastructure for you know, just compensation in the event of a water leak, none of that will apply to parks that are not within Boulder. So there they’re left to be more vulnerable.” — Shay Castle.

Soledad and Analee in Orchard Grove.

“In the last few years, there’s been a lot of changes. Um, unpleasant changes. There’s been changes between, um, owners of the mobile home park and, um, landlords and a lot of instability. Um, the biggest problem that I can recall having in the last 29 years of living here is, when we had our water shut off, um, in February, so it was two weeks without water.”

The Orchard Grove park is privately owned by a Michigan-based company called Riverstone Communities. So, when the 1960s-era infrastructure failed earlier this year and the residents were left without water for days, Analee reached out to city officials.

“We were thinking, Oh, maybe, you know, a few hours. And then those few hours came 24 and then those 24 became longer and longer. And there’s plumbers working and digging up yards and it’s like we’re trying to locate the problem. And then, you know, then we went to, you know, w I guess the first hours is like, Hey, do you have water? No, I don’t have water. Do you? Oh, that’s weird. Oh, okay. And you know, once we knew we were having an issue with a water, um, I don’t know if anybody else did this, but I called the Boulder, the city of Boulder health department because we had been without water for more than 12 hours.”

Soledad, Analee’s mother, has been organizing for residents’ rights in Orchard Grove for decades. She was the first Latina living in the park when she moved there 29 years ago. The water crisis brought in a new generation of activists, one of them is Jesus Salazar who has lived in Orchard Grove for 10 years. He became active around the water crisis earlier this year, working with Soledad to organize the residents.

 

“We use water for every day, use toilets, showers, laundry. The list goes on. And you know, we need these things to have a good working day, a good working week.” – Jesus Salazar.

Out of his work as a community organizer during the water crisis, Jesus Salazar became an official community connector for the City of Boulder.

“Basically what that is, is a bridge between the City of Boulder and my community to make sure that they’re both being heard and that they’re both being understood as a way to grow together as a community.”

Jesus now works with residents of other mobile home parks facing similar issues to Orchard Grove, like San Lazaro which has been home to Adrian Duran for 9 years.

Soledad and Jesus

“The one I’m the most concern is the dirty water that we have to consume, you know, or shower with. I mean, me personally, I don’t use that water to cook or to drink. I do use it for showering and sometimes to wash my teeth. You know, I try to use it mostly just for showering because I have to go buy potable water from the store since it’s clean water.”

Two times a week Adrian Duran makes a trip to a local supermarket to refill his water jugs.

“I have two to five gallon jugs that I purchased, that I buy, you know, and so I usually refill those twice a week, which is about two to five jugs, you know, five gallons. 20 gallons. Yeah, about 25 gallons of water. We use a week to cook and drink. And how much is the five gallon? It’s about, I would say about $2 and 50 cents each.”

Unlike Orchard Grove, San Lazaro is outside of Boulder City limits, so city council can’t get involved here. This is a situation facing many mobile home parks in the county says Shay Castle, a reporter who has been covering mobile homes for many years.

“If Boulder has standards for water and sewer infrastructure for you know, just compensation in the event of a water leak, none of that will apply to parks that are not within Boulder. So there they’re left to be more vulnerable.”

Shay Castle first heard of the water issues in November 2018 when she was reporting on the elections and in particular, the sugary drinks tax.

“So in my reporting leading up to that ballot issue, I connected with some folks from Healthy Kids, Colorado, which pushed that measure. And I connected with some folks who had done work on the sugar sweetened beverage initiative going around to low income and LatinX households trying to get them to drink water instead of soda or other sugary drinks. And they discovered through this work at the mobile home parks that these families don’t drink water because their water isn’t drinkable. It smells bad. It tastes bad.”

“It’s inherently unfair, immoral that home owners in a mobile home park have to withstand lower quality of water and sewage.” — Rep. Edie Hooton.

The sugary drinks tax also brought the problem to the attention of Erin Dodge, the Water Quality Coordinator with Boulder County Public Health.

“We started receiving some calls from some residents and various mobile home parks concerned about the safety of their water and at the same time we had staff that were working on supporting the sugar sweetened beverage tax and they were working with El Centro Amistad and getting some feedback through the promotoras and the community that they were working with to support the tax that they were concerned about their water quality and the connection between. Obviously one of the objectives of reducing your consumption of sugar sweetened beverages is to promote drinking water and especially with lower income residents if they can’t drink the water that comes out of their tap that they’re already paying for through their rent or through their utility bill to ask them to go to the grocery store to purchase water.”

Sans Souci is another mobile home park that like San Lazaro, is outside of Boulder City Limits. Residents there reached out to lawmakers when the longtime park owner sold it to a corporation. This summer they also experienced water issues. Kathleen Martindale has lived at Sans Souci for over 30 years.

“And this summer it’s been like three times. They have told us not to drink our water because of the fact that of the bacteria that’s in it and we have well water. And I think because of the temperature it’s been so hot that the bacteria has grown beyond who will supposedly human consumption at this point. It’s been so bad that I have bought a zero water filter.
And along with the filter they send a test to ’em so you can test your water. And the water coming out of my faucet at Sans Souci is at the 236 range, which is considered all sorts of bacteria led the posits, you name it, it’s not drinkable.”

Sans Souci residents get water from a well, just like San Lazaro. Other parks like Orchard Grove get municipal water. But all the parks are dealing with some form of infrastructure issue says Professor Deborah Cantrell, who teaches at the University of Colorado law school.

“I would put two things on the alarming list related to particularly related to water. The first is just what I’ve said already, that in many of these parks, most of these parks, the actual pipes are old. And so that is impeding or affecting the quality of water. And so the great quality of water that we get from the city loses all of that goodness once it goes into the park. And trying to think through how to take care of that problem. And it’s a tricky one to think through because if every park owner had to spend a lot of money to update the infrastructure, the worry is all of that cost gets passed on to the residents and then they see their rents go up to a level that becomes unaffordable. So I know the coalition is trying to think through some strategies that really understand and respect that the infrastructure repair cost is going to be big. And for some park owners, uh, they’re not, you know, they’re, they’re, they have to figure out how they’re going to even pay for something in the million to $2 million range. So how do you create a system that might help them make those repairs without having to pass the costs along completely to the residents? So that’s tricky problem number one.”

A second problem Cantrell identifies is water metering.

“How does water get billed? And park owners have a couple of choices. They can just build into the rant, a monthly portion of rant that goes to cover the utilities and then the park owner is paying the bill herself. The total bill herself or park owners can spread the water bill out amongst all the residents. If you live in a park where there’s, they’re called master meter operators, this this time where there’s one meter right at the front door as a park, but every mobile home doesn’t have its own meter.”

Tanya Petty has seen this first hand in Vista Village mobile home park where she’s lived for 3 decades. She saw a neighbor face eviction over huge water bills.

“She received a $500 water bill the next month, a thousand and the next month though another $500 water bill above and beyond what her normal $37 usage was. And she was forced to pay it without any leaks, without any, um, there is no way to get help that you can’t contest it because it’s due with your rent. And if you don’t pay it with your rent, then you’re looking at an eviction and they’re very quick to after six days to start eviction processes.”

“I’d really like people to know that there’s a lot of people living here that are struggling, that are having an extremely hard time with paying their rent.” — Tanya Petty.

In addition to water metering, Tanya Petty is also concerned about the sewer infrastructure. Last year her family home, where she home schooled her four children filled with raw sewage after repairs were done on the parks infrastructure.

Tanya Petty at home at Vista Village

“It was caused by the extremely poor and old condition of our sewer system and the lack of maintenance on the infrastructure. It’s been failing for years and larger homes are replacing the smaller ones and more people in more bathrooms. So there is a more strain on the system.”

Tanya Petty has insurance, but some of her neighbors don’t.

“So they have to mitigate that raw sewage themselves. Sometimes just, you know, wiping it up and leaving it in the cracks and everything in their home and then they have to deal with the residual health effects.”

Tanya Petty wrote a letter to the City of Boulder asking them to intervene.

“So we’re asking the city of Boulder to investigate the current condition of our sewer system here at Vista village. We’re not just asking for our whole household, but for all 300 of the other current residents that have to deal with this.”

There is some hope for residents like Tanya Petty and the others dealing with infrastructure problems. This year, state lawmakers reinforced the 34-year-old Mobile Home Park Act. One of the bill’s co-sponsors was Edie Hooton, a Democrat from Boulder.

“It’s inherently unfair, immoral that home owners in a mobile home park have to withstand lower quality of water and sewage…the stories I hear every week are just outrageous and that they get to live in this cone of protection, park owners, by treating these mobile home owners differently, is not acceptable, and we’re addressing it.”

The new law allows counties to adopt and enforce rules for safe and equitable operation of parks in unincorporated areas. It gives residents more protection against evictions.  In the meantime, residents of the mobile home parks in Boulder County continue to organize and engage with local officials says reporter Shay Castle.

“So they’re fighting for that. They’re fighting for themselves, for the neighbors, for their kids. It’s a really big motivator. I think it connects us all. You know, who wouldn’t fight for that?”

Back at San Lazaro, Adrian Duran is inspired to have his voice heard in this conversation about who gets to live in Boulder County.

Adrian Duran at his home in San Lazaro

“Some people like us that are, you know, lower income or you know, that we live here, I guess we have a lot less of a voice you would call, you know, so what the city looking at this I feel like could be a big, it would make a big impact in the lives here and for everyone, you know, everyone would feel heard, you know, and, and I feel like that’s, that’s the right way to go about this, you know?”

 

 

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Resources for Mobile Home Residents:

What You Need to Know About the 2019 Mobile Home Oversight Act (9to5.)

City of Boulder Manufactured Housing Strategy.

City of Boulder Mobile Home Infrastructure Report (2016.)

City of Longmont Mobile Home Owners Handbook.