COURTS: City can take steps to protect mobile home owners

In the weeks since Keizertimes last reported on the plight of rent-burdened residents in a manufactured home park, the underlying issues involving predatory park owners made national headlines. 

In a recent episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the titular host spent 15 minutes exposing the double-talk of one park owner, but the program also suggested a solution to the matter: granting the home owners in manufactured home parks the first right-of-refusal when a park comes up for sale. 

The question is: which government entity has the power to grant such protections?

The answer might be closer to home than you think. 

Keizer City Attorney Shannon Johnson declined to offer an official opinion on the matter, but pointed the paper in the direction of a 2010 decision from the Oregon Court of Appeals, Thunderbird Mobile Club, LLC. v. City of Wilsonville.

The dispute at the heart of the lawsuit involved the city’s attempt to impose closure and sale requirements on the owner of Thunderbird Mobile Home Club as the owner attempted to sell it for a different type development. 

The city passed ordinances that required any owner of a manufactured home park to provide 180 days notice of a park closure, a plan for where the park tenants could move their homes and a payment toward moving expenses. 

The Wilsonville City Council based the action on a desire to preserve affordable housing and lessen the resulting losses for homeowners when a park is closed. 

The owner of Thunderbird countered that the ordinances were in conflict with state regulations and amounted to an unconstitutional, and uncompensated, taking of property and money. 

The opinion of the court, authored by former Justice Anthony Sercombe found in favor of the city, a decision that would seem to grant authority to the Keizer City Council to enact something along the lines of a first right-of-refusal. 

“We conclude that the adoption of the city’s authority was within the city’s authority … and that the ordinances were not preempted by state statutes,” wrote Sercombe. 

Moreover, the courts found “the city’s regulation of the [owner’s] land usage in general, and the preservation of low-income housing in particular, are well within the city’s longstanding delegated authority under the state statutes and administrative rules.” 

In other words, Wilsonville’s reasons for preserving the manufactured home park because it represented a form of low-income housing were valid.

By the time the courts had weighed in on the validity of the local ordinances, the damage was already done in Wilsonville. Thunderbird became one of more than 50 mobile home parks to undergo mass evictions at the height of the housing boom of the early 2000s, and it was one of the largest. The former residents who hadn’t been able to sell or relocate had to settle for a little more than a third of the value of their homes, and even that only came after Wilsonville went to bat for the residents and won a settlement, according to reporting by The Oregonian. 

Still, the courts opened the door for municipally-enacted protections for tenants of manufactured home parks. Whether Keizer has the political will to walk through it is another question entirely, but there is a hint that they might be. 

In recent documentation provided to a committee examining housing needs in Keizer, a portion is dedicated to policy changes that could keep a thriving mix of housing available. Within that, there are comments added from someone within city hall.

They read, “The preservation of manufactured home parks, a form of naturally occurring affordable housing may be a valuable addition for Keizer’s housing strategy.”