The eviction of mobile home residents happened by design. Zoning reform can prevent it.
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The same week that the Phoenix City Council was debating providing a mobile home zoning overlay at three mobile home parks that are facing imminent eviction and displacement, another mobile home park at the I-17 and Indian School Road showed up for sale on Zillow.
The listing stated that the tenants were facing annual rent increases and that future rezoning and redevelopment was imminent. This would allow for the demolition of the existing 34 mobile homes and subsequent eviction of all the residents to build about 192 units of market-rate housing.
Even if the community organized to reject the rezoning application, most mobile home parks are entitled for multi-family housing. In this case, a property owner would be able to build about 75 market-rate units at this location without rezoning and the evictions would move forward with no legal path for the current mobile home park residents to stop it.
So, what is the root cause of this current tragedy unfolding with the eviction and displacement of residents at these mobile home parks?
The truth is, this is not an accident: It is by design.
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Have you noticed that there hasn’t been a new mobile home park built in Phoenix in decades? This is done through the practice of exclusionary zoning. Exclusionary zoning is the use of zoning ordinances to exclude certain types of land uses from a given community, especially to regulate racial and economic diversity. These practices were established after racial covenants were outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court as a part of the civil rights movement.
These practices are aimed at creating de facto segregation by making it harder, or in some cases illegal, to build more affordable housing options. Mobile homes were a direct target, and cities zoned new mobile home parks out of existence in order to keep “those” people from moving into their cities.
These practices are still prevalent, and the result is that the United States is currently more racially segregated than it was 30 years ago.
The City of Phoenix did this by creating a 10-acre land requirement to build a new mobile home park. There are hardly any lots of at least 10 acres available in Phoenix, let alone centrally located near parks, public schools, public transportation and employment.
Unfortunately, these residents have few options and, for the most part, have nowhere to go once they attempt to relocate their mobile home or find an affordable alternative.
Additionally, zoning entices for-profit developers to purchase mobile home parks. Most of Phoenix is zoned for low-density single-family housing. Multi-family, missing-middle housing, and other affordable housing options like single-room occupancies and manufactured housing, have all been systematically restricted by years of zoning code adjustments like creating onerous acreage requirements or adding use permit requirements.
The reality is, there is nowhere to build. We need to take a serious look at our land-use policies and support these reforms to provide a more affordable Arizona for all.
The process of purchasing the land, giving eviction notices, subsequent legal challenges by residents and the demolition of the homes all present additional costs and steps in order to redevelop the land. These steps do not exist when developing on vacant land. So, why do developers go through all that trouble?
The most evident answer is that it is less risky to their bottom line due to most infill lots being subject to single-family low-density zoning designation. Therefore, rezoning a property must be sought in order to build higher density multi-family housing, making it more risky and expensive. Again, this is by design, because cities would rather have affluent homeowners in their communities than additional renters.
When the developers attempt to do this, they are typically met with multiple hurdles to overcome. First, they must meet with a municipality to see if the project would be supported. City staff look to neighborhood plans and the General Plan for guidance on their recommendation. The issue is, the General Plan, like the zoning map, is mostly designated for low-density single family zoning. Typically, if staff does not support a rezoning, the applicant does not proceed with submitting it to the municipality and the vacant parcel remains vacant.
The next hurdle is community opposition in the form of NIMBY (not in my backyard) sentiments. Rezoning goes through a public participation process in which affluent homeowners are empowered to oppose any developments in their community. Oftentimes, these sentiments are not shared by the majority of community members, as most residents support additional housing in their neighborhoods. This is why rezoning cases may often drag out for years.
For developers that must choose between developing infill lots with restrictive land-use policies or overtaking a mobile home park, the answer is usually the path of least resistance. And it comes at the expense of our communities.
Mobile home parks being purchased by developers, subsequent evictions and trauma for the residents will not stop until the root of the issue is addressed. Exclusionary zoning practices must end in order to provide our families and communities the security and dignity that is taken with their eviction, displacement, and destruction of their homes.
Our state lawmakers can choose to stop this with three zoning reform bills that are currently at the state legislature, House Bill 2536, Senate Bill 1161 and Senate Bill 1163. Each seeks to unwind exclusionary zoning by: allowing for the construction of casitas, manufactured housing, and affordable housing along the light rail by-right.
The time is now, with people relocating to Arizona, specifically the Phoenix area, every day. There is an increased demand for land that is zoned for multi-family housing. We need our state leaders to step in and put in guardrails against the most egregious exclusionary zoning practices. This is absolutely necessary to give our working families a fighting chance against increasing housing costs and provide stability for our mobile-home park residents.
Unfortunately, just funding new affordable housing is not enough. The reality is, there is nowhere to build. We need to take a serious look at our land-use policies and support these reforms to provide a more affordable Arizona for all.
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Vicente J. Reid