Manufactured Dissent

They own their homes. They pay property taxes. But if development forces them to move, they may not get a penny.

In the fading light of a fall evening, Valley Haven Home Park is almost invisible to the cars whizzing by it on Highway 101 in Shakopee. To get a complete look, you'll need to turn into the driveway and follow the rough paving job past the plastic owl and the American flag, past the miniature wishing well surrounded by flowers. Turn right after the windowless beige and green cinder-block building that smells vaguely like fabric softener. That's the park's laundry facility and storm shelter.

Inside the little L-shaped cluster of 31 mobile homes, the light changes by the minute. Car headlights flash by on the highway as commuters speed to the new homes down the road; closer in, the Rock Spring Supper Club's old-style "FOOD LIQUOR" sign flashes off and on. The blue neon lights of Dangerfield's bar spill over the tall redwood fence that encloses the park. And when the scene goes dark for a second, the windows of some of the homes glow with the silvery light of TV screens.

The blue neon washes over one side of Richie Larson's round face as he hands his mother the fiberglass blanket that should keep their pipes from freezing this winter. Betty Lindholm, 62, has taken a bottom panel off her trailer; now she's flat on her back, peeling old, gray heat tape from the pipes. Her son watches, his freckled face intent like that of a freshman during midterms.

Mobile no more: Althea Rank and her husband Bob had hoped to retire at Valley Haven
Dawn Villella
Mobile no more: Althea Rank and her husband Bob had hoped to retire at Valley Haven

But Larson is no college kid home for the weekend. He's 41 and stays with his mom because of a developmental disability. For the past 11 years, they've lived in the white trailer with black shutters that slumps slightly as if tired after two decades of loyal service. It would never survive a move to another park, and that's what Lindholm and Larson are worried about. Sandwiched as it is between residential subdivisions and a commercial strip, Valley Haven is a prime candidate for development. Ever since a "For Sale" sign went up on the park this summer, residents have feared for the community many have called home for decades.

Lindholm grabs the blanket from Larson, deftly tapes it into place, and gets up, alternately leaning on her cane and the home's ranch-style fence. Lindholm's hair is gray, her eyes big and brown, and she's dressed in a dark denim shirt with a Kleenex just barely peeking out of its pocket. "The whole purpose of moving here was so Richie could have a dog," she says. "We looked at other parks, but there could be no dog over 20 pounds." Shadow died of cancer last fall, she explains as her son races inside to retrieve pictures of the dog; but moving still isn't an option, since nearby manufactured-home parks have long waiting lists, and most will not accept homes older than 10 years.

To protect their homes--or at least get some money for them in the case of a park closing--the residents have been asking the city of Shakopee to adopt an ordinance under which a developer closing their park would have to pay fair market value for their homes, much like owners of standard houses are paid when their property is taken. Nine other cities have passed similar ordinances since 1987, when the state Legislature passed a law encouraging such measures.

Mobile-home residents own their trailers and pay property taxes on them; they are responsible for maintaining the homes and all above-ground fixtures, which is why Betty Lindholm wraps her own pipes. The land is the responsibility of the park owner, who also does the snowplowing, road upkeep, and the like. In the Twin Cities metropolitan area, an estimated 50,000 people live in manufactured homes, according to the All-Parks Alliance for Change, an advocacy group for park residents. Many of the parks are at risk, says APAC organizer Miriam Wyman: "There seem to be a lot of developers wanting to buy [them] out to put in more high-income houses or commercial business. We're finding that especially in the suburbs, where there's more money and, as a result, more development."

For now Valley Haven--which sits in Scott County, the region's fastest-growing county according to the Metropolitan Council--appears to have been spared. In early October the park was purchased by Phil Johnson, who says he's "a park owner by profession. That's basically what I do: purchase and operate manufactured-home parks. I don't have any far-reaching plans of doing anything different or selling the park to anyone else."

But residents are distrustful. Johnson "seems straightforward," says Althea Rank, who has lived at Valley Haven with her husband Bob since 1965. "But Yul Brynner acted like the King of Siam, and he wasn't."

Down the road from the Ranks, Anna and Scott Troseth aim their suspicions straight at Shakopee City Hall. The Troseths, both in their mid-30s, are the only young family in Valley Haven aside from a few single dads whose kids visit on weekends; they and their children, Emily, 13, and Bobby, 11, live in one of the two "doublewides" in the park. Neighbors speak of it proudly, inevitably noting that Scott spent the last few years remodeling the entire place. The house features freshly plastered and painted white walls, brand-new navy blue carpeting, and shiny oak cabinets in the kitchen, where Bobby is working on a papier-mâché Egyptian pyramid for a school project.

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