Wednesday, August 17, 2005

North Fork residents fear bend in housing road

Second buyer seeks to acquire mobile home park

Express Staff Writer

Many of the residents of the mobile-home park behind the North Fork Store north of Ketchum gathered Monday night to review what they know so far about the future of the property under contract for sale to the Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority. Photo by Willy Cook

Residents living at the mobile-home park behind the North Fork Store, six miles north of Ketchum, fear their days of affordable housing are numbered. The small community of 42 mobile homes, just south of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters and under contract to sell to the Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority by the first week of September, now has another interested buyer, who claims to be interested in maintaining the trailer park as is.

"This is truly the last bastion of affordable housing in this valley," said Frank Trafford, who hosted a meeting for residents Monday night with members of the new party of potential buyers, including Kingsley Murphy, Nick Harman and Chris and Jackie Flanigan. Murphy said he does not think the Housing Authority plan for permanent affordable housing will be financially inclusive for the people who already live at the North Fork site. He said his group would maintain the park for another five to 10 years with reductions to density being made in step with attrition.

"Where else would you evict people from affordable housing to put in expensive affordable housing but Blaine County," said Phil Jockumsen, who has lived as a renter for about 12 years in the park and in the Wood River Valley for more than 30 years. "We've been pushed around like old shoes and I'm tired of it."

Voices were heated at the impromptu meeting, with most complaints being about an apparent lack of communication with current residents and a perception that Housing Authority plans would only serve those who make doctor or attorney salaries. The seller, Sharon Dowden, who has owned the property for 24 years, said she has been facing ongoing questions from her tenants since the pending sale became news. But she said she is too upset with the Housing Authority to allow them to make a presentation.

"I removed the tanks to force the sale," Dowden said, explaining that she quickly removed from the site two old fuel tanks, a contingency required to uphold her end of the bargain. "All I know is rumor. But, at this point it doesn't matter."

Michael David, executive director of the Housing Authority, said in a telephone interview that he has spoken with residents who have come to him with questions. Although Dowden has not warmly welcomed the Housing Authority since Murphy presented his contingency proposal to both the authority and the Blaine County Commission, David said the Housing Authority expects to close the sale and meet with the residents as the new owner on Sept. 2.

"If they decide to sell it, where are we going to go?" asked six-year resident Lourdes Miranda, who lives at the mobile-home park with her husband, Javier Lopes, a painter, and their four children. Miranda said she pays $700 per month rent for her family to live in the trailer court.

Residents attending the meeting expressed frustration at the lack of communication about the pending sale and the impact on their lives.

"The frustrating thing is being so unclear," said Fernando Valdez, who has lived in the park for three months. "My parents have been here for a month. It is sad to me that we'll be leaving before you know it."

Dowden has entertained the backup buyers because she said she feels the Housing Authority acted unfairly by publicizing development plans for permanent community housing before the Sept. 2 closing date.

"They could have at least waited until they bought it," Dowden said, explaining that her tenants are disconcerted and fear a fate similar to that of residents of the other mobile home parks that have closed around the valley with relatively short notice. "They could walk away at any time. I will honor the contract, but I am concerned about my tenants."

Under the agreement, if the Housing Authority acts on its option to buy the property, the county is to guarantee a loan to cover the $3 million purchase price.

"I never thought anyone would leave it a trailer court," Dowden said, explaining that she was pleased going into the deal because she thought her tenants would be protected. Then the Housing Authority revealed plans to build permanent housing at prices she feels none of her tenants can afford.

Murphy said he left a message with David and county commissioners about Monday's meeting over the weekend, but neither the county nor the Housing Authority attended.

Dowden said the Housing Authority never approached her to discuss its plans after the sale contract was signed.

Speaking in a telephone interview Monday, David said that after a meeting with a banker Monday about financing for the project there are no plans for any construction until late spring 2007.

"We will work with all existing residents who fall within our income maximums," David said. "We're still in the preliminary stages of what the development will ultimately look like in terms of the mix of community and market-rate housing. We will be structuring this thing in a way that we can get as much community housing as possible."

David said the Housing Authority will be pursuing grant money to fund planning and development of the project. Also, some 17 units would be market-rate housing that could fetch $600,000 each, he said. He added that where Murphy and his partners have had free-rein to present their business plans, Dowden after becoming disgruntled has kept the Housing Authority at bay.

"Everyone wants to see the current people taken care of," David said, adding that in addition to the North Fork project where current residents will have priority, 37 deed-restricted residences will be available starting next spring in the Quail Creek subdivision near St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center.

"If I could make it two more years I would get close to breaking even on (Ketchum) rents. That's the best I can hope for," said Chuck Arpp, a log craftsman wondering what he would do with his not-so-mobile doublewide trailer. "Someone put tile floors in it. It's an albatross. What am I going to do with it?"

David said that for a better understanding of how to qualify for community housing people should contact the authority.

Murphy said should the deal fall through in the next three weeks his group will be waiting in the wings.

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