A few yards from the Roaring Fork River in Basalt sits a four-bedroom trailer in the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park where 22-year-old Victor lives with three roommates.
Victor moved to the United States from El Salvador when he was 15 years old, leaving behind his parents. Victor hasn’t seen them since, he said.
Victor and one of his roommates, Jose, went to Basalt High School together. They both dropped out of school in their junior year and since, they’ve mostly worked jobs at businesses in the upper valley. Jose is a housekeeper at a hotel in Snowmass Village and Victor currently isn’t working but he does landscaping in the summer, he said.
Victor speaks softly and understands most English when it’s spoken slowly. He doesn’t mind yard work because he gets to be outside, he said. He misses his family and he thinks about visiting El Salvador often. Still, he would rather live in the valley because there is more opportunity here.
Together, the roommates rent the trailer for $650 a month. Jose, who has lived there for six years, said he doesn’t know where he will go when he’s forced to move by the Basalt town government and a nonprofit that plan to redevelop the property.
“Maybe back to El Salvador,” Victor replied, with a smile.
From trailer park to hotel
The Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park includes 40 trailers, of which 38 are occupied, on a 5.25-acre parcel of land adjacent to the Roaring Fork River. The town of Basalt currently rents the lots for $650 a month, which is $50 less than what previous property owners charged.
In 2011, Basalt partnered with the nonprofit organization, Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. (RFCDC), to codevelop the park. The two entities bought the property from RNR Limited, a company owned by Basalt resident Renee Ritchie. The property was sold for $3.25 million, of which the municipal government contributed $1.2 million from town open space funds, while RFCDC made up the difference.
The town’s interest in the property is to restore the riverbank to make way for redevelopment and to play a role in relocating the mobile home park’s residents. RFCDC, which bought two-thirds of the land, plans to sell it to a private developer while also raising money for the relocation of the residents. It’s unclear if it will be the town or RFCDC that will provide the financing for the relocations.
Realty Capital Management, which likely will become the new land owner, has proposed to build a 120-room hotel with 15,000 square feet of commercial space on a portion of the property. The Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainability, as well as the Roaring Fork Conservancy, have each proposed structures that would house their organizations on another portion of the site. Basalt would turn the remaining land where there is high flood potential into public parks.
In order for the redevelopment to occur, all of the park residents would have to move by April 2014, with the first families moving in August, said Mike Scanlon, Basalt town manager.
Basalt and RFCDC are focusing their efforts on relocating the residents of 10 trailers closest to the river starting in August, so that work can begin on restoring the riverbank as soon as possible. The mobile home park is in a floodplain and land improvements need to be made before development can begin, according to Scanlon.
Playing by new rules
On Wednesday night, about 35 park residents attended a meeting hosted by RFCDC Executive Director Colin Laird at Basalt Town Hall.
The community meeting was one of a handful that the RFCDC has hosted since it purchased the property. Wednesday’s meeting addressed the time line of when they expect tenants will have to move.
“We really wanted to give them a sense of time frame,” Laird said. “They’re in a tough situation of not knowing when they’ll have to move and we don’t entirely know what’s going to happen either.”
A majority of the residents don’t speak English, so there is always a translator at the meetings, and copies of the leases for each trailer and town rules governing the property are distributed in both English and Spanish, Laird said.
Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Siblings Brayan, 7, and Luz, 7, stand on the front porch of their home at the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park on Wednesday afternoon.
One issue that has been stalling the property’s redevelopment is that the town’s current code requires developers to replace 100 percent of the housing by either purchasing or building units for the mobile home park residents. The rule places an unfair burden on developers and makes it so that it would not be economically feasible for any business venture to redevelop the property, Scanlon said. Providing housing for all of the residents could cost developers millions of dollars before they even began building, he said.
Earlier this month, Scanlon proposed that the Basalt Town Council consider a new rule to replace the current one, which would require developers to help displaced residents find a new home instead of building a certain number of units, he said. The majority of council supported the idea.
Scanlon and RFCDC officials are currently working on details of the new code as they try to relocate park residents. The idea is to work with residents individually and figure out what kind of housing each family requires and then come up with options to present to them, Laird said.
Each family is different because some people want to move into a rental unit, while others want to have the ability to purchase their own home and some prefer to keep their trailer, he said.
The land owners have looked into a range of options, including converting free-market units to affordable housing and leasing spots in nearby mobile home parks. The goal is to find places that cost the same as what park residents are currently paying, because otherwise they won’t be able to afford their units over the long term, Laird said.
There is a dearth of inexpensive real estate and rental units in the valley, so finding appropriate replacement housing is a challenge, Scanlon said. Any profits RFCDC makes on the land sale will likely subsidize housing for the park residents and the town will probably pitch in as well, he added. Scanlon hopes to present a plan outlining details of the residents’ relocation to council in June.
Relocating the park residents, which is currently required by the town’s rules, is a difficult problem that the community has been dealing with for the past 20 years, Scanlon said. It’s the main reason the property hasn’t been redeveloped until now. There is no simple answer. It’s going to take time, creativity and working closely with the residents to find a solution that works for everyone, he said.
“Of all of the things a community can take on, this is probably one of the hardest things,” Scanlon said. “I commend the community for wanting to bite this off ... I think if there was an easier way it would have already been found.”
Public agencies helping non-citizens
About 122 people live in the park, and between one-third and one-half of the residents don’t have a direct path to U.S. citizenship, Scanlon said.
The fact that many of the park residents aren’t citizens is a touchy subject because they think if they admit to their illegal status, government officials might enter their trailers and go through their things, Scanlon said. Ultimately, Scanlon tries to be sympathetic to their concerns and remember that they’re dealing with people’s homes, he said.
“That’s the primary thing that we need to think about the most as we move forward,” Scanlon said. “When you start to disrupt people’s lives you need to take more care and caution and work with them.”
The options for residents who aren’t citizens can be limited because illegal immigrants aren’t eligible to live in affordable housing that is subsidized by public tax dollars, he said. Still, lack of citizenship will not deter the town and nonprofit from helping them find a new place to live, Scanlon said.
“We’re going to do everything we can to find people an acceptable place where they can live,” he said.
The Garcia family has lived in a white trailer with purple trim at the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park in Basalt for over a year now. The Garcias rent the space from a Snowmass resident who owns the trailer, said the mother in Spanish on a recent snowy day. Her 7-year-old daughter stood beside her in the doorway as she translated.
She and her brother, also 7, attend Basalt Elementary School. Their father works at a restaurant in Aspen. The youngest member of the family is 3 years old.
The mother said she knew the family would have to move at some point, but she doesn’t know the details of the situation, she said in Spanish. It’s difficult because nobody can tell them when they’ll need to move.
When asked where the family will go, she didn’t wait for her daughter to translate.
“I don’t know,” she said in English. “Maybe Mexico.”
(Editor’s note: Due to the uncertainty of the residents’ legal status, the Aspen Daily News did not provide full names of those who were interviewed for this story.)