Amid looming evictions, Austin neighbors hold vigil for friend and their mobile home park

·6 min read

A neighborhood once teeming with backyard barbecues, kids playing in the street and plenty of front porch sitting is begrudgingly saying goodbye to their slice of South Congress Avenue as an eviction brought on by a real estate deal comes to a head.

Congress Mobile Home and RV Park residents are moving their homes, belongings and lives after the parkwas purchased late last year by California-based commercial real estate and development company Paydar Properties.

Now, residents are facing a move they never saw coming with a time frame that is making it hard for some to land on their feet elsewhere.

As a testament to their sense of community, residents gatheredWednesday night to honor a longtime neighbor who died in July. During the vigil, residents reflected and said goodbye to one another as some neighbors have begun leaving the property.

"Congress Mobile Home park tenants are here today with heavy hearts at the destruction of their vibrant and tight-knit community," said Gabby Garcia, an organizer with local housing nonprofit BASTA. "Tenants will continue to fight to ensure that all of their neighbors get what they need and do not end up homeless or in a dangerous situation. And for this to happen, they need more time and resources."

Although the property was purchased months ago, earlier this summer residents received a 60-day notice to vacate the property. Though there isn't a standard move-out date set, many residents have left and others plan to leave in the coming days and weeks.

"So, for the most part it's been pressure, pressure, pressure," said Dewain Willmore, a resident of the park for more than two decades. "Most people can't find anywhere to go."

While Willmore has moved out of his trailer and is set to leave for a new home in Michigan, others at the park have struggled to find a new place due to moving expenses, mobile home requirements at other locations and the frustration and cost that come with a short-notice move.

In pushing back against the real estate purchase, residents sought legal counsel, rekindled a tenant association that fought a similar purchase and eviction set up in 2019 and eventually looked for rental assistance from the city. This time, the efforts haven't been fruitful.

"In a lot of ways, the system has failed us, it has failed our community," District 2 City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes said during Wednesday's vigil. "No family should have to face what our community is facing in having 60 days to uproot our lives and find another place to live in an already challenging environment to find housing."

Fuentes said the mobile home park's purchase, and similar real estate sales, create challenges to providing affordable housing. Shesaid the city has not received any development plans from Paydar Properties for the mobile home park.

"Please do not lose hope, please help us in righting this wrong and bringing forward reforms to how we handle housing here in Austin," Fuentes told the crowd of neighbors.

Park residents said they'reangry with how the eviction was announced and the lack of assistance from the city and housing organizations. They said they've been left feeling sacrificed for a profit by the new owners.

Representatives for Paydar Properties and for the former owners have not responded to requests for comment.

The residents' frustration, they said, has been exacerbated by the financial burden of moving from a location with a $700 monthly rent — dramatically lower than the average rent in Austin — as well as the uncertainty that comes with changing school districts, finding different grocery stores and shops or leaving Austin altogether.

"It's just like that rain cloud is stuck on our property and it just rains all day," said John Juarez, another longtime resident of the park.

Average rent in July for a one-bedroom apartment in Austin sits at $1,640, a 3.10% increase from the previous month and 26% higher than the average a year ago, according to a July report from rental marketplace platform Zumper. Two-bedroom apartment rents saw a 5% increase from June to July, and the current $2,060 average price is 24% higher than in the same month a year ago.

For Juarez, who does maintenance at a property about 10 minutes away from the park, the plan is to move into an apartment in the building where he works. Luckily, Juarez said, his employer was able to quickly accommodate his family of four at the complex.

"As far as the situation, it's still stressful, but just because of my job I'm able to get into a three-bedroom apartment a lot faster than some other people that are having to deal with, you know, everything," Juarez said.

The park, on South Congress Avenue between Stassney Lane and William Cannon Drive, is a little farther south than surrounding residential and commercial developments that have been newly built. But the area has several nearby sites under construction, including apartment complexes and a new QuikTrip convenience store.

Paydar Properties, which owns several RV resorts in California and Florida, is expected to revamp the location and expand its RV park presence to Austin.

"A few weeks ago, nobody would really budge, because they figured we would get some kind of help," Juarez said. "We fought, but in the end we're going to lose, just because he's doing everything the legal way, not like he's coming in here and being a shady person."

The change in ownership has taken a toll on the community. Residents tearfully joined together Wednesday to reflect on decades of life in the park and to remember their neighbor Greg Hopkins,who died in his home July 23, according to Austin police. He was 61.

'Always a wave to say hello'

A friend of Hopkins, Art, who did not reveal his last name, said the two met years earlier during a trivia game at a bar. Their chance meeting resulted in a friendship highlighted by trips to swimming holes around Texas, casino visits and a stint working with volunteers during Austin's South by Southwest festivals.

"We talked about a month ago, he was reflecting on some of our old stories and he never did that. It was almost like a goodbye, looking back on it," Art said.

While many in the community did not know Hopkins well, each had kind words to say about a neighborly man who liked walking his dog and lending guidance to new tenants at the park.

"You would always see him walking his little dog around the neighborhood, always a wave to say hello," Juarez said.

Hopkins' dog died early this year and then news broke about the sale of the park this summer, said Willmore, who lived next door. Hopkins had struggled with his mental health for some time, according to his friends.

"It was just kind of one thing after another, and he couldn't find a place to go," Willmore said.

As the vigil came to a close, departing neighbors shared teary-eyed stories acknowledging collective feelings of hurt for being uprooted as well as gratitude for having spent decades living in the park.

"Maybe it's time for something bigger, better than being stuck here," Juarez said. "And that's why we're not really that tore up about it, you know, because we're blessed."

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Austin mobile home park residents face evictions under new ownership