A Chugiak trailer park under eviction notice lacks clean water and sits on contaminated land. Many residents are fighting to stay.
May 8—Alonzo Lang made a life and raised his family at the Forest Park trailer court.
He built a smoker from a 55-gallon drum that can handle a whole hog. The garden beds now still buried under snow will be filled with vegetables and flowers in the summer. Last fall, he strung a moose carcass from a birch on his lot as he butchered it for freezer meat. He's rehabbed his trailer down to its bones, invested time, money and effort into making it home.
"I love it out here," Lang said, wearing camo pants and a T-shirt that reads "Free Hugs" as he stood in front of his home, constructed in 1968. "To look at it, it's an old trailer, but if you go on the inside everything's modernized."
Now Lang, 71, stands to lose his home of 20 years at the trailer court in Chugiak. He is one of about a hundred tenants at Forest Park facing eviction over what the city says are conditions too dangerous for people to go on living there.
But Lang — like a lot of the people still living at Forest Park after years of deteriorating conditions, relocation offers and a looming eviction — does not want to leave.
"I'd hate to leave it," he said. "All my kids grew up here, and my grandkids."
Forest Park, where affordability is part of the allure for tenants, is contending with converging problems. One clergyman at a nearby church called it "a mess top to bottom." Residents have been on a boil-water notice for five years, and endured inconsistent to nonexistent water and sewer service to their homes. Standing pools of raw sewage from a faulty septic system have contaminated the land.
As conditions worsened, some residents left, others withheld rent, many stopped caring, and a cycle of neglect, apathy and decay replaced what plenty said had been a neighborly community where they had enjoyed living.
Then came a municipal eviction order in May 2022, condemning properties and telling people they had until November to leave.
Lang, who hauls water to his home in blue 15-gallon tanks, said people started giving up. Another resident reported a rise in vandalism.
"The park has never looked this bad," said Cindy Johnson, who has lived there since 2005 and has been one of the most vocal residents pushing for tenants to be allowed to stay.
'Homeowners without a mortgage'
One reason people do not want to leave is because there is nowhere else to go — at least nowhere that someone can have as many rooms, a yard, and outright ownership of his or her home on a patch of wooded land in the shadow of rugged Chugach Mountain peaks on one side and a sweeping view of Knik Arm on the other.
Renting the land beneath a trailer from the park owners is around $500 a month.
"It's our home. We are homeowners without a mortgage," Johnson wrote in an email, outlining that in the winter she pays less than $900 a month in utilities and rent for the land her three-bedroom, two-bathroom trailer sits on. "I cannot find anything comparable anywhere in the state and still be a homeowner."
With a severe shortage of affordable housing in Anchorage, many residents say that if the park shuts down, their options are vehicles, couch surfing or the streets, potentially adding to the city's parallel homelessness crisis.
And while Forest Park is the trailer court facing the most imminent closure, plenty of others bear the same liabilities of deteriorating infrastructure less likely to be repaired than scrapped all together in the event of an earthquake, or flood, or foreclosure.
When those kinds of affordable units disappear from the municipality, officials warn, they are not replaced.
"Forest Park is just one of many mobile home parks that is facing major issues," said Kevin Cross, who represents the Chugiak area on the Anchorage Assembly.
Many of the trailer parks across the municipality were built in the 1960s and 1970s under very different environmental and construction standards, with shoddy materials and subsurface infrastructure that has severely degraded, Cross said.
"They weren't meant to last 60 years," he said.
Years of decay, 'catastrophic' damage
Forest Park is owned by Paul and Valerie Ritz under a limited liability company. The couple bought the property in 2005, and they've been the targets of a lot of the blame for what went wrong. The state levied a more than $5 million fine against them for drinking water violations.
But at least some of the issues at the property started before the Ritzes took over.
As early as July 2000, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation issued a violation notice concerning a failure to follow regulatory requirements for the park's public water system, according to a civil complaint brought by the Alaska Department of Law in 2019.
In 2013, state officials warned that water system deficiencies posed a safety threat. In 2018, according to the state's civil complaint, the Department of Environmental Conservation issued a boil water notice for park residents due to the risk of contamination from the lack of pressure in the system. In July of that year, state inspectors responded to reports of raw sewage surfacing, which testing confirmed were full of fecal coliform.
Then the 2018 earthquake hit, and the water and sewer systems came apart entirely. The "catastrophic" damage to the overall system left it beyond repair, a municipal official wrote in a 2020 letter to the state.
Below the trailers, water pipes run under wastewater lines, a design that is no longer permitted because of the risks of cross-contamination, according to the city official. Fixing the system would require moving homes, some so old they might collapse.
Water at Forest Park tested by state officials in 2021 showed 10,000 times the level of fecal coliform contamination suitable for drinking, according to a criminal indictment filed by the state against the property owners that year. They face a combined 23 charges ranging from failing to submit routine water samples to reckless endangerment.
'It's a snowball effect'
A group of tenants sued the Ritzes in 2020 over the water issues. A filing from the attorneys representing the tenants accused the couple of being "slum lords" who "operate the trailer park without providing safe drinkable water for years and without providing water at pressure sufficient for daily use."
"Residents are unable to flush their toilets, wash their hands, clean their homes, wash their clothes or shower," wrote lawyers for the tenants, noting the conditions persisted through the COVID-19 pandemic. Tenants who could hauled their own water, either from an on-site system installed by the property owners or at places like the fire station in Eagle River.
Valerie Ritz, in a response to questions this week, said tenants aren't necessarily aware of what maintenance and repair work is being done at the park.
"If they ever called us, we explained anything they needed to know," Ritz wrote in an email. "Part of the issue with tenants is that they don't understand the big picture. Additionally, they often misconstrue what is or is not happening."
Ritz said the narrative that the owners "did nothing" is neither fair nor accurate. The couple spent tens of thousands of dollars on repairs, she wrote, and financed the installation of a replacement water system. Ritz also said many tenants stopped paying rent in 2020 after a judge ruled they didn't have to until water was restored, which reduced their income and limited what they could do with the funds available.
"Even when tenants had water back to their homes by 2021 and were ordered by that same judge to pay rent, most did not do so," Ritz wrote. "There are some tenants who have not paid rent for over two years but won't leave."
In March, a judge ruled in favor of the tenants, ordering the couple to pay $282,000 to 14 residents who joined the lawsuit, according to a court filing.
For the Ritzes, it was yet another financial strike in a series of them. The prior year, Superior Court Judge Una Gandbhir sided with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation in fining the couple $5,333,761 over 733 violations of safe drinking water laws.
In April, they filed for bankruptcy.
As the water and sewer situation degraded, residents and advocates say, other basic services like trash collection and road repairs also fell by the wayside.
"With hands-off ownership, stuff wasn't getting repaired," said Pastor Jim Doepken from the nearby United Methodist Church, which has helped coordinate tenant meetings with nonprofits and officials. "People are not as invested in where they live because they can't drink the water, trash isn't getting picked up ... It's a snowball effect."
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'What I signed up for'
Under Alaska law, trailer park residents cannot be evicted in the winter. That's part of the reason why a Superior Court judge in November 2022 granted a preliminary injunction to Johnson — a resident who sued to block the eviction — even though he determined the municipality's initial eviction order was valid. The park's undrinkable water and raw sewage leaks posed a hazard to residents' health and well-being, the judge wrote.
He postponed the eviction until May 1, 2023.
That deadline, too, was kicked back. At the end of April, the Anchorage Assembly unanimously approved a measure from Cross to grant tenants another 90 days to work toward a better solution for the roughly 100 people still living there.
But the delay does nothing to solve the underlying problem.
At a meeting held at the United Methodist Church of Chugiak in April, organizers gave away binders with printouts of various court orders and judgments, along with emails and a timeline of events supporting many of the tenants' claims.
Residents said they have few options, if any.
"I really have no other place to go. My rent's reasonable there," said Fred Esguerra at the April church meeting, one of about a dozen residents who testified at the meeting.
Several people cited expensive, scarce housing. Even without clean or reliable water in their homes and after the eviction notice formally barred new tenants from moving in, a few said they settled there anyway because the trailer court beats the alternatives.
"I bought this place, there was no water ... I knew what I was getting into, I was OK with what I signed up for," said John Paul Paquette, standing near his trailer. "A lot of these people are the same."
Paquette moved into Forest Park in February 2022 and has been gradually repairing the trailer he bought. He loves the location, enjoys the sense of camaraderie with neighbors, as well as the "pride of ownership" that comes with purchasing the structure outright and fixing it up on his own.
Paquette called the municipality's eviction notice "a slap in the face" and "a scare tactic" to get residents to leave.
'A Band-Aid on an artery'
Many of those who could go elsewhere already have, moving on even if it meant taking a loss on all they invested into trailers they couldn't sell or move to another park because the units are so old that other trailer courts will not accept them.
A housing nonprofit, NeighborWorks, worked with state and federal partners to help Forest Park tenants with either a down payment for a new home or two years of rental assistance worth up to $50,000. But recipients still need to come up with rent or mortgage payments on their own — which are almost certain to be more than the $500 a month charged at the park now.
Of the roughly 30 households tallied by NeighborWorks, nine have started the process for transitioning to new housing. Of those nine, four have moved elsewhere.
One reason it's hard to move residents out of trailer parks is that such low-cost housing units are not easily replaced once a park closes. Over the decades, zoning and land-use codes have made it harder to permit new trailer courts, Cross said, and the existing stock is in rough shape.
Cross thinks one solution to the city's housing crisis is reforming land-use rules to make relatively inexpensive modular homes easier to permit. The issue is front and center in city discussions around homelessness, which is adding a degree of urgency to the onerous process of reforming zoning codes.
But none of this will be fixed within the window Forest Park residents need solutions, he said.
"I can guarantee you we're not going to solve this in 90 days. We can put a Band-Aid on it, but that is a Band-Aid on an artery. Those trailers are on contaminated soil," Cross said. "If Anchorage is going to make building affordable housing this difficult, their answer might not be in Anchorage."
Several Forest Park residents, including Paquette and Johnson, think funds allocated for relocation should be used to buy out the property and turn it over to residents, under a sort of cooperative model.
Lang is not sure about what he and the five other members of his household will do next.
"I got hope that someone will come in and help us. 'Cause I can't move this trailer: It was built in 1968, and I've probably replaced every stud in it," he said.
He spent a lot of last year working on applications for housing programs, but can't find a way to stay where he wants.
"I have given up on the Anchorage Bowl area," he said. "So I'm looking out in the Valley. I've been out there before, it's not bad."