Dissenters charge City Council with attempting to price homeowners out of affordable housing.
By Walker County News Today Staff
Citizens once again protested what one called an incremental assault on affordable housing as the Huntsville City Council on Tuesday again considered strict and cost-prohibitive restrictions on mobile homes in the city limits.
The History of the Subject
Tuesday’s meeting was the second attempt by city staff and the appointed Huntsville Planning and Zoning Commission to ban or severely restrict mobile homes within the city limits by making changes to both the Development Code and to city ordinances.
Citizens showed up in force at the council’s July 22, 2015, meeting to protest council’s consideration of a proposal sponsored by the Planning Commission to ban all future mobile homes in the city except for city-approved and controlled mobile home parks. This was accompanied by a separate proposal to significantly increase the restrictions on those same city-controlled mobile home parks.
These two proposals were met by a standing-room-only group of citizens who objected vigorously to both recommendations on the grounds that they were a violation of basic citizen property rights and that they would have the effect of driving this class of affordable housing out of the city.
In the face of this vigorous public opposition, council voted unanimously to reject both recommendations. In an editorial on the heels of this council action, The Huntsville Item naively praised council for its demonstration of responsive representative government.
Planning Commission offers incremental approach
At Tuesday’s meeting, the Planning Commission demonstrated in clear terms that it had not been dissuaded in the least by the citizens’ overwhelming rebuke of its previous efforts. It had, as citizens who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting charged, only regrouped to come back with an incremental attack and a public relations program that disingenuously emphasized the “safety” benefits of the new plan, while in Planning Commission meetings focusing on the plan’s aesthetic benefits in limiting or banning mobile homes.
The only difference in Tuesday’s plan is that these recommendations are somewhat more limited in nature and, in some cases, more time is allowed for compliance. It was clear, said the mobile home proponents who attended the meeting, however, that the spirit of the recommendations has not changed and that the ultimate intent of the Planning Commission is the same as last year, namely to severely limit the future use of mobile homes in the city.
In the public hearing portion of the meeting, nine members of the public spoke, seven clearly against the proposals and two (both of whom serve as appointees on the Planning Commission) who appeared to be supportive of the commission’s recommendations. Those against the plan emphasized the likely rent increases that mobile home dwellers would incur if the proposed changes were put in place. Mobile home landlords and mobile home park owners would almost certainly have to increase their rents significantly to offset the high cost of compliance with the revised code and ordinances.
“The rent is a whole lot cheaper than I would be paying in an apartment or a house,” said Jacob McKeska, a Sam Houston State University student who lives in a mobile home park near SHSU. “This enables me to focus on school. From what I understand this would displace all the families and other students who live in this trailer park.”
Mike Clouds, owner of a mobile home park, questioned the need for a 6-foot screen around mobile home parks that the revised code would require. “The only other places where we have that requirement is Dumpsters and junkyards. I’m not sure what we’re trying to hide with mobile home parks. This represents a huge cost,” he said.
The Planning Commission revision would also require mobile home parks to pave roads into the park with the stated reason that it would make access easier for emergency vehicles. It further calls for the addition of fire hydrants. “Concrete or paved roads – very cost prohibitive,” Clouds said. “I don’t personally think there’s anything wrong with living on a dirt road. These same fire trucks respond to fires in the county with a lot of dirt roads.” Clouds pointed out that parts of the city annexed in 1994, such as an area on FM 247, still do not have fire protection.
Revisions also would prohibit mobile homes manufactured more than 20 years ago. Clouds said he considered that arbitrary and that the age of the home isn’t “a good way to determine whether something is good or bad.”
Clouds and others charged the city with representing narrow interests in the city with its code revisions. “I personally do not believe that the planning committee is a diverse representation of our community as a whole…. I don’t believe that any of them live in a mobile home. I believe they live in one of the three little subdivisions,” he said. “With all of these proposed changes, it would be increasingly difficult to be a small business owner. I believe that the only one that could do this is one of the big investment companies.”
Local real estate broker Donna Pinon, who vocally opposed the city’s first push to ban mobile homes, called out the city on its second attack on mobile home dwellers and park owners.
“So here we are again on the mobile home issue. The proposal last year was to basically eliminate mobile homes in the city, and the backlash over that was substantial, so it looks like this year we’re going to try an incremental approach and simply raise the cost of owning one of them to the point that you achieve the same effect,” she said.
Pinon also pointed out that in the Planning Commission discussion forum it is stated that the Commission’s first priority for 2016 is the mobile home issue. “Are you kidding me? The auditor tells us that we have $15.5 million in unfunded retirement obligations and in another workshop we hear there’s a $100 million in Infrastructure needs and our first priority is mobile homes? Awesome! I think we have a priority problem,” Pinon said.
“The planning commission’s report also notes, ‘The goal is public safety.’ That’s interesting, because I sat in on one of the planning meetings and I heard a lot about aesthetics… So, is it really about public safety? My answer is no…. We didn’t go to the Historic District (or) Forest Hills (or) Elkins Lake … and demand that those property owners come up to today’s code. No. You are persecuting these people. Leave them alone.”
Randall Brooks said he found it an amusing contradiction “that mobile homes and mobile home parks is the top priority.”
“I don’t think mobile home parks should be saddled with requirements to improve the appearance of Huntsville. If that’s going to be in mobile home parks it should be in the whole city,” Brooks said. “The boundary screen fence, I think is ridiculous. Do the other subdivisions have this requirement?”
Amber Henson, community manager of the Tanglewood mobile home park on South Sam Houston Avenue, echoed others’ concerns about code revisions’ effect on affordable housing and the apparent unfairness in the application of restrictive and expensive codes.“My job is to provide affordable housing. Most of my residents are TDC, disabled veterans or retirees. A lot of the stuff in this would raise rents. My residents can‘t afford that. If you raise their rent where are they going to go,” she said. She asked why such code revisions were not being written for older homes in Elkins Lake, Forest Hills and Timberwilde.
Steve Sherman, manager at Reliable Homes, wanted to clear up misconceptions about mobile homes – which get a bad rap. “They are good homes at affordable pricing. You’ll be amazed at what goes into these homes.”
Retired educator Linda Thompson also asked council to apply codes fairly to other types of housing, not just mobile homes. “If we’re going to have certain standards for manufactured homes, I see no reason why those standards shouldn’t be for all homes in the city of Huntsville,” she said. “When you spend more than a thousand dollars for an outside storage unit to put behind a mobile home, it raises the appraised value of the property and the property taxes is going up and you are going to pay higher property taxes. If storage units are good for mobile homes, let’s do it for all the other houses.”
If the city’s Planning Commission is concerned about “tidiness… why restrict it to mobile homes?” Thompson said.
Members of the Planning Commission also addressed council, offering their side in responses to accusations and comments by citizens.
“There appears to be a lot of ill will attributed to our efforts. This city has made some decisions on what we want this City to be like. This wasn’t our highest priority. It was the low hanging fruit. We’re trying to raise the standards in this city,” said Debra Durda, Planning Commission member.
The Planning Commission’s proposed changes to the Development Code regarding mobile homes are available on the city’s website.