Glad Tidings of Little Comfort or Joy

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

It should have been good news. Residents of a mobile home park in southern Fairfax County had just learned that they wouldn't have to move to make way for gleaming new townhouses.

But there was no cheering in the church function room where residents gathered last week. There were only more anxious questions. Such is the precarious nature of living in one of the last trailer parks in one of the country's richest counties: It's hard to celebrate a victory because odds are the next battle is not far away.

"It's going to happen sometime, when the next group of developers comes along," said resident Patty Littlepage, 48, who teaches preschoolers in Fairfax. "I can feel it in my bones."

The story of the Penn-Daw Mobile Home Park -- a story of a threat, an uprising and a tentative reprieve -- is set against the transformation of southern Fairfax, an area as much in flux as any in the Washington region. Long the county's scruffiest commercial strip, the stretch of Route 1 also known as Richmond Highway is sprouting shopping centers and townhouses amid its discount motels and fast-food joints, a shift driven by proximity to Alexandria and Metro and by the coming expansion of Fort Belvoir.

Fairfax officials are encouraging the overhaul even as they acknowledge that it threatens one of the county's few working-class bastions and undermines their mission to retain affordable housing.

Nowhere has this tension between improvement and displacement been felt more keenly than at Penn-Daw, where 90 trailers are tucked along a slope behind a McDonald's and an appliance distributor. There, residents enjoy a pleasant seclusion, nearly out of earshot of the road and facing woods full of deer, raccoons and foxes.

But more recently, they realized their hideaway came with a downside: If no one knew they were there, it meant no one would know if Penn-Daw was wiped away.

It was Teresa Kowal who first learned of the plans, in February 2005, in a weekly newspaper she was reading while waiting for children to board the Fairfax school bus she drives. She read what no one had bothered to tell the residents of Penn-Daw: Their landlord, Robert Epps, was selling the 7.5-acre park to Dallas-based developer JPI. Penn-Daw and an adjacent, run-down shopping center would be replaced by Kings Crossing -- 700 apartments and townhouses, a 150-room hotel, offices and stores.

Kowal reported back to her neighbors, and soon a vigorous campaign was underway, with signs tacked on trailers rallying residents: "Apart we are just a whisper, but together our voices will be louder than thunder."

Such unity wasn't easy to achieve. Some residents were much less well-informed than others, resulting in some impatient shouting during meetings. And then there was the great diversity of the park's residents. There are several dozen Hispanic immigrants, most of whom are recent arrivals to the country, and also some longer-term residents such as Ethel Jones, 73, from Venezuela, who has lived in the park for 31 years. There are parents such as Kowal, 35, a jovial single mother who doesn't want to leave Fairfax because it would lengthen her commute and give her even less time with her two boys.

There are veterans and widows of veterans who count on their proximity to the Army hospital at Belvoir. They include Fran Spinn, 54, an Army veteran on disability after five back surgeries, who knows that if she has to leave, her chances for subsidized housing will be hurt by her insistence on keeping her pet birds and two cats, one of whom she says recently alerted her to a peeping Tom at her window.

"Here, I've got my own place, and I figured that's it, I don't have to go any further. Now I have to start over as if I'm 20?" she asked.

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