Correction: Earlier versions of this story misstated the proposal by Hydro Relief and Water Conservation Resources to help residents stay in their homes.The organization is trying to raise money to replace the leaky sewer system. It did not propose buying the mobile home park. The article has been corrected.
Nightfall at East End Mobile Home Park means dinner cooking in renovated kitchens, children staring at homework or television, parents returning from hourly-wage jobs.
Outside, crumbling underground pipes leak sewage in some spots and swallow up groundwater in others, costing the city of Manassas, Va., tens of thousands of dollars a year at the wastewater treatment plant and jeopardizing the existence of this affordable oasis, one of a decreasing number of mobile home parks across the country.
Nearly a year ago, Manassas officials agreed to purchase the land and shut down the trailer park, having concluded there was no feasible way to fix the privately owned sewer system.
But the mostly Latino residents are fighting to remain. They say they can’t move their trailers elsewhere or afford traditional homes with comparable space in the pricey Washington region, where according to 2015 census data about 1 in every 5 renter households spends at least half its income on rent.
On the advice of a pro bono attorney, and cheered on by a hotel cook-turned-activist who has embraced their cause, the 49 families of East End have withheld about $150,000 in monthly lot fees, part of a court case scheduled to be heard in June that could determine whether the owner of the park can be compelled to make repairs.
Their eviction date, originally scheduled for February, has been delayed until after that hearing, creating a window for a nonprofit housing group that is searching for financing to buy the property. It is the latest glimmer of hope in a journey that has been full of false starts, but has also won the trailer owners support from at least some city officials.
“How could you not be touched and moved by the very impassioned pleas of people who are saying: ‘This is my home. This is where I raise my family, and now the rug has been pulled out from under me’?” said Manassas Vice Mayor Marc Aveni (R).
“We’re smart people,” Aveni said. “You can’t tell me there’s not a solution out there.”
Mobile homes are vanishing even as the cost of living in major metropolitan areas creeps steadily upward. In the early 2000s, there were 8 million manufactured homes in the country. Today, there are about 6.3 million, according to census estimates. The disappearances come in clusters.
In Richmond, 24 families were forced out after a 2014 housing-code-violation sweep, prompting a federal discrimination lawsuit that resulted in new policies geared toward protecting mobile-home communities. In Palo Alto, Calif., nearly 400 mobile home residents are fighting to keep the city from shutting down their park to make way for new condominiums and apartments.
“We see these cases every week,” said Rick Robinson, general counsel of the Manufactured Housing Institute, which has launched a task force to combat what it believes are local government efforts to regulate trailer parks out of existence.
Many East End families saved up money to buy their trailers while sharing cramped space in overcrowded houses and apartments. Selfo Sosa, a leader in the fight to stop the sale of the park, purchased his four-bedroom trailer for $17,000 five years ago, after crowding his family of six into a two-bedroom unit in a nearby trailer park.
“None of us can afford a house anywhere else in this area,” said Sosa, a construction worker originally from Mexico who has organized community cleanups in an effort to win the favor of local officials. “We are all poor. . . . The cost of living is too high.”
Mobile homes began as symbols of luxury, according to the Affordable Housing Institute. In the 1920s, families riding the postwar economic boom hauled what were then known as “travel trailers” on camping trips. During the Great Depression, thousands of the contraptions were used as permanent housing, clustered in what came to be known as trailer parks.
The first true mobile home was a 22-foot-long trailer that included a kitchen and bathroom, produced by oil tycoon J. Paul Getty’s Spartan Aircraft Co. for workers at defense plants, coal mines and steel mills during World War II. The innovation drew disdain from some local officials, who relegated mobile home parks to mostly isolated areas on the outskirts of town.
“Because they are privately owned and privately managed, they were really below the radar,” said Doug Ryan, director of affordable housing for the Corporation for Enterprise Development, a D.C.-based anti-poverty group. “There was little incentive to maintain them.”
John Clarke, a bail bondsman in Manassas, bought East End park in 1961. He left the six-acre property to his only daughter, Helen Loretta Clarke, who turned over responsibility for it to her attorney, Timothy A. Cope, in 2005 as her health declined. At some point, said Oren Rose, a resident since 1975, “they started to let things slide.”
The pipes flooded raw sewage after rainstorms, leaving a strong odor and attracting the attention of city officials. The porous lines also allowed up to 200,000 gallons of rainwater a day to drain toward the Upper Occocoquan water treatment plant in nearby Chantilly, eating up capacity that officials say soon will be needed for new commercial and residential development.
The city spent six years trying to force Cope to fix the system. Inspectors found holes in the pipes patched with aluminum cans and old construction signs, and estimated the cost of repairs at $750,000 or more. In 2015, the city offered to buy the land, contingent on the residents being evicted.
“He just seemed to be indifferent” to the damage caused by the leaking pipes, city utilities director Tony Dawood said of Cope. “We were very frustrated.”
Cope said the city’s $1.89 million purchase offer was a godsend for an attorney trying to do right by his client. He had been unable to secure a loan to fix the sewer system and was worried that Clarke would lose roughly $117,000 per year in income if the city condemned the property.
“This isn’t a big corporation that could come in and straighten things out,” Cope said. “When they offered to buy it, it was in my opinion a very feasible answer to the quandary that I was in.”
The city has not said how it would use the land, located along the fast-developing Route 28 corridor that leads to Washington Dulles International Airport. “Potentially somebody might come in with a redevelopment option that the council would be willing to look at,” Manassas City Manager Patrick Pate said.
Since receiving their initial eviction notices in August, the East End trailer owners have been on a roller-coaster ride of hope and worry.
They considered pooling their resources in a cooperative to buy the mobile home park — a longshot idea that quickly fizzled.
Led by Sosa, they picked up litter and debris left behind by former neighbors, and rented an electric plumbing snake from Home Depot one night to try to clear out a backed-up part of the sewer system themselves.
Sosa learned about the bad pipes when his toilet kept clogging, after he had spent $10,000 on new floors, porch decks and an upgraded bathroom for his trailer. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
He and his neighbors have been mobbed by offers of help from strangers, including Helen Zurita, who cooks at a nearby Marriott hotel. After reading an article about the East End eviction notices in August, she called a local priest who had been quoted to ask how she could help.
Zurita joined other activists in searching for a buyer who would match the city’s purchase offer and keep the park open. She won over residents with her passion for their cause. “You have to do something to help my residents,” she sobbed to Mayor Harry J. “Hal” Parrish II (R) in November, after a City Council meeting where the trailer owners had testified.
But she also has made promises she didn’t know if she could keep.
“We’re very close to getting you a buyer,” Zurita told residents through a Spanish interpreter at a meeting in January, adding that she would love to become the park’s property manager if the plan was successful.
No buyer came through, and residents prepared to move out on Feb. 28.
They got an unexpected reprieve when another would-be activist showed up. Paulette Joy Millsaps, who works at a Fairfax City Toyota dealership and describes herself as an “amateur geologist,” approached Cope and Manassas officials with a plan to replace the sewer system through Hydro Relief and Water Conservation Resources, a nonprofit she formed last spring.
Cope delayed eviction proceedings for a few weeks to allow time for Millsaps — who had had her own financial troubles, including two evictions for nonpayment of rent — to put a deal together. She, too, could not make it work.
Then Catholics for Housing, a nonprofit based in Dumfries, approached Cope. Its plan to take over East End, which would require bank or public financing and approval from Manassas officials, is in the initial stages, said chief executive Karen DeVito.
“We really have to make sure that we are not giving anybody false hope,” DeVito said. “Right now, we’re assessing a very complicated situation to determine whether we have the capability of getting involved.”
In the meantime, life at the trailer park has continued its routines. Each weekday, around 4 p.m., parents wait for their kids at a school bus stop in a nearby shopping strip parking lot.
Among them is Evelin Zavala, a single mother of two who works as a school custodian in Fauquier County.
She has spent $15,000 to fix the roof, floor and other parts of the dilapidated single-wide trailer she bought for $11,000 in 2011. Before that, the family lived in a single room about five miles away.
“We can’t go back to renting a room,” Zavala said one recent day, after ushering 6-year-old Brandon and 13-year-old Katherinne home from the bus stop. “I’m afraid this is going to turn out well for the owner. But not so well for us.”