Three girls on a recent evening stepped out of a teen center, gripping cellphones to capture the best shot of a sunset over snow-blanketed Tanners Lake. For all the motorists on nearby Interstate 94 knew, the girls could have been in Oakdale or Woodbury or Maplewood.
But they were in Landfall, population 742, one of only two incorporated cities in Minnesota that consists primarily of mobile homes, and a city that was founded to save affordable housing.
Now leaders are trying to figure out how to better market their distinct burg as it prepares in a few years to take the reins of ownership from Washington County, its landlord since the late 1990s.
"We are trying to create that sense of who we are and where we are," said City Administrator Ed Shukle. "We want to recognize the people who live here and why they live here."
Dispelling that anonymity might start with erecting a "Welcome to Landfall" sign that's visible from I-94, something for which the City Council has set aside money in this year's budget.
Once a mobile home park in danger of being snatched up by developers, Landfall has survived as a rare pocket of low-income housing in the east metro.
The 53-acre community, now more than half Hispanic, occupies the southwest tip of Oakdale, sits hard by Maplewood and across the interstate from Woodbury — all majority-white suburbs with median household incomes at least twice that of their tiny neighbor.
Despite its general obscurity, Landfall is well-known among limited-income families looking for a low bar to homeownership and a close-knit suburban community.
"I've got people who call every day hoping to hear about an opening," said Mary Brown, manager of the mobile home park.
Mayor Stan Suedkamp said he wants people to know the ways that Landfall defies many of the stereotypes — unsafe, unkempt, undesirable — about mobile home parks.
Moreover, the city's youth initiatives, which have drawn national recognition from an organization that aims to improve high school graduation rates, help make it an appealing home for families.
"This is not just a place for low life," Suedkamp said. "This is a place for good, quality family life."
In about five years, city officials expect to pay off the long-term bonds that Washington County used to buy the city in the 1990s to save its affordable housing. When that happens, Landfall will officially take ownership of all its 300 lots.
Some in Landfall fear that once the balance is fully paid, the city will invite in developers and sell its property. That worry is compounded by the expected arrival of mass transit in Landfall in 2024, when the Gold Line bus rapid transit is set to make a stop on the city's edge.
But Landfall's leaders are quick to allay concerns.
"The intent is to continue as a public body, a city where residents pay their rent and continue to live in owner-occupied homes," Shukle said.
'That small-town feel'
To live in Landfall, applicants must pass a background check and meet income guidelines: a family of four can't make more than $47,000 to qualify.
While residents own their homes, they pay an average of $300 monthly for their lot and city utilities. The City Council has opted against raising that rate for the last 15 years, Shukle said.
"We're a good deal," he said. "Generally families stay because they like it. They like the area, they like the view of the lake and the closeness to shopping and services. But they also stay because they can actually afford to."
In Landfall, people know their neighbors and maybe even join them on the dock for an afternoon of fishing, Suedkamp said. Honor roll students are recognized at City Council meetings. Families picnic near the lake in the summer and gather for a community dinner with Santa in the winter.
"It really gives you that small-town feel within these bigger cities," Brown said.
Landfall was founded by James and Mitzi Olson, who moved into a small cottage on the site in the 1950s. They had lived in a mobile home during World War II and, finding a shortage of affordable housing, developed the property into a mobile home park. To obtain municipal services, Landfall — entirely owned by the Olsons — petitioned for incorporation and became a city in 1959.
In 1991 Mitzi Olson, by then a widow, decided to sell. Residents worried about eviction and the prospect of a developer razing the community. With no bonding capability, they asked the Washington County Housing and Redevelopment Authority to buy the city as a way to shield their affordable housing.
County officials agreed, using long-term bonds to be paid off through rents collected from residents leasing the lots.
Freeing up the money going to the county will supplement the city budget, ideally protecting against the need to raise rents, Suedkamp said.
Landfall buys its water from Oakdale and its sewer services from the Metropolitan Council. As those costs rise, the city will "scrape and scratch together every penny" to avoid passing those costs onto residents, the mayor said.
"We want to allow people to live a middle-income life at a lower-income price," Suedkamp said. "That's really what we are trying to do here."
Bringing equity home
On a recent afternoon just after school, the lower level of Landfall's periwinkle City Hall was strewn with various board games and Lego creations, the favored activities of a dozen grade-school kids. Down the road in an old maintenance garage turned teen center, a group of youths gathered in a space of their own.
Both elementary and teen programs are the result of a longstanding partnership between Landfall and FamilyMeans, a Stillwater-based nonprofit.
FamilyMeans' involvement in Landfall began in 1992, when its assessment showed residents were concerned about juvenile crime and the lack of youth activities in the community. In the decades since, Landfall has three times won America's Promise Alliance designation as one of the nation's 100 best communities for young people.
The city pays $10,000 to FamilyMeans to provide afternoon and summer activities and support a teen bicycle program, which teaches bike repair and promotes fitness. Grant funding has enabled Landfall's youth to try kayaking, rock climbing, theater production and gardening.
"Throughout [FamilyMeans'] history here, one of our goals has been to bring equity to the community," said Tom Yuska, FamilyMeans' director of youth programs. "We want to give kids the opportunities to do things their parents might not be able to afford."
Supporting the city's young adults is an investment in Landfall's future, Yuska and Shukle said.
"Who knows, when they grow up they might participate in city government or run for City Council," Shukle said.