Doreen Mitchell slept alone in her van on the summer night her family broke apart.
Mitchell, 57, parked within view of the St. Anthony mobile home park where she had lived for 17 years, sharing a roof with two of her children and four grandchildren. Here, she had barbecued with neighbors and found belonging.
The sale of Lowry Grove and its resulting June 30 closure displaced nearly 100 households, leaving families scrambling to find affordable places to live. Some found refuge with relatives and local volunteers. Most left town. A handful, former neighbors say, remain homeless or are unaccounted for.
"I'm split up and broke up in my heart," said Mitchell, who now lives alone two hours from the metro. Stress from the move, she said, left her estranged from the family members she hugged goodbye when Lowry Grove closed.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota are looking to document stories like Mitchell's. A proposed impact study would dig into what happened to Lowry Grove residents after losing their community, taking note of the private and public costs incurred along the way. The aim, researchers say, is to make displacement and the loss of affordable housing more visible to policymakers.
The impact of recent park closures is evident in the steep decline of a state fund established to help displaced residents, which dropped to just over $80,000 from about $1.2 million in the past year alone.
No new mobile home parks have opened in the metro area since 1991, and a dozen have disappeared in that time. The trend is energizing preservation efforts by the Metropolitan Council, including a pilot grant that would help mobile home parks connect to the regional wastewater system.
Some parks, like Lowry Grove, are pushed out by redevelopment as land values around them increase. Across the region, mobile homes offer a largely unsubsidized, affordable refuge for low-income families and residents of color, including the elderly and immigrants.
Federal lawmakers have proposed a bill to protect mobile home parks, naming it after Frank Adelmann, a Lowry Grove resident who took his own life days before the park closed.
"It's so traumatizing, so anxiety-ridden, that it drives people to extremes when you tell them, 'You're not gonna have a place to live,' " said U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who introduced the bill. "That really moved me, shook me up."
Three months after the last homes in Lowry Grove went dark, former residents say they are haunted by worries of what became of their neighbors.
Statistics tell part of story
Researchers at the U want to find out how these displaced families fared but are struggling to put together the estimated $70,000 needed to undertake a study.
And the clock is ticking, said Ed Goetz, director of the university's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, which would oversee the study. "The residents have already moved" and might be hard to find.
Some questions can be answered in numbers: income changes, replacement housing costs, draws on public services. But others move beyond stats: what it's like facing new schools, neighborhoods, social surroundings.
The naked light bulb on former Lowry Park resident Bill McConnell's work desk casts a sharp light on his recent life changes. On the night the park closed, McConnell, a retired printer, slept in his car. He said he found it tough to find rent comparable to the $450 he paid in Lowry Grove. So he applied for public housing, eventually ending up in a Minneapolis high rise that's federally subsidized and costs him $371 a month.
McConnell said he misses being a homeowner but counted himself lucky, thankful to no longer be living in a Walmart parking lot. "The good Lord spared me that," he said.
Dwindling safety net
The growing attention to mobile home parks comes at a time when the state fund meant to assist displaced residents — largely paid for with an assessment on mobile homes — has plunged dramatically.
The Minnesota Manufactured Home Relocation Trust Fund, created in 2007, provides a safety net for residents who must move when a park closes or gets redeveloped. Depending on the size of their residence, homeowners can receive as much as $14,500 as a buyout for their homes or $12,500 to move them. But some could get more under certain city ordinances, including in St. Anthony. Lowry Grove payments ranged from $3,500 to $27,000, state data show.
The trust fund comes largely from a $15 fee collected from mobile home residents by park owners. In 2011, a $1 million cap was signed into law, suspending the fee collection if the balance exceeds that amount. Over the past year, though, the trust fund was nearly exhausted after the closures of Lowry Grove and Southgate Mobile Village in Bloomington.
Payments are now being collected for the first time since the cap took effect six years ago.
"We came within a relative whisker of some people going without any benefits at all," said Dave Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group All Parks Alliance for Change. "In the long-term, it's essential that the [million-dollar] cap either be removed or raised significantly."
Some Lowry Grove residents are rebuilding their scattered community in New Brighton, where a handful of families are settling into Lakeside Homes. Neighbors describe the pristine, mobile home park with about 245 households as an aesthetic improvement from Lowry Grove's dilapidated homes and muddy streets.
Lowry Grove families are getting help from friends and the St. Anthony Villagers for Community Action group. Volunteers have taken former residents into their homes and seen their hardships firsthand.
Antonia Alvarez, a Lowry Grove community organizer, moved into Lakeside last month, buying a home in need of repairs for $15,000 with the relocation money she collected from the trust fund.
Some former neighbors now live just up the street.
"I have them all here very close to me," Alvarez said with a smile. "We need to make another community just like the one in Lowry Grove."
Marisol Merino, a friend of Alvarez, moved into the New Brighton park with her four children. She said her oldest daughter disliked her new school and returned to her old school, even though she must take two buses to get there.
Two hours from the metro, Mitchell used her relocation money to buy another mobile home for about $6,000 on a wooded road in Spicer, far removed from family and friends. She worries that she still has her son's winter coat.
"You can't put a price on keeping a family together," she said.
Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751
Miguel Otárola • 612-673-4753