Antonia Alvarez and her young daughter left their cockroach-infested Minneapolis apartment complex a decade ago and joined the ranks of suburban homeowners for the first time.

For Alvarez, who works in housekeeping, buying a mobile home in St. Anthony opened the door to higher-performing schools and a safer neighborhood.

"It's safe for my daughter, number one. We have the good schools close by. We have the hospital close. Transportation is close," Alvarez said through an interpreter.

She is one of 39,000 people living in 83 mobile home parks in the Twin Cities suburbs. Protecting those parks, some of which are now in peril, is the easiest way to preserve affordable housing in the suburbs, according to a new Metropolitan Council report.

The regional planning agency has launched the "Manufactured Home Park Preservation Project" to save some of the parks at risk of closure and to promote investment in aging communities. It's offering up to $250,000 in a matching grant to one mobile home park to help defray the cost of connecting to the regional wastewater treatment system. In return, the park owner will likely have to agree to some terms to keep the park open and rents affordable.

"Most manufactured home parks are in suburban areas, and in some cases the parks can represent a majority of that community's affordable housing as well as its racial and ethnic diversity," said Freya Thamman, a Met Council planning analyst.

Nearly 40 percent of mobile home park residents are people of color, compared with 25 percent of the region's population as a whole.

Thamman, who is part of the agency's push to improve racial equity, said saving and improving these parks is easier than building affordable housing from scratch. Simply filling the 1,868 empty pads in existing mobile home parks could house 5,200 people, she said.

"It also provides a homeownership opportunity," said Jonathan Stanley, a Met Council housing planning analyst. "It's very often an overlooked part of the affordable housing continuum. You can call this private unsubsidized affordable housing."

Parks disappearing

But saving flagging mobile home communities is fraught with challenges.

Mobile homes and the parks they occupy are dwindling as developers eye the property underneath. Ten parks have closed in the past two decades, including ones in Anoka, Mound, Oakdale and Spring Lake Park. Aging roads and sewer systems could push more owners to sell instead of making updates.

The number of individuals buying manufactured homes also has faltered, in part because of banking reform rules Congress passed after the housing market crash. Banks treat mobile home loans like car loans, with much higher interest rates than conventional home mortgages.

In the Twin Cities, the number of occupied mobile homes has dropped by 10 percent to 13,833 since 2001. Still, the cost of living in a mobile home, about $701 per month, according to the Met Council, is much less than the $1,262 average monthly cost for traditional homeowners.

Alvarez's park, Lowry Grove in St. Anthony, is the latest park in peril. The 97 mobile homes sit on a picturesque piece of real estate, which was sold this summer to Wayzata developer Continental Property Group for $6 million. The developer has announced its intention to remove the homes and redevelop the land.

Residents, with the help of the nonprofit Aeon, tried to purchase the property for the same price under a never-tested state statute that says residents have the first right of refusal when a park is put on the market. The owners, Lowry Grove LLC, refused the offer, according to Aeon's president. The nonprofit is now exploring filing a lawsuit.

"This is an incredible housing resource. If we think we can lose these and shrug our shoulders and there won't be an impact, we are way wrong," said Aeon President Alan Arthur.

Traci Tomas, president of Continental Property Group, said Aeon didn't meet the requirements to challenge the sale as laid out in the state law.

"Because no one met the statutory requirements, the buyer and seller closed on the purchase as they were contractually obligated to do," Tomas said.

Many of the residents said closing the park would force them from St. Anthony, where affordable housing is scarce.

Jose Vilchis Cerna, his wife and their two daughters bought a home in Lowry Grove about a year ago and are devastated at the prospect of moving. He saved for two years to pay $7,500 for the home.

"I couldn't believe someone would want to ruin our dream of having our own house. My youngest daughter cried," Vilchis Cerna said through an interpreter.

Push for preservation

While mobile homes may offer a chance at ownership, for some there's a stigma attached to a house on wheels.

Neighbors of Lowry Grove expressed mixed emotions about the park. Police responded to 174 calls there in 2015, and it was the site of the city's most recent fatal shooting in 2014.

St. Anthony city officials listed the park as a potential redevelopment area in its comprehensive plan. But St. Anthony Mayor Jerry Faust said the city is not taking sides on the sale.

"It's a private transaction," Faust said. "We are bystanders in this until the court tells us something different."

The potential stigma didn't dampen the Met Council's enthusiasm for its preservation pilot program. Several members praised the goal of saving manufactured homes. Two of the 17 Met Council members, Steven Chavez and Harry Melander, shared their experiences of living in manufactured homes when they were starting out.

Melander, speaking in favor of preserving metro area parks as an affordable housing option, said one of his early houses was a mobile home in outstate Wisconsin.

"At that time in my life, I thought it was pretty nice," he said. "Manufactured homes are a great option for people."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804