Parked: How Mobile Home Residents Were Left Behind After Colorado's 2013 Floods
When the flood waters in 2013 subsided, tens of thousands of evacuees along Colorado's Front Range returned to see what happened to their homes. One of them was Amanda Anderson.
"All of it was just mud," Anderson said. "It was so dark in there because of the mud. It was like walking into a horror movie because it used to be so bright."
Her mobile home was trashed after the torrential September rains sent water crashing over the banks of the North and South St. Vrain creeks. Water rose at the confluence, flooding low-lying homes across the small mountain town north of Boulder.
Some homeowners returned, but that was never an option for Anderson and her neighbors at Riverbend Mobile Home Park. Their chances of a comeback were diminished before the first drop of rain hit the ground, according to Andrew Rumbach, an associate professor of urban and regional planning who studies mobile homes and natural disasters at the University of Colorado-Denver.
"You see a historical pattern in Colorado — and every other state — where low-income housing is often located on low-value land, which tends to be flood prone," Rumbach said.
Once a flood hits a mobile home park, an array of factors works against them ever reopening, he said. That includes policies that drag out rebuilding and legal squabbles between landowners and officials tasked with charting recovery. Even the idea that people who live in mobile home parks are transients is a factor, when they actually were long-time residents contributing to their communities.
All of those factors played out in mobile home parks after the 2013 floods. The state's "After Action Report," published in 2015, tallied 1,882 structures as destroyed. But it did not provide a break down of the homes lost in mobile home parks, where many of the flood's most economically vulnerable lived. That's an important detail to know, Rumbach said.
"Communities were often able to treat mobile home park residents as something of an other, as existing outside of the community." - Andrew Rumbach, University of Colorado-Denver
"By virtue of living in a mobile home park and not having claim to that land, your voice in the recovery in many ways was reduced," Rumbach said, adding that many mobile home parks are communities in themselves and if parks didn't reopen, entire neighborhoods were lost.
In just three communities — Lyons, Evans, south of Greeley, and Miliken, southeast of Loveland — the researchers tracked the destruction of 273 mobile homes, most of which were never rebuilt or replaced because parks failed to reopen.
Riverbend's owners converted it into an outdoor wedding venue with overnight lodging — tiny homes that can be wheeled away in case of another flood.
Such closures and conversions made it harder for displaced mobile home park residents to actively participate in rebuilding their communities.
"We saw, even if they were displaced an hour away into a different community, their ability to travel and advocate for themselves during the recovery was much lower because they have a much higher burden in terms of work and in terms of the cost of travel," Rumbach said.
He added that "communities were often able to treat mobile home park residents as something of an other, as existing outside of the community."
Anderson felt the sting of such judgement at times. She recalled one moment at a town recovery meeting not long after the flood: "Someone had made a comment and she referred to us as trailer park people and every mouth dropped, like, 'Did you just say that?'"
During it all, Anderson held out hope that somehow she would rebuild her tiny oasis with its apple tree, raspberry bushes, garden, and neighbors always ready to lend a helping hand.
"It was my gypsy wagon down by the river," Anderson said. "I was going to stay there forever."
The 1976 Skyline mobile home was also Anderson's hedge against the Front Range's skyrocketing housing costs that have climbed even higher since the floods struck Lyons. As a mom studying art at CU-Boulder and working at a coffee shop, she secured the place with her savings and a little bit of bargaining. Anderson's lot fees for the mobile home park were just $430 a month in a town where rentals are hard to find and can cost three to five times what Anderson was paying.
Town Administrator Victoria Simonsen said the loss of mobile home parks was a hit on the economy.
"Our community is really feeling the impacts of not having a working class," she said. "Our main street has more openings now than it did in the last recession and businesses are saying we have no workers."
Although the town's Board of Trustees has made affordable housing its No. 1 goal, since the flood, Simonsen said achieving that goal "has been very, very challenging in our community."
In 2015, residents of Lyons voted on a measure that would have created 60 affordable housing units to offset the loss of about four dozen mobile homes. Voters were asked if they would convert five acres of a 25-acre park into a neighborhood where those homes would be built. The measure lost narrowly as opponents campaigned for the cause of open spaces and parks.
"It was devastating," Simonsen said. "It was the low point of the recovery for me."
In late August, workers were putting the finishing touches on baseball fields where that neighborhood would have been.
One block off Main Street, the foundations of houses are tell-tale, raised as a defense against any future floods. Next to some of those houses sit vacant lots. Homes there were demolished when owners took federal buyouts that bar homes from ever being built in the flood-prone areas.
Those who owned houses were eligible to receive the pre-flood market value of their losses. Mobile home park residents typically received less, the mere salvage value of their destroyed homes. Anderson said her recovery money was helpful, but paying high rents in Lyons ate up a lot of it.
This summer, she finally got that forever home to call her own in Lyons. Boxes sat unopened on the floor. A few of her paintings adorn the walls. Anderson sat in her kitchen, saying how grateful she felt.
"This is completely odd to me," Anderson said.
This is the first time she has lived in a new home. It's a cozy, 1,200-square-foot condo.
"I feel like I live in a mansion," Anderson said, adding that she feels lucky because a lot of the former mobile home park residents she knew left the region to find somewhere they could afford.
Her home, and five others like it, were built by the local Habitat for Humanity. They represent a small dent in the town's need for affordable housing.
Simonsen wants to make a bigger dent. She has her eyes on a parcel high above the floodline, with a great view of the mountains. It was set aside long ago for potential development. Now the town has stepped in with the goal of turning it into a neighborhood of affordable homes, much like the one that voters killed in 2015.
"This is it," Simonsen said.
This is the last big recovery project on her long list — an array of 40 single- and multi-family affordable homes. Ground is expected to break later this year. The first door should open to a family next year. Simonsen is working with developers to see that mobile home park residents displaced by the 2013 floods get first consideration, if they're interested in coming back.
Parked: Half the American Dream is the result of a first-of-its-kind collaboration between more than a dozen Colorado news organizations. Newspaper, online, radio and wire service journalists fanned out across the state to focus on the evolving landscape for mobile homes — Colorado’s largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing.
Contributors to this project include: The Aspen Times, Associated Press, Aurora Sentinel, Colorado Sun, Colorado Independent, Cortez Journal, Delta County Independent, Durango Herald, Fort Collins Coloradoan, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Greeley Tribune, KUNC, Montrose Daily Press, Ouray County Plaindealer and Steamboat Pilot & Today.