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Mobile home parks could be a key part of affordable housing in Colorado. But some say they also need more regulation.
VAIL, Colo. – One of the most scenic mobile home parks in the nation in one of the wealthiest counties in Colorado has become ground zero for a regulatory debate over water quality and just how hard governments should push for higher health standards when so much vitally needed workforce housing is at stake.
The Eagle River Village mobile home park in Edwards, about 15 miles west of the international destination ski resort of Vail, houses more than 2,000 mostly Latino people in 381 mobile homes—or 7% of the Eagle River Valley’s overall population. But some residents complain that potable water is lacking, saying the water that comes from their faucets—although it has been determined to meet state safety standards—is often discolored and smells bad. A 2017 survey of residents by the American Red Cross and other organizations found that the water was their number one concern.
Complaints about conditions at mobile home communities across Colorado spurred the legislature this year to pass the Mobile Home Park Act, a proposal that had cratered in earlier sessions before Democrats narrowly regained control of the state Senate this year. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill into law in May, creating a complaint and arbitration process for residents, increasing the timeframe for evictions to 30 days and giving local governments more control over parks.
It’s unclear what steps local governments might take under the law, but Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said she would like to examine tougher regulations.
In Eagle County, officials, working with local nonprofits, put together a $4.4 million package of water rights and low-interest loans—about $2 million of which came from public sources—to get park owner Ascentia to scrap its aging well system and connect to the local water authority system. But after more than a year of negotiations, the park owners pulled out of the deal earlier this year.
“They just sort of operate with impunity and rake in that money and the folks who tend to live in those properties aren't comfortable with being strong advocates because they're afraid of losing their space for their mobile home,” Chandler-Henry said.
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials say the water at the park meets minimum safety standards under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act but that it’s a problem if residents won’t drink, cook or bathe with the water because of “aesthetic issues.”
“Since they did pass the state health drinking water tests, the state didn't feel like they had any pressure that they could put on because they don't have standards [requiring] water that smells good and you can actually drink,” Chandler-Henry said.
Marko Vukovich, vice president of asset management for Ascentia, has emphasized that the water at Eagle River Village meets “all legal standards” and is safe, while saying the company is open to improving its aesthetic quality.
“We have always worked with state and private engineers to ensure the quality and safety of our water at Eagle River Village and continue to do so,” Vukovich said. “We have communicated extensively with our residents and engineers as our investigation of water complaints continues and we work to understand concerns. When we complete the analysis we have undertaken, we will work collaboratively toward an appropriate solution.”
Most residents of the park own their own mobile home and lease the land it sits on from Ascentia for up to $1,400 a month. In a county surrounded by federally owned public lands, with median single-family home values in excess of $700,000 and a scarcity of affordable private land, there are few options for relocating mobile homes. Some residents of Eagle River Village say they spend up to $75 a month on bottled water because of their tap water’s high mineral content.
“The water is definitely not drinkable, but where are you going to bring your trailer if you have only 30 days to move it?” said one resident. “For this reason, many people prefer not to talk about it because at least we have a place to live, even though we are paying a lot.”
Edwards residents and former Eagle County commissioner Jill Hunsaker Ryan—now the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment—said “no one in Colorado should have to drink foul-smelling, discolored water, even if it meets federal standards....” She said the agency had deployed a water quality coach to work with Ascentia.
According to the text of the new mobile home park law, more than 100,000 people making a median income of $39,000 lived in mobile homes across Colorado as of 2018.
Kyle Legleiter, senior director of policy for the Colorado Health Foundation, said that mobile home parks are an essential affordable housing option for low-income people in the state. But across those parks, there have been complaints about water quality and other issues, he said.
Legleiter said the new mobile home park law is seen by many policymakers as a starting point, with possible legislative tweaks next session.
“Advocates for affordable housing and for mobile home park residents were excited about that policy change but they’re cautiously optimistic about the actual impact that it might have and they’re sort of reserving judgment until all the details are buttoned down through this regulatory process that’s going to be taking place over the next couple of months or so,” Legleiter added.
But expanding state regulations is also sure to face opposition, as mobile home park owners and some lawmakers complained that the initial proposal was too burdensome. “I still don’t think it is helpful to create an oversight agency ... that adds a lot of bureaucracy and delay in resolving disputes and investigating complaints, rather than keeping it local,” state Rep. Terri Carver, R-Colorado Springs, told The Gazette while the original bill was being debated.
In Eagle County, where the land under the mobile home park is incredibly valuable and could easily be sold to a private vacation-home developer, the balancing act between health, safety and critical workforce housing is difficult to navigate, according to safety officials.
Bruce Gillie, who heads up the American Red Cross in Eagle County and helped install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in many of the mobile homes in 2017 while conducting the organization’s survey, said that during the peak winter months of ski season, there’s an average of nearly 10 people per mobile home in the park and an overall population of about 3,000 people.
"We found one that had 10 people living underneath the trailer during the winter, in April, and they had lived there all winter ... with space heaters underneath," Gillie said, describing people camped out in the crawl space under a mobile home. "In high season there are 3,000 people in that trailer park.
David O. Williams is a journalist based in EagleVail, Colorado.