116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — It has been nearly three years since residents of the increasingly threadbare Forest View Mobile Home Court were promised first crack at new homes in a deal heralded as allowing a major development to proceed at a gateway into Iowa City off Interstate 80.
Council members at the time, in 2019, praised the $200 million project in which land owner North Dubuque LLC, developer Blackbird Investments of Des Moines and residents came together to reach agreement. The plan was for the 73 -acres of land off N. Dubuque Street to be redeveloped and feature a mix of housing and commercial space. Mobile home park residents to be displaced were promised first consideration for the manufactured and multifamily housing that was going to be built on the site.
➤ RELATED ARTICLE: Iowa City Council grapples with questions surrounding Forest View relocation
But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, delaying the project. Living conditions at the park further deteriorated, and residents caught in the middle feared investing more to repair their homes in case the promised new housing ever materialized.
The project never moved forward — and likely never will.
The city of Iowa City, while not legally required, is considering a relocation payment proposal to help families avoid sudden displacement as closure of the mobile home park looms.
The Gazette is interested in speaking with Forest View Mobile Home Court residents and other mobile home park residents in Eastern Iowa to hear more about their experiences with lot rent increases, searching for housing or any other challenges. If you would like to reach out or have a suggestion of a source we should contact, email or call Izabela Zaluska at email@example.com or 319-339-3155.
Current and former residents have made it clear they are united and not giving up on their fight for affordable housing. The Forest View Tenants Association, with the Center for Worker Justice, has been discussing priorities as the city considers a proposal.
Margarita Rodriguez, president of the Tenants Association, has lived in Forest View for 31 years. She said the community — where many residents live paycheck to paycheck — has been an awesome place to live.
“It’s home,” she said.
When the City Council first approved first consideration of the project’s rezoning, Rodriguez told The Gazette how excited she and her neighbors were for the new manufactured housing.
With that no longer being the case, Rodriguez said this month it almost feels like a graduation of sorts as residents prepare to move out and face a housing market with rising costs and high demand for affordable options.
“We need better homes,” Rodriguez said.
Years of discussion
Forest View Mobile Home Court is tucked away in a wooded area off N. Dubuque Street and south of I-80. Near the park, there are large areas of undeveloped land. A potential development there has been discussed over the last six years.
The Iowa City Council unanimously gave final approval to rezoning the 73 acres in June 2019. The new Forest View development was to feature 57 single-family homes, more than 280 multi-residential units, a senior housing community, two hotel pads, 30,000 square feet of commercial space and 60,000 square feet of office space.
Mazahir Salih, former mayor pro tem and current executive director of the Center for Worker Justice, said she was excited when she voted for the rezoning. She viewed the collaborative process as a possible model for how developers could work with residents.
Council member John Thomas said “it was a visionary project” that could have been a model of how to develop land with affordable housing in mind.
What has happened since “is very disappointing to the residents who have really struggled, who really were very hopeful,” Salih said.
Sara Barron, executive director of the Johnson County Affordable Housing Coalition, believes it was the benefits promised to the residents that got the rezoning proposal approved.
The rezoning resulted in a conditional zoning agreement that outlined various requirements for the development team and owners to fulfill before a building permit could be issued.
Among one of the requirements was an affordable housing plan detailing relocation assistance and first priority for Forest View residents to move into the housing developed on the site.
But conversations about the affordable housing plan stalled in late 2019, City Manager Geoff Fruin said — before the pandemic struck.
“Where we're at today is the ownership group has conveyed to us that the project's not moving forward,” Fruin said.
Struggle to secure financing
North Dubuque LCC — which includes Justin Doyle, Ed Cole, Kevin Monson and Jeff Maxwell — confirmed to The Gazette the project will not be moving forward as proposed. Cole said in an email that moving forward “is not feasible given the new economic conditions” brought on by the pandemic.
New buyers or project partners are being sought and portions of the site have been listed for sale, according to the city. The land has been listed for sale for over a year but no buyer has made a firm offer, Cole said.
Doyle, who is the president of Blackbird Investments, told The Gazette in 2020 the company was “hellbent” on seeing the project move forward. He brought up how Blackbird, the developer on the project, had to consider redesigns due to the pandemic.
In his email, Cole said Blackbird has been unable to secure financing for the project due to the pandemic.
The city has not had communication with Blackbird in “many months, if not more than a year,” Fruin said.
“This was a proposal pre-COVID,” Fruin said. “It included a lot of commercial office space. It included hospitality space. All those markets have been significantly altered by COVID. So, there's some market forces at play here, but I also don't think that the project ever got to the point where it was financially feasible for them to move forward.”
Park ‘will not survive another winter’
Conditions at the mobile home park have deteriorated and grown increasingly unsafe for residents, especially during the cold winter months. This past winter was especially difficult, Salih said.
Residents shared how the land owners have not invested in repairing the infrastructure and common areas of the park. Residents themselves have been hesitant to invest in their homes with a possible redevelopment looming.
Local groups, including Habitat for Humanity and Center for Worker Justice, have helped with repairs to individual housing units before each winter season. The city has used emergency housing funds on these repairs.
Repairs have included sealant on roofs, heaters, new stairs, plumbing and new windows.
“While some homes at Forest View are safe and have been repaired for the winter, others are really collapsing and are beyond repair,” Salih said. “We just need really urgent attention.”
Asked if the mobile home park is expected to close in the near future, Cole said, “the mobile home park will not survive another winter.”
City pursuing relocation assistance
Continuous repairs are not a sustainable approach without a new development on the horizon, Fruin said, which is why the city is proposing using a portion of its American Rescue Plan dollars to help families find safer and more stable housing.
The city’s relocation proposal does not have a specified housing solution but instead a lump-sum payment and resources to help residents pursue relocation. Eligible households would receive $15,750 and would have to move out by Dec. 9 under the current proposal from city staff.
The Iowa City Council is discussing the details of the proposal, including who would be eligible.
The city wants to offer relocation in a way that gives households time to plan to avoid sudden displacement if the mobile home park closes, Fruin said. The city’s relocation program is voluntary, as the city cannot force anyone to move.
“We think that there's an opportunity with those ARPA funds to meet the federal intent, which is to really provide assistance to those in need and stability,” Fruin said.
Part of the Forest View discussion is the “incredible lack of rights that homeowners find themselves in when they own their home but do not own the land their home is on,” said Barron, of the Johnson County Affordable Housing Coalition.
“As someone who looks at housing policy in Johnson County, I have a lot more questions about what this story of Forest View can tell us about other development in Johnson County,” Barron said.
When a redevelopment is being considered, Barron said, what are the community’s and developer’s obligations to the residents?
“Forest View helps us to understand how when we use that lens of housing being a human right, how it changes our understanding and our expectations for what the project should look like and what the final result should be — and I think that's really powerful,” Barron said.
Concerns have also been raised about out-of-state companies buying Iowa mobile home parks and raising lot prices. Most recently, Utah-based Havenpark Communities purchased two Iowa City mobile home parks for a combined $33.5 million, adding to the several parks it owns in the state.
Barron said issues related to mobile home laws are an example of how a community can speak up to ensure housing affordability.
“We can make it known that as residents of Iowa City, we expect that people's rights will be preserved, that we will look out for our neighbors who are vulnerable to displacement,” Barron said.
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