In Siler City, a “Jesus-Centered” Multibillion-Dollar Company Took Millions in Government Incentives, Then Evicted More Than One Hundred Residents From a Mobile Home Park | Chatham County | Indy Week
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In Siler City, a “Jesus-Centered” Multibillion-Dollar Company Took Millions in Government Incentives, Then Evicted More Than One Hundred Residents From a Mobile Home Park 

click to enlarge trailer-park-13.jpg

Photo by Caitlin Penna

In the six years since Ana Heuzo's mother gave her a mobile home in Siler City—in the hopes that Huezo, her husband, and their four kids would have a place to call home—they have made it their own. The kitchen walls are painted bright turquoise, refreshing even on a rainy Wednesday morning, and covered with family portraits. They've added a bedroom for their two youngest—painted lilac—and a small living room.

"We had initially thought we'd be here a long time," says Huezo.

click to enlarge Ana Huezo - PHOTO BY CAITLIN PENNA
  • Photo by Caitlin Penna
  • Ana Huezo

But they won't be. Huezo and her family are among more than one hundred people being forced to leave Johnson's Mobile Home Park after the park's owner sold the land to Mountaire Farms, which is reviving a shuttered poultry processing plant next door. Residents have known since November that they have to leave, but they've banded together to push back their eviction date and demand compensation for the homes they'll lose. It's the least the multibillion-dollar corporation—which received millions in local tax incentives and calls itself "Jesus-centered"—can do, residents say.

As they've negotiated with Mountaire Farms, they've also asked local officials for help. Last week, the Chatham County Board of Commissioners pledged to assist them, but the form that assistance will take is still in the works.

On Monday, after two months of negotiations, Mountaire Farms agreed not to collect rent from residents and to give each household $8,300, provided they move out by July 31. That's better than what Montaire had originally offered, but it will still leave many of these families in the lurch.

This sort of upheaval would be tough for any family trying to find affordable housing in the Triangle. But these residents' situation is unique. While many own their homes, they don't own the land underneath them—which means they either have to spend thousands of dollars to move their houses to another mobile home park or abandon them and lose their investment.

For most at Johnson's Mobile Home Park, the former isn't an option: their houses are too old to be moved.

Huezo has better options than others. She has relatives in the area willing to take in her family. Still, her eight-year-old daughter has been crying in school, and her son, who normally gets "excellent" grades, recently got in a fight. The situation makes her sad, she says, but that word doesn't fully sum it up.

"I'm not sure how to explain the feeling," she says.

click to enlarge The chicken-plant property adjacent to the mobile home park - PHOTO BY CAITLIN PENNA
  • Photo by Caitlin Penna
  • The chicken-plant property adjacent to the mobile home park

Johnson's Mobile Home Park sits just off of U.S. 64, outside of Siler City in an area mostly populated by industry and auto shops. With sixty-two adult residents and fifty-three children, the park is home to just over 1 percent of the small town's population. Most are Hispanic, as are about 43 percent of the town's inhabitants.

The park's twenty-eight homes, most built in the 1970s and 1980s, are set askew along dirt roads. The gray walls of the chicken plant show through bare trees lining the park's perimeter. The site used to be the Townsend processing facility, Siler City's largest employer, which shut down in 2011 after the company went bankrupt, taking with it five hundred jobs.

Mountaire Farms bought the plant in 2016 and pledged to bring hundreds of jobs back. Siler City and Chatham County officials agreed to give the company more than $2 million in incentives. The state also kicked in $1.5 million for wastewater improvements.

(The chicken-plant property has been at the center of an ethics complaint against House Speaker Tim Moore, the vice president of Southeast Land Holdings LLC, which bought it for $85,000 after the Townsend plant closed and sold it to Mountaire in 2016 for $550,000. In the meantime, according to the complaint filed earlier this month by the Campaign for Accountability, Moore delayed an assessment by the Department of Environmental Quality and "persuaded DEQ not to engage in an enforcement action for violations of state environmental law ... allowing him to reap significant financial gain." Moore has denied any wrongdoing.)

Last Monday, Chatham commissioners said they were unaware when they approved incentives for Mountaire that, a year later, it would purchase Johnson's Mobile Home Park and evict its residents.

In fact, the previous owner, Jonathan Johnson, told tenants in a May 2017 letter that he had considered selling "due to a drastic increase in cost to maintain and run the park" but decided against it. Instead, he wrote, he would be raising the $170 monthly rent to $210. (A phone number listed for Johnson was disconnected.)

Johnson ended up selling the property to 1206 East Eleventh Street LLC. The LLC's address in Little Rock, Arkansas, is the address of a Mountaire corporate office. Under pressure from residents, Mountaire hasn't collected rent since it took over the mobile home park in November.

"In order to achieve substantial capital investment and job-creating goals in Siler City and within the community of Chatham County, North Carolina, 1206 East Eleventh Street LLC provided a six-month notice to residents that leases in the Johnson Mobile Home Park would not be extended beyond May 7, 2018," Mountaire Farms said in a statement earlier this month.

"To evict an entire community from their homes—owners or renters—without any thought about the social implications of that is not acceptable," says Ilana Dubester, executive director of El Vinculo Hispano (or The Hispanic Liaison), a Siler City-based nonprofit founded to "foster intercultural understanding and to empower Hispanics." Residents reached out to the organization last summer when they first heard of a potential sale.

First, the group asked Mountaire for $46,000 per household to relocate. Montaire offered $5,000. Negotiations stalled until Monday, when an agreement for $8,300 was announced.

That would be enough for residents to move their homes, but because many of the park's homes were built before the 1976 implementation of federal safety and construction standards, they either can't be moved or may be rejected by other parks.

This is a problem that stretches beyond Siler City. As Charles Becker, a Duke economics professor who studies mobile home parks, points out, manufactured homes are an important segment of affordable housing, especially in the South; according to census data, nearly eighteen million Americans live in manufactured housing. Across the country, mobile home parks, often relegated to the outskirts of town, are aging, Becker says, and new ones don't open that often.

"Local government tends to be hostile even though this is housing for people of limited means. If you talk about affordable housing, it's hard to get more affordable than manufactured housing parks," he says.

In areas attracting growth or industry, there's economic pressure to convert mobile home parks to more profitable uses. In neighboring Orange County, residents of two other mobile home parks being sold are facing eviction as well.

"Mobile home park tenants are kind of the third-party victims of this development process," says Jack Holtzman, a senior attorney with the N.C. Justice Center's Consumer and Housing Project. "It's not necessarily a malevolent situation. It's not ill-willed. It's a mobile home park owner that is trying to get the best return for their land, but it often can be unfair for the tenants themselves because getting affordable housing is very difficult."

click to enlarge One of the homes at the mobile home park - PHOTO BY CAITLIN PENNA
  • Photo by Caitlin Penna
  • One of the homes at the mobile home park

Karina Hernandez and her family have called Siler City home for twelve years; all three of her children were born there. For the past five years, they've lived at Johnson's Mobile Home Park, where her husband has been fixing their home "a little at a time."

"When we bought it, it was basically in ruins," she says. Many of her neighbors have also made investments in their homes, spending an average of $11,000, according to El Vinculo Hispano.

Still, Hernandez says her home can't be moved because of its age, and her family is struggling to find another place as affordable as the $210 per month they have been paying in lot rent. She isn't sure where they'll go next, or if her kids will be able to stay in their schools.

Her story is typical of what Johnson's residents told Chatham County commissioners last week in a public hearing punctuated by sobs and standing ovations. They described the difficulty of finding affordable housing near Siler City (according to El Vinculo Hispano, residents' incomes range from $15,000–$20,000) and said they suspect some landlords are inflating their prices, knowing they are desperate.

"Mountaire's elimination of these homes only deepens the affordability crisis," Dubester told commissioners.

Chatham County board chairwoman Diana Hales called it a "dire situation" and acknowledged the dearth of suitable affordable housing around Siler City, "where the Housing Authority can't even find homes that qualify for inspection for Section 8 vouchers—the housing is in that poor condition."

Commissioners asked staff members to look into what the county can do to assist the families. They are limited by state law from giving money to individuals, but they can give money to a nonprofit like El Vinculo Hispano.

A high school student told commissioners she may have to change school districts and worries her honors credits won't transfer. A retiree said she and her sick husband have no income with which to start over if they lose the home they worked hard to purchase. A ten-year resident said he doesn't want to capitulate to Mountaire in front of his kids.

"We have to show them they can't have their civil rights be walked all over because they're Hispanic," he said. "It doesn't matter how big your rival can be, they can be defeated."

In a statement, the company says it's "pleased" a resolution was reached and that it will work with residents to ensure the money is distributed efficiently. While El Vinculo Hispano applauded Mountaire "for listening to the families' concerns, and, most of all, for doing the right thing for these families," the company's payout will hardly put a dent in its bottom line.

Between forgiven lot rent and per-household compensation, Mountaire Farms is spending $285,320—about .01 percent of the $2 billion in revenue it amassed in 2015, according to Forbes, and less than half of 1 percent of the total capital investment planned for the processing plant. Per household, that's just over $10,000, or about as much as some families spent on houses they could ultimately lose.

"We're not talking about people that are trying to pull a quick one or make an extra buck," Commissioner Karen Howard said last week. "We're talking about people who are begging for dignity, that are asking to walk away from this with their heads up and in very difficult circumstances. Everyone in this county knows about the challenge of affordable housing, and to present these families with the option of homelessness because we can't come up with thousands of dollars more is beneath all of us. I have no doubt that the individuals that make up Mountaire are decent human beings, and I also have no doubt that they can do more."

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