Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

N.C. mobile home park residents forced to uproot their home, lives during eviction crisis

Joel Magaña prays during a weekly meeting on July 20, 2021 at Wellington Park. (Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis)

A community of homeowners will soon have to move from the land they’ve leased for decades—with nowhere to go.

This story was published in partnership with Enlace Latino NC. It’s the first in a two-part series.

Léalo en Español.

For more than half of his life, 38-year-old Santos Sevilla has lived in Wellington Park, a neighborhood of mobile homes in Wake Forest, N.C. He moved in at age 16 with his older brother, who bought the trailer after emigrating from Hidalgo, Mexico. When Sevilla got married, his brother sold him the home, and Sevilla—who has worked in landscaping since he was a teenager—paid $300 per month to  lease the land under it. Sevilla and his wife built a life together in the mobile home park, in a cozy home nestled among oak and pine trees.  Their daughters, now ages four and one, play in the neatly mowed backyard with neighborhood friends.

“I’ve never had a problem or argument with anybody,” Sevilla said in Spanish. The park is safe, and it’s given him a way to “connect with diverse cultures.”

But in March of this year, Sevilla got a letter that changed everything. The owner of Wellington Park, George Mackie Jr., planned to sell the land. They received a second letter on July 19, giving them 180 days to vacate. “We don’t have anywhere to go,” Sevilla said. “This has surprised all of us.”

For 22 years, Sevilla has always paid his rent on time. He has never had an issue with the property owner, or even much communication. Sevilla said he and his community were  “traumatized.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have extended the federal eviction moratorium through Oct. 3, 2021. According to the order, residential property is defined as “any property leased for residential purposes, including any house, building, mobile home or land in a mobile home park.” When asked if he would still evict Wellington Park residents even with the moratorium extension, Mackie said, “I’m doing everything I can, exactly the legal way.”

Mackie, a former mayor of Wake Forest, is under contract to sell the park to Middleburg Communities, a serial property investment firm that, according to its website, has acquired or built 20,000 apartments in the South amounting to over $2.5 billion. Wellington Park sprawls over 76 acres and the county land-value assessment states it’s worth nearly $3 million. 

Southerly and Enlace Latino NC spoke to Sevilla and nine other residents of the mobile home park, which is home to Latinx, white, and Black residents. 

Middleburg’s development initiative threatens to unhouse and displace at least 47 Wellington families who say they didn’t expect it. But Mackie, who will turn 80 years old in a couple of months, said he verbally told  some residents at least a year ago “that I was very serious I would end the whole deal.”

Mackie said his decision to sell the property, which he bought more than 40 years ago, is a personal one. His wife is facing a terminal illness and his three daughters aren’t able to take care of the park.

“It’s nothing personal against [the residents],” he said. “It’s very much me trying to take care of my family. I feel no guilt. I’m sorry, it’s just the time for me because I’m losing my wife.”

Karen Widmayer, a spokesperson for Middleburg, said the development plan for Wellington Park includes 260 single-family rental units including two and three-bedroom detached cottages and one-bedroom duplexes.” She said the rental rates were not yet determined. However, a Middleburg property in Charlotte starts renting one-bedroom apartments at $1,315 per month and three-bedrooms at $2,132.

The cost to move would be prohibitive for all of the residents, many of whom are low-income and have lost wages during the pandemic. Mobile homes, also called manufactured housing, are actually not mobile at all and incur expensive installation and moving fees. Sevilla said he would need to pay $16,000 to move his home. Other residents were quoted $25,000 to relocate and install a double-wide on a new property. Middleburg Properties has met with residents, though neither party will disclose what has been discussed other than a potential $5,000 gift for each family. Residents say that’s not enough.  

Ten people said the closest property to move their homes would be in Louisburg or Youngsville, at least 30 minutes away. This also means longer commutes and new school districts. 

None of them have a plan for their next move—they feel they have no options. “We don’t have the resources to move,” said Sevilla, speaking on behalf of his family and his neighbors.  “We are not prepared.”

Faced with the threat of eviction, one family uprooted from Wellington Park preemptively. (Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis)

The town of Wake Forest technically lies in three counties, sharing Wake County with Raleigh. It’s become a bedroom community for Research Triangle Park, where large pharmaceutical and technology companies have offices. As the Triangle’s rapid population growth and development seeps into neighboring towns like Wake Forest—which has seen a 232% population increase in the last two decades—mobile home neighborhoods are being bought out by large development companies. 

Carol Pelosi is the editor of the Wake Forest Gazette, the town’s local newspaper. She first reported the potential sale of Wellington Park in March, after residents came to her with information. She said the Wake Forest city council is considering new policies around affordable housing, but rezoning the “well-kept park” would eliminate that for dozens of people.

“Although George [Mackie] has the right as a property owner to try to do something, it doesn’t mean he can displace that many people,” Pelosi said. “That would be the first time we [the town] have displaced people living on the land for a commercial venture.”

What’s happening in North Carolina mirrors development around the country. “There’s a parallel process here: as cities grow, they grow around these parks and the land becomes more valuable and there is an incentive for redevelopment,” said Esther Sullivan, a University of Colorado Denver associate professor of sociology who has written a book on mobile home parks. 

With the help of ONE Wake organizer Katia Vara-Roebuck, Spanish-speaking Latinx residents at Wellington Park have participated in organizing to stop the rezoning and sale of their neighborhood. (Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis)

“City councils look on this land use as stigmatized land use, despite the affordable housing it provides,” she added. “So a park that has been there for decades, with multiple generations of the same households living in stable, affordable housing for decades, is all of a sudden put up for sale and redeveloped.”

The Middleburg spokesperson confirmed that the sale of Wellington Park is under contract, but the Wake Forest town board of commissioners must vote on rezoning that would allow for mixed residential use. Patrick Reedy, a senior planner for Wake Forest, said the board would discuss rezoning at their meeting on  Sept. 7. 

Mackie did not mention the zonnig issue in his letters. According to the July letter, he plans to terminate all leases and close the park. If residents don’t leave and move their homes off of the property within six months, Mackie wrote, “we will immediately begin eviction proceedings against you.”

However, many of the homes in Wellington Park are mobile in name only. 

“They are not RVs. They are not campers. They are not intended to be mobile once they are first transported to the factory,” Sullivan said in a TED Talk about manufactured housing, the industry term for mobile home parks, as invisible communities. “Once installed on land, just like any other home, they settle.”

She told Southerly and Enlace Latino NC that there’s an imbalance between land ownership and what we often think of as home ownership. “Really, the property owner has all the value and power in this situation,” she said. 

Katia Vara-Roebuck, community organizer with ONE Wake, says at least 20 families in Wellington have told her that their mobile homes are too old to move and reinstall. As a Latina, her involvement has helped Spanish-speaking residents become actively involved in the organizing.

On July 17, 210 people gathered for a press conference at Wellington Park planned by ONE Wake, other advocates, and members of St. John’s Episcopal Church, who doled out barbecue and banana pudding from a buffet table.

Resident Ronnie Jackson stood at a podium behind a banner that read “SAVE THE PARK. SAY NO TO REZONING.” He led the presentation by anonymously quoting from a questionnaire he collected from residents, a few who had lived in the park for more than 30 years. 

His eyes welled up with tears as he explained how one elderly woman couldn’t move her trailer without losing it; the structure was too old. Another family with a newborn said they would become homeless if forced to leave the park.

“I’ve read them all,” he told the crowd. “Every time I do that it brings me to tears.” 

Several residents delivered messages at the mic one-by-one, in English and Spanish. Gerald Burnett, a Vietnam War veteran with a recent cancer diagnosis, said having to move “is a bigger worry to me than fighting that cancer.” 

A 14-year-old middle school student spoke after him, saying the move made him feel anxious. His sister, Erika Sevilla Marcelo, age 22, told the crowd about graduating college during the pandemic and living at home with her family to save money.

“As a first generation American, the burden of finding a new home will fall on me,” she said.

Only one Wake Forest commissioner, Bridget Wall-Lennon, was present, but did not make a public comment. She did not respond to requests for comment via voicemail. 

Mackie, the mobile home park owner, was not present but when reached by phone, said he was unaware of the event. “How would you like for somebody to put up a big tent, have a couple hundred people on your land and never even ask permission to do it?”

He disagreed with the actions of the residents. “I cannot be responsible for everybody in the world,” he said. “I have great empathy for them. But there are a couple people there on an ego trip. They can’t hand me the ‘poor people’ thing.”

Bill Moran hosts weekly resident meetings in his backyard at Wellington Park. “We stood up for what we believe in,” he said on July 20, 2021. (Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis)

Manufactured housing such as trailers and mobile homes are affordable for low-income communities, especially Latinx residents who live at or below the poverty level. Sullivan’s research shows that, nationally, Hispanics represent about 13% of manufactured homeowners.

“Manufactured housing by nature of its affordability is a crucial route for Hispanic homeownership,” Sullivan said. 

Ivan Parra of the North Carolina Congress of Latino Organizations (also known as the Latino Congress) has been organizing in North Carolina around Latinx issues and housing in particular for decades. “Good quality, affordable housing is scarce for the immigrant community,” he said.

“For the immigrant community who is first- or second-generation working class—and maybe don’t speak English or have the right documentation—they are especially limited to renting homes in bad conditions. An alternative is a mobile home.”

Data and projections surrounding Latinx homeownership show a steady increase from 2010 to today: Latinx are responsible for almost 40% of the nation’s increase in homeownership, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Urban Institute projects that between 2020 and 2040,  70% of new homeowners will be Latinx.

A 2015 report by the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals shows Durham and Chapel Hill, N.C., combined as the nation’s number one city for its fastest growing rate of Latino homeowners. More than 13% of homeowners in North Carolina owned mobile homes. Almost 24% of them were Latinx.

According to Sullivan, cash purchases make up the majority of manufactured and mobile home purchases, which coincides with what Parra has heard anecdotally from N.C. Latino homeowners for decades.

“The stigma around manufactured housing doesn’t allow people to see what it offers families,” says Sullivan. “It offers an independent homestead, that American dream, the garden, multiple bedrooms—all of the things that people above the poverty line have and it’s not contested.”

Data on mobile home parks is difficult to find because state and local governments aren’t always keeping track. According to the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which manages the state’s rental assistance program, applicants who applied in 2020 and 2021 were not asked what type of rent payment they needed in order to “keep the application as simple as possible.” Based on CDC criteria, any residents renting land for a mobile or manufactured home would qualify for the assistance.

Some residents at Wellington are retired, but most who were interviewed for this story work jobs to make ends meet. Maria Magaña lives at Wellington with her three boys. Her two eldest sons purchased their four-bedroom, double-wide mobile home with her in January 2020—an upgrade from their single-wide. It took them three months to find an affordable option, but each family member finally had their own bedroom.

Magaña said they paid $22,000 for the home, which they are financing through a mortgage, and another $26,000 to install it on the property. Before making the investment, Magaña said she asked Mackie’s staff if they had plans to sell the property. They told her no and to go ahead and install the new trailer on the land, even clearing trees for her. She said that was 16 months ago, right before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That’s something that keeps me up at night,” Magaña said in Spanish. “If the owner would have told me ‘I’m thinking of selling [the land],’ then I would have stayed with my old trailer. It’s not fair I just paid $26,000 a year ago and we’ll have to do that again. It shattered my dream. And the majority of us here are low income.”

Magaña cleans houses, but her hours were cut at the start of the pandemic. Her son, Joel Magaña, lost his restaurant job, then another job at a car lot. He landed an at-home English to Spanish interpreter job this month after five months of relying on unemployment benefits.

“They hit us with a sucker punch,” Joel said of the potential Wellington Park sale. “We’re hoping they can let us stay here.”

Maria Magaña and her sons, including Joel, attend the press conference on July 17, 2021 at Wellington Park. (Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis)

“I hope God moves through the hearts of these commissioners and that they don’t allow for rezoning,” Maria said. 

ONE Wake did try to enlist the help of ROC-USA (Resident Owned Communities), a national nonprofit that buys mobile home park properties so residents can stay. According to the Wake Forest Gazette, Mackie won’t entertain ROC’s offer, which is reported to be the same as Middleburg’s.

Wellington residents meet every Tuesday evening in Bill Moran’s backyard. One week after the press conference, he spoke to the group.“We came together for something that is right, that is good,” he said. “We stood up for what we believe in.”

The organizing has brought the Wellington community closer together, including one couple from Mexico who says they would have never developed close bonds with their English-speaking neighbors without this cause. 

“This is part of a cycle of a lack of opportunity that can’t be broken without community organizing,” Parra of the Latino Congress said. 

The Wake Forest Board of Commissioners will hold its next joint public hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 7 at 7:30 p.m. The agenda will be available the preceding Friday. Residents who wish to address the board during the hearing must follow the procedures at the meeting and, if addressing an item not on the agenda, are encouraged to call the town clerk beforehand at 919-435-9413. 

Victoria Bouloubasis covers the intersection of environmental issues and economic mobility in Latinx, immigrant, and refugee communities in North Carolina for Southerly and Enlace Latino NC. She is a journalist and filmmaker based in Durham.

This story was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.