Aurora Mobile Home Park Sues Landlord, Fights Gentrification

Residents of the Denver Meadows Mobile & RV Park in Aurora have been fighting for nearly two years for their survival, and today, February 23, they will finally have their day in court.

Fourteen residents and the Denver Meadows homeowners' association are suing the property owners and management over what residents claim has been "a pattern of abuse, harassment and retaliatory behavior," according to the lawsuit filed in January. The first hearing will be held at 1:30 p.m. today, and witnesses are expected to take the stand and face cross-examination.

“We deserve to live with dignity and peace in our homes,” said Ana Tovar, a Denver Meadows resident and HOA member, in a statement. “Just because we live in mobile homes and not regular homes doesn’t mean we don’t deserve that. That’s all we want.”

Residents allege in the lawsuit that park owners and management retaliated against their community organizing to resist redevelopment by hiking lot rents, threatening eviction, removing or scattering resident property, displaying threatening behavior, monitoring residents by looking into their homes, and imposing additional fees after residents complained about the potential for asbestos contamination from the demolition of vacant mobile homes. A temporary restraining order was filed alongside the lawsuit to halt demolitions amid allegations that state-required asbestos inspections are not being conducted.

Denver Meadows co-owner Shawn Lustigman declined to comment for this story. His lawyer, Mark Shaner, did not return a call for comment.

"What we want [the judge] to do is make a judgment of, 'Are these rules legal? Can they be enforced?' And if not, stop them immediately," says Andrea Chiriboga-Flor, a lead housing organizer for nonprofit 9to5 Colorado who has been organizing Denver Meadows residents for the past two years. "We're hoping if the judge thinks these rules don't comply with the [Colorado] Mobile Home Act, the owner would have to return the extra fees. ... The hope is we can get that money back as soon as possible."

The Denver Meadows lawsuit comes nearly four months before the park is scheduled to close, which would make room for potential redevelopment. Since 2016, residents have fought against the redevelopment of their community.

Residents began organizing after Lustigman applied with the City of Aurora in 2016 to rezone the property to "transit-oriented development," which would have allowed for a variety of developments like retail, commercial and multi-use buildings. The Aurora City Council voted twice, in May and then again in July of that year, to table the rezoning vote.

The mobile home park seems ripe for redevelopment; it's bordered by the Colfax Station to the south, the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus to the west and I-225 to the east. What plans are in the works for the mobile home community? Residents have no clue; they’ve been kept in the dark.

If Lustigman had rezoned in 2016, he'd only have to give six months' notice to evict residents. But after he lost the rezoning fight, he gave residents two years' notice and a clear message that he is closing the park regardless of a zone change.

Although residents won that battle, they still lost the war. That is, until they got a glimmer of hope last fall: They could buy Denver Meadows.

With the help of nonprofit Thistle, they secured a whopping $20.5 million in financing for the 20.4 acres. It seemed like a win-win; residents would save their homes and collectively own and manage the community while Lustigman walks away with a multimillion-dollar deal.

But the owners reportedly refused, instead asking for $27.5 million for only half the park and about $60 million for everything.

Without knowing what offers Lustigman is fielding from developers, residents don't have leverage to negotiate.
"That's why this is problematic. We don't know if people are actually offering him that or if he's trying to make residents give up and have everyone vacate so he can [redevelop the park]. It's hard to tell," Chiriboga-Flor says.

RV owners may have an easier time picking up and moving elsewhere, but mobile home owners at the park feel stuck. Most of the mobile homes are so old that many movers won't touch them, and some mobile home parks won't let older structures relocate onto their lots. And even if residents are able to overcome the hurdles of moving and relocating their mobile homes, money can be the biggest obstacle. It could cost $6,000 to $20,000 to move, Chiriboga-Flor says, which is prohibitive for low-income residents. Some mobile home owners may have to abandon their investment altogether and start all over again.

"Residents are fighting hard because they realize there is nowhere to go. There just isn’t,” Chiriboga-Flor says. “They basically don’t have a choice except to fight.”

With so much at stake, residents are pursuing every avenue to save their homes.

The lawsuit alone won’t stop residents from losing their homes on June 30; it’s part of a two-pronged approach to pressure Lustigman back to the negotiating table.

That second prong is pressuring Aurora City Council to step up and save their working-class minority community from gentrification.

“Affordable housing is the number-one concern in my district,” says Crystal Murillo, Aurora City Council member for Ward 1, which encompasses Denver Meadows. “I can’t stomach the fact that there’s an entire community of people who have every right to stay in this community but might not have a place to be and have been fighting for this for two years. That’s alarming. That’s not okay. We have to make sure we’re not kicking people out of our neighborhoods. “

Murillo, who was elected to her first term in any political office in November, chairs the city’s Housing, Neighborhood Services and Redevelopment committee. She says Ward 1 represents some of the most vulnerable in Aurora, with residents earning on average $20,000 less than Aurorans as a whole. And, of course, metro Denver's hot housing market makes affordable housing hard to come by. In Aurora alone, some have pegged the affordable-housing deficit at 12,000 units, though Murillo says an exact figure could be hard to pinpoint, given that the city doesn't have a comprehensive affordable-housing plan.

9to5 Colorado is drafting two policies for councilmembers to consider that could be the final nail in the coffin for Lustigman’s plans to push residents out.

The first proposal would give all mobile home residents in the city the first right to purchase if the owner is planning to sell. That would mean hat the details of any offers or deals would have to be shared with residents. The second proposal would impose a three-year moratorium on any mobile home redevelopment in the city.

Mounting a fierce campaign on two fronts is 9to5’s strategy to wear Lustigman down and get him to sell his property to Denver Meadows residents.

“All of those together we’re hoping would kind of keep pushing him to that point where it’s not worth it for him because he’s spending so much time and energy and resources,” Chiriboga-Flor says. “We can't force him to sell to us. We can’t force him to not sell, but if he can’t develop for three years, is he going to sit on an empty lot? Is that property going to be valuable still?"

Both policies are expected to make a showing at the March 5 Aurora City Council study session, with a decision expected to come down as early as late March.

“We value mobile homes as a source of housing for low-income working families. We don’t want them to be redeveloped,” Chiriboga-Flor says.

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Nora Olabi covers general and breaking news for Westword with an emphasis on politics and local government. Prior to making her way to the Front Range and joining Westword in 2017, she worked at major Houston newspapers. She's a proud Houstonian who's acclimating to snow and mountain living.
Contact: Nora Olabi