The residents of the Lowry Grove mobile home park in St. Anthony received word last April that the land under their homes would be sold and redeveloped, meaning that they would have to find somewhere else to live, and take their kids out of school.
So began an emotional and legally exhaustive war to save the park.
Lowry Grove residents, led by activist resident Antonia Alvarez and nonprofit affordable housing developer Aeon, invoked a then-untested state law to buy the property themselves. The law seemed to suggest that if a mobile home park is threatened with closure and residents collect enough funds to match the sale price, the landlord must accept their bid.
Alvarez and Aeon made that counteroffer, claiming they were good for Lowry Grove’s $6 million price tag and the signatures, required by law, of more than half of the park’s residents. Landlord Lowry Grove Partnership disputed the validity of the signatures, and sold the park to Wayzata-based Continental Property Group instead.
Aeon sued last summer. Residents took to the streets in protest and filed Fair Housing Act complaints. Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson stated her support for the lawsuit, urging the court to conclude that Lowry Grove Partnership’s sale was illegal.
Nevertheless, a Hennepin County district judge ruled against residents in September 2016, interpreting state law to say that residents could not undo a sale that had already been finalized, but they could sue for damages.
The Minnesota Appeals Court also ruled against the residents in May. Yet Aeon’s president Alan Arthur vowed to keep fighting.
In the latest twist to this saga, Continental Property’s subsidiary the Village filed a countersuit on Tuesday against Aeon and Alvarez, claiming that evidence uncovered in court shows that Aeon never had the money to purchase the park, and that many people who signed the petition were not actual homeowners.
Bill Skolnick, the Village's attorney, says his client cross-referenced the signatures with the state's mobile home titles to verify that many did not belong to owners. He says Arthur himself admitted that he did not have the $6 million required when he made his offer to purchase the park.
Skolnick provided a March 16, 2017 deposition of Arthur, which includes this question and answer segment:
Q: “Did you tell any of those [local reporters] you just testified you spoke with that Aeon had the $6 million to buy the property?”
A: “I said that we were comfortable that we would have the $6 million I’m sure."
Q: “So you told them you were comfortable you would have it, not that you did have it, correct?"
A: “I don’t think I did, no. I wouldn’t have because we didn’t have it yet."
It also accuses Arthur and Alvarez of making false statements to the St. Anthony City Council and to the media. The lawsuit specifically references stories published by City Pages in July 2016 and March 2017, in which Arthur claims to have secured the money needed to purchase the park, and Alvarez claims that the Village purposely allowed drug addicts into the park to bring chaos to residents’ lives. Similar statements were published by other outlets as well.
“Filing a counterclaim is not something we set out looking to do,” said Traci Tomas of the Village in a statement. “Throughout this process, we have followed the rules in the state statute and have reached out to offer assistance to Lowry Grove residents. Despite this, my character and our business has routinely been trashed by a small group of people led by Antonia Alvarez who know what they are saying is not true. At some point, we had to draw the line and expose the truth.”
The suit seeks to put an end to the residents' complaint.
Arthur told City Pages on Friday that he believes the Village's countersuit to be a pack of lies.
"I’m saddened and discouraged that there are people and attorneys in the world who feel that trying to hurt others to get your way is at all appropriate," he said.
"Regarding the specifics, we close and get financing from multimillion dollar projects on a regular basis. We own 2,700 units of affordable housing, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property. We’re getting ready to close on a $40 million deal now and may soon close on a $70 million deal. To say that we would have trouble raising $6 million is absurd.
"Secondly, regarding the signatures, that’s a key issue in the case. They get to argue that in court. There’s no reason to countersue. We believe we have the signatures, and we certainly had 51 percent of the people sign. They can in court argue why they don’t think that’s a petition, but what’s part of what the case is about, so I’m not sure how you can countersue on what is essentially part of the case."
The Lowry Grove mobile home park is slated to close June 30. The closure date had been delayed to allow the park’s children to finish their school years uninterrupted.
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