Tsunami in St. Anthony: Antonia Alvarez's holy war to save her mobile home park

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Colin Michael Simmons

It was early morning on August 9. Fifty residents gathered for a protest march outside their homes in Lowry Grove Mobile Home and RV Park in St. Anthony. Organizer Antonia Alvarez was making her way to the front of the line, stopping to hug neighbors and answer questions in Spanish and English.

Barely five feet tall, she carried a thick wooden cross that nearly matched her in height. She’d been organizing meetings since the previous April, when residents received notice that the park would be sold and converted into condos and apartments.

Antonia believed God had called her to motivate and serve others. She had done so her entire life, first in a suburb of Mexico City, and again after fleeing from cartel members to the United States, in her new home in suburban Minneapolis, where she co-founded Asamblea de Derechos Civíles, a faith-based nonprofit that mentors Latino leaders.

Since the first meeting, Antonia had rallied her neighbors to file a lawsuit to undo the sale to the new owners, a development company called The Village. Now residents were in a kind of purgatory, waiting to see if they would be evicted from their homes.

On this day, they hoped that purgatory would end. They walked six miles with crosses, cowbells, and megaphones, across the Mississippi River to Hennepin County Circuit Court in downtown Minneapolis. The elderly and disabled, of whom there were many, followed in a bus.

Brightly colored posters rendered their messages: “God Lives in Mobile Home Parks, too!” and “Lowry Grove is a Family. Don’t Take that Away.”

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Residents kneel for a prayer in August at Hennepin County Circuit Court. Kristin Collier

People honked, some pulling over to take pictures. Others ran from grocery stores to deliver water bottles while still others joined the march. At the front of the line walked Antonia, barefoot, head draped in a white shawl, a rosary around her neck.

Inside the courthouse, residents linked hands in prayer beside tall windows, where an American flag hung, its stars and stripes slightly translucent from the sunlight. Antonia offered them a reminder: “God is with us.”

A shrinking way of life

The park is a 10-minute drive from downtown Minneapolis, across the Mississippi River, past chain stores and boutiques selling artisanal candles and jewelry. It’s wedged between parkways lined with homes, their windows filled with flower baskets, yards neatly landscaped.

Inside the park, the streets spiral in figure eights across 15 acres behind a chain-link fence. Two smaller blocks in the innermost section house seasonal tenants who rent plots to park their RVs.

In the summer, before owners began to move or sell their homes to The Village, the park was crowded, nearly every plot filled, surrounded by trees along the park’s edges. Many of those trees had been there since 1946, when the park opened in the aftermath of World War II, promising safety and community at a fair price.

Some Lowry Grove residents had lived here for half of the park’s existence, watching it shift to include RV residents and eventually crumble under disrepair.

First it was the roads, cracked with potholes. Then the brownish water. Later, the sewage that spilled into the neighborhood and stayed for days. Though residents were disappointed in the infrastructure, the cheap rent, strong schools, and proximity to downtown made Lowry Grove worth it.

Rent is about $450 a month, but residents are responsible for providing their own homes. The average new single-wide costs $37,000. A double-wide, $76,000. Both are significantly below $224,100, the median home price in St. Anthony, and significantly below the projected rent for The Village’s apartments — $895 for a studio and $1,250 for a one-bedroom.

Once owners finish making payments, the home is theirs. But the land beneath them belongs to the park. So when Lowry Grove owner Phil Johnson wanted to sell his park to the The Village, he could.

Yet under state statute he had to allow residents the opportunity to buy the land for the same price — $6 million — within 45 days of receiving notice of the park’s closure. If the residents could match the terms and price of the offer, the land would be theirs.

The residents met the requirements on June 10 after partnering with Aeon, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, which offered to buy and manage the park on residents’ behalf. Three days later, Johnson rejected their offer, finalizing his sale to The Village and sparking a lawsuit from residents.

The residents’ fight played out against the backdrop of an affordable housing crisis. Aeon CEO Alan Arthur cites a study conducted by Harvard, which showed that the number of low-cost housing units rose only 11 percent in the last decade, less than half the rate of higher rent units, and much below what a growing low-income renter population needs.

“We are starting to panic a little bit about the loss of affordable housing at the hands of social and market changes,” Arthur says. “We think it’s bad now, but soon the rest of the iceberg will be revealed, and we are going to be in big trouble.”

This is a tsunami

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Antonia Alvarez with activists from St. Anthony Villagers for Community Action. SAVCA supports residents’ claim to the park.

Antonia Alvarez lives near the park entrance, her front yard cupping her house in a green U. This is where residents gathered to plan, prepare, and, sometimes, celebrate with games and burgers. On these nights, there was no talk of eviction or debates about whether to sell their homes or to stay and fight.

The park houses the most diverse population in St. Anthony, about 70 percent of whom are Latino, compared to just 2.9 percent for the rest of the suburb. The white residents tend to be retired, elderly, and living alone, while many of the Hispanics are middle-aged and undocumented. Though resident meetings were translated between English and Spanish, members began to learn each other’s language on their own, trying out new words with one another.

Inside Antonia’s home sits a framed portrait of her mother as a teenager. “Everyone says it could be me,” Antonia says. They have the same thick and curly hair, the same round face, the same dark brown eyes.

She lost her mother when she was young and living in Mexico, where she first answered God’s calling. In 2014, she lost her father, for whom she had been advocating and organizing for more than a decade, hoping that immigration reform would give her the chance as an undocumented person to return to Mexico to see him.

A month after her father’s death, President Obama issued an executive action on immigration reform. Antonia met Obama at a rally in Las Vegas. She has a photo from that day: the thick, curly hair and brown eyes, this time glossed over with tears as she wraps her arms around her president.

In June, when the park’s offer was rejected, Antonia plotted at her kitchen table, establishing a weekly meeting with residents inside her home. When those meetings grew too large, they were moved outside to her patio. She tracked down titles of residents’ homes, posted flyers, contacted school leaders, and supplied her neighbors with prayers, coffee, and food.

Sometimes she paused to consider it all, the overwhelming, wild force before her. In those moments she could not help but think, “This is a tsunami.”

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Saul Landa and Leticia Morales with their daughter Citlali. In the last year they’ve updated their bathroom and bedrooms, all of which will be lost if they are forced to move.

The law that doesn’t work

Minnesota is one of a few states that grants the right of first refusal for mobile home tenants when their land is sold to developers who wish to change the park. By law, an owner must offer the park to residents, and if the residents’ offer matches the purchaser’s, the owner must sell to the residents.

Attorney General Lori Swanson wrote a brief in support of the residents in August, arguing that their rights had been purposely circumvented.

The law also dictates that the majority of residents consent to purchase. But The Village claimed some of these signatures were forged or inaccurate. It also claimed that Aeon could not obtain the necessary funding, and that the law protected the sale of the park once the sale had been finalized.

The problem, it turned out, was that the law was so poorly written it offered few real protections, according to residents’ attorney Jack Cann of the Minnesota Housing Justice Center. The right of first refusal has never successfully secured a park for homeowners. If Lowry Grove residents won, it would be a first.

Thunder across the park

On September 24, a month after the residents’ march to the courthouse, Judge Joel Klein ruled against them. Even if there was a violation of the law, he wrote, residents were only entitled to monetary relief.

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There would be a trial to determine if there was a violation with the park’s sale, but it would not take place until the fall of the following year, and by then residents would have already been evicted.

Antonia called a meeting. Residents gathered beneath a canopy during a thunderstorm. Antonia stood on the steps before them as the rain hit the metal roof in waves.

“We are going to start with the news you already know,” Antonia shouted in Spanish above the storm. “But I want to describe it in a way that everyone can understand.”

She invoked a boxing metaphor: The developer won a round, she said, “but we are still in the middle of the match.” Klein’s decision would only result in them fighting even harder.

Ned Moore, a fellow organizer, spoke next. “So we have to thank God for sending the rain because the rain is a sign of God’s presence.” They would appeal the judge’s ruling and file a discrimination complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

And they would, no matter what, keep fighting.

“Those that have the hearts and the commitment to fight,” he said, “the rain doesn’t matter to us.”

They would fight for one another, fight for those who could not fight, and they would fight for Antonia, who had recently been threatened.

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Park resident Lisa Bieker bought a puppy after she was diagnosed with cancer and given five years to live.

Before departing, Antonia rallied her wet disciples. “We need to shout to let the people know we are not leaving.”

“Si se peude! Si se peude!” she said.

“Yes, we can! Yes, we can!”

First people yelled from their seats, and then they stood, their voices like thunder across the park.

Begging the city’s hand

On October 11, Lowry Grove residents walked to St. Anthony City Hall, past three miles of sprawling ranch homes, to ask the City Council to postpone a public hearing required for closing the park. A delay in the hearing would mean a delay in closure, offering more time to mount an appeal.

The residents lost as soon as the meeting began. The hearing would take place.

Antonia’s daughter Melina was among those who testified. “I am an 11-year-old girl and I have lived in Lowry Grove on lot 11 for 10 years and one month,” she said.

She was scared — of the people who lived in the RVs and sold drugs and fought outside her house, and for the homes she saw disassembled across the park. Many residents had sold, and The Village was gutting the abandoned units.

“We are all a family, even our cats and dogs,” Melina said. “My mom always taught me to care for everyone.”

When Antonia spoke, she was loud and clear: “To respect my community, I am going to speak in Spanish. Mr. Mayor, city manager, and city members, I come here standing, to tell you to your faces, that I do not feel represented by you.”

She pointed at them when she said this. The people of Lowry Grove were oppressed, she explained, and they needed the city of St. Anthony on their side.

Halfway through the speech, she addressed Traci Tomas, The Village’s vice president. When Antonia met her in May, Tomas had cried with the community. “She told us that she had children,” Antonia recalled. “She said she was Catholic, and many of us were Catholic. But really, the lady didn’t show her faith, nor that she has kids. Because a mother that has kids has a conscience.”

Tomas was seated in the front of the room, closest to the mic and podium. As Antonia spoke, she turned to look Tomas in the eye.

Threats outside her window

In late October, as both sides gathered evidence for the appeal, Antonia began parking her van on the other side of Lowry Grove so residents wouldn’t know when she was home. When she parked outside her house, they lined up at her door into the night.

A woman with cancer had recently shown up in tears. Winter was coming, and her front door didn’t work. She had no money to buy a new one and wondered if she should take the deal offered by The Village. Antonia offered to pay for it herself, though the woman’s father eventually came through.

Beyond the pressure to care for those around her, Antonia was scared. A few weeks earlier, she arrived home late on a hot night while her daughter was asleep. Antonia stretched to open her bedroom windows so that an evening breeze might bring release. It was 10:45 p.m.

She heard voices building in her backyard. At first they were not clear, spoken softly and quickly, and her English is not strong. But then they were. “Get out of here, bitch.”

She could not translate that word — bitch — but she knew that it was bad.

Antonia called 911. By the time police arrived, the white men with long hair had vanished. Officers circled Lowry Grove until 6 a.m. so that Antonia could sleep. But she didn’t. As an undocumented immigrant, she was afraid of the police too.

In the last few months, several fights had broken out. One had occurred between a group of unfamiliar men on Antonia’s front lawn the Saturday before she was threatened. Weeks later, her neighbor, a recovering addict, had seen her drug dealer driving through the neighborhood. After he stopped to say hello, she decided to move.

Antonia claimed that an uptick in drugs and violence was a part of The Village’s plan. The new owners, she thought, allowed in RV renters with drug problems and histories of violence. And when that history was enacted on other tenants, she alleged, The Village looked the other way. The ensuing chaos would make broader St. Anthony back the park’s closure.

Traci Tomas disagrees with the residents’ interpretation. The rules hadn’t changed since The Village acquired ownership, nor had Tomas heard that Antonia had been threatened, though the owners were usually notified when police came to property.

Sometimes Antonia felt like she was the last line of defense between residents and the park’s collapse. Though most of the Latinos still followed her, many of her white neighbors had left. Of those who stayed, many had stopped listening.

There was gossip everywhere. Talk of new expensive lawyers, of old signatures on old documents that would protect the park in perpetuity, of secret lakes deep below the earth that would doom any development by The Village. People splintered into groups with talk of changed plans. The communal spirit splintered.

How much are you willing to lose?

By December, nearly half of the residents still held on. They met with neutral negotiator Dan Wilson, who was responsible for deciding how much money each owner received from the Minnesota Housing Trust Fund, a state agency established to mitigate the financial loss residents experience when a mobile home park is sold.

Including repairs, Antonia had spent nearly $30,000 on her home, yet the most she could receive was $8,000, the state cap for a single-wide. She, like most of her neighbors, owned a trailer built before 1976, models that can rarely be moved due to structural complications.

So residents were left with a decision: stay in their homes and risk receiving little money if the appeal was unsuccessful, or hedge their bets and sell now while there was still time to negotiate with The Village, still time to ask a new park to accept their old home and find an available lot in a shrinking market.

The question: Which kind of loss they could live with?

In early winter, The Village offered residents $1,000 each to vacate the park. It would also offer Antonia one of the new apartments for the same rent she paid for her trailer.

But she would never take a deal not offered to the others. Instead, residents agreed to a different pact, which allowed them to stay past the original eviction date of March 15 until the end of June. At least the park’s children could finish school. But then — no matter what — they must go.

The appeal would be heard in March. Even if residents won, by then it would be too late. The best they could hope for was money to fill the enormous void — money for moving trucks, new apartments or homes, new park fees, rent increases, and security deposits.

Then came the voids money could not fill.

A crashing wave

Since 1991, 10 manufactured home parks in Minnesota have closed. In that same time, not a single new one has been built.

Last fall in Bloomington, residents of Southgate Mobile Home Park were given notice of closure. If trends continue, others will close as well. 

Antonia’s tsunami has finally struck shore. The sale of Lowry Grove wasn’t the crash, but the wave’s slow build. The loss of faith in the legal system, the emptying of lots, the slow dissipation of community. This was the wave breaking on earth.

Now it was sweeping away pieces of homes, friendships, entire lives contained on beloved plots of land that had been fought for. And it was spreading: to parks in other towns where other tenants tried to hold on.

In June, the residents would pack their boxes, hitch their faith to Antonia, and, if they could, their homes to moving trucks.

As cool waters circled, they’d pray to make it through.


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