An American dream gets evicted

  • Residents salvage what they can from their homes near Edwards, Colo.

    Marka Moser
 

EDWARDS, Colo. - A luxury condominium complex is going up here - not an unusual phenomenon in one of the fastest-growing counties in the state of Colorado.

But this development is affecting me. I hear voices as I drive by the construction site. Voices from this place's past.

They are not the voices of Ute Indians, trappers, lettuce growers, or ranchers that may have been in this area 100 years ago or more, although I am sure they would have something to say about the changes around here. Much more recent voices haunt me: the residents of the trailer park that stood on this land until about a year ago.

On any given day as I drive by, this is what the voices say: "People just think, 'It's a trailer park, who cares? White trash. They'll find somewhere else to go.' ... "The people coming in are buying the condos. The people in the trailers, we have to leave the county, the state. The question is, is that a good trade-off?" ... "We don't have any in-between property. They're running all the working people out."

I did not invent these voices. I heard them loud and clear when I visited the trailer park on a cold, dull day last spring. They have stuck with me ever since.

I was drawn to the park after reading about the fight 39 families were putting up to be able to stay in their trailers. A steering committee had arranged benefit concerts and appealed to the county commissioners to deny the new condo development. The developer's team argued that the project was needed to fill a need for affordable high-density housing. It was an emotional battle.

One of the county commissioners said at a meeting that the decision was his most difficult as an elected official. He said that he had worked with some of the people being evicted and that they represented to him the kind of person trying to live the American dream of owning one's own home and being one's own boss.

In the end, the residents were told to clean up and clear out.

The April day I came by was one of the organized clean-up days. When I arrived mid-morning, residents, friends, members of church groups and the housing organization, Habitat for Humanity, were already absorbed in the task of tearing down the trailers too old to be moved to other locations. Everyone was busy with sledgehammers and bulldozers, ripping off siding and hauling away trash in the hope of meeting a rapidly approaching deadline. If the residents cleared and vacated the park by May 1, they could begin to receive some of the settlement money promised to them by the condominium developer.

Despite the need for haste, everyone there that day took a moment to talk with me as I wandered the park trying to piece together what this development said about our valley. For almost 20 years, the trailer park sat in the nether world - at least a 15-minute drive from the nearest ski area or golf course. Its neighbors were empty lots and the Eagle River.

Then the resort areas of Beaver Creek and Arrowhead were developed nearby. With skiing and golf now within easy reach, builders responded. Where there had been empty lots, there were now movie theaters, hotels, dry cleaners and antique stores. And, a trailer park?

"I'm not surprised about it," said a woman who had shared a double-wide trailer with her boyfriend. "The land has become so valuable. There's just nowhere for people to go." She said she was one of the lucky ones because she had been able to sell the HUD-approved trailer and move to a house. "But it's hard for people to leave the homes they own after 15 years and pay $1,200 rent."

She mentioned that her family back East had always found it hard to believe she lived in a trailer outside of Vail, Colo.

"But once I started explaining that's the only option for affordable housing, their response was that really makes sense. You can then actually have money to do other things. You might have to work only two jobs instead of three. You can have pets, a nice community around you and your own little home."

While growth is good for economic reasons, she said, a line must be drawn somewhere. "We're building $500,000 houses, $1 million houses, and then throwing people out of the trailer park. We won't have anyone to run the ski resorts and businesses. Everyone will be gone, pushed out."

The next person I met was finding herself in just that position. She was moving her family to Leadville, 44 miles away, because she said there was no place to put a mobile home in the Vail Valley anymore.

"They don't want us here," she said as she directed customers to her yard sale. She said she will now have a two-hour commute instead of a short walk to work every day.

"This," she said, motioning to a yard full of her belongings, "tells me we have a lot of problems here. The growth is too much for our valley."

Her children, who were going to finish the school year with a long commute from Leadville, agreed. "Sooner or later, it's going to seem like Denver-in-the-mountains up here," they said. "It will be one big place."

Then, I came across a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit organization that has the explicit goal of eliminating "poverty housing and homelessness from the face of the earth." He was having trouble pulling off the side of one of the trailers when I arrived. He told me he wanted to help out because he works with some of the people who are being forced to leave. "People are taking housing like this, very affordable for certain populations, and converting it to high-priced condos. It's economic displacement, I'm sad to say."

Another volunteer, a local minister, explained why she was spending the day tearing down affordable housing.

"We are here to be in solidarity with these people. This is a case where poor people were off the beaten track, kind of forgotten in the growth of this valley. But then this became prize property and the property became more important than this community," she said. "Development continues that sense of erosion of community."

As we talked, a 5-year-old boy belonging to one of her parishioners played in front of a gaping hole in one of the trailers. Through it, a slice of life could be seen: An open carton of milk sat on the kitchen counter, a broken chair lay on the floor. The minister explained that even as a kindergartner, the boy could "bear witness. His eyes are being opened to the fact that people are being displaced from their homes."

I had been to the trailers once before this demolition day. It was Thanksgiving and I was helping deliver Salvation Army turkeys and food baskets. I ended up making all my deliveries to this trailer park. One of the turkeys was going to a housekeeper I knew, but not well enough to have known she and her family lived in the park, crunched into a narrow but bright trailer. She beamed when the turkey - and I - appeared at her door. Her trailer and the others I saw had a cozy feel to them. On this frosty day, people were still out chatting with each other.

Now over a year later, it will soon be hard to tell that the condominium complex wasn't always here. People with over $200,000 to spend will soon call this spot on the Eagle River home. But the voices of those who came before them will stick with me, and help me to remember that a community gives up - something and somebody - even as it gets.

The writer is a documentary filmmaker and journalist living outside of Vail, Colorado.

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