In Ellensburg, Washington, The Seattle Times
- Every fall since 1923, hordes of people enter the Kittitas County Fairgrounds in the town of Ellensburg to watch bulls toss riders off their backs and cowboys wrestle steers to the ground.
Just a block away is a 3.5-acre plot of land that could someday add value to the annual rodeo and county fair, the biggest attractions in this agricultural and college town east of the Cascade Mountains. The Kittitas County Board of Commissioners purchased the plot in September for $1.45 million with a plan to convert it into an RV park for visitors.
But to execute that vision, county commissioners will ultimately need to evict about 100 people — including 50 children — who live in the skinny, rundown mobile homes that constitute the Shady Brook Mobile Home Park.
The land sale launched a protracted standoff between Shady Brook’s residents, who are low-income and mostly Latino, and county officials who appear to have misjudged the residents’ ability to fight back.
Shady Brook’s residents responded to the prospect of losing their biggest investment — mobile homes, many of which are too old to survive a tow to a different park — by forming a homeowners association and hiring attorneys to represent them as a group. Now they are prepared to file a lawsuit to keep their community intact.
Meanwhile, county officials are facing questions over how they intend to help Shady Brook residents relocate in an area that suffers from a shortage of affordable housing.
The affair has drawn the attention of the state Attorney General’s Office, which notified county officials in May that its investigators were examining the possibility that the officials had violated state and federal laws concerning fair housing.
David Morales, a Northwest Justice Project(1) attorney who represents the homeowners association at Shady Brook, said he still plans to file a lawsuit against the county. He said the county has violated the Fair Housing Act because closing the park will “have a disproportional impact on low-income people of color.”
“Residents are still concerned because they have no place to live in five years,” he said. “Most are well-rooted in Ellensburg.”
The residents of Shady Brook rely on each other to baby-sit their kids, loan money, translate documents and drive neighbors to appointments. At least eight men in the park work at Anderson Hay & Grain, a big local employer that exports world-renowned timothy hay to countries like Japan. Several others prepare and package frozen vegetables at Twin City Foods, another local employer, or seasonally pick apples, cherries and pears.
While most of those who own mobile homes at Shady Brook pay $325 a month for the space or lot, apartments of similar size rent for triple that in Ellensburg, according to a federal fair market rent report.
Margarita Gomez, who sometimes watches the neighborhood kids while their parents work, said the eviction, regardless of when it comes, is not fair.
“Families have four or five kids and it’s not easy for a family to find a new home because it’s more expensive,” Gomez said.
Although county officials say they had no intention of quickly evicting Shady Brook’s residents, records show that wasn’t the original plan when they started negotiations to buy the property.
The Seattle Times obtained documents and emails through public records requests that show county officials initially demanded in 2015 that the park’s then-owners, Jerry and Diane Barton, evict Shady Brook’s tenants and dispose of the mobile homes before closing the sale.