NORFOLK — Standing by the white picket fence outside her Norfolk mobile home, Sara Depaz is starting dinner on a grill for her husband and 8-year-old daughter. The grass is freshly cut, her lawn furniture is arranged under a backyard tent and the smell of burning charcoal is in the air.
“We don’t want to leave,” Depaz, 40, said, surveying the yard that her family has called home for four years. “We’re still looking for another place, but everything is really pricey.”
Depaz is one of dozens of tenants at Smitty’s Mobile Home Park on Newtown Road who recently learned they’ll need to find a new place to live. A real estate company bought the park in April and plans to tear it down to build an apartment complex. That has left residents, some of whom have lived in the park for as many as 50 years, with an uncertain future as housing costs throughout the region continue to rise.
Bonaventure, an Alexandria-based real estate firm, is planning to build a 418-unit apartment and townhome complex with a pool, a clubhouse and a recreation area.
The company purchased the park on April 11 for $9.75 million. The city had the land valued at $6.5 million, records show. Norfolk City Council unanimously approved a conditional use permit July 12, allowing the company to build the complex. Construction is expected to begin in March 2023. That’s when all the tenants will need to be out.
There are more than 100 mobile homes at the 12-acre park.
The company is offering all the park’s tenants $2,500 for moving expenses — the minimum amount required under state law.
“Bonaventure cares about the current residents of Smitty’s Mobile Home Park,” Bonaventure spokesperson Lindsay Bouchard said in an emailed statement.
Catholic Charities of Eastern Virginia, however, is offering to pay residents an additional $2,500 for their moving expenses.
But for some tenants, the money offered isn’t enough to move their trailers elsewhere, or to find new housing.
Mobile homes can be expensive to move with estimates ranging from $2,800 and higher depending on the age and condition of the home, according to some websites. A half-dozen residents interviewed by The Virginian-Pilot said $2,500, or even $5,000, would likely not be enough based on the condition of their homes.
Many of the mobile homes in the park are so old that a moving company would not take the risk of transporting them at all, some residents said.
Depaz, who owns her home, said her family will have to leave it behind, even after spending thousands on improvements such as floor repairs, a new yard fence and new kitchen appliances. She said she’s searching for apartments nearby so her daughter won’t have to change schools. But there’s nothing in her price range.
“It’s a lot of stress,” Depaz said.
Sitting on the front porch of his home on a recent afternoon in the sweltering heat, Nestor Acosta, 60, is also fretting over the move.
Acosta said the money offered by Bonaventure and Catholic Charities won’t be enough to move his mobile home, either. And even if it was, he wouldn’t know where to move it. There aren’t many mobile home parks left in the area, he said.
“This is a big problem for me,” Acosta said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Acosta lives in the park with his wife Maria and their 34-year-old son, who has mental and physical disabilities. Acosta worked in construction before he recently decided to take time off to care for his son. Maria is a maid at the Oceanfront Inn on the Virginia Beach waterfront. They’ve lived in the park for nine years.
Acosta said his son isn’t able to go up and down stairs, meaning they won’t be able to live in an apartment complex unless it’s on the first floor or has an elevator. He said he asked Catholic Charities of Eastern Virginia to help them find a house that works with his son’s disability, but hasn’t heard anything back yet.
“I want to buy a house,” Acosta said. “The problem is the money.”
Hampton Roads is facing a major shortage of affordable housing units, according to a 2021 state report.
Not everyone is anxious about being forced to move from the mobile home park, however.
A few houses away, James Pina, 36, is drinking a Modelo on his porch with a friend. Pina works at Hot Diggity Dogs BBQ, a restaurant in a strip mall right across the street from Smitty’s. He said he’s been renting the mobile home in the park for less than a year, and he’s got a game plan to move out when his lease ends in August.
“I’m going to the Red Carpet Inn,” Pina said, the cheapest hotel around.
Pina said he felt bad for the residents in the park who own their mobile homes. Most of the homes, he said, are too old to move.
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“There’s a lot of good people here who don’t deserve this,” Pina said.
Wayne, a 71-year-old park resident who asked not to have his last name published, has lived in the park since 1977. A Vietnam War veteran, Wayne moved to the park a few years after returning home from the war. Right now, he’s working as a Lyft driver.
He said his mobile home is so old it would probably fall apart if he tried to move it, so he’s looking for an apartment. He said he’s not too worried about finding another place to live.
“When the time comes, we’ll pack up and move,” Wayne said.
Neil Coleman, 76, a retired Navy shipyard worker who has lived in the park since 1973, said he and his wife raised four children here. Coleman’s wife died recently. When Bonaventure informed residents they would need to move, he said he bought a house on Azalea Garden Road and plans to move in September.
“My wife passed away in this trailer,” Coleman said. “Now it’s time to move on.”
Daniel Berti, firstname.lastname@example.org