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Mobile-home residents loath to move

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Colonial Manor Estates mobile-home park is an island of inexpensive housing in an upscale neighborhood near Annapolis. Since the 1940s, it has nestled there, its children attending one of the best public schools in Anne Arundel County.

But the park is closing to make way for more expensive single-family homes, similar to those that have been springing up around it on former farms and woodlands for 15 years.

While neighbors in those homes nearby applaud the park's demise as a boon to their property values, the closing presents a tremendous challenge for the 40 or so families living at Colonial Manor: They own their homes but soon might have no place to put them.

"Every day I wake up and say, 'What am I going to do? Where am I going to go?'" said Janice Gregory, 63.

Mobile homes - many of which are not particularly mobile - are restricted to designated parks in the county, and many in the area are full. No new ones have opened in more than 30 years, limiting the residents' options.

Many families at Colonial Manor are saddled with mortgages and low on cash, and moving a mobile home can cost as much as $5,000 for a double-wide, if it can be moved at all.

Despite their hardships, this is not a community of "trailer trash," transients or deviants, they say. This is a community of limited resources, where people came to live and raise their kids, and where some say they expected to die.

"These are not just 40 lots and structures, we are families - we work hand to mouth," said Sherri Kashuba, a Colonial Manor resident who has gone to the county and state seeking assistance for her neighbors. "It's not about choices, it's about resources."

The 55-lot park on 7 acres on the Broadneck Peninsula is a mix of new-looking mobile homes - which hardly look like mobile homes at all - and older, traditional-looking trailers, a few of them run-down. In addition to middle-age couples and retirees, the community has young families with children - drawn by the quality of the school system, which includes nearby Windsor Farm Elementary. The yards are mostly well-kept, some with decks and tidy gardens.

When the Joseph family purchased the park and 12 acres of woods next to it in 1975, the area was rural. That began to change about a decade later, when the first of the upscale single-family house developments opened next door.

Robert Joseph said his family wanted to expand the mobile-home park ever since they bought it. But that plan was repeatedly opposed by the county, he said. (The county has no record of a formal application for a zoning change by the owners, a zoning official said.)

"We wanted to build a bigger, nicer place, but it just cannot be done in this county anymore," Joseph said. "In its current state - and that will never change - [the park] is not economically viable."

Though the Josephs had turned down several offers from developers to buy the property over the past five years, they decided this year that they could not afford to wait any longer.

Six months ago, after the county proposed a zoning change that would enable the property to be developed into single family homes, they began talks with Koch Homes Inc. Koch, which has built upscale neighborhoods nearby, has contracted to buy the property and plans to convert all 19 acres into a senior community with 46 homes starting in the high $200,000s. The company hopes to begin construction in about two years, said Kevin Lusby, Koch's director of land development.

Colonial Manor residents learned of the sale the week before Christmas when the Josephs sent them letters, explaining that they will be given one year's notice before having to move.

Since then, several trailers have been put up for sale and others have been abandoned.

The remaining residents have begun counting down the park's final days. They worry about steep losses if they try to sell their trailers, the cost to relocate them, the mortgages they might default on and the prospect of having to move into public housing or out of Anne Arundel County altogether.

It's a move that some never expected to make.

Dan Brennan is one of the newest as well as one of the oldest residents at Colonial Manor. The 83-year-old moved here eight months ago after injuries suffered in a car accident made it difficult for him to take care of himself. When he spent $8,500 for the old trailer next to his son's, he thought he was making an investment for the rest of his life.

"I thought, 'Here I am now. I'll live here forever,'" Brennan said. Like many of the residents, Brennan said he does not know what he'll do when the time comes for him to leave Colonial Manor.

Janice Gregory, who shares a mobile home with her 88-year-old aunt who has kidney disease, also thought she had moved for the last time when she bought a new $34,000 mobile home six years ago and moved to Colonial Manor.

"What am I supposed to do?" she said. "I put all of my eggs in one basket."

Gregory's journey to Colonial Manor began with the death of her husband 10 years ago. He died in their single-family home in a nearby community. She decided she couldn't live there anymore.

Gregory - who worked 36 jobs over the years but was mostly supported by her husband - used the money from the sale of her house to buy a condominium. Soon, she was tired of having people below her and above her, so she sold the condo and bought the mobile home that she hoped to live in for the rest of her life.

Using their Social Security checks, she and her aunt pay the ground rent - which runs between about $250 and $450 per month for the small plots. She jokes about making a sign that says "Will Work for Food" and worries about placing her aunt in a nursing home or going into public housing herself when the park closes.

"Society has made it so people can't live," she said.

In Anne Arundel County, the average rent of apartments rose from $574 a month in 1990 to $805 as of July 2001 - more than Gregory's monthly Social Security check. The average price of a two-bedroom apartment in July was $835, according to county statistics.

Last year, the median price of homes sold in the county was $173,693 - up from $126,878 in 1990. The average cost of a new house was $222,293.

"Affordable housing is not an easy thing in this county," said Susan B. Kleinberg, county human services officer, who is putting together a team to collect information on public housing, senior housing and other options for Colonial Manor residents. "When you take a scarce resource, and you take some of it away, it is worrisome because it is those who have the least flexibility who are hurt."

While mobile home residents say their homes offer an affordable alternative, it is not an alternative that has been embraced by the county, which has about 30 trailer parks. The county restricted the construction of these parks in 1966. None has opened since.

A few parks in the county have expanded in recent years - but often require residents to buy new mobile homes to live there. Owners of some parks say their expansion plans have been ardently fought by surrounding neighborhoods and opposed by county planners.

"Sometimes, it seems to me that they equate mobile-home parks with leper colonies," said a park owner who asked not to be named. "They don't want mobile homes. They want million-dollar houses."

Residents of single-family homes near Colonial Manor say the park has taken its toll on their communities. They tell of houses that took too long to sell and property values brought down because of views of the trailer park. They have built fences, planted trees, and some have attended community meetings to thank Koch for redevelopment plans that would rid them of the park, which was there before any of their homes.

The Briarwood community opened next to Colonial Manor in the late 1980s. It was followed by Rosewood and other developments of stately colonials and luxurious estates in the past decade.

Lisa Hagerty, president of the Briarwood Homeowners Association, moved into a home that backs the trailer park in 1989. A few years later, when she had her four-bedroom colonial appraised for a home equity loan, the appraiser valued it at less than she had paid.

"He said, 'Well, you have a trailer park behind you,'" she recalled recently, looking through her kitchen window to the mobile homes visible through the trees.

Though she calls the park's residents "good neighbors," she said her neighbors in Briarwood and the other communities are eager to see the trailers go.

But Colonial Manor residents worry about maintaining their quality of life.

For some of them, the park offered a chance to own a home in an area where they might not otherwise be able to afford. For Sherri Kashuba, 32, it was a logical decision after being turned down for a conventional mortgage.

Two years ago, she and her husband, Kenny, took out a 30-year mortgage on a new $55,000 double-wide. It has three bedrooms and two full baths, a kitchen with lots of cabinet space and plenty of room for their two children and three dogs.

An executive assistant who has supported her family since her husband's brain injury almost five years ago, Sherri Kashuba has addressed the County Council and written the governor and the newspapers, hoping that somebody will come to residents' aid.

"When you talk about trailer parks, people make the assumption that we are inbreds or something, and that is not fair," Kashuba said. "People live in mobile homes because they offer affordability."

Still, with the land about to be sold out from under her home, she is haunted by the specter of bankruptcy, defaulting on her debt or accruing more, and the likelihood of having to leave the county where she has lived her entire life.

"Given the chance, I would never make the same decision again," she said.

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