Residents of a mobile home park that has existed for decades on land near Euclid Beach gazed at the map in confusion.
A committee composed of community leaders, the park’s owner and others had just revealed the map at a public meeting in February. It outlined the future of the area off Lakeshore Boulevard in North Collinwood. The mobile home residents kept looking for the 28.5-acre park but couldn’t find it. The private community that many residents had called home for years had been literally wiped off the map. In its place was reclaimed green space.
“I was shocked and horrified,” said resident Carol McClain, a retired fundraiser for a nonprofit. “This is where I retired!”
She and others at the meeting were told that the residential park, officially known as the Euclid Beach Mobile Home Community, would close in the summer of 2024. The nonprofit Western Reserve Land Conservancy, which purchased the mobile home park for $5.8 million in December 2021, would convert the site to green space. WRLC would then give the land to the Cleveland Metroparks to include in the major redevelopment of Euclid Beach Park, which is next to the mobile home park.
At the meeting, a WRLC official said the nonprofit would offer residents relocation assistance and fair market value for their mobile homes. Though compensation packages most likely won’t be ready until next month, WRLC hired a social worker to help residents explore options for their next homes. Most residents are working class or retirees on fixed incomes.
Cleveland City Council Member Mike Polensek, who has represented the area for more than 40 years, said some elderly residents have already turned down the offer to move into new senior housing nearby. He supports WRLC’s redevelopment plan and actively worked to get the nonprofit to buy the mobile home park.
“People tell me point blank, ‘I don’t want to go to an apartment. I don’t want to rent a house. I want to live on the lake,’” he said.
WRLC’s decision to close the park has set off a debate about what is in the public’s best interest. Should it be preserving affordable housing? Data and anecdotal accounts show that it is becoming more difficult for lower-income and working-class people in Greater Cleveland to find housing.
The other side of the debate leaves out the mobile park’s residents: Should the site on Lake Erie be used to create a recreational attraction that draws visitors from throughout Greater Cleveland? Doing this could address persistent complaints by residents and public officials that Cleveland’s predominantly Black East Side neighborhoods don’t get an equal share of major development projects.
Mobile park residents say priority should be given to preserving affordable housing. Most residents own their mobile homes (also known as manufactured homes) and pay roughly $400 monthly to rent the land on which they sit. The mobile park residents know they will likely have to pay at least twice as much to live elsewhere in Greater Cleveland.
“I see them looking at the individuals who live here as basically trailer trash and expendable,” said resident Anthony Beard, a self-employed healthcare provider. “They’re trying to do green gentrification by trying to displace us from lakefront property.”
WRLC officials say priority should be given to redeveloping Euclid Beach Park into a recreational attraction that could potentially draw hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. They say such redevelopment can’t take place without the additional acreage from the mobile home park. The area hasn’t had a major attraction since the iconic Euclid Beach amusement park closed in 1969.
Officials emphasize that closing the mobile home park wasn’t just WRLC’s idea but was the result of the Euclid Beach Neighborhood Plan process. Its steering committee is led by the nonprofit Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, which is focused on revitalizing the city’s neighborhoods. Other committee members include representatives from WRLC, the City of Cleveland, City Council and the Metroparks. It was at a neighborhood plan meeting that residents learned the mobile home park would close.
Making Euclid Beach into the East Side version of Edgewater Park
Matt Zone is WRLC’s senior vice president and director of Thriving Communities, an initiative to “transform vacant, unsafe and unproductive properties into useful ones.” He envisions Euclid Beach Park being transformed into something on par with the Metroparks’ popular Edgewater Park on the West Side. He said Euclid Beach Park is now a hodgepodge of recreational amenities. They include the park, Wildwood Marina and a pier and beach, which Zone says all need to be cohesively brought together. He said upgrades are also needed, including reconstructing the beach into one that is “safe and swimmable.”
When he was a West Side council member, Zone was involved in redeveloping Edgewater Park. The park includes a beach, fishing pier, boat ramp and other amenities. Zone, who left council in 2020 after nearly two decades, recalled his then-East Side colleagues’ reaction to Edgewater’s redevelopment.
“They said, ‘Why can’t we have nice things on the East Side on the waterfront?’” he recalled. “Why does that only have to be on the West Side?’ This gives me the motivation and energy to create a high quality park that people can enjoy on the East Side of Cleveland.”
Zone said he resents phrases such as “green gentrification,” which residents have frequently used at public demonstrations aimed at getting WRLC to reverse its decision to close the mobile home park.
“If you want to see one of the most diverse places in Northeast Ohio, go to Edgewater on any day,” he said. “You’ll have the construction worker, the doctor, the lawyer, the reporter, the homeless person, people of all socioeconomic backgrounds, all out in nature.”
Zone concedes that the committee did not tell the mobile home residents about the decision to close it before the public meeting. He said it was considered, but he was among those deciding against it.
“If we would have met with the tenants first, would they have staged a whole uprising and upended a public meeting?” Zone said.
Euclid Beach amusement park spawned mobile home park now in decay
“Lakefront housing” conjures images of high-end houses, condos and apartments. The site on which the mobile home park now sits was once like that. The Humphrey family, who owned the amusement park, built their mansion there. Council Member Polensek said he was working on getting landmark status for the mansion when the residential park’s former owner had it torn down rather than fix numerous code violations.
Beard can see why the Humphreys chose the site for their mansion. The mobile home park’s location is one of the things that keeps him fighting to stay.
“Living next to the lake – you can’t put a price tag on that,” he said.
The Humphrey family owned a vast stretch of North Collinwood’s lakefront. After the park closed, the family randomly sold off the land to different buyers, Zone said. There was no neighborhood plan.
Blink as you pass the Euclid Beach park sign on Lakeshore Boulevard and you’ll miss the entrance to the mobile home community. Remnants of the old amusement park can be found off the narrow asphalt roads. They include a ticket booth and a few cottages, all constructed of concrete.
The mobile home park’s origins are connected to this past. Seasonal park workers lived out of trailers pulled by trucks. When it was time to head to work in warmer climates, they left. Over the years, the number of people living in the lakeside community increased and the area for temporary housing morphed into a year-round mobile home park.
Today, mobile homes line the roads that can prove a bit of maze to an outsider. Some homes have porches and decks. Others have tidy flower and vegetable gardens. Many of the homes are empty and have been left to rot. It’s common to see stray cats, squirrels and even groundhogs darting in and out of them. Once, occupied homes sat on each of the community’s 271 lots. Now only 128 are occupied, according to WRLC.
Perhaps a couple of dozen families have left this year, based on residents’ accounts and the number who have sold their homes to WRLC. Residents have been leaving the park for several years, often fed up by persistent infrastructure problems: Frequent water service interruptions. Sewer backups. Several inches or more of standing water for days after a heavy rain. Then there were the often exorbitant water bills because of massive leaks. The park was on one master meter. The former owner, a limited partnership once with nearly 100 limited partners, determined how the bill would be split among residents.
Zone said because the community grew “organically,” planning wasn’t a priority. Water and sewer systems and other infrastructure often weren’t built to code. Add in decades of makeshift repairs and spotty maintenance and you get the current situation.
Even though the park will close next year, Zone said WRLC has spent nearly $200,000 there, most for stop-gap measures addressing issues the last owner ignored for years. This includes installing water meters in each unit, repairing faulty water lines and trying to get a feral cat problem under control.
Residents waiting on cash offers for their homes
WRLC told Signal Cleveland that the nonprofit will let residents know about compensation packages as soon as mid-July. Determining adequate compensation could prove difficult. This is why: The fair market value of most of the mobile homes is probably only a few thousand dollars. WRLC says that three-quarters of them were built before 1976. This means that they do not meet the standards set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and modifications and upgrades will not bring them into compliance. Most companies that relocate manufactured homes won’t touch units built before the mid-1990s, Zone said.
Even if the homes could be moved, residents said, renting space at another manufactured home park could cost up to twice as much. Most residents live in two- and three-bedroom mobile homes. Affording a two- or three-bedroom house or apartment may only be an option for a few residents.
“We need more affordable housing,” said Heather Malone, a former cook and caretaker, now on disability. “I know that I can’t afford $1,200 rent.”
A recent Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland survey of direct service providers in the region backs up her concern.
“Affordable housing is in short supply, and the shortage is leading to a rise in homelessness and more families moving in with relatives,” the survey states.
Polensek said closing the park shouldn’t be framed as an affordable housing issue. He said he has been a proponent of creating and preserving housing for working-class residents, including lobbying and voting for recent legislation. This month, City Council approved spending $5 million to help Habitat for Humanity build $13 million in affordable housing, including in Ward 8, which he represents.
In fact, Polensek said he once was a strong proponent of keeping the mobile park open. Now he wants it closed. A decade ago, he explained, residents came to him about infrastructure problems and other deplorable conditions. Polensek said he arranged for the now-defunct Cleveland Tenant Organization to work with residents. But few of them showed up for meetings.
“They overwhelmingly didn’t want to get involved,” he said. “They didn’t want to rock the boat. They didn’t want to work to make enhancements at the park. At the end of the day, as long as they were paying $300 [in rent], they were willing to live with the conditions.”
A few years ago, Polensek said, one of the lead partners in the limited partnership, which then owned the mobile home park, contacted him. The owner wanted to know if the council member knew of any developers who wanted to buy the land for some other use. No mobile home park operators wanted it, the partner told the council member.
“It was because of the nightmare with the infrastructure,” Polensek said. “Everything was imploding.”
The partner said the park wasn’t bringing in enough money, partly because some tenants routinely didn’t pay rent, an issue with which WRLC has had to contend. Tenants own $114,000 in back rent, according to the nonprofit.
The partner told him that the lakefront site would be a good place for luxury high-rise housing. He told Polensek to make sure to let any potential developers know that it would take a few months at most to kick out all the tenants. Everybody was on a month-to-month lease.
Polensek became furious. He said he valued public access to the lake and was concerned about what would become of the residents, who included “personal friends.” In a heated exchange, which he said included a lot of cursing, the council member told the partner that he would fight any attempts to build there. He went in search of a potential buyer.
“I reached out to the Western Reserve Land Conservancy,” he said. “It was out of pure desperation.”
WRLC was very interested in buying the land.
Will the compensation be enough?
Zone said WRLC is committed to helping residents relocate to suitable housing. He declined to give specifics about the compensation packages.
“Closing EBMHC by August 31, 2024, is the plan, and our priority remains the fair and just treatment of all the residents in their transition out of the park,” he wrote to Signal Cleveland in an email. “We will consider current market conditions and the value of each unit, and we are actively pursuing multiple options to ensure residents are supported as they transition into new housing.”
Throughout the mobile home park, residents’ fears are palpable. Most are already struggling economically. They wonder if the park’s closing will leave them even worse off.
Though residents said they were shocked by February’s announcement that the park was closing, they must have sensed something long before then. Last summer they formed the United Residents of Euclid Beach, or UREB, “to organize and defend our community, ” according to its Facebook page.
Michael Russell is the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland lawyer representing UREB. He said WRLA should use the standards required of public entities and federally funded projects in buying homes and relocating residents as “the minimum baseline.” For example, the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Act requires “just compensation” for property, relocation advisory services and moving expenses, as well as payments for “the added cost of renting or purchasing comparable replacement housing.”
“This is how to treat people fairly in situations like this,” he said.
WRLC is a nonprofit, not a public agency, so it is difficult to see why it would be required to follow such federal standards. Russell believes the standards would apply if federal money ends up being used for the redevelopment of Euclid Beach Park even after WRLC no longer owns the land. Still, many residents believe that WRLC, not the Metroparks (which is a public agency), bought the mobile home park to skirt such federal regulation. Polensek disagrees. He said he approached the Metroparks when he was trying to find a buyer for the land. Officials told him the agency tended only to buy vacant land.
Equitable development or gentrification?
Many residents who participated in the Euclid Beach Neighborhood Plan process said the possibility of closing the mobile home park never came up.
At community meetings, consultants asked residents what type of development they would like to see in the neighborhood. Steering committee members sometimes weighed in.
Creating a smaller mobile park with upgraded infrastructure on a portion of the existing site was mentioned. So was building a mobile home park on adjacent land owned by Cleveland Public Library. However, this option wasn’t fully explored. Redesigning a portion of Lakeshore Boulevard, building affordable housing nearby and reinvigorating the commercial strip were also discussed. The commercial area includes the site of the old Dave’s supermarket on Lakeshore Boulevard (the store closed last year after 30 years).
McClain, like many residents, remembers enthusiastically offering opinions, convinced that they were being taken seriously.
“They pulled the wool over our eyes for over a year,” she said. “They already knew what they wanted to do.”
Malone believes there can both be a mobile home park and a larger public park.
“We can share the land,” she said. “It’s only fair.”
Polensek, who is part of the steering committee as a City Council member, disagrees. He said the committee seriously considered residents’ request to configure a smaller mobile home park on the site. The deteriorated infrastructure and the age and condition of most of the mobile homes were roadblocks.
“We started looking at, can we get new units, but then again, who’s going to pay for the new units?” he said.
Beard, who supports the park becoming resident-owned, believes money could be found through federal funding and other means.
“If WRLC could get enough money to buy the mobile home park, they could get enough money for that,” he said.
Cigornai Sapp, who lived at the park from 2012 to 2017 and whose mother is a resident, said proponents of keeping the park open aren’t being realistic.
“I see why residents want the park to stay,” said Sapp, who is also a member of the neighborhood plan steering committee. “It is beautiful that we have the only mobile home park in the City of Cleveland. In reality, you can’t go in there and fix it because there are too many problems. You have to do a full redevelopment from the ground up.”
She said she hoped another residential park would be built in the area. Harkening back to the community’s origins of moveable housing, Sapp said something like an RV park was probably more feasible than mobile homes. She said her views about this as well as the park’s future are partly based on knowledge she gathered being active in industry groups such as the Ohio Manufactured Homes Association, While still a resident, Sapp said, she was among those who unsuccessfully tried to attract investors in hopes of bringing the park under ownership that could have included some form of resident control. The park’s substandard infrastructure was an issue for potential investors.
Sapp, who still lives in the area, said the deteriorating conditions forced her from the park.
“I didn’t want to give up living on the lake, but I had to,” Sapp said.
Instead of fighting to remain in the park, she said residents should shift their focus to working with WRLC to find the best affordable housing possible.
“I tell them, ‘There has been so much news coverage that everybody knows you guys are in a bad situation,’” Sapp said. “The light is on us. Use that to your advantage.”
Euclid Beach Residents intent on staying
In January, the residents’ group believed it had come up with a solution for keeping the park open.
A new federal program, the Preservation and Reinvestment Initiative for Community Enhancement (PRICE) initiative, will award $225 million in grants nationally over the next five years to help fund improvements in manufactured housing communities. Companies or developers aren’t eligible, but nonprofits like WRLC are. If awarded a grant, the nonprofit would be required to provide a 50% match of the federal funds.
UREB lobbied WRLC to apply, but the nonprofit wasn’t interested. In an email to Signal Cleveland, Zone said WRLC was going with the steering committee’s recommendation, which was based on a “yearlong planning process that engaged hundreds of residents and dozens of community partners.”
“While we are aware of the PRICE program, it is abundantly clear that the entire Collinwood neighborhood is wanting a unified public Lake Erie park for the future,” he wrote.
Activists try to apply public pressure
In March, a pickup truck stopped in front of WRLC’s Thriving Communities office downtown on Huron Road. It was pulling a white camper trailer with a mediocre paint job and a door that looked as though it could fall off.
Painted on one side of the camper in blue, free-hand block letters was this plea: “WRLC Let E.B. Residents Stay!”
It was the debut of the prop designed by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, which has helped UREB organize residents and protests.
During the March protest, UREB and NEOCH delivered petitions to WRLC. (There is a dispute about the number of real signatures. However, an online UREB petition against the park’s closing has more than 5,700 signatures.)
Before handing the petitions in, UREB and NEOCH held a rally outside. Supporters outnumbered residents. Beard and Malone both spoke at the rally, with the camper serving as a backdrop.
Malone held out hope that residents could persuade WRLC to their side.
“I believe that if they could just see a different vision of what we see, that they could make that possible,” she said. “Then they could become the real heroes here today.”
Three months later, she still feels this way.
Residents have also spoken during City Council’s public comment periods and made presentations at community meetings and events throughout North Collinwood. In May, the Beachland Ballroom hosted a benefit concert for UREB.
Also in May, the camper was back on the road again. This time it was at WRLC’s headquarters in Moreland Hills, where NEOCH protested at the nonprofit’s breakfast fundraiser. They were focusing on a stronger message painted on another side of the camper :
“WRLC Residents Demand to Stay!” it read.