Working to move up, told to move out

The developer’s lawyer, in spinning the planned $150 million complex in Kennesaw, said the city is “addressing an often overlooked demographic” – aging Baby Boomers.

That Boomers have ever been overlooked is arguable. The aging Boomers in this case, well-heeled ones, will enjoy a resort-style pool, a yoga studio, a grand dining room and an adjoining Whole Foods because, well, these aren’t your grandfather’s geezers. (Full disclosure, I’d qualify for the 55-and-over complex.)

But there’s another demographic being overlooked, one that is mostly used to it: Trailer park residents. About 110 families in the Castle Lake mobile home park at the busy intersection of Barrett and Cobb parkways will soon have to become mobile for real. Atlanta’s Fuqua Development is set to put the 52-acre parcel to its “highest and best use,” which is 180 high-end senior apartments ($1,800 a month) and 305,000 square feet of retail.

Trailer people are used to being a punchline. Their existence often comes with a tale of woe and hard living. But the people I met at Castle Lake are a collection of hard-working folks trying to pull out of a life-altering spin of bad luck or trying to live frugally while forging a future.

Fuqua’s lawyer told city officials that most of the residents have accepted a relocation package. He added that the developer’s team is working “to resolve minor matters” to get the rest of the residents on their way.

These, mind you, are people who purchased oblong metal boxes with meager savings to keep their possessions dry when it rains. There is nothing “minor” about getting run off from where one has lived for years, about moving such structures, about changing schools.

When I walked in to the Kennesaw City Council meeting last week, Mayor Mark Mathews was addressing dozens of Castle Lake residents who showed up.

“My understanding is that anyone paying double rent is doing it by choice,” he said.

Strange. Many people choose to pay double rent — for lake homes, vacation cottages, even ski chalets. But I always assumed trailer residents preferred to be one-rent folks.

They are. It turns out several residents believed the trailer park sale was imminent, so they rushed to sign a contract to relocate to another mobile home park. The problem was that they still had not worked out a deal with Fuqua to move their trailers. Hence, double rent. Fuqua’s people told the mayor they’d work that out.

Often there’s a disconnect between sturdy-house people and those living in mobile homes. Mostly, those in Castle Lake want to avoid paying apartment rents, so they bought mobile homes to save money in hopes of some day getting a run of good luck.

A good proportion of residents are Hispanic. Many are confused or intimidated. One such lady, who spoke to the City Council, walks to work and was the third owner on the trailer’s title. (They’re like car titles, not deeds for homes, and things can get real complicated real quick.)

The stories about the path to Castle Lake vary: There’s the mechanic who moved to Atlanta but couldn’t sell his Arizona home. A young Hispanic couple saving money for a real house. A retired woman. A divorced husband whose wife got the $400,000 home.

Cindy and Kevin Bickford owned a home and a roofing business. Then came the Great Recession, a foreclosure, a business dissolution, and here they are at Castle Lake with their two high school kids, one of whom is in ROTC.

“We bounced around and needed a cheaper way of living,” said Bickford.

So, last May they bought a comfortable double-wide that could pass for a regular home. They scraped together $7,000 for a down payment for the $15,000 structure but say they were never alerted by the trailer park managers that a sale of the park was in the offing. By then, the proposed Fuqua complex had been discussed for months. (A spokesman for the Canadian company that owns the park said newcomers are told there’s a possibility a sale might happen.)

I spoke with the owners of four trailers, each of whom had been offered $8,000 to walk away from the trailer. They have also been offered moving expenses.

But Bickford said that doesn’t work: “We have to move out, store our stuff and get a hotel, at our expense, and then turn in our receipts. If I had that kind of money, we wouldn’t be living here in the first place.

“We’re not here standing by the mailbox with our hands out waiting for welfare checks. We’re hard-working people.”

The mayor said the residents were caught “in limbo” between the Canadian owners and Fuqua, which hasn’t finalized the sale or its plans with the city. Kennesaw leaders last week approved the site plan, including a provision they requested that there be no Section 8 apartments. I suppose that makes sense, Section 8 people would probably have a hard time affording Whole Foods.

Jeff Fuqua, principal partner of the company bearing his name, said he has eyed this property for years, but the recession got in the way. So did the layer of rock in the ground. (Hello dynamite!)

Fuqua has been involved in dozens of developments throughout metro Atlanta, including 12 now in the works. He likes to think he has been fair when residents had to get moved out. Trailers make things tricky, he admits. There’s the ownership of units and the problems with moving older structures and the fuzzy titles and so on. He said his company will buy people’s trailers or move them.

“We’re very confident we’re going well above the norm” in what’s legally required to help those who must leave, he said, adding that the proverbial “handful of vocal people” are behind much of the ruckus.

Once the deal is closed — it could be a few weeks — residents will have two months to pack up their trailers and hard-luck stories and get moving. Maybe they’ll find better luck down the road.