When Lucia Salmeron thinks about her trailer, she thinks about her family’s future – her children riding their bikes with their friends in a neighborhood they love; she and her husband working on their home renovations; everyone being surrounded by a close-knit community of which they’ve spent years becoming a part.
That future came crashing down on Nov. 7 of last year when Salmeron and all of her neighbors received a certified letter informing them their community would be “converted to an alternate use.” Mountaire Farms, the nation’s seventh largest chicken producer, acquired the property.
“Each owner of a manufactured home or tenant has until 5:00 PM EST May 7, 2018 to relocate and to vacate and move the manufactured home,” the letter states.
“We were very sad when I heard that we were being evicted,” Salmeron said.
She and her husband don’t know yet what they will do or where they will go, but she knows options are limited since they are a one-income family – she currently stays at home with their 1-year-old, Emma.
Their home is a modest one. The walls are mostly bare, save some crayon drawings by the children. In the hall, there’s a small wooden box for toys and a single blue drape hanging from the window.
Emma held a small baby doll last week and ran up and down that hallway with familiarity and a smirk that showed she was ready to get into something.
Salmeron said her other son was in school but his anxiety about their situation eats at her.
“He asks, ‘what are we going to do, mom?’” she said. “Are they going to burn down the homes?”
She doesn’t have the answers.
Ana Villagrana looked longingly around her trailer last week and let out a long sigh.
She recalled being pregnant with her second child when they first moved in seven years ago. She and her husband had big dreams for their home – most of which came to fruition.
“Since we came here, we said we wanted to maintain our trailer as much as we could so we could sell it later and buy a house,” she said.
Their home became a labor of love, and it shows.
They put in hardwood floors throughout; they put in new sheet rock and renovated all the rooms in the trailer, including the bathroom and kitchen; they painted and put in new light fixtures. Villagrana’s husband built them a shed and a dog house for their family pup.
They even built a shrine in their living room to the Virgin of Guadalupe, a well-known figure in both the Catholic religion and the Mexican culture, to create a space to pray and be reminded of their blessings.
“I try not to think about it, but it’s very sad – this all feels very unjust that this is happening to us,” Villagrana said. “This is like a hurricane coming through and destroying everything in its wake.”
She and her husband have started looking for a new place, but they will stay at their family home until the very last day, she said. Either way, moving will create a financial hardship for their family that they don’t know how to overcome.
“It’s a lot easier to save when you already have something,” she said. “Now we’re going to have to start all over again.”
Villagrana said her family is united, and while that’s the most important thing for them, her children’s sadness is hard to ignore.
“They are sad because we don’t know what to do with our dog,” she said, adding that a lot of the places they can afford are not pet friendly. “Sometimes they say they’re not going to get to see they’re friends anymore because a lot of them grew up together.”
Those are just two stories from the residents of Johnson’s Mobile Home Park, but there are 60 adults and 50 children who are facing homelessness after Mountaire’s acquisition of the land.
“It’s impacting a lot of people,” said Emilio Vicente, adult leadership and civil engagement program manager for The Hispanic Liaison, a local nonprofit dedicated to fostering intercultural understanding and empowering Hispanic people to overcome their challenges and make their voices heard in the community. “And there is a real shortage of affordable housing,” he continued.
The group has been helping the Johnson’s residents both in their negotiations for just pay from Mountaire and in their requests for housing help from Siler City and Chatham County elected officials.
Vicente says residents have already experienced discrimination and price gouging from landlords in Siler City.
The city gave The Hispanic Liaison a list of “manufactured home parks” for Johnson’s residents to check into for relocation. Policy Watch called all the property managers for the 14 listings from the city. There was one lot available for rent and two mobile homes coming available for rent.
Johnson’s residents paid $210 per month in lot rent. The lot available on the city’s list would also be $210 per month but a trailer has to be from the mid-1990’s or newer and there is also a security deposit required. One mobile home coming available for rental would be $500 to $600 per month and there would be a pet deposit with breed restrictions.
The other mobile home that was available from the city’s list is a three-bedroom, two-bath for $650 per month, but a deposit would be required and based on a credit check. Applicants would be required to provide a Social Security number.
Even if residents found housing that was affordable, moving in general is not cheap – it usually requires security deposits and start-up fees not only for the housing, but also for utilities (electric, trash, water, etc.) and for pets. Families will have to move their furniture and make sure their mail and bills are forwarded to the right place. Their children may have to move schools.
And while Johnson’s residents take on all the new costs associated with moving, they are also losing the roughly $10,000 investment they made in their mobile homes – most of which cannot be moved, according to Vicente.
Mountaire initially offered residents $5,000 in rent abatement but Vicente said it’s not enough. Negotiations for more money are ongoing and, while a specific number per family has not been disclosed, some people indicated at the Chatham County Commissioner’s meeting last week that they would be willing to accept $8,300.
Mountaire has been allowing residents to live rent-free since they were notified of their impending eviction. They’ve also agreed to extend the May 7 move-out date to the end of July.
“We’re hoping the company will come to the table and will offer what’s just and fair,” Vicente said. “I think there are some good signs.”
Mountaire did not return a request for comment. The company’s website states that it is dedicated to being “good stewards of all the assets God has entrusted to us.”
The company purchased a former processing plant in Siler City in 2016 and began work to renovate and update the facility into a modern, state-of-the-art food plant, according to its website. It hasn’t yet announced what its plans are for the mobile home park, but Vicente said he heard it might be used to build a health facility.
Vicente said they haven’t yet heard from Siler City or Chatham County officials on how they will help; residents specifically asked for them to enforce housing regulations barring discrimination. Notably, the two governments gave Mountaire more than $2 million in tax breaks and incentives to bring its business to the area.
Vicente said residents also asked county commissioners to reconsider those tax incentives and to think about the full impact of their decisions.
“They were receptive,” he said. “I think they understood.”
Siler City Town Attorney William Morgan said Monday that its Board of Commissioners were sympathetic to the residents’ plights and have been discussing ways to help.
One of the things they have considered is changing an ordinance that prohibits the relocation of mobile homes older than 1976. If that were to occur, some families might be able to keep their homes.
Morgan said the town never knew about the Johnson’s residents when it was offering Mountaire economic incentives, approving permits and signing contracts.
“The town may have been in a better position to have more influence,” he said, adding that now it’s become more of a private property issue because the sale had already gone through.
The board’s next meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Monday, April 2.
“The town board members are very concerned about it and they’re exploring things that they can do to help now,” Morgan said.
Salmeron and Villagrana agreed that in a perfect world, they would be able to keep their homes, but they’ve accepted that is not possible. Now, they hope for time and financial help to get their families through this next hardship.
“We would like for Mountaire to compensate us with something that is fair, that they feel it in their heart to do the right thing,” Villagrana said.
Vicente said he has been inspired seeing everyone fight for their rights and their dignity. Without making their voices heard, no one in the community would know what was happening to them, he said.
“I think they’re winning, and that’s been inspiring overall,” he added.