After years of uncertainty, Forest View residents relocate
Forest View residents were forced to vacate the mobile home park at the end of 2022, ending years of uncertainty and moving residents out of the rapidly deteriorating park.
February 26, 2023
Once a flourishing, tight-knit community home to nearly 100 families, Forest View Mobile Home Park in Iowa City has been reduced to rubble.
The park where low-income individuals and immigrants from Latin America once lived had been deteriorating for years amid uncertainty over plans to redevelop the park. Demolitions of the mobile homes started late last year as the City of Iowa City looked to enact a plan to redevelop the land for the second time in four years.
Homeowners, who anticipated much swifter progress on the redevelopment of the land and endured years of uncertainty, were told to move out of the park before the end of 2022.
The Daily Iowan visited the park last week, where few signs of any past life still existed. The park’s future remains uncertain after plans to redevelop the land into commercial space and move residents to nearby affordable housing fell through.
When the city council made an agreement with a private developer in 2019, 85 households occupied the park. That number fell to 59 by March 2022, according to Iowa City City Manager Geoff Fruin.
Piles of rubble littered the snow-covered ground. Inside the plots of gravel where homes used to stand, many children’s toys hung. A small soccer ball from the 2010 World Cup was popped; a blue tricycle rested upside down in the snow.
Hundreds of cars whizzed by on nearby Interstate 80, interrupting the silence. The ramp from the eastbound side of the interstate onto Dubuque Street provided a small window for cars to look over the empty plot of land once occupied by park residents.
A large orange excavator sat beside a scrap truck at the south end of the park in front of the abandoned rental office.
The playground, one of the few remaining structures, sat silent. The swingset wobbled back and forth in the winter wind.
A few hundred feet away, in the southwest corner of the park, a large pile of sheet metal loomed over the park’s remains. A smashed car sat beside it, recognizable but ultimately destroyed — much like the park it occupies.
Problems after the park
The City of Iowa City kept track of where residents relocated to after they left Forest View, but only on a very basic level, Cassandra Gripp, City of Iowa City grant specialist, told the DI in December 2022. Of the 47 residents who vacated since the city council’s resolution in April 2022, Gripp said 41 left Iowa City but remained in Johnson County and 26 relocated within the city limits.
Gripp was in charge of distributing the city’s relocation assistance to residents. The council decided last year to provide financial support totaling $15,750 with American Rescue Plan Act COVID-19 relief funds to any resident who occupied the park following the city’s signing of the 2019 Conditional Zoning Agreement.
“The city and the Center for Worker Justice have worked closely to ensure residents of Forest View are relocated as quickly as possible throughout this year,” Gripp said. “We asked residents to indicate a change of address, but otherwise, the money is theirs to do with as they please.”
Many residents have children who go to school in the area, so the Iowa City Community School District allowed Forest View residents who were relocating to keep their children in the same schools for this school year. The district’s decision was an attempt to ease one of the many burdens that those relocating families in Forest View may have faced, Gripp said.
For many residents, the relocation process was costly, Mazahir Salih, executive director of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, said.
Salih was involved both with residents and as a former member of the Iowa City City Council during the process of the park’s proposed redevelopment.
The stark difference in rental costs throughout Iowa City compared to the price of living in the park was difficult for residents as they left Forest View, Salih said.
“Can you find a $310 one-bedroom apartment in Iowa City? No,” Salih said.
The average household in the park consists of three people, Salih said, so even a one-bedroom apartment might not be enough to house a family that left Forest View.
Other residents have moved or are looking to move to other mobile home parks in Johnson County but have been forced to live with multiple households to share the cost of living.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates Johnson County’s Fair Market Rent, the price to rent a moderately-priced unit in a particular county, at $922 for a one-bedroom unit and $1,127 for a two-bedroom unit.
For a three-bedroom unit, the Fair Market Rent is $1,602 — the highest of any county in the state, according to RentData — a site that aggregates HUD’s rental cost data.
Past Forest View plans fail
When the city signed the 2019 zoning agreement, residents were given hope. The condition of the park had begun to slowly deteriorate since discussions of the park’s redevelopment began in 2016, and residents were eager for change.
City documents from 2019 outline the city’s plan, in agreement with the developer, Blackbird, to provide Forest View residents with affordable housing before any building permit would be issued for the land.
Salih told the DI the developer and the tenants had agreed to build housing for residents on the west end of the park that would become rent-to-own property over the course of 15 years and would maintain the same price as rent in the park, which she said was $310 at the time and increasing 3 percent per year.
The agreement suggested that the east end of the park would be developed into commercial spaces.
In March 2019, residents of the park went to the Iowa City City Council in support of the redevelopment plans.
Margarita Baltazar, president of the Forest View Tenants Association, told the council that after months of conversations and meetings with the developer, residents were happy that the land their homes occupied would be redeveloped.
“[Baltazar] does go to sleep and wonder what is going to happen to her home, how much time will she have here, will it fall down, what is she to do with her children?” the March 7, 2019 city council info packet reads. “Her child and the children of Forest View are the same children like any other place and they deserve a dignified home.”
The developer initially proposed moving the mobile home units to the west end of the park before settling on the rent-to-own proposal in newly-built housing that both parties were happy with.
“If this project would have happened, it [would] be amazing,” Salih said. “I think it was just too good to be true.”
But less than a year after the park’s zoning agreement was signed, COVID-19 emerged. It had a marked impact on residents, Salih said, with many of them losing out on income or losing their jobs.
Salih and statements from city staff recall that the impact of COVID-19 meant that Blackbird could not fund the project as they had planned.
Salih remembers one encounter between a representative from Blackbird and Forest View residents in early 2020 where the representative assured residents that they would be able to move into the proposed affordable housing on the west end of the park by spring 2021.
As summer 2020 rolled around, the condition of the homes in the park continued to slowly deteriorate as the pandemic affected the finances of many residents who were hesitant to keep up with needed repairs on their homes.
Salih said this was because the promised development was coming, and residents of the park, most of whom were part of low-income households, didn’t want to spend money to repair their homes when they figured they wouldn’t be living in them for much longer.
In August 2020, the Midwest was slammed by the derecho, and the residents of Forest View suffered greatly because of it, Salih said.
Volunteers came from the Iowa City community to fix residents’ roofs and provide patchwork repairs after the storm and into the winter months, including people from the local Habitat For Humanity. But nothing substantial was done in the end to fix residents’ homes.
Their homes weren’t the only thing in disrepair, either. Key utilities in the park were also suffering from the promise of new development.
“[For] I think six years, no one is keeping up with the sewer,” Salih said. “They’re not keeping up with the park at all. The streets are terrible, the sewer is terrible.”
City of Iowa City steps in
By September 2021, with the park only continuing to deteriorate, City of Iowa City staff recommended that Forest View relocation be taken into consideration as a priority target for use of the city’s $18.3 million in COVID-19 relief funds.
City staff and councilors decided in early 2022 it was best to take action and assist residents of the park with relocation rather than allow them to continue to live in the poor conditions in the park.
“We’ve seen that dual disinvestment,” Fruin told the Iowa City City Council at its March 22, 2022, work session. “Nobody’s investing in those individual units, the owners aren’t investing in the park, and as a result, we’re seeing that accelerated deterioration.”
The council decided in April 2022 to provide financial support totaling $15,750 with COVID-19 relief funding to any resident who occupied the park following the city’s signing of the 2019 zoning agreement.
Explore the Forest View Mobile Home Park, as captured by Google Street View in October 2021.
The support was aimed at helping the low-income residents of Forest View leave the park while covering the large difference in rent costs between the park and other rental areas in the city. Salih said residents also used the money to cover moving costs and deposits for rent at their new residence.
“Without the assistance, people would have been stuck,” Salih said. “But it’s not going to help them in the long term. It will only help them for a short time, and the money will [run] out.”
Residents received half of the money in May 2022, while the remaining half was given to residents once they left the park, no later than Dec. 9, 2022. More than 75 households who used to call the park home received assistance.
The City of Iowa City used $1.1 million of its American Rescue Plan Act grant on relocation costs.
Former Iowa City City Councilor and current state Senator Janice Weiner, D-45, told the DI in December 2022 that the council’s goal in providing the financial assistance was to bring residents some certainty and ability to move on from the park.
Weiner, who was born in Coralville, recalls visiting friends in the park when it was in “great condition” but notes that those memories are from long ago.
She recalls the park being in poor condition in 2016 when she visited as a part of Democrats’ door-knocking campaigns in the state.
“It was clearly not a viable living situation anymore,” Weiner said.
Community assistance came to help residents of Forest View winter-proof their housing in 2020 and 2021, Weiner said, but these Band-Aids were not enough to facilitate a safe living environment.
Weiner praised the Forest View residents for uniting to bring their issues to the council’s attention and said the park’s residents had clearly developed a close-knit community keen on helping and advocating for one another.
“I give huge credit to the residents of Forest View, current and former residents, for organizing and learning how to advocate for themselves,” Weiner said. “People deserve decent housing, and they shouldn’t be forced to live in substandard conditions.”
Weiner said the residents’ unity and community helped them push through a challenging situation once it became clear that the 2019 agreement would not hold up.
“They weathered really serious storms,” Weiner said. “I mean, when you think you’re gonna get brand new housing [and] the bottom falls out, to have to regroup and figure out what you’re going to do from there really shows what a well-organized community they have become.”