The western edge of the Ponderosa mobile home park is slated for a Habitat for Humanity affordable housing development. Credit: John Herrick

Kathy Schlereth, 67, who lives in the Ponderosa mobile home park in North Boulder, stood watching a backhoe claw out the foundation for a proposed triplex across her street. She’s used to watching hang gliders soar above the mountains from this vantage, not the churn of construction machinery. 

“I’m still not happy about them building houses right next to me and blocking off what’s left of my mountain view,” Schlereth told the Boulder Reporting Lab. “But, you know, what can you do?” 

The construction, which began in May, marks a milestone in a city-backed redevelopment project for the mobile home park that has been decades in the making. The project has drawn support from residents who see it as a needed investment in the community, and concern from others wary of the city’s intentions amid fears of being priced out.

For residents in the park, which was first settled in the 1950s, views of open space have long been replaced by multi-story homes, as demand for housing drove development north. Since the 1990s, the city had been trying to purchase the park in order to prevent it from being sold to developers likely to raze the properties for more profitable real estate.

It finally purchased the park in 2017, and has since used federal grant money to invest more than $3 million to replace water and sewer lines, install internet cables, upgrade gas lines and convert dirt roads to blacktop. Prior to the city’s purchase, officials documented fire code violations, leaking water lines, drinking water quality violations, and sewer system backups. 

The city is now seeking to replace the park’s approximate 48 mobile homes, one by one, with carriage houses atop garages, along with single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes built by Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that runs a volunteer-led home construction program. 

The new homes will be deed-restricted as affordable. And the city has said the new construction is for Ponderosa residents — but that anyone who wants to stay in their own mobile homes can. In order to be eligible for the new homes, the city has told residents they will have to volunteer in building them or accumulate “sweat equity” hours participating in other ways.  

What makes the program different from others in Boulder is the financing. To help residents afford the new homes, the city is planning to front more than $3 million to pay for zero-interest loans aimed at helping residents cover their mortgage. This financial assistance model, never before tested in Boulder, could end up being expanded across the city to address the housing crisis, according to Kurt Firnhaber, the director of Boulder Housing and Human Services. 

“In most communities like this, the first thing that happens is a bulldozer shows up and it clears the whole site,” Firnhaber told the Boulder Reporting Lab. “[Our] approach is unique because we started with the people — not the bulldozers.” 

But whether the city can keep the Ponderosa residents there and avoid long-term gentrification will be a tall task. 

City officials, architects, developers and residents gathered for the groundbreaking of a Habitat for Humanity and City of Boulder housing project at the western edge of the Ponderosa mobile home park on May 12, 2022. Credit: John Herrick

‘Everyone would be able to move into a Habitat home’

Complicating the city’s plan is that the new Habitat for Humanity homes are being built at a price point most Ponderosa residents cannot afford.

The mobile homes, nearly all of which are owner-occupied, are among the most affordable properties in the City of Boulder. They’re also increasingly rare. And most of the residents fall into the federal government’s definition of “extremely low-income,” earning less than $26,000, according to surveys conducted by CU Boulder researchers. 

By contrast, most of the new homes will be deed-restricted to sell at a price for families earning 60% the area median income (AMI) — about $53,000 for an individual. That’s with only spending 30% of their income on mortgage payments. (People who spend more than 30% of their income on housing are considered to be “cost-burdened,” according to the federal government’s definition of affordable housing.) 

The city has told residents the homes built at the 60% AMI price point will generally cost between $111,300 to $201,8000, depending on the square footage. Rather than own the land outright, residents who buy homes will be part of a common interest community and pay into a homeowners association much like a resident who lives in a condominium. 

How it will work in practice 

The city is purchasing residents’ mobile homes for about $28,000 on average, according to officials. It plans to spend about $3 million from its Affordable Housing Fund to help cover the cost of mortgages for interested residents so they pay only 30% of their income on the home. 

“One of the commitments we made at the beginning was that everyone would be able to move into a Habitat home,” Firnhaber said. “Then we started looking at all the incomes. That’s why we had to put some pretty extraordinary things in place.” 

Residents would still have to obtain an initial mortgage from a private lender. But Boulder would pay a bank to provide a second mortgage to fill the gap between what residents can pay and what the Habitat homes cost. The residents wouldn’t have to pay back the zero-interest loan until after 30 years, or when they sell their homes. 

They would only earn appreciation for their share of the investment, while the city would earn appreciation for its share. 

‘Minimal displacement’ 

The program has received mixed reception among members of the Ponderosa community. 

Carlos Valdez, a Ponderosa resident, stood beside city officials in early May with a shovel in hand to celebrate the groundbreaking for the project. 

“We’re in the second phase of construction and there are going to be more challenges,” Valdez said in Spanish. “But it will be for the benefit of our community.” 

Other residents worry the new housing will cost too much and is a sign market forces will push them out. Many have voiced this concern to the Boulder City Council, which passed a resolution in 2017 stating the city is committed to “minimal displacement.”

Since the city purchased the property, at least three people have been relocated to make way for the construction of a rain garden to mitigate flooding. (Most of the homes in the park sit in a 100-year flood zone.) Some have been relocated to other homes in the park. One is planning to move into the triplex currently under construction. 

Others have sold their homes since the city purchased the park and rezoned it as a medium-density residential neighborhood. According to a March 2016 annexation study, there were 68 mobile homes in the park and “187 deeply rooted community residents.” As of May 2022, there are 48 occupied homes. 

The city is not signing new leases for new residents to live in the mobile homes. Instead, it is purchasing them — often bringing them to the landfill, according to Firnharber — and replacing them with the Habitat homes. According to city officials, it has purchased 18 homes. 

Firnhaber said if the homes are not under contract by the time of construction, they will be listed on its website and available to any city residents who qualify under its affordable housing program. 

Despite getting first rights, Schlereth, the secretary of Ponderosa’s homeowners’ association, said some residents won’t be able to get a first loan to pay for the mortgage. She said some residents have bad credit. Others, she said, don’t have legal documentation to live in the U.S. and cannot get a loan from a bank. 

Firnhaber said residents with bad credit scores — or no credit —  should schedule a time to speak with Habitat for Humanity’s financial advisors about how to improve their credit. And he said undocumented residents who have children over the age of 18 maybe be able to have their child take out the loan. 

Even so, some residents simply don’t want a new home. Some have lost trust over the past few years as they have dealt with the impacts of construction, Schlereth said. She said she lost water for 10 days and her neighbors’ yards are still damaged. 

Residents are also waiting to replace a wishing well memorial to all the residents who have died in Ponderosa. The memorial was dug up to make way for a rain garden. Schlereth said the wishing well remains outside the central office at the park waiting for a new location. 

“We’ve lost two community members since it moved. So we’ll have a little gathering and put some new plaques up whenever we get it back together,” she said. 

Schlereth said the residents recently received permission from the city to relocate the wishing well to an empty lot inside the park. She said the residents first have to move a pile of gravel and plant flowers. 

“It’s temporary,” she said. “We don’t get anything permanent. Which in some ways is kind of typical.”

John Herrick

John Herrick reports on housing, climate, health and local government for Boulder Reporting Lab. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness.