Tenants of an RV park in Ilwaco, Washington, north of Astoria, say they have faced threats of eviction after the sale of the RV park to a new owner this spring. The tenants are largely low-income and represent some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. If tenants are forced to leave, the options for some may be limited. Katie Frankowicz, news director at KMUN in Astoria, joins us to share her reporting on this story.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. A few weeks ago, the city council in Ilwaco, Washington, on the Long Beach Peninsula, met to talk about declaring a housing emergency. They are obviously not alone, a lack of affordable housing or workforce housing has led cities up and down the west coast to make similar declarations. But there was a dark irony in Ilwaco’s situation, because even while city leaders were considering their declaration, local residents of an RV park say they could be forced out of their affordable homes with no other obvious options available. Katie Frankowicz has been reporting on this as the news director for the radio station KMUN in Astoria, and she joined us recently to talk about it. I asked her how many people currently live in the RV park.
Katie Frankowicz: So the numbers kind of vary. There are 60 sites essentially for RVs to be at. So at the very basic level you’re talking 60 people. But in most of these RVs, you have multiple people living in them. I shouldn’t say most … many of these RVs, you have multiple people living in them. So some estimates I’ve heard is that there could have been as many as 100 people living in that park at any given time. You know, it ranges in terms of how many people are there, year to year, versus maybe just a couple of months. It can really vary a lot, but anywhere between 40 and 100 people.
Miller: How big is Ilwaco, itself?
Frankowicz: Ilwaco hovers around 1,000. It’s up a little bit right now after the last census, but I mean if you’re comparing it with the RV arpk, that’s potentially 10% of the population that’s down at this RV park and 10% of the city’s most vulnerable population.
Miller: So I’m curious about that last part, the most vulnerable population. Can you give us a sense for who has been living at this RV park?
Frankowicz: So the RV park has had a couple different lives. It’s intended to be a short term stay. So, you know, fishermen would come down for recreational seasons, but if you’re talking about long term stays or people who have been living there more recently in the last several years, it’s people on very low or fixed incomes. There’s a lot of elderly people who live there. There’s people with disabilities. There’s veterans. There are some families that have lived there from time to time and have even raised families there. So a pretty wide swath of people, but primarily people with very little means.
Miller: One of the issues that makes this unusual is that the RV park had long been owned by the current mayor, three-term Mayor Mike Cassinelli. Who did he sell it to?
Frankowicz: He sold it to Michael and Denise Werner. They own a couple different companies, but the company that they were representing in this case was Deer Point Meadows Investments LLC, and they own and operate a number of RV and mobile home type properties in the pacific northwest region.
Miller: What have you been able to learn about the new owners and their businesses?
Frankowicz: So they did not seem interested in talking to me. I never heard back from them after multiple attempts. But they have a reputation in the region. They’ve had a number of complaints and accusations levied against them about rent hikes, unlawful eviction proceedings, harassment of tenants, and then in this case, the Beacon RV, there have been a number of consumer complaints filed with the attorney general’s office.
Miller: You had reported back in February, even before the new owners, the Werners, officially took control, they sent notices to residents to vacate the property. What did they tell people?
Frankowicz: They told people that they had 30 days to leave, essentially. And this notice was signed, just ‘the management.’ So at first it wasn’t clear who it was coming from, whether it was coming from Mike Cassinelli, who still technically owned the property…
Miller: …and was technically the management…,
Frankowicz: … and technically was the management. So this gets the attention of the county because they had people down there who had received rental assistance money, and with that money comes certain stipulations which is that the landowner can’t make you leave suddenly. Like you have, I can’t remember the exact time period, but you have a chunk of time where you’re kind of protected. So the county got involved and then the attorney general’s office got involved and it kind of came out that Mike Cassinelli hadn’t signed this notice that it was coming from the Werners who, as you noted, were not yet the owners.
Miller: Okay. What did that mean in terms of the potential enforcement of that order, and what the county or the state said?
Frankowicz: Well, I mean … more if you’re talking from a legal side of things, the tenant’s lawyer to him it’s just a piece of paper that got sent around. It means nothing. It has no standing as an eviction process that has to go through the courts. So the way that the tenants see it is, you know, this is an attempt to intimidate them. There’s also a question of what it means with the port’s lease that was negotiated with the Werners. In that lease the port put in a stipulation that the Werners, once they took ownership and started operating the park on a short term basis, they couldn’t make people leave for up to six months or whatever the state required. And state law requires a lot more time. The state requires more time for tenants. So, the legal standing of it is questionable, basically.
Miller: But that was back in February, before the Werners had actually taken control of the business and of the lease. What happened after they finally did take control? What did they do?
Frankowicz: After they took control, there were a series of incidents. One of the more dramatic ones was when some representatives from the Werners came to the park with the intent to remove property. The police got called for that because one of the men was carrying a gun and it really scared a lot of people at the park. Those representatives were told that they could not remove property without a court order. Since then, tenants have said representatives have returned to the park, and in some cases they say these men have just walked right into their trailers. And then there was also a notice that went up that the park was unsafe, that they’re going to be all these improvements and utilities we’re going to be turned off. The attorney general’s office got involved in that as well, and the utilities are still on, but things like a communal shower and bathroom have kind of fallen into disrepair. There’s no garbage service. There’s just kind of a big commercial dumpster that people have to dump their garbage into. So the actual livability of the park, from the tenant’s perspective, has really gone downhill and it feels again to them like a way to force them out.
Miller: In other words, not doing standard maintenance or providing standard services as a way to make life miserable for them and to make them more likely to leave?
Frankowicz: Correct. There have been some tenants who have since been offered, essentially, buyouts. The Werners have offered them money to move, and that’s been a more recent development. Not everyone’s taken it. Some people feel like they don’t have a choice and have taken it.
Miller: There are some overlapping jurisdictions here, it seems, which is a really complicated situation. Can you give us a sense for the different levels of government that are involved?
Frankowicz: Sure. And I think one thing that’s interesting about that is there’s all these levels involved, none of them have a clear road in terms of moving forward on the situation. There’s not one group that can kind of come in and decide things, it seems. So you have the port that owns the land, and it holds this lease that has various stipulations in it and agreements that the Werners have committed to. The RV park tenants claim that the Werners had violated the conditions of this lease and it should be revoked. The port is looking at the situation and as far as I know, they haven’t investigated these claims yet to see if there’s anything behind them, or if they have any responsibility. They are looking at and saying, ‘hey, this looks like more of a’ … If there’s eviction proceedings, that’s like a state or a county level ... if there’s health code violations, maybe that’s a county issue. The state, I’m still waiting to hear back on some of the more recent stuff with the state. But they’ve been involved a couple different times now, obviously. And then the county is generally concerned from the housing level, but really they’re only direct involvement at this point is the tenants who had rental assistance.
Miller: So, it does seem like all these different entities are looking to the others to do something.
Frankowicz: Yeah. And then the entity I didn’t mention of course is the City of Ilwaco where you have Mike Cassinelli, who is the mayor and the former owner. For him, it’s a tricky situation where he no longer owns the park and kind of has to recuse himself from a lot of … or potentially would have to recuse himself … from things that have to do with the park. Yet, he’s the Mayor of this town and these are his citizens.
Miller: Has he said anything about what his former tenants are saying about what they’re dealing with right now?
Frankowicz: Yeah. He has said to me that he doesn’t think that they deserve to be treated that way, but he also ‘is out of it,’ were his words. He’s not a part of it anymore.
Miller: What’s the broader context for this housing right now, this sort of naturally occurring affordable housing, in terms of the larger housing picture in Ilwaco right now?
Frankowicz: Yeah. So, like many communities in our area, but then, think nationwide, at this point, there’s a real lack of affordable housing that’s capital ‘A’ affordable housing, partially subsidized, and then there’s a lack of just general workforce housing, housing that an average worker in the community can afford. So Pacific County, you have a tourism based economy primarily. And this RV housing was maybe not an ideal way to fill a gap, but it filled a really important gap. The county was telling me that they, I mean there’s a wait list for any housing available right now, any sort of lower income affordable housing, there’s major wait lists. And in general, people, they see a lot of people who are paying, you know, about 50% of their income on housing alone. The school district has had trouble hiring teachers because people can’t find places to live. It’s pretty dire in terms of housing out there, there’s not a lot of wiggle room for people.
Miller: And so if, say in the coming weeks or months, anywhere from 60 to 100 people were forced out of this particular RV park, it’s not clear where they would go?
Frankowicz: No. And one of the things that complicates that beyond just financial concerns and housing availability is the fact that a lot of these RVs that they’re living in are older, so you run into issues of other RV parks accepting them. Or even can the RVs even run? Can you even move them? So there’s sort of like, I guess, an infrastructure issue that some of these tenants will need to consider if they have to move. Does the house come with them? It may not.
Miller: Katie Frankowicz, thanks very much.
Frankowicz: Thank you.
Miller: Katie Frankowicz is the news director for the radio station KMUN in Astoria. We spoke a few days ago.
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