Arizona trailer park fights Christian university over forced eviction
PHOENIX (CN) — A man stood on the porch in front of a beige mobile home. He wore a thick green jacket and gray cotton shorts, his legs shivering in the chilly wind.
“I’m 84 years old,” Gerry Suter said. “I take 13 different pills just to stay alive. If I’m out on the street, I won’t stay alive.
“I’m sure hoping God calls me before May, because I’m not gonna die on the fucking street like a piece of trash,” he growled, crying as he chokes out the words.
A large, multicolored apartment building looms in the background. Two more are going up across the street. Bright blue ribbons mark palm trees lining the driveway between properties in Periwinkle Mobile Home Park. Suter said those are the trees that “they” will be cutting down.
An hour later, Alondra Ruiz Vazquez parked her blue sedan in the mobile home across from his and walked over. She wore a pink sweatsuit and a dark jacket over it.
“Hi Gerry,” she said. “How are you?”
He told her about his doctor’s appointment the next day, and she offered to drive. She went back to her home and returned with a blanket which she wrapped around Suter’s legs. They stopped shivering.
“This is community,” Ruiz Vazquez said.
On May 28, that community may no longer exist.
Need for student housing
The apartment buildings across the street from Periwinkle belong to Grand Canyon University, the largest Christian university in the nation. Soon the university will use the land on the corner of Colter Street and 27th Avenue for another apartment.
The university bought the land for $3.4 million in 2016, intending to use it for future campus expansion. But residents of the 4.7-acre, 61-space mobile home park say they weren’t officially told they’d have to leave until last year.
Jamie, who’s lived in Periwinkle with her boyfriend for 10 years, said they first learned they’d have to move on June 1, 2022, when GCU lawyers met with residents to tell them to be out by October. Others said they received eviction letters in May.
“They could have told us multiple times,” she said. “They just refused to.” Jamie declined to give her last name.
The October exodus was postponed to the end of May so children could finish the school year. But for the low-income families living there, the extra few months haven’t made things easier.
“It’s not a good situation,” Jamie said. “I make about $1,000 off Social Security and that’s not enough to live on. I don’t have a place to go.”
Periwinkle residents pay between $300 and $500 in rent. Since GCU hasn’t raised the rent since its 2016 purchase, most other low-income housing no longer compares to Periwinkle’s prices. The most affordable in the area range from $550 to $800 per month, said Michael Trailor, president and CEO of the Arizona-based nonprofit mortgage banker Trellis.
Suter has lived in Periwinkle for 29 years.
“I figured it’d be the last place in my life that I live, and they tell me I just gotta get the hell out,” the Air Force veteran said. “I don’t matter to them or anybody else.”
He said he’s tried to find other mobile home parks in Phoenix but hasn’t found an open spot — only spots with existing mobile homes, which he can’t afford. And even if there are spots available, Suter’s mobile home, like many in the park, is too old to be moved. Mobile homes built before 1976 don’t meet certain safety standards needed to transport them.
“Even if I could have this moved, I gotta pay for another awning, because they won’t move that,” he said. “I gotta pay for the skirting because they won’t take that. I make $1,400 a month. How am I gonna pay for all that stuff?”
Suter said some residents have already left. Those remaining are fighting back with the help of Community Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm.
The Phoenix City Council approved a $300,000 contract with the firm in early January to provide legal advice to residents of Periwinkle and two other mobile home parks facing similar situations. Attorneys met with Periwinkle residents on Feb. 15 to discuss their options.
Attorney Pam Bridges says she’s been “in discussions” with GCU’s attorneys, but a lawsuit hasn’t yet been filed.
Periwinkle residents say GCU has left them with nowhere to go, but a university spokesperson insisted the university has done all it can to help people relocate.
“None of GCU’s efforts are legally required and developers that are closing other mobile home parks in Phoenix are not offering any such assistance,” spokesperson Bob Romantic said in an email.
This past September, GCU announced residents who stayed beyond Jan. 1 wouldn't have to pay rent through May 28. The university also offered $400 to residents for each month prior to that date that they vacate their space. All residents can receive $5,000 for incidentals if they choose to relocate their mobile home and $5,000 worth of new furniture and household goods for the move.
The state of Arizona offers up to $7,500 to relocate a single-wide mobile home and $12,500 for a double-wide — but only if the mobile homes are new and structurally sound enough to be moved.
Suter said four months of free rent won’t save him.
“That’s $2,000. Whoop-dee-do. This bike cost $3,000,” he said, pointing to his only mode of transportation. “So what the hell am I gonna get for $2,000?”
The $5,000 for new furniture doesn’t entice him either.
“We have furniture,” he said. “These aren’t empty mobile homes.”
Arizona will offer $1,875 to residents who abandon single-wide mobile homes. Suter said his mobile home’s awning alone cost $3,000, so the incentive wouldn't begin to cover his entire property.
Jamie said the help offered doesn’t matter because there was little time to accept it.
“If they would have done it right and told us heads up a couple years ago, we could have been gone a long time ago,” she said.
Aside from direct financial assistance, GCU is connecting people with Trellis — a federally funded nonprofit providing financial support, homeownership counseling and training — to help find affordable housing solutions. Its president and CEO Michael Trailor said Trellis has successfully moved nine families and is working to relocate 12 more. The company has “made contact” with 11 others but Trailor said the remaining residents either refused to engage with Trellis or refused help.
He said some residents’ refusal is due to misinformation; some believe that GCU and Trellis are no longer working together and that GCU will give $20,000 to those who stay until May 28.
“Both of these statements are false,” Trailor said.
Trellis recently opened an apartment complex in the neighborhood of Sunnyslope, about seven miles northwest of Periwinkle, that has a few apartments available to people who make between 40% and 60% of the area’s median income. No residents have applied, though, Trailor said.
“The struggle has been determining how best to get the residents to engage with Trellis, so that we can help them to benefit from some of the options that are currently available,” he said.
Ruiz Vazquez, who’s lived in Periwinkle for nine years with her husband and dogs, said she’s encouraged people to accept Trellis’ help when it works for them, but it’s not as easy as it seems. She said one former resident had to bid against six other people for a home.
Suter said Trellis representatives showed him a few mobile home parks, but each was either too expensive or too far away from services he uses, like the Veterans Affairs building, his barber and his doctor.
“It’s not a fact of whether we have to move or not,” Ruiz Vazquez said. “It’s destroying our community. It’s destroying who we are.”
Suter said of the 50 homes occupied last year, about 37 remain so.
“There’s a story to each home,” Ruiz Vazquez said, rattling off the names of mothers, fathers and children.
She stood just feet from a van marked “North Phoenix Christian Soccer Club” as she spoke. She and her husband coach the youth team primarily made up of refugees from more than 30 countries. They aim to provide a low- to no-cost opportunity to play soccer while refugees transition into life in the U.S. Ruiz Vazquez moved to the park to be closer to the players, and she’s opened her home to players in need of a place to stay.
“You need to know the people’s stories and who you’re kicking out,” she said.
Unless Community Legal Services files a lawsuit, there may not be many options left for the people of Periwinkle Park.
Residents demanded action from Phoenix City Council’s community and cultural investment subcommittee on Feb. 1. The subcommittee will meet again on March 6 to address their concerns, but it may not be in the way the people want.
Ruiz Vazquez said she hopes Phoenix can alter zoning laws to stop GCU from developing apartments in the area.
“The city gives out permits to construct,” she said. “We’re pressuring them to stop giving out permits.”
But Kristin Couturier, a senior public information officer the city, said the focus is instead on connecting them with housing services.
“Multiple city departments outlined various programs for which residents might be eligible including rental assistance, case management, and emergency housing vouchers,” she said.
Until action is taken, the people of Periwinkle can only wait. And if they wait until the last minute, Trailor said they’ll be asked to leave “in accordance with the law.”
Suter may be ready for that.
“There’s only two ways they’re gonna take me out of here,” he said. “Either in handcuffs or a body bag.”