Residents of Maples Mobile Home Park were surprised to hear loud roars and rumbles Monday morning outside their homes on Eau Claire’s north side.
A glance out their windows or a short walk through the trailer park revealed demolition equipment tearing down one of the park’s 46 units, one crushing mechanized blow at a time.
By mid-afternoon three trailers had been torn down after city officials had ordered their destruction because the homes at 1611 Western Ave. were deemed no longer safe for humans to live in. As the third unit was razed, a small bulldozer smoothed the site of another that had been demolished.
Some of the people who call the Maples trailer park home walked by periodically to survey the work. A few shook their heads and grimaced.
“You look at this and you can’t help but think they’re going to shut us down,” trailer park resident Teresa Snook said as workers continued to tear down one trailer nearby. “I worry that pretty soon we’ll all be out of a home. This seems like the beginning of the end.”
City officials announced this summer their concern about subpar living conditions at Maples that endanger health and safety. The trailer park dates at least as far back as the 1960s and most homes there are in significant disrepair.
Several who live there said Monday they are afraid the city will close Maples, forcing out people who can’t afford to live elsewhere. Emily Shields, a mother of three young children who has lived at Maples for nearly two years, said the shutdown of the trailer park would leave most who live there homeless.
“I would have nowhere else to go, and that is the situation for most who live here,” she said, noting many who reside at Maples have children. “What happens to all of us if they close this place down?”
Shields criticized the city’s lack of communication regarding Maples, saying she and others were not notified of Monday’s trailer home demolitions. “We didn’t know this was going to happen,” she said.
Many others who live at Maples said they are afraid to talk publicly about their concerns regarding their homes because they fear the city will target them for speaking out. “One of my neighbors let the inspector in, and the next thing you know they’re saying she can’t live there anymore,” one trailer park resident said.
Deputy city attorney Doug Hoffer said the city notified the trailer park’s management and affected homeowners about Monday’s demolitions but did not alert others who live there. The city plans to send a letter to Maples residents updating them about matters there, he said, and a meeting is planned today between those who live at the trailer park and city officials.
“I understand (Maples residents’) desire to have more information, and we are looking at ways to get information out to the entire park,” Hoffer said.
Maples residents said they pay $366 monthly to live at the trailer park. Nearly all residents there own their trailers and they, not the park’s owner, Reid Woith of Western Springs, Ill., are responsible for the upkeep of those homes.
The problem, many of those who live at the park said, is they don’t have the money to make those repairs. Further complicating the matter is the fact the state building code doesn’t allow for repairs to the trailers at Maples.
“Those homes were never meant to be lived in this long,” Hoffer said. “They were never meant to have these kinds of repairs made to them that are needed.”
‘No easy answers’
City inspectors and those with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department have examined some Maples properties in recent months, and problems at several units prompted the demolition orders carried out Monday. Inspections have revealed a long list of housing code violations at trailers, ranging from broken doors and windows to leaky roofs to mold to leaking and improperly installed sewage pipes.
“We find a list of problems at every place inspected,” Hoffer said. “As we conduct more inspections, we expect we will continue to find more problems.”
Some of those living at Maples acknowledged the poor condition of homes there but said living in run-down trailers is better than being homeless. Count Sheilds among them. After leaving an abusive relationship and with no money or credit to her name, she said she had little choice but to reside at Maples when she found a trailer there nearly two years ago.
“It is definitely not my first choice,” Shields said of living at Maples. “It’s not where I want to raise my family. But at this point in time, it’s what I can afford.”
Displacing those who live at Maples would exacerbate an existing shortage of affordable housing, said Susan Wolfgram, co-chairwoman of Joining Our Neighbors Advancing Hope (JONAH) an affordable housing task force. Eau Claire agencies that assist homeless people report more clients than they can serve.
Those living at Maples are fearful about inspections because they believe city officials want to shut down their homes, she said. Finding a solution to the “complicated” housing situation at Maples will prove challenging, Wolfgram said, noting more must be done to assist residents there.
Hoffer acknowledged the difficult balance between ensuring safe housing and not evicting those living at Maples, many of whom likely can’t afford to live elsewhere. Five more trailers are likely to be torn down in upcoming weeks, he said, noting the future status of other units there will be determined in part by the conditions inspectors find.
“There are no easy answers,” he said. “It is a really tough situation. My heart goes out to the people living there ... But we can’t just ignore the problems they face. We can’t let them continue to live in unsafe housing.”