Judge rules against Lowry Grove residents in favor of new owner


“Residents of Lowry Grove remain hopeful that their long fight to save their homes will prove victorious,” Ned Moore said. Moore, development director of Asamblea de Derechos Civiles, has been advocating on behalf of the residents.

There have been ups and downs for the residents of St. Anthony Village’s Lowry Grove manufactured housing community. 

But in their battle to keep the 15-acre property as is, the biggest blow came Sept. 22, when Hennepin County District Court Judge Joseph Klein ruled in favor of the property’s new owner, The Village LLC., which plans to redevelop the land.  

According to Klein, Lowry Grove residents will have to move their mobile homes off of the property come spring. While some of the newer homes can be relocated, others are “planted” in Lowry Grove and will have to be demolished.

 

A square deal

As widely followed and reported, former owner Phil Johnson sold the Lowry Grove land on June 13 to Traci Tomas, executive vice president of Wayzata-based developer Continental Property Group and The Village LLC., a new company that was set up under a slightly different ownership structure in order to purchase the St. Anthony property.

Many of the mobile homes in the 70-year-old park are owner-occupied. According to residents, Lowry Grove provides low-income individuals and families an affordable place to live and an opportunity for homeownership.

They fought the $6 million sale by attempting to exercises their right of first refusal with the help of Minneapolis-based nonprofit Aeon, an organization that seeks to assist folks finding and maintaining affordable housing. 

Aeon founder and CEO Alan Arthur submitted a countering purchase agreement by hand to Johnson on June 10, an action many thought would at least delay the sale for further review, but after a weekend inspection of the counter offer, Johnson and Tomas both agreed that it did not meet the standards required for eligibility by state law regarding the sale of manufactured home parks. 

The sale was made complete the following Monday, much to the dismay of many Lowry Grove residents, especially Antonia Alvarez, who then became a driving force in the land ownership battle that followed the sale. Alvarez and Aeon, on behalf of the residents of Lowry Grove, filed a lawsuit against the new property owner and continued the fight — Aeon largely on the legal side, while Alvarez led her social mission, speaking with media and leading peaceful protest-like marches that dozens of Lowry Grove and neighboring St. Anthony residents participated in.

 

Not over yet

According to Arthur, the ordeal is not necessarily over. 

“We’re still digesting the details of the ruling and really won’t know what our next step or action is until we meet next week with our attorneys,” Arthur said in a Sept. 23 phone interview. “It’s sad that somehow our community values people’s lives less than it does somebody else’s bottom line.”

According to Arthur, Klein apparently didn’t rule on all of the aspects of the lawsuit, but instead chose one or two points, something Arthur said could help create a path forward legally, but future steps, including the possibility of moving the case to the state court of appeals, is up for discussion this week.

“I expect that if we see there’s a chance to save the homes of 150 to 200 people, we’re gonna stay in this.”  

 

Moving forward with redevelopment

Tomas isn’t shocked at Klein’s ruling.

“We are pleased with, but not surprised by, Judge Klein’s ruling,” Tomas said in an email Sept. 23. “From the beginning, we’ve realized that this is a difficult situation for the residents. That has never been something we’ve taken lightly.”

According to Tomas, The Village has been committed to following the state statute that regulates the sale of mobile home parks every step of the way. 

“Allegations that we violated the residents’ rights to due process or did anything illegally are completely untrue,” she said. “We are glad to see that Judge Klein agrees.”

Tomas plans to move forward with the development and assist Lowry Grove residents as they move out of the park, which is located at the northeast corner of Stinson Parkway and Lowry Avenue. 

“Right now, we are focused on those who have expressed a desire to complete their move before winter sets in,” Tomas said. “We are working with the City of St. Anthony Village to make sure a public hearing is held and neutral third-party is appointed, so residents can submit applications to the Minnesota Manufactured Home Relocation Trust Fund for financial assistance that will help with their relocation.”

 

Rescheduling the process

The last march took place on Sept. 8, when residents walked from Lowry Grove in the 2500 block of Lowry Avenue to St. Anthony City Hall to protest a public hearing that the city had planned in order to appoint a third-party to assist residents with moving out. 

The protestors said it seemed the city was moving forward with the relocation process before Klein hadn’t even issued his ruling. 

The city council granted the residents’ wish and cancelled the hearing, but according to Tomas, a new public hearing will now have to be scheduled. 

But Alvarez is not so sure that will be the next step. 

“We will use all legal and political means available to continue the fight to save our homes,” said Alvarez, who is now president of the Lowry Grove Resident Association. “Since the beginning of this struggle we have faced many obstacles; where one path closes a new one opens. Therefore we remain strong in affirming that Lowry Grove is not closing, and we shall not be moved.”

Tomas, however, has said that this battle is leaving residents “in limbo” and “only creates more confusion about what they are entitled to as defined by the state statute.”

Tomas said she’s also not convinced that Alvarez speaks on behalf of the majority of Lowry Grove residents, and that many would like financial assistance to move out of the mobile home park, which has age-related infrastructure problems. 

 

Battling on another front

In addition to fighting the sale of the land to The Village in the court system, the Lowry Grove Residents Association and Aeon filed a Housing Discrimination Complaint against Johnson on Sept. 8.

“There’s no question in our mind that the decisions made by the seller, the buyer and perhaps others have had a disparate impact on people of color,” Arthur said. 

“I mean, over half the people at Lowry Grove are people of color and that’s the definition of disparate impact — we thought it was a matter of obligation to the residents.”

 

Jesse Poole can be reached at jpoole@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815. Follow him at @JPooleNews.

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