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'What they’re doing is wrong': GCU housing expansion to force out mobile home residents

Alison Steinbach
Arizona Republic

When Gerald Suter moved to the mobile home park just east of what was then a much smaller Grand Canyon University campus 28 years ago, he planned to live out his days there.

Now 83 years old, with limited mobility and income, he has to move, along with some 100 others in the community.

That's because the landowner that bought the property six years ago — GCU — wants to make way for a new development. GCU plans to turn the trailer park into student housing as the private Christian university continues to grow enrollment and its footprint in west Phoenix.

“They own the property, and they can do with it what they want, and I understand that,” Suter said. “But to hurt that many people ... just because they want to build a multifamily apartment complex, I just don’t understand that at all.”

He said he wants GCU to leave them be: “Morally, what they’re doing is wrong.”

Periwinkle Mobile Home Park residents Gerald Suter and Robert Chastain sit outside Suter's mobile home in Phoenix on May 19, 2022. Suter has lived on the property for more than two decades.

The Periwinkle Mobile Home Park sits at 27th Avenue and Colter Street in Phoenix, a couple blocks east of the GCU campus and just south of three newly built university dorms. It has about 50 trailers and 100 residents, many of whom have lived there for years. Some are retired, some are families with parents who work nearby and kids who go to school in the neighborhood. A few have attended GCU.

Residents in late April got a letter from a law firm telling them GCU needed them to move by the end of October as it was “changing the use” of the property from a mobile home park to apartment-style housing.

A university spokesperson said GCU is open to working with each tenant to help address their needs and potentially try to help find places to move. The mobile home park is the only GCU-owned property large enough to build student residence halls on, university spokesperson Bob Romantic wrote in an email.

“We realize this type of notice can be a hardship for the residents of Periwinkle and the university has taken steps to make the transition as seamless as possible,” Romantic wrote.

While the notice to move was not entirely surprising to residents — the university bought the property in 2016 and has built all around it — they’re upset about what they view as little accommodation and a short timeline.

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A resident holds a tenancy termination notice received in April that details Grand Canyon University's intent to build more student housing on the property.

According to the letter, residents can get money from the state’s mobile home relocation fund to cover moving expenses, or they can abandon their homes on site and get some reimbursement, as determined by state law.

State law requires that mobile homes built before 1976 be “rehabilitated” to meet requirements before relocating to another mobile home park. Homeowners can get reimbursed up to $1,500 from the state fund if they qualify based on income.

But residents said the fund amounts for moving or abandoning their homes are not enough to cover costly moving fees for their decades-old trailers or to help with resettling in new homes given soaring rental costs.

“We want what is fair because we have to start all over on everything,” said Soraima Gopar, 45, who’s lived in the park for 13 years.

A handful of residents said they want GCU to give them more money to help them move, or to forgive their rent for a few months so they can save up. Residents said they mostly pay around $500 or less in rent; the Valley’s average rent is more than $1,500.

Gopar wants the university to do more to help them move.

“Or else where are we going to go? The street?” she said.

Biggest fan? How Frankie Muniz fell in love with GCU's basketball team

Few affordable options for residents

Residents feel like they have nowhere to go.

Nearby mobile home parks already are full, or else won’t allow their older trailers, they said. Apartment rents are often at least double what they’re paying now.

Moving too far would complicate work and school commutes, especially with high gas prices. Some residents don’t have cars or savings to make moving feasible.

The letter from April informed residents of the state fund that will pay them for moving expenses — up to $7,500 for a single-section mobile home or up to $12,500 for a multi-section home. Or, they can abandon their homes on the property and get $1,875 or $3,125, depending on home size.

Romantic from GCU said the state funds should be enough to cover the costs of relocating the mobile homes, depending on trailer condition, although residents seem to disagree. The university may help residents find similarly-priced mobile home parks nearby, provide financial assistance or help with furnishing new homes.

“GCU is also open to working with each tenant, to the best of the university’s ability, on an individual basis to care for them and address their specific circumstances or needs,” Romantic wrote.

There’s no predetermined budget for that assistance. Some residents might need financial help, and others might not if the state funds cover their relocation costs, but GCU may still have other ways to help them, Romantic wrote. He said GCU’s property management company is good at addressing individual needs.

Ray Bernier, a longtime resident of Periwinkle Mobile Home Park, expresses his concerns about having to move as Grand Canyon University prepares to construct more student housing.

Ray Bernier, 74, is resigned to the fact he’ll likely have to leave his home of 14 years. He’s looked in Glendale and elsewhere, but hasn’t even found a studio apartment he can afford with his Social Security benefits.

He thinks GCU will move forward with building apartments there, so the best he can push for is to get more funds to relocate or to halt rent payments so he can use that money to move.

The residents are waiting for the informational meeting promised in the law firm’s letter so they can ask questions. GCU said that meeting will happen in early June.

Gopar said her trailer, built in 1968, is likely too old to survive a move. But the $1,875 she and her husband would get from leaving it behind wouldn’t be enough to cover the deposit and first month’s rent at a new place. The cheapest trailer she found for sale was $35,000 but it needed repairs; others similar in size to hers are more than $70,000. She bought hers 13 years ago for $6,000.

Soraima Gopar, a resident of the Periwinkle Mobile Home Park in Phoenix, explains her difficulties in finding new housing after receiving a tenancy termination notice.

She knew this might happen, but never expected to be given such short notice or so little money. Gopar works at a nearby doctor’s office and worries about the costs of a longer commute.

Suter, the resident of 28 years, doesn’t know what he’s going to do, but admitted he’s in better shape than many neighbors who have kids and jobs. He’s retired, and it’s just him and his cat. But he loves living there and wants everyone to be able to stay put.

“We’re not rich. If we were rich, we wouldn’t be living in a mobile home park,” he said. “Leave these poor people alone. They’re not bothering anybody, they’re paying their rent, they’re hard working.”

He’s recovering from a heart attack and every few months has to go to the VA hospital for check-ups. He doesn’t have a car and can’t walk far, taking the bus and his walker to the hospital and his electric tricycle to get groceries a few blocks from home.

He bought his trailer from a friend for $10,000 and paid in installments. He invested additional thousands over the years, replacing the air conditioner, swamp cooler, oven and furnace.

Suter always figured if GCU made residents move, the university would pay them for the homes and ensure they had a place to go. He feels like that’s not happening.

“I don’t know why they can’t just leave us alone,” he said. “I thought they were a Christian organization.”

Residents Alondra Ruiz, Robert Chastain, Gerald Suter and Ray Bernier gather outside Suter's home at the Periwinkle Mobile Home Park in Phoenix on May 19, 2022.

In the lot behind Suter is Alondra Ruiz, whose son went to GCU and who’s lived at the mobile home park for eight years. The neighbors have a friendly rapport and look out for each other; Ruiz rushed Suter to the hospital when he had a heart attack.

Ruiz, 48, was saddened to learn she and her husband have to move. They both work for a refugee youth soccer club and have opened their trailer’s spare room to players over the years. Living close to many of the kids’ homes has allowed Ruiz to invite them over for soccer drills, hanging out and tutoring. Leaving the area will be hard.

GCU expanding campus eastward

GCU has bought up land near its campus over recent years to keep up with its growth. The school has expanded its campus significantly in recent years the student population has mushroomed, including building new apartment-style dorms near the mobile home park to meet the demand.

The university had less than 1,000 traditional students in 2008; this past school year 23,500 students were on campus. Continuing student growth has required more campus housing, as about 70% of students live on campus.

GCU is building two new dorms for next school year near 29th Avenue and Camelback Road for its largest ever incoming class of around 10,000 students.

More student housing is needed for the 2023-2024 school year, Romantic said. That will get built on the mobile home park property.

The university bought the site for $3.4 million in 2016 in anticipation of campus development eastward. The mobile home park sits bounded by the main campus to its west and the more recently developed GCU Hotel and other buildings to the east along Interstate 17.

A view of one resident's mobile home located at the Periwinkle Mobile Home Park in Phoenix on May 19, 2022. Some residents said their homes were too old to move to a new location.

The Periwinkle site is the only one GCU currently owns that’s large enough for future dorms, since other GCU-owned properties require step-backs or various modifications on new construction, according to Romantic.

The university has revitalized the area around its campus off I-17 and Camelback Road, contributing significantly to the local economy. GCU cites its Christian mission in its efforts to help the surrounding area by improving neighborhood safety, boosting home values, assisting families and creating local jobs.

Many of those initiatives have brought positive change to the neighborhood. The outcome this time may be the loss of a community.

Have a story about higher education? Reach the reporter at Alison.Steinbach@arizonarepublic.com or at 602-444-4282. Follow her on Twitter @alisteinbach.

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