Threatened Mass Evictions, a Precarious Public Sphere, and a Museum-Community Partnership
Mark Auslander, with Jessica Hope Amason, Kathleen Barlow, Guadalupe Huitron, Erika King, Jenna Kress, Rodrigo Renteria-Valencia, Alexandra Ruvalcaba, Ellen Schattschneider
We ask you Blessed Virgin, to please intercede, so the situation in which we live can be solved; for us to find a good solution–please help us to not lose our home; we implore you with all my heart…I know we have not lived in this place for long–merely two years– but it is what in the meantime we can pay…
This essay explores a local housing crisis, which has catalyzed an emerging partnership between a low-income, primarily Latino community—threatened with mass eviction—and its allies and supporters, including a local university museum and an associated network of anthropology faculty and students. Over thirty families residing in the Shady Acres (also known as Shady Brook) mobile home park in Ellensburg Washington state, face potential destitution and homelessness, as the County leadership plans to transform the land on which they live into a seasonal RV parking lot to service the adjacent County Fairgrounds. We consider how this proximate crisis has become embedded in a larger struggle by Latino community members and activists for voice and spatial claims in the local public sphere. In many Latin American contexts, claims to rights in the polis center on struggles to the public space of the plaza. As residents often remark, North American cityscapes usually lack anything that resembles a plaza. Under these circumstances, how might recent immigrants make claims to a plaza, a public place of reciprocal exchange and dynamic co-participation in daily life?
In this essay, we approach this crisis from a range of perspectives. One of us (Huitron), grew up in Shady Acres, where her parents still reside in a manufactured home that they have owned for nearly two decades. She holds two master’s degrees and had been engaged in public advocacy work and international development before recently returning to Ellensburg in June 2015. Five of us (Amason, Auslander, Barlow, Renteria-Valenica, Schattschneider) are sociocultural anthropologists associated, in one way or another, with the Museum of Culture and Environment at Central Washington University (CWU), a few blocks from Shady Acres. Two of us (King, Kress) are CWU undergraduates in Anthropology and Museum Studies, and one, (Ruvalcaba) is a CWU undergraduate in Spanish and Law & Justice.
Settings: Ellensburg, the Mexicano Community, and the Rodeo
Ellensburg, the seat of Kittitas County, Washington State, has about 18,000 official residents, supplemented during the academic year by about 10,000 undergraduates attending Central Washington University, a regional comprehensive university. The population is about 85% white and about 10% Latino/Hispanic. Although only 100 miles down the road along Interstate 90 from Seattle, Ellensburg is located on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountain Range, and is thus culturally and economically embedded in the interior West. The local economy is centered on timothy hay, exported to Japan, as well as fruit growing, ranching, and tourism. Coal mining and logging, long the county’s economic mainstay, have dramatically declined since the mid 20th century. In contrast to primarily “blue” Seattle and Tacoma, Kittitas County remains largely a Republican stronghold, with significant Libertarian leanings: the city and county leadership are exclusively white, and, like most of the political leadership in central and eastern Washington, is often in legislative conflict with the cosmopolitan, progressive, and labor-movement politics of the Puget Sound zone (which includes Seattle and Tacoma).
The backbone of agrarian labor in Kittitas county is a low-income Latino community, with roots primarily in the western Mexican states of Michoacán, Jalisco and Guerrero. Recent judicial rulings in the city of Yakima, thirty five miles south of Ellensburg have seen a rise in Latino political power, manifested in the recent election of three Latino city council women. The Mexicano community in the lower Yakima valley, to the south of Yakima city, was formed through migration patterns in the 1930s and 1940s, and was highly engaged in the Chicano political movement and United Farm Workers struggles in the 1960s and 1970s. In contrast, the Mexicano community in Kittitas County, which in the 2010 census was 7.6 percent of the population, has gradually grown since the 1980s, but remained largely invisible to the Anglo majority and almost entirely outside of the formal political process. Many adults work in farm labor, including hay, fruit picking, and cold storage; others work in fast food or are employed in day labor. Most adults remain primarily speakers of Spanish; children are bilingual and often function as linguistic and cultural interpreters for their elders.
The majority of Mexicano households reside in mobile home parks within Ellensburg and its environs. Many have been able to purchase older mobile or manufactured homes (housing activists prefer the word “manufactured” since the homes are usually not really “mobile” and since the term “mobile home” is so stigmatized in mainstream American society.) Although they own their trailers, and often make significant improvements to them, they rarely own the land or “pad” on which the trailer rests, for which they pay monthly rent.
It would be hard to overstate the significance of the County Fairgrounds and Event Center in the symbolic geography of the city and county. The Fairgrounds hosts the Ellensburg Rodeo, each Labor Day weekend, with attracts thousands of visitors as well as prominent rodeo riders on the national circuit. Local Anglo families at times spend tens of thousands of dollars so that their young people may become “rodeo royalty,” with rights to ride in elaborate costume during rode events. During Rodeo time, Native American members of the Yakama Nation, on whose ceded grounds the county rests, are invited to set up teepees and host an “Indian Village,” and to open the rodeo by descending from a local hilltop into the rodeo arena. The Fairgrounds also host the annual County Fair, with 4-H competitions, and often smaller events through the year, including a Renaissance Faire and Western Art Show. The clientele for these events is overwhelmingly white, as is the leadership of the road, fair, and fairgrounds boards, which strongly overlaps with the County’s political and economic elite.
Shady Acres/Shady Brook
For years, the exclusively white leadership of the Rodeo and County Fair have complained about the Shady Acres/Shady Brook mobile home court, which, as noted above, is composed nearly entirely of Latino, low-income residents. The court is on the east side of the road that directly leads to the Fairgrounds entrance, and its metal structures stand in visible contrast to the weathered, wooden fronts of the Fairgrounds’ ersatz “Western Village.” Very few whites have ventured inside Shady Acres, but many pronounce it “dirty,” unwholesome,” “an eyesore,” or dysfunctional, and often assert (without empirical evidence) that there are high rates of crime or illicit drug use within it.
There are about thirty low-income families in Shady Acres, all but two of them Latino. At least twenty-two families own their “mobile” (manufactured) homes, while renting the pad of land on which the trailer rests; the remainder rent the structures in which they reside. These are extremely hard working families who are just getting by; given the shortage of affordable housing in the County, it is hard for them to imagine finding a comparable, safe place to live.
Wilson Creek runs through the property, under a canopy of trees (hence one of the property’s titles, “Shady Brook”). Most of the manufactured homes are arrayed along an extended loop; the northwest curve of the loop, under a large tree, to which a basketball hoop has been attached, is the community’s informal center, where people gather for parties and conversation. Some families have been living in the park for decades; the average time in residence is about eight years, so this is by no means a transient population. There are clear challenges with infrastructure and basic services in the park, but it would be wrong to state, as some officials have, that this is a dysfunctional community or an “eye-sore.” We have been struck again and again, by the kindness and thoughtfulness of these families, who conduct themselves with respect and dignity, keep the park clear and repair the homes efficiently and diligently. Like many such migrant communities in the region, the park functions as a kind of informal mutual aid society: parents help one another look after their children and share food and advice on negotiating the complexities of mainstream Anglo America. The residents value the current location for proximity to sites of employment, education, medical care, cultural enrichment (including the university) and worship. There is some anxiety over a tavern on the edge of the property, which has a nearly exclusively white clientele with a reputation for rowdiness and public urination, but otherwise residents report feeling safe in the complex.
The County leadership since the 1990s has called for the purchase of the privately owned Shady Acres property and the expansion of the Fairgrounds; the most recent strategic plan calls for the construction of a seasonal RV park on it, to service visitors to the rodeo, county fairs and other periodic events. The property’s owners, however, repeatedly insisted that they would not sell it, and the residents felt moderately secure in residing there.
The Shady Acres Crisis
On April 20, 2016, residents of Ellensburg WA learned, through some diligent reporting in the local city newspaper, that the Kittitas County Board of Commissioners had secretly negotiated and executed a purchase and sale agreement for $1.45 million, for the Shady Acres Mobile Home park. The commissioners announced intention is to close down the park and evict or “relocate” all its residents, and then turn the land into seasonal RV park. The RV park will be constructed and managed by a private concessionaire to service visitors to the adjacent County Fairgrounds. Under state law, mobile home residents are allowed one year to move out of a mobile home park that is being closed.
The Fairgrounds and Event Center, the Commissioners insist, are important economic engines for the county. They also state this facility needs to expand if it is to stay viable, and that a long standing strategic master plan emerging out of a “consultative process with stakeholders” calls for eliminating the mobile home park and replacing it with an RV parking lot for temporary visitors. The residents note, however, that the stakeholder consultation process never included any of them. Notices in English were placed in the newspaper, for hearings, which were held in English. The strategic master plan is located on the County website, only in English. No efforts were made to talk to the residents in Spanish about their needs, perspectives, and aspirations. No long-term plan was drawn out for finding safe and affordable housing for the over 30 families of the complex. Low-income housing advocates in the county repeatedly tell us they are stretched to the limit and simply don’t have the capacity to locate or build new affordable housing.
Commissioners have insisted that there would be no undue burden on the residents. There is a special state Department of Commerce fund (funded by fees paid by those who purchase manufactured homes) that will reimburse owners of mobile or manufactured homes for costs associated with moving their home to a new location or a dump site. Many, perhaps all, of the older trailers cannot be safely transported to a new mobile home court, and will thus be dismantled and disposed of. In any event, many families have invested a great deal of time and money in making improvements and extensions to their homes over the years, which would be lost if they were forcibly relocated. As noted above, there is a great shortage of affordable housing in the county, so there are few residential options available to these low-income families, many of whom believe they face destitution and homelessness.
Adding salt to the wound, one of the County Commissioners stated that the County would be sure to safeguard the continued existence of the tavern, mentioned above, since it is an “icon,” while dismantling or relocating all the mobile homes on the property. Another Commissioner stated that the mobile home court was a problematic place and that the families needed to be “dispersed through the community.” For many observers, this seemed a clear instance of racially and ethnically-coded “dog whistle” politics: an Anglo bar was an “icon,” while the Latino-occupied mobile homes were ‘eye-sores” and the tightly-knit Mexicano network needed to be broken up and dispersed.
Those of us connected to the university museum did not know Shady Acres well when news of the impending evictions surfaced on April 20. We had met some of the families through volunteer work at a local Latino-oriented food bank, and through outreach activities associated with the Museum’s current exhibition, Miracles of Mexican Folk Art: Retablos and Ex Votos, containing a range of beautiful art works dedicated by ordinary people of Mexico, expressing thanks for the small miracles or milagros of the everyday. When the exhibition opened in early April, we did not anticipate that the themes of the show—devotion, mercy, gratitude, and aspirations for a better life—would become so deeply poignant, and so precarious, for the local Latino/Mexicano community. Huitron, in turn, had grown up in Shady Acres, attended Ellensburg High School, graduated from Central Washington University in 2005. She moved to the East Coast, before the establishment of the Museum, and after undertaking development and public health work in Central America, returned to Ellensburg in June 2015.
As soon as the news of the impending evictions hit the local paper, Auslander reached out to the pastor of the local United Methodist Church, which had helped sheltered Mexicano community members during 2011 ICE raids and which hosts an Apostolic church attended by some Latino families who reside at Shady Acres. The decision was made to hold an emergency meeting at the church, to begin to chart a response. Rather to everyone’s surprise, about fifty people attended, including fifteen families from Shady Acres along with supporters (nearly all Anglo), who had been disturbed by the news. None of us quite knew how to proceed. Auslander facilitated the meeting, and Renteria-Valencia and Huitron stood up to interpret between Spanish and English. Shady Acres residents stood to share their stories. Rodrigo de la Rosa explained that like many in the complex, he had purchased his manufactured home and spent thousands of dollars on additions to it; even if his house could be moved, which was doubtful, how would be recoup his investment? Others talked about how safe they felt in a place where everyone helps look after their children, where everyone knows one another, and drivers are careful to drive slowly, mindful of children playing on the street.
The group agreed to form an umbrella coalition, “Familias y Amigos de Shady Acres” (Families and Friends of Shady Acres) and hold a second meeting the following Saturday. The allies and supporters assumed the meeting would be in the relative safety and privacy of the Methodist church, but the residents explained to us it needed to be back in the middle of Shady Acres, because that was “their place” and that, given childcare responsibilities, it was the only place that all adult residents could attend a meeting.
Then residents raised the idea of creating their own “Shady Acres Homeowners Association,” so that they could speak in their own voice. After the first meeting adjourned, they held an impromptu meeting around one of the tables in the fellowship hall, and arranged to conduct a census (and Association membership drive), since no one was quite sure who owned, and who rented, their mobile homes. Renteria-Valencia, an anthropologist who has published on the institution of the carne asada (barbecue) in the borderlands, suggested a carne asada, and everyone readily agreed. (The next day, the university’s Faculty Union agreed to fund the barbecue in solidarity with the residents.)
Meanwhile, residents and supporters reached out to legal advisors and activists elsewhere in the state. University students got involved. On Saturday evening the extended group gathered at the Shady Acres complex. Residents explained that the best place for the organizational meeting was directly under three spreading trees at the complex’s center. Anthropology faculty and students gathered with the children on a grassy area closer to the tavern, to make art, posters and to play soccer. (As one eight-year-old girl explained, since the field alone was visible to the highway, “They’ll just think we are kids playing, and won’t realize the grown-ups are having their meeting under the tree!”). We slowly came to realize that the shaded curve in the road, where the community was gathering, was a microcosmic equivalent of a plaza, the quintessential space of political participation throughout Latin America.
At the meeting residents heard from two attorneys general from the state Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division, an attorney from the nonprofit Northwest Justice Project, and a representative from the state’s Association of Manufactured Home Owners, who reviewed residents’ rights. Many of us hadn’t realized the possibility of a local housing authority purchasing and managing a mobile home court, or of residents collectively purchasing the land on which their trailers rest and creating a self-governing cooperative. The residents then voted to form a Homeowners Association and elected an executive board, which would work on drafting by laws and advocating for the community. All agreed on the basic principle that the community would not be divided and that everyone would be housed.
As the adults met, undergraduate Jenna Kress worked with the children of the community making art. She recalls,
“When I arrived in the art zone six little girls surrounded me and watched in curiosity as I pulled a strange object from my bag. ‘What’s that?’ one of them asked. “It’s a button maker” I explained “I brought it so we could make protest buttons.” In excitement my bag was raided and the rest of the contents placed onto a table by the girls. One of them found the bag of punched out designs I had created for the buttons. “Este Es Mo Hogar” (This is my home) – one of the little girls read aloud. She was silent for a moment. In the background we could hear adult voices. There were worried voices, voices filled with sorrow and ones of anger, voices that filled an entire spectrum of emotion. After her moment of silence she looked up at me and stated this very simple yet profound fact “This is my home.” This was the moment, I believe, that she truly realized for the first time that her home was being taken from her. “This IS our home!” she said again, her voice filled with passion now “This is where I live!” This was the first button that was made and she proudly (with a little help from me) buttoned it to her dress.
A festive carne asada followed, as residents and allies got to know one another.
Events at the Museum
In consultation with the newly formed Homeowners Association, the CWU Museum of Culture and Environment then organized two events. The first was a teach-in on affordable housing in the county, well attended by Shady Acres’ residents, as well as the Board of County Commissioners and city council members and local planners. Specialists reviewed in detail the affordable housing picture in the County: as seen in this Google Map, the 930 subsidized housing units are all essentially spoken for, and there is simply no available space for low income families at this point. Nor, we learned, does the County have a coherent plan for developing vitally needed affordable housing, although there may be a draft ten-year plan ready for discussion in September. Experts from region non-profits specializing in affordable housing explained that it takes on average three years to bring new projects of this sort to fruition. We learned about alternatives to the County purchase and forced relocations, including acquisition of the property by the county’s Housing Authority, an independent quasi-governmental entity, or the development of a cooperative. Meanwhile, anthropology and museum studies faculty and students played with the Shady Acres children in the adjacent museum gallery, engaging with beautiful Mexican votive paintings of the saints and their miracles. Many attendees were struck by the excellent behavior of the children throughout the evening, which directly contrasted with the mainstream narrative that the mobile home court was a “dysfunctional” social environment.
A few days later, the Museum hosted a community arts workshop, in which Shady Acres families, as well as Anglo families from elsewhere created triptychs inspired by the Retablos and Ex Votos. Working with expressive arts therapist Nan Doolitle, participants made assemblages that functioned as doors, on the theme of “open doors, open hearts.” Families were particularly inspired by a beloved Ex Voto (or painting of gratitude) in the current Museum exhibition, dedicated by the couple, Eusebio Najera and his wife in 1942 in Mexico. They give thanks for successfully building a house in the face of great difficulty. The written text explains that the family prayed to San Antonio (St. Anthony) and in time a house was miraculously completed. The lovely painting shows the house embraced, in shade, under the generous arms of a great tree, which, like Saint Anthony himself, gives protection to the house and all who dwell within it.
One family at the May 7 workshop collaboratively made a triptych centered on a carefully drawn image of the Virgin Mary, under a crucifix and images of stars. They wrote on the right inner door:
“We ask you Virgencita (An affectionate term for the Virgin Mary), to please intercede, so the situation in which we live can be solved; for us to find a good solution–please help us to not lose our home; we implore you with all my heart…I know we have not lived in this place for long–merely two years– but it is what in the meantime we can pay; this is one of the cheapest trailer parks and here there is not many places where to find a similar arrangement (paying what we are paying now).”
Another Shady Acres father composed the following commentary:
“I have worked many jobs in Ellensburg, in the hay industry, in cold storage, in construction, and at nurseries. I also buy, repair and resell used cars. With my savings I finally bought a mobile home in Shady Brook. I am married with four sons and a daughter. I really love Shady Brook, since the rent is affordable, there is no traffic and our children can play outside. All the neighbors are kind and look after each other. Another great thing about living in Shady Brook is that we can walk to our church, which we really love. Shopping is easy for us, and our kids can get to school on foot when the weather is fine. (My younger son says he loves going across the street to Winegars and 7-11 for “slurpees” with his friends!) We don’t know where we would live if we lost our home. That would just be devastating for our family. We ask all our friends to help us stay in the community that we love”.
The families placed their triptychs on a makeshift altar in the museum gallery, next to scores of drawings by community members on the theme of gratitude.
Inspired by the art workshop and the Eusebio Najera ex votos painting, Jenna began to design a logo for the Shady Acres Homeowners Association. Her initial drawing showed a great tree, like one at the three trees at the neighborhood’s center, which shelter the informal meeting area or tiny “plaza.” Residents liked the drawing but suggested that it needed to emphasize the tree’s roots, to show that they were not just passing through, but felt deeply connected to the land on which they were building their lives. As she gathered feedback from the community, she also added a door into the tree’s trunk, and illustrated the tree with heart shaped leaves, to emphasize that all are welcome with love inside this community. Arrayed around the trees are the words, “Salva Shady Acres” (Save Shady Acres).
Claiming a Plaza
Residents then expressed the desire to present themselves in more public forums. Over the next two weeks, they attended open meetings held by the Board of County Commissioners. (With their allies, they campaigned for the County to provide translation to and from Spanish, as is their legal right.) In public comments, they spoke of their contributions to the local economy and their commitment to remaining together as a community. They noted that they had never been consulted by the County over the plan to evict and relocate them, and requested that the purchase and sale agreement be suspended, or legally assigned to a non-profit entity, such as the County Housing Authority, committed to maintaining the families in place. The Commissioners remain, as of this writing, unmoved by these appeals.
Although there is no “plaza’ in Ellensburg in the Latin American sense of the term, the closest equivalent is the downtown Rotary Pavilion, which serves as the reviewing stand during the annual Labor Day rodeo parade. (Typically, Latino residents gather to watch the parade several blocks south of pavilion, outside of the downtown area, which many associate with the dominant white population.) With help from their allies, the Homeowners Association reserved the pavilion for Saturday, May 21, during the weekly Farmer’s Market.
In preparation children at Shady Acres, with students from the University, created a range of posters and banners: “Una casa es un milagro” (A House is a Miracle). “Save Shady Acres/Salva Shady Acres”). “Families Matter,” “ Families are Not Disposable.” The signs were spread all over the pavilion and its environs. The campus Mariachi group performed, along with the Ballet Folklorico from St Andrew’s Catholic Church, dancing traditional dances from the western Mexican state of Jalisco. Residents and supporters gave speeches in English and Spanish.
The pavilion is well known for a large metal sculpture of a bull sitting on a park bench reading a newspaper, a cowboy hat rather suggestively placed on its lap. At the start of the morning’s events, a child playfully positioned a “Save Shady Acres” sign on the bull’s lap. Someone jokingly renamed the pavilion the “Plaza del Toro” (the Place of the Bull). Students created a colorful banner to rest at the base of the stage— “Bienvenidos a La Zona de Liberacion!!” (Welcome to the Zone of Liberation). For the morning at least, a plaza had been created and a public forum reclaimed.
Three days later, residents attended an open meeting of the County Board of Commissioners, in the County Courthouse a block and a half from the Rotary Pavilion. Several of them stood and in Spanish delivered the following public comments (To protect community members, names are not given).
President, Shady Acres Homeowners Association: “ I have been listening to everything said there. I feel confused, hearing there is no plan for all these families, even though you are asserting you care. As we just heard, the families are going through a very traumatic period. If I had the resources so that my family didn’t have to go through this trauma, I wouldn’t be here. I am a family man, I earn 10 dollars per hour, I have to help my wife and help my two daughters to succeed. It has been a great effort for me to succeed, for my family. My daughters say “Dad, we want a house,” I don’t have the words to say no, all I can say is let’s wait a little while and see what we can do. Right now, this is what we have and this what we can do.
After hearing all that has been said today I feel like I have made my home in the sand. I really hope you put your hands and put your heart into this. Many families have made their life here, and it is complicated. The majority of the people I know are hard working. They work 10 to 16 hour shifts just to help their families and move forward. It is our decision to be there, we are trying to make our good life there, it is our choice. From one side I hear don’t worry, but I can’t but wonder what is going to be the end of this situation. I don’t know if it would be better to have an exact date [for the mass evictions] or to continue in this trauma when we don’t know what is going to happen?”
A Mexicana woman resident : “I have lived in Shady Acres, for 17 years. In this community my daughters and I have been very happy until we found about the sale. We ask that you take us into consideration. Please come to a decision that can help us. Because we want to continue being a community. A bad decision would have a negative effect on all us, especially my daughters–because of their school, their friends, their doctors, all nearby. I have always contributed to the community. These are people with good moral character –so please treat as such. I only ask that you allow us to continue being the beautiful community that we are. And I ask God to grant you the wisdom to grant us a safe and just outcome.”
An Anglo male resident: “I drove trucks for forty-two years here in Washington state and up in Alaska. For ten years I hauled jet fuel, based in Anchorage, supporting the cargo planes going back and forth across the Pacific. Around 2006, I started to experience excruciating back pain; in time, I learned my spine was deteriorating and that I needed multiple surgeries. I loved my job and worked as long as he could, but had to stop driving, and retired early, in 2012. I’m still in constant pain. I’m hoping to get a special surgical procedure for his spine that would be extremely expensive, and I’m saving up money for that, because of the high deductible ($4,500) on my medical insurance. I’m on disability, and just can just barely make ends meet. It will be three years before I qualify for supplemental insurance. I bought my trailer in 2006 from [the Shady Brook property owner], hoping to have a place to retire to; I moved into Shady Brook in 2012. I’ve found it a pleasant place to live, with friendly and supportive neighbors. The kids are always outside running and playing. I really doesn’t know where I could move to. As an experienced truck driver, I don’t think my trailer, which dates back to 1969, could survive relocation to another trailer court. Where am I going to go?”
Latina woman: “I am very saddened by the situation that all of my neighbors have been put through. I never thought we would go through something like this, through decisions that adults are taking that do not take into consideration the impact upon us. We haven’t been able to sleep well. I don’t know if you are a father or a mother. I am a mother. Imagine coming home every day from work, imagine your children saying, what are we going to do? What answer can I give them, when I don’t know myself? My heart has been broken in many pieces because of the decisions you are making. We are such a beautiful creation that God has made. We are not dependent on anyone else, we depend on ourselves, to provide for ourselves. “
Latino man: “ I have lived in Shady Brook since 2001, in four trailers in that place. In 2009 I had the opportunity to buy the trailer where I live now. I had to make the repay the loan, and pay rent for the lot. We can’t buy a $250,000 home. I believe that you have all houses and your children sleep peacefully and you sleep well, but when I get home my children ask where are we going? Will we be sleeping under a bridge? We pay 325 dollars per lot rent. Looking on line I see that to the equivalent house we’d have to pay $1200 to $1800. Where will I get that money from? Would I take away clothing and food from my children? I understand your work, you have the capacity to help us in a good manner. You are saying you are going to find a good solution but we are not seeing that yet. What will happen if one of our elders in the community had an aneurysm or a heart attack because of this terrible pressure? We need action, please.”
Latino man: “I have lived at Shady Acres for over 15 years. I lived in California, then came to Ellensburg. I liked it. I came for a better opportunity for my family, and Shady Acres gave me that that opportunity. To move, would be to take my family to a much less safe community. Please take our place for our moment. Please make the right decision. That way I can go home and tell my 8 years old daughter that Shady Acres will continue to be our home.”
Latina woman: “We are here talking about our situation. We don’t know what is going to happen. We are a family that really likes where we are living. My kids can buy an ice cream across the street. My husband is the only one that provides for our household. He has worked at Twin City Foods for 18 years. We were so happy (and here she began to cry) when we had the ability to buy a house, what we call a house. It is a double wide. If we had to purchase a regular house that was the same size, we couldn’t afford it, it would be over $200,000. We fear we would have to move out of this town. We attend our church that is close our house. All we are asking is that you think what is going to happen to us and everyone else. We have experienced a lack of sleep, tremendous amount of stress. This is not only harmful for elders; we are all suffering from a fatal uncertainty over what is happening– to all of us “
Broader Community Responses
The residents’ commentaries and organizing efforts have had a gradual impact on public opinion in the region. On June 9, the county’s ministerial association, representing fifteen Protestant congregations, agreed to sponsor a prayer vigil at Shady Acres, to bear witness in solidarity with families facing potential homelessness. The next day, the county’s committee on Homelessness and Affordable Housing, an advisory body of citizen advocates appointed by the Commissioners, voted unanimously that the Board of Commissioners “give strong consideration to seeking an alternative purchaser for the Shady Brook Mobile Home Park property with the intent of maintaining affordable housing.” This is the first time in memory that a county committee had explicitly called on the Board to reconsider a major decision.
On June 18, families and friends gathered for an interfaith vigil at Shady Acres. They began by planting a scarlet oak, at the northern edge of the property, directly facing the much-discussed tavern. At Nan’s suggestion, those present wrote messages to the tree, expressing their hopes for its future, and attached these with twine to the stakes that held it up, in the face of Ellensburg’s ubiquitous wind. The Homeowners’ Association president wrote, “Este Arbol es un senol y symbolo de un nuevo comienzo, para esta comunidad. Un Camisio, un creimiento y la unidad, fuerza de una familia unida. Shady Acres. (This tree is sign and symbol of a new beginning for the community, a road, a growth, a unity based on family strength. Shady Acres.) An Anglo woman ally in the community wrote, “Dear Tree, Please grow tall with the children who planted you. May the Lord tend and care you.” About forty people, gathered around the newly planted tree for an opening prayer, then broke into small groups for bilingual conversations about their understandings of home and community, before reconvening around the tree for some final words.
The residents also began a collaborative project, “Faces of Shady Acres,” with professional photographer Rob Fraser to document the Shady Acres families and help give a human face to their predicament. Community members and allies organized exhibitions of these photographs, in town and on campus. (The images are available at Friends of Shady Acres website)
In early September 2016, a final public hearing was held over the County’s acquisition of the property. The hearing, attended by over one hundred people, was enormously instructive, although often heart breaking. The activists, in and around the community, managed to demonstrate flaws in the Commissioners’ frequently cited plan to replace the mobile home park with an RV parking lot, for (overwhelmingly white) visitors to the once per year rodeo and county fair. The RV lot would require rezoning the property as “Commercial Tourist,’ but under the Ellensburg City Code such rezoning simply can’t happen in areas more distant that a half mile from the interstate interchanges. Once that was established, the proponents of the purchase changed their justification.
At the public hearing, the proponents (nearly all of them current or former board members of the County Fair and Rodeo — which overlaps, one might note, with core base of Trump support in the County) insisted that their real motivation was to provide larger holding facilities for animals at the fair, especially for swine pens. Swine, we were told repeatedly, were being held for three days out of the year in inhumane conditions, and thus the Shady Acres/Shady Brook property was needed to provide the animals with better conditions. For activists who had been insisting that the underlying motivations of the mass eviction plan were anchored in race and ethnicity, these speech acts were taken as rather clear confirmation of the argument; in the eyes of the conservative, pro-Trump leadership of the County, the needs of swine far exceeded those of the 32 human families, all of them low income and nearly all of them people of color.
In the November 2016 elections, two of the three County Commissioners (all three of them Donald Trump supporters) ran to retain their seats, opposed by progressive (Bernie Sanders-supporting) opponents. Shady Acres was the most hotly contested issue in local electoral politics. (It should be noted that during the primaries all of the incumbents’ opponents, including conservative Republicans and independents, strongly supported the Shady Acres families.) On Nov. 8, in the context of the pro-Trump wave that swept Kittitas County, the incumbents retained their offices.
Over the following months, under pressure from the state Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division and the Northwest Justice Project, the County Commissioners consented, in effect, to a five-year moratorium on evictions, signing new five year leases with the residents. The prospects after that date in August 2021 are unclear. The Commissioners, continue to insist that they won’t pull the trigger for mass eviction until a “housing solution” has been reached for the impacted families. But they refuse to say what that solution might entail.
The basic economic facts of life remain unchanged; local agribusiness and motels, which employ nearly all the Shady Acres adults, refuse to pay their employees a living wage. The local rental housing market is saturated, and low income workers and their families simply can’t afford to live anywhere other than mobile/manufactured home parks. There are severe zoning and other economic and political restrictions on where MHPs can exist in the county, so low income families, especially Latino, remain between a rock and a hard place. The county’s leading industries, farming and hospitality, depend on low-wage labor, but there isn’t a corresponding political will to provide decent affordable housing for the great majority of these highly vulnerable families. The wave of xenophobia and white nationalist rhetoric sweeping the region in the wake of the Trump victory has posed enormous burden on people of all ages. Latino community members remain deeply worried over the future of the Fair Housing Act, core civil rights law, and immigration policy.
We were, however, all enormously heartened when, in response to Klan recruitment activity, about seven hundred people marched through campus and town on November 16 in support of a tolerant and inclusive community; multiple public forums on the need for tolerance have been held in the ensuring months., along with less overt workshops preparing for anticipated mass immigration raids in the community. As the local Shady Acres story continues to unfold, it presents in microcosm many of the nationwide perils and possibilities of life in the Trump era.