The mood is merry inside the wood-paneled club house. People sing along to folk songs the man in the corner strums on his guitar. A young girl dances. An assortment of appetizers and cakes sit nearby.
It’s a party at Wonderland Estates Mobile Home Park. A celebration and thank you to all those people who helped the park stay what it is today. A park for seniors 55 and older on Maple Valley Highway, no longer the future site of 100 homes.
“We’re all just ecstatic we have a place to to stay,” says Mae Breeden, 62. “The stress is gone about it going to be sold. We’re just happy.”
Breeden and her husband Art, 67, have lived at Wonderland eight years.
Wonderland became the fourth King-County-Housing-Authority-owned park in late November. The Housing Authority bought the park for $8.4 million.
A light has gone on at Wonderland since the purchase. The darkness has been extinguished. The darkness that began in June 2006 when residents discovered their park was up for sale, and did not brighten when they learned the owner had submitted applications to King County to turn the park into 100 homes. Before the purchase, residents had until this August to move out.
Art Breeden remembers the fear and intimidation in the clubhouse during the park’s first residents’ meeting, just after the discovery of an online advertisement listing the park for sale.
“You could cut the fear with a knife,” Breeden recalls.
“But by the grace of God we made it,” he adds. In the long run we made it. I plan on being here the rest of my life.”
Long run is right. It took a year and a half for residents to secure Wonderland as their own. Efforts started with pancake breakfasts, and included help from Manufactured Housing Community Preservationists, a Washington nonprofit that purchases, renovates and then operates mobile-home parks as low- and moderate-income housing. Renton Housing Authority even offered 19 acres in Fairwood in exchange for Wonderland.
“If it isn’t made out of paper and green they didn’t want it,” said Doug Hobkirk, executive director for Manufactured Housing Community Preservationists (MHCP).
Hobkirk shares the residents’ joy that Wonderland was saved. Before the King County Housing Authority offer, he says “the lights were going out.”
MHCP is helping manage Wonderland, along with Donna and Randy Cleveland.
The park is now safe from redevelopment, but the work is not done. There’s 45 empty lots to fill, vacant homes to remove, and sewer, electricity and water upgrades to make. Not to mention road work and remodeling. Not many improvements have been made since the 1960s, when Wonderland was built.
The park is in the “it-doesn’t-look-so-flashy stage” says Tim Walter, director of asset management for King County Housing Authority. “There’s a tremendous amount of work involved,” Walter says.
Walter expects the major work to be finished in about two years. Meanwhile, the Housing Authority is scrambling to secure permanent funding to pay for the work.
Wonderland’s residents are doing work of their own.
“People are starting to take care of their yards, fixing their places up,” Art Breeden says. “It’s beginning to look like a home now.”
With decks, awnings and decorated lawns, Wonderland’s mobiles look anything but mobile. Breeden has become resident lawn mower.
“We do a lot of helping people out,” he says. “The best thing that’s come out of this is we’ve all become friends. We look out for each other and check on each other.”
Wonderland’s residents have new neighbors to check on. Wim, 77, and Peggy, 66, Van Hemert moved in just a few weeks ago from Wisconsin. More faces will be appearing as Wonderland gets ready for new residents.
But not all those faces will be new. Some of the people on the waiting list are former residents who want to move back. But some who moved out are happy where they are.
“I’m sorry for the ones who did move out,” Mae Breeden says. “They’re happy where they are, almost everybody I’ve talked to. It’s not like they’re real unhappy about it, but they could have stayed here and not have had their homes moved.”
Lavonne Kofmehl is happy where she is — in a Highlands apartment with cheaper rent than Wonderland.
Kofmehl, 72, moved out of Wonderland in December, after King County Housing Authority purchased the park.
She was back at Wonderland for Saturday’s party. She’s visited several times.
“I do miss the people here, and the community,” she says. Kofmehl lived at Wonderland a little over two years.
What happened at Wonderland is happening at mobile home parks across the country, as the desire for land and development increases.
But not all park residents have been as successful at staving off redevelopment.
“In order to make change, a number of people have to do it, they have to bind together,” says Tim Charnley, son of Wonderland resident Don.
Bind together is certainly what Wonderland’s residents have done. In addition to fighting for their own park, they’ve lobbied for state changes. Tim helped them along the way.
A sign propped outside Wonderland Saturday reads, “We Stopped Senior Park Closures.”
Wonderland’s residents stopped unwanted changes at their park. Many wanted changes are planned. But none of those changes involve the name. For the first time since the redevelopment proposals began, Wonderland isstarting to actually feel like a Wonderland.
“We can’t change it after what they pulled off,” Hobkirk says.
Peggy Van Hemert wishes she could have helped in the fight. She’s happy to call Wonderland her home.
“It’s such a wonderful place,” she says.
Emily Garland can be reached at email@example.com
or (425) 255-3484, ext. 5052.