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Why Are Most Austin RV and Mobile Home Parks Invisible?

If you've lived in Austin for a few years, you're probably familiar with the Pecan Grove RV Park. It's where actor Matthew McConaughey "lived" for years. It's a well-kept park that has even become a tourist attraction.

But it's the exception when considering the city's other RV and mobile home parks.

Most parks live a hidden existence of disrepair and neglect.

One reason why we seldom hear about them in Austin is because they are purposely kept under the radar.

Austin's Code Officer Anthony Major knows where each of the 44 licensed RV and mobile home parks is located in Austin, even though they are virtually invisible to the rest of the population.

Credit Filipa Rodrigues/KUT News
City of Austin Code Officer Anthony Major inspects RV and mobile home parks. He looks for code violations and always finds them. Violators are mostly renters and few owners respond when Major notifies them of the violations.

Major rides what looks like a patrol vehicle. It even has lights on top. Major is not a police officer, but he routinely visits mobile home parks to look for code violations.

And he finds plenty.

One of the most obvious has to do with the distance that should be kept between mobile homes. In many communities homes are packed together because the more homes, the more money a landlord makes off rent for the land. But more homes also means a narrower road in and out of the neighborhood. Mike Martinez says when fires break out, fire trucks cannot get in. Martinez is a former Austin fire fighter and a former Austin council member. He says fires at mobile homes are often deadly. One still haunts him.

"It was a mother and a father and three children and a blanket caught on fire in the dryer," Martinez recalls it was the middle of the night. Dad, mom and baby's bedroom was at one end of the mobile home; the older children were at the other end. All of the sudden, the fire's loud cracking woke dad up. Dad got mom and baby out the bedroom window.

Immediately after, dad went back looking for the other boys. Meanwhile, Austin Fire could not get into the community. The narrow road to the home blocked their truck's access. By the time the firefighters arrived, the home was engulfed in flames. Dad and the two boys were still inside and could not be rescued.

"Mom tried to go back in but couldn't because it was too hot. She was alive when we [the firefighters] arrived," says Martinez, "but she had taken so much fire [sic] into her lungs; she died a couple of days later. So, only one person out of that whole family survived."

Martinez often wonders whatever happened to that infant boy.

Another challenge with many RV and mobile home parks is that nobody oversees them.

Sandra Vigil is a mother of three who lives in one of the most rundown communities in Austin. It's called Comfort Park, and it's on Riverside Dr.

Speaking in Spanish, Vigil says her community is full of trash and debris, it's drug infested and flat out dangerous.

Credit Filipa Rodrigues/KUT News
Sandra Vigil's home is well-kept. Her husband works construction. He gutted the home and revamped the interior completely. But outside, the neighborhood is dangerous. Vigil says she keeps her children at home at all times to keep them safe.

She says her children have no friends in the community because she doesn't let them out of her sight. "I don't know if they sell the drugs here or if they sell them elsewhere, but there are young kids maybe 12 [years old] and they are involved in drugs. I keep my kids at home to keep them safe," Vigil says.

Officer Major knows what Vigil says is true. He's aware of many other things that go on through his route. That's why whenever he has to step out of his vehicle and walk through the communities, he says he puts on a "bullet-proof vest."

Nobody knows how many people live in RVs and mobile homes in Austin. But, there are more than 4,000 units registered. Is it possible 16,000 people could live there? Is it possible 20,000?

Major says he wouldn't know. "I can tell you that there are families; enough families with children in them for two to three school buses to come into one mobile home community full of children."

If Major knows about the living conditions in these communities, if politicians also know, and if emergency services are aware of the dangerous conditions; then, why have RV and mobile home communities been left alone? Major has one explanation. He says "if [the city's code department] really started enforcing the ordinance the way it currently is today, a lot of homes would probably be demolished." He figures "that probably wouldn't be the way to go at all."

Since Austin is so short in the number of affordable housing units it has, a displacement of thousands would be catastrophic.

Martinez believes some people who are in the know turn a blind eye to these communities because community members are themselves silent. "God help them," says Martinez, "[residents] can't reach out for fear of reprisal, for fear of being deported…so they remain in those conditions and they remain silent."

A first step to make these conditions known is in the works. At the moment, the city's Code Department is creating a report that documents the conditions in these communities. What doesn't exist, at the moment, is a plan from the city council to take a deep dive into what's going on with the city's thousands of mobile homes.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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