FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — In a growing college town like Flagstaff it’s often a struggle to find both low income housing and student housing.
A new project for off campus housing at Northern Arizona University may result in the eviction of more than 50 families at a nearby trailer park. And they say they have no place to go.
Other college towns like Berkeley and Santa Barbara in California and Santa Fe, N.M., face similar problems.
Many of the Ponderosa pine trees on Northern Arizona University’s campus have been recently replaced with new buildings as NAU tries to keep up with the flood of new students.
“Northern Arizona University has seen tremendous growth in its student population,” said Public Affairs Director Tom Bauer. “Just over the last six years or so we’re up 34 percent. So we are actually beyond what our normal capacity would be and we don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
The college has recently converted common areas and workout rooms in old residence halls into dorm rooms. Bauer said major out-of-state developers are paying attention to this growth trend and proposing student housing projects in neighborhoods surrounding the university.
Bauer did not want to comment on whether the university approves of the project that may shut down the trailer park. But he did say NAU brings a lot of money to Flagstaff.
“NAU is an economic driver,” Bauer said. “We’re the largest employer right now. We have 3,000 employees. We have 18,000 students just at our Flagstaff campus. These people live in town. They shop in town. We pay taxes. Many of our students are employed in the area.”
But Coral Evans, the vice mayor of Flagstaff, said there’s another problem here.
“There seems to be a devaluing of the people most impacted by the students and by NAU,” Evans said. “No one has considered, in my mind, their economic value.”
She said many people who live and work in Flagstaff can barely afford to live here. More than 20 percent live below the federal poverty level, according to the U.S. Census.
“What is the economic value of the 56 families that are doing quite frankly a lot of the service type of work that the NAU students benefit from?” Evans said.
People like Susan Ontiveros, a teacher’s aide. She puts her hand over her heart as she talks.
“I haven’t slept good anymore,” Ontiveros said. “I’m very upset.”
“One of my boys was born there,” she said. “My other two boys were raised there. So it’s sad because they’re like we’re not going to go to our house anymore.”
A representative from Landmark Properties, who didn’t return calls for comment, met with Ontiveros and about 70 other residents — janitors, child care providers, restaurant workers. The proposal is still pending zoning approval from the city. He told them if they get it, the company would give them each $3,500 to move.
“We expect more money,” Ontiveros said. “I mean they’re trying to give us $3,500 to move? Not in Flagstaff. It’s not going to happen.”
Ontiveros said she has a decent job and will likely find a place to rent. Many of her neighbors won’t be so lucky.
A young mother who was afraid to use her name said she and her husband don’t have the legal documents needed to rent an apartment. She said they will likely move their family of six back to Mexico.
Community organizer Michelle Thomas recently met with the trailer park residents to help them bring attention to their problem. In a full elementary school gym, Thomas encouraged them to ask city council for an ordinance to protect residents like them and ensure that their payment would match what they need.
“They can do that,” Thomas said. “You can ask them to do that! And you should ask them to do that!”
Several cities in California, Texas and around the country have ordinances that give residents a detailed explanation of their rights to public participation, how to file a grievance and relocation assistance.
Such an ordinance could protect people in the future, and as Thomas pointed out this will likely happen again as NAU keeps growing.