St. Charles parishioners worked with residents to save the Oak Leaf Mobile Home Park in Northeast Portland. (Gabe Triplett)
St. Charles parishioners worked with residents to save the Oak Leaf Mobile Home Park in Northeast Portland. (Gabe Triplett)
In a year that’s seeing record rent spikes even in East Portland, with more families doubling up to afford housing, the residents of Oak Leaf Mobile Home Park won an unlikely victory earlier this month. They’ll continue to pay less than $500 a month in many cases for their mobile homes, a price nearly unheard of in Portland.

“It was a long road, but it’s a testament to what the community can accomplish with faith,” says Gabe Triplett, youth minister at St. Charles Parish. “The Holy Spirit has been here, moving with us.”

Many of the Oak Leaf residents are veterans, seniors and people with disabilities. And many expected to become homeless had they been evicted.

Instead, the Portland Housing Bureau staked a $1.3 million loan to Living Cully, a community nonprofit. That was the shortfall between what the former owner of the trailer park was asking for and the amount the group had raised. The loan means that instead of receiving eviction notices to make way for upscale housing, Oak Leaf tenants can stay in their homes.

Triplett gives credit to the Year of Mercy, which coincided with the parish’s outreach. “We wanted to materialize thoughts of mercy into real action,” he said.

Parishioners and staff saw such encouraging results that they decided to devote 2017 to another Year of Mercy.

Living Cully doesn’t have experience managing or owning property, so they asked St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County to manage and eventually buy the park.

The Eugene-based Catholic organization will make repairs, invest in the people and property and keep the place affordable.

Still, the Oak Leaf victory wasn’t exactly what residents had hoped for. Many had wanted to buy the park themselves and turn it into a cooperative. That scheme has worked at several locations around Oregon, although it’s happened in mobile home parks that are typically in better shape than the Oak Leaf.

The sale also became complicated. The original nonprofit buyer had to withdraw, leaving the residents and their supporters — including Living Cully, St. Charles and the Northeast Interfaith Alliance — scrambling.

Triplett sees the Holy Spirit at work there as well. “We knew something would come up and it would be a blessing in disguise,” he says. “Really, none of this makes sense unless you factor in the Holy Spirit.”

St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County has rehabilitated and now manages five other mobile home parks in the Willamette Valley. “We create a safe and healthy environment and provide affordable housing — what we all would like to see,” says Terry McDonald, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul. “Mobile homes are an earlier version of micro-housing, giving people some possession and ownership.”

St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County manages 1,300 units of affordable housing and is the third largest nonprofit manager of affordable housing in the state, the largest outside the Portland metro area.

“I’m so impressed by them,” says Triplett. When he phoned the organization, he remembers McDonald told him, “I’m pretty sure we can help. I’m 100 percent sure we’re going to try.”

“That’s the courage and boldness that Pope Francis calls us to,” says Triplett.

McDonald’s staff have found the Oak Leaf to be in better physical shape than a couple of the other mobile home parks the organization has taken on. The Oak Leaf is also without the twin plagues of crime and illegal substances that cripple the worst mobile home parks.

Still, says McDonald, there are issues at the Cully property. Leaks in the sewer system need fixing and necessary amenities should be added. St. Vincent de Paul plans to add a laundry and an office for a social worker, for instance.

“Owners can maintain parks if they’re motivated,” says McDonald, who believes that mobile homes are the greatest reservoir of affordable housing in the nation.

Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman thinks McDonald makes a persuasive case on the value of the maligned homes. “Mobile homes are a hidden but important source of affordable housing,” Saltzman says.

He was encouraged and “pleasantly surprised” by the Oak Leaf’s residents organizing acumen and their success in saving their homes.

Saltzman’s office was behind the successful $258 million bond measure for affordable housing. “It’s my top priority,” he says.