Meet Isabel Sanchez, housing activist
Grassroots community organizer and urban farmer Isabel Sanchez transformed Mapleton Mobile Home Park in Boulder to a community that follows sustainable principles and practices. Under her guidance as a board member of the park's Home Owners Association (HOA) for 11 years, including president of the board for four of them, Mapleton's regulations now allow families to raise chickens, rabbits and bees. Today there are more than 45 organic gardens in the park, as well as five households raising chickens, three raising rabbits and five beekeepers. And all of the projects have helped build a more connected and stronger community, she says.
Sanchez is a permaculturist, locally known as the "Guru of Permaculture." For seven years she was the program director for the Denver nonprofit, The GrowHaus, where she taught permaculture and created curriculums for children to learn how to grow food, raise chickens and choose healthy lifestyles. She recently started a new business, Roots to Sol, which offers classes and workshops for backyard garden design and permaculture.
(Note: Unlike most mobile home communities in Boulder which are owned by private corporations, Thistle Communities, a nonprofit, owns the land beneath Mapleton Mobile Home Park.)
Describe your path to becoming a housing activist.
I was born in 1962 in communist Cuba. My family witnessed first hand what happened after the revolution in Cuba and worked tirelessly to get my sister and me out of the country.
I immigrated to the US when I was 5, and I was raised in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I grew up listening to my parents and other Cuban families talk about communism and the losses they suffered. I learned that because my parents had refused to be a part of the communist party, their food rations were taken away, and they were forced to accept food from relatives and neighbors until we were able to flee the country.
Food scarcity is something that was a huge part of my developmental years, and I believe it's why I’ve dedicated so much of my life to preventing this kind of injustice in all the communities I’ve lived and worked in. And I learned very early on that we, as a people, need a voice.
I started gardening with The Green Thumb Organization when I was 18 and pregnant with my first son. My love for having the power to grow my own food and the connection with the soil grew from there. It was one of the most empowering experiences in my life up until that point. It made a lasting impression.
In the late 1980s with a 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, I moved to the East Village where we squatted in an abandoned building in Alphabet city. I would approach the city, saying, "There are 10 families fixing abandoned buildings using their own resources, so sell the buildings to us." We were able to buy some, and we later added greenhouses and chickens on the roof tops. It was here where my advocacy in housing issues was born. Many meetings were held in the building where I lived with my family, and the community made important decisions on how we could support the homeless and unjust policy changes that were occurring in New York City. In 1988, NYC passed a law that homeless people could no longer reside in the parks. This brought on riots and protests from the community to recognize that the civil rights of the homeless, the poor, the mentally ill and the addicts were being violated. As a result of the protests, some buildings that were squatted in became legal residences for those people in need. That experience showed me that when that when people are empowered to use their voice, real change can happen.
A huge thing I learned from my NYC experience was about food deserts. If you don’t have housing, you probably can’t afford healthy food. You buy fast food–cheap food that will only get you sick.
I was involved with that for 10 years, and then I got really burnt out. Some people had mental illness, and some people had addictions, so I needed a break.
By that time I was the mother of four children, and I wanted to teach them to live off the land. We moved to Northeast Pennsylvania where we purchased a house built in the 1800’s on seven acres. I would spend the next 10 years learning about animal husbandry and farming, and my passion for living off the land was solidified. I would go on to have two more children while living here. I have many fond memories of seeing my little ones run around naked in the yard with the chickens, bunnies, goats, and pigs while my older city kids adjusted awkwardly to farm life, learning how to milk goats and to deliver animal babies.
Why did you decide to live in a mobile home community?
One of my children had graduated from Naropa, and the other was graduating that year. I moved to Boulder because they were here, and I wanted them to be role models for the younger kids. I have eight kids ages 13, 14, 17, 21, 24, 30, 35 and 40. All my children live in the park. My 18-year-old and her 24-year-old brother live next door. My 30-year-old daughter and my son who is 40 live on the other side of the park. And my five grandchildren live here too.
At Mapleton I started with an an open-market rate for my lot rental, which is still much more affordable than purchasing a condo or home in Boulder, and I am now on a low-tier rate (affordable housing). I had brought my greenhouse on top of my van and knew that I would need space to raise chickens and grow food. If I had rented an apartment, I would not have been able to do that.
Now, I really love living here. I am involved in the community and with policy making. It’s not just for me, it’s for my kids, and my grandkids who live here too. I want Mapleton to be a really wonderful place for my family to live.
What inspired you to transform Mapleton to a park with sustainable practices?
When I first arrived I realized an equity needed to be established at Mapleton with food because even though we are not in a food desert–we are located near Sprouts, Vitamin Cottage and Whole Foods–many residents can't afford to shop at those stores. I realized that I could instead teach the residents to grow organic food. So the minute I moved to Mapleton, I converted my lot to a full-functioning garden. People were amazed at how fast I did it. I started sheet mulching, collecting leaves and finding people who raised organically-fed goats and rabbits. I went to the farmers market and networked. The second year I put up my greenhouse, and that was my donation to the community. I grew about 5,000 plants and gave them to the families.
Many residents now have gardens, and having gardens helped to build community. The gardens gave residents a feeling of purpose. People who were struggling alone, including seniors who didn’t have family nearby, would gather together. The seniors who can't partake in growing do projects with the kids while their parents garden. We fair share what we grow. All these things build community.
At first many were against bringing chickens into Mapleton because they thought the chickens would attract wild animals and decrease property values. We brought in cooperative extention staff to talk to residents, so by the time it went to a vote, the residents were ready to take on a two-year project which allowed eight chickens per property. The program was strict. The chickens needed to have shelter, and the chicken area had to be placed in a particular spot on the property. Homes are only about 10 to 12 feet apart, so neighbors were required to sign that they would accept chickens in adjacent yards. In the beginning only 10 residents were allowed into the program, and there were a lot of meetings. Now if anyone wants to have chickens, they can, but they still sign an agreement with their neighbors and also sign that someone can inspect the animals. The program has been going on nine years, and it’s been wonderful. I always joke and say goats are next, but I don’t have the energy.
I think we are the only mobile home park in the city of Boulder that has these kind of projects. We showed that even in small spaces, there are endless possibilities to grow your own food.
What are some of the other community projects at Mapleton?
We started working with CU Boulder's sustainability department, which works with FLOWS (Foundation for Leaders Organizing for Water and Sustainability) about water conservation. We work with them to capture water from the gutters for xeriscape gardening. FLOWS checked the water pressure within homes and tested whether there were leaks in the lines. We also work with Growing Gardens, which reconnects people with their local food systems and teaching gardening, cooking and nutrition education. We pick seedlings so families can plant. We have parties with music to swap seeds. We received another grant from the city to buy art supplies so people can gather and do different projects.
Students from CU Boulder and elementary schools as well as permaculture groups visit Mapleton. We do workshops, and the students also help senior community members with projects. One project was building a bench with a roof. The bench sits there so beautifully; there was no shade there before.
Many manufactured housing parks have old infrastructures. How are you addressing that?
We have an amazing board. We changed our rules, regulations and bylaws, which is a huge undertaking. We changed property managers.
We are now updating water pipes, which will cost $2 million. Our infrastructure was very old and the water tasted bad. After surveying residents living on the north side of the park, we showed the city why the residents weren’t drinking the water. We then received a grant from the city of Boulder's sugar tax for $675,000 to work on the north side (the south side had been completed). Because we are very stable financially as a nonprofit, we were able to get a very low interest rate from the bank and a few grants, so we’re in very good shape.
Was Mapleton affected by the 2013 flood?
I first bought a tiny home, 10 x 55, and five of my kids lived there. The greenhouse was our living room. The door never closed; the outside and inside were one.
And then the flood came. Mapleton Mobile Home Park was hit hard because many homes were older. My little home was 65 years old. When Boulder Creek started clogging with trees, water ditches started overflowing and water came through my backyard. It looked like Niagara Falls. The water entered my home through the ground because the soil couldn't absorb the amount of water. My husband works for CU Boulder, so he was gone with the emergency at CU. I was here with the kids and dogs. It was so bad, that by the next morning when I came back, the mattresses were soaked, and a tree had fallen on the greenhouse. I wasn’t the only one–32 homes got hit hard. After the flood, the city did a program to help mobile homeowners affected by the flood, because a lot of people continued living in their homes that had flooded. We fixed ours, but we were living in it while we were fixing it, which was challenging with the kids and animals.
Mapleton received 32 new homes through FEMA. It was a challenge because the original homes were small, and the replacements were big. I ended up staying with my kids in a hotel for eight months until our new home was put in.
I documented the entire process, and I show this as a case study when I teach permaculture. When the flood hit my home, I was flourishing. I had fruit trees, the kids had a tree house above a shed. It was all on the principles of permaculture in a small space, creating as many yields as possible. After the flood, I took everything out. I moved trees. My soil is gold, so I took the soil from the raised beds. Different people would come and help. Our new home arrived in February, and by August I had a full harvest. I put the raised beds in, built a chicken coop and redesigned the whole lot. Not that I enjoyed everything. I thought I was going to lose my mind because I was working full time commuting to Denver, and I had the kids and my dogs in a hotel, and I had to come back to Mapleton to feed the chickens. It was not a ride in the park. Some people were struggling with their applications, and they felt like they couldn’t do it, and I was encouraging them. Everyone would help each other when it was time for someone to move. People had been living here 30 years and had stuff under their trailers. It was not easy. But now we are so grateful that FEMA funding was available. Some of these families would not have ever been able to afford a home. We all pulled together, and we were able to do this for each other.
What are some of the benefits of living in a mobile home community?
When 9-11 hit, we were in Pennsylvania about two hours from NYC, I had seven acres, and my taxes were around $400 a year. After Sept. 11, my property taxes went up to $2,700 in one year because so many people were trying to move to our area after the terrorist event. It made me realize that when I became older, I would probably not be able to afford to live there.
Today I have a three-year-old home. My property taxes are approximately $400, but compared to Boulder homes–and my kids are in the same school district as those who own homes–I don’t pay hardly anything. People are realizing mobile home parks are an affordable way to live. It’s much more sustainable because you are not heating big homes. Maintenance is a lot less than a big home. So more people are being sold to the idea of living in mobile home parks. A lot of the mobile home parks that are near water now cost around $200,000 for a property. Even $200,000 is nothing compared to the real-estate market of a home in Boulder or Florida.
How many hours a week do you work as an HOA leader?
I work approximately 12 hours each week, and that’s when everything is pretty smooth. The management committee chair always calls me if something needs resolution because I have been on the board so long. We do board meetings once a month, but when I was the chair, it was two meetings a month. And then the quarterly resident meetings, the emails, the newsletters, the tree projects and now we’re doing the infrastructure for the water, which is enormous. The construction crew is tearing up the streets, so we arranged the parking for families. At some point during construction there’s going to be no electric or water, and we’re organizing that.
Why are HOAs important for mobile home parks?
HOAs are important because they give residents a voice, and knowledge gets shared. Our board puts out a monthly newspaper and organizes quarterly meetings where the community comes together. And if there's anything big to vote on, we start preparing residents before the meetings so their voices are heard. This model works because we are working with a nonprofit (Thistle Communities). Private park owners can raise your rent $100 to $150 a month if they don’t like you. They can add a million rules. People who have been living in mobile home parks have become a portfolio of income for private owners. These private owners want all the old folks to leave and to bring in new people. Then the rents are raised to $800 and $900, they charge you for the water bill, and before know it, you are paying in a mobile home park what you would pay for a Boulder apartment. People are still attracted to mobile home parks because they can have a backyard to garden, whereas most Boulder apartments don’t have that. At a mobile home park, you have two parking spaces in front of your home. Not everyone has parking in Boulder.
Locally groups have formed to introduce legislation so that private owners can't just come in and do whatever they want to mobile home residents
What has the Mapleton HOA been able to achieve? What are you most proud of? Has this been a rewarding experience?
I am most proud of the community building–to see everyone care for each other. If someone we know is sick, we bring meals. We have funding from the city and private people have donated into a fund so if someone is struggling, or if during COVID someone can't afford the rent, we help them. We also have a city liason who brings information about resources to the community.
The woman on the other side of my property's home burned down. We were able to ask an owner who hadn't moved in yet if she could live there when he wasn't there, and she lived there for four months. He didn’t even charge her rent because he was paying anyway, and she needed a place.
The other four members on the board are dedicated. It doesn’t matter how many hours, if something comes up, we get together. There was a resident with the coronavirus who needed financial support. Everyone chipped in, and he’s getting food and financial resources now. He probably would have died because he had no energy, and there was no food in the house.
Living in a manufactured home community is not perfect because we live in such close quarters. There are seniors who are bothered by noise. In a few situations people have mental illnesses, and if they don’t take their meds, it gets pretty bad. There are residents who have very low incomes. Sometimes they can’t pay the electric bill or this or that, and because of the mental illness they don’t have capacity to seek help. There's a lot of trust with the board and the management committee, and if we know there’s a need, they can count on us. That feels really good.
On the part of sustainability, it just makes me happy that I show groups so many gardens. We have a senior, he’s in an old senior home now, but when I would bring groups, he would come out with the teens and he would show them how to make kale chips, and he would sun dry them. There was enormous amount of connection and respect, and the kids would come back and say, "Could we go back to Gene’s house?"
We also work with the Boulder courts, and people who get credit for community service do work in our seniors' yards. Maybe the workers are having a hard time, but they come here and see that we have this little village. We get pizza for them when they work here, and somebody makes cupcakes.
We rent dumpsters for cleanout days because some people don’t have the wheels or money to bring their larger items to the dump. We have money that comes from the residents' rent, and we decided that we are doing this service because it beautifies the park.
What advice would you give to mobile homeowners who are thinking about starting an HOA?
I would say they should look at other mobile home communities that have started HOAs. Do the research, get involved, attend board meetings of other communities, look at their newspapers and the kind of information they want their residents to have. The main thing is to decide on the new HOA's goals. Do they want a community that is just affordable? Or do they want a community that’s more engaged?
How has the pandemic affected Mapleton residents?
Many residents have lost jobs. If someone is struggling, we recommend them to the our city liaison, and she will connect them to resources. We work with Boulder Food Rescue. So twice to three times each week food is delivered here, and volunteers from our community set the food out, and families get the food. Some families don’t want to go there because they are embarrassed, so someone will take a few bags of food to them.
Do Mapleton residents want to purchase the park?
At Mapleton, residents own their homes, but they don’t own the land beneath them. A nonprofit, Thistle Communities, owns the land, and we have a 100-year lease. Mapleton's board runs the finances, insurance, rules and regulations and the leases. Prospective resident applications are handled by Thistle, which determines, based on income, which tier (affordable housing or market rate) applicants qualify for.
Our goal is to become land owners and form some sort of a cooperative. We have attended meetings with the nonprofit ROC (Resident Owned Communitites), which helps create cooperatives with mobile home parks so residents can own the land. Other organizations are working on affordable housing with mobile homes. In the last few years, acquiring mobile home parks have become huge money makers, so a lot of people are buying these mobile home parks, increasing the rent, and also making them very strict cookie-cutter patterns. The homes have to be younger than a certain year, and if the year of the mobile home is much older, then it has to be removed. Mobile home parks used to be the most affordable way for low-income families to be able to afford a home, but it’s changed.
How much longer do you plan to live at Mapleton?
My eight children live at Mapleton, and my three youngest still live with me. I have five grandchildren here too. I probably will continue to live here after my retirement. I am very happy here.
Read more stories from the "Voices" collection.