Where were their neighborsand elected officialswhen the Foxborough trailerpark residents needed them

The special town meeting in Foxborough on December 6 was a civic gathering unlike any other in the town’s history. A tent and heaters were set up outside Foxborough High School to accommodate the overflow as a record crowd of 2,334 residents–out of a possible 10,000 voters–turned out to decide whether the New England Patriots would be allowed to replace 30-year-old Foxboro Stadium with a new state-of-the-art arena.

In distinctly New England fashion, the five-year-long saga of Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s search for a new home field came down to an open town meeting in a municipality of 16,400 people. After months of high-level haggling with political leaders in three states, the Patriots still had to satisfy local voters. The Kraft organization opened a storefront campaign office in town, as if Drew Bledsoe were running for selectman. Fevered negotiations over sticking points ranging from sewerage to a controversial access road located just off a neighborhood street continued through the hours preceding the evening meeting.

But it seemed the outcome was never truly in doubt. Stadium supporters, many attired in blue and gray Patriots sweatshirts, packed the place. Each of the warrant’s six articles dealing with stadium construction passed by at least a 90 percent majority. In near unanimity, Foxborough made clear its desire to keep the New England Patriots right where they were.

But as that triumphant town meeting fades into memory, there is a far less jubilant tale to tell of the death of a neighborhood and, perhaps, even of homelessness.

Four months after the vote, longtime Foxborough resident Jackie Sewell appeared in the town hall offices of the Board of Health bearing a bouquet of spring flowers. She quietly placed them on the desk of Sandra Herrman, administrative assistant to the board. The two were soon exchanging hugs and fighting back tears.

If the new stadium has its throng of boosters, Herrman stands as one of the few champions for those, like Sewell, who are losing their homes to accommodate the new monument to football. Herrman, along with the Board of Health and the town’s health agent, has been one of the few allies to whom Sewell and her neighbors in a Route 1 mobile-home park have been able to turn during their 14-month battle against eviction. The health office licenses hotels and trailer parks, and Herrman has become emotionally invested in the plight of the mobile-home dwellers. “It’s just so sad for those people,” she says. “Some of [them] are going to have no place to go.”

Sewell’s neighborhood of 26 years, a down-at-the-heels cluster of single-wides just off the state highway, has been home to working-class, elderly, and low-income people. But the land they live on belongs to Kraft, and it’s right where he intends to put a parking lot for the new open-air arena, scheduled to open in 2002. The residents have been ordered out by August 1. For months, Sewell and her husband and some of their neighbors hung tough. “We are not leaving,” she said in early April, her voice hardening. “It’s going to be a royal battle.”

By now, it’s a battle the mobile-home dwellers have just about lost. Even Sewell and her husband surrender-ed in late May, agreeing to sell their mobile home to Kraft. But important questions remain about the choices the stadium owner, the state, and Sewell’s Foxborough neighbors made in sacrificing these townsfolk to the gods of professional sports.

Home, Sweet Mobile Home

To an outsider’s eyes, the Route 1 trailer park hardly seems worth fighting over. The grounds are not graced by clubhouses, playgrounds, or even sidewalks, as some mobile-home parks are, and most of the trailers lost their showroom luster long ago. Indeed, the park, which doesn’t even have a formal name, has barely been treated like a business for some time. Landlord Kraft has neither raised the below-market lot rent of $135 per month since he bought the place in 1996 nor sought the eviction of a tenant who’s been in arrears for a decade.

The isolated neighborhood, which had 74 households and about 150 residents until last year, sprang up decades ago as housing for employees of the adjacent Foxboro Raceway, which featured harness racing until it closed in 1997. For years, only members of the United States Trotting Association were allowed to live in the trailer park, says Sewell, a homemaker who was once a parade marshal at the raceway. It’s the kind of place where neighbors actually did borrow cups of sugar from one another.

In the wake of the Patriots’ decision to replace Foxboro Stadium with a new arena–and pave over their neighborhood–the first residents moved out last summer. By late June, only nine remained. The others had sold or made arrangements to sell their mobile homes to the Kraft organization.

As families disappeared from the grounds, so did some of their homes. At least a dozen trailers were towed off or demolished this spring. Daniel Goldberg, an attorney who represents Kraft’s Foxboro Realty Associates, says the empty relics were removed as a precaution against vandalism. Still present, one day in April, was refuse piled on a vacant lot: jagged chunks of drywall and torn insulation cordoned off by orange plastic snow-fencing.

The removal of homes and the debris left behind deeply upset the remaining residents, which, they allege, was exactly the intent of their landlord–a charge Goldberg denies. Sewell seethes as she recalls the demolition that began one Sunday morning at 8 o’clock. (Goldberg says the unauthorized weekend foray cost the contractor his job.) “It’s so immoral,” Sewell says of the way she and her neighbors have been treated. “We’re not child molesters,” she says. “We should not be thrown out of our town for a parking lot!”

Where were the mobile-home dwellers’ neighbors when they needed them?

Another park resident, Phyllis Handy, organized 17 of her neighbors to air their grievances on Beacon Hill one day this spring, picketing the State House in the vain hope that legislators would amend the year-old state law governing the stadium deal. In April, Handy also filed a class action lawsuit in federal court in Boston, challenging the eviction as unconstitutional and seeking “just compensation” for the park residents. Goldberg calls the suit “frivolous,” and says the Kraft organization will move for its dismissal.

The ability of the remaining mobile-home park residents to put up a united front, however, has fallen victim to internal squabbling and dwindling numbers. Resident Paul Vacca led negotiations with the Kraft organization as president of the tenants’ association until he moved away this spring. “Some people have praised me, and some people say I sold out,” says Vacca. Persuasive representatives of the Kraft organization kept chipping away at residents’ resolve, Sewell says. “As bad as I wanted to fight for it, nobody was standing behind me,” she says. “I could see all these people were not going to stick together.”

Because of an agreement she signed with the Kraft organization, Sewell cannot discuss the deal she got. But she says, “Under the circumstances, [Kraft] is offering good money.” It was not enough for her be able to stay in Foxborough, though. She and her husband plan to live with her sister until September, when they can move into a new mobile home in a park in Attleboro.

Vacca, who feels freer to discuss the sale of his home, says he took $50,000 for his three-bedroom unit. He says he got “a very bad deal,” but “I really don’t make a big stink.”

Handy says Kraft should relocate the entire trailer park to a new location or “give everybody $250,000,” roughly the median sale price of a house in Foxborough. But Vacca, who tapped $20,000 in savings in order to buy a new, two-bedroom mobile home in Norton for $75,000, called such notions “pie in the sky.” And they are, according to Edward Currie Sr., chairman of the state’s Manufactured Homes Commission. A mobile home park owner himself, Currie says of used units, “There isn’t one that I know of in the country that’s worth [even] $100,000.”

Most who had the means to leave the mobile-home park are long gone. For folks who remained through the spring, the math of moving proved daunting. Take Joanne McAssey, a 12-year resident of the park who attended the Beacon Hill rally. She’s a stay-at-home mom to three children, two of whom attend Foxborough public schools. Her husband is a horse trainer at Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville. The appraisal on their mobile home was $68,000. But with $22,000 left on the mortgage, the remaining payment, she says, is “not enough for me to stay in the community where I chose to raise those three children.” Renting an apartment in Foxborough would cost $1,000 a month, McAssey says–far more than the $610 a month the family can afford to pay now for mortgage and lot rent.

“I’m not asking for the outrageous. I just want something I can afford,” McAssey says. “Where can I go with three children? There’s no affordable housing in Foxborough.”

Goldberg says the Kraft organization recognizes that moving is “a difficult issue” for the residents. “We understand not everybody’s going to be happy as a result.” But, he says, his client is “not going to reward financially those people who hold out.”

A Political Football

Kraft bought Foxboro Stadium in the 1980s, and was hailed as a hometown hero when he took over ownership of the Patriots team in 1994. Soon thereafter, Kraft began searching for a better place to showcase his football team.

The aging stadium was unsatisfactory in part because it lacks the pricey luxury and club seats that have become a staple in sports arenas. The income from this premium (and largely corporate) seating is partially excluded from player revenue-sharing arrangements, and therefore a key source of cash for owners. The new stadium in Foxborough will quadruple the number of luxury seats–from 504 to 2,000–and create 6,000 club seats where there are now none.

But the path back to Foxborough was a long and circular one. Kraft was rebuffed on plans for a “megaplex” on the South Boston waterfront, then played footsie for a time with Rhode Island officials over a possible move toProvidence. An initial plan to update Foxboro Stadium fell victim to a standoff over public funding with House Speaker Thomas Finneran. Then, in November 1998, Kraft struck a $1 billion, publicly funded deal with the state of Connecticut to put the stadium in Hartford. Only after it looked like that venue could not be built in time for the 2002 season did Kraft pull out, in April 1999. With a return to Foxborough once again in the cards, relieved Beacon Hill leaders put the stadium deal on a lightning-fast track. Unveiled on May 12 of last year and passed by the Legislature just six days later, the bill was signed into law by Gov. Paul Cellucci on May 24.

What the mobile-home park residents say they didn’t know until it was too late was that that legislation, which appeared to give them a fair array of options, in fact gave them the shaft. Buried in the law was a provision, aimed solely at the Route 1 mobile-home park, that exempted the stadium’s designated “economic development area” from existing state law designed to protect the rights of residents of manufactured housing, including mobile homes. That law, passed in 1993, guaranteed residents of mobile-home parks two years’ notice before they can be evicted. It also gives them the right of first refusal to buy the site from an owner who’s pulling out. The stadium bill, in contrast, slashed the eviction-notice time (in Foxborough only) to just six months and denied the Route 1 residents their right to bid on the land. Those two issues are major flashpoints for anger among residents, though they have had 14 months to vacate the premises and could not have exercised a right of first refusal because the land was not changing hands.

These provisions were not the residents’ only problems, however. The law said that Kraft “may” relocate the residents’ homes to another site “within or adjacent to the economic development area or another suitable site licensed for a manufactured housing community.” From all accounts, relocation to another section of Kraft’s 325 acres was the residents’ first choice, and why this obvious solution never came about is a subject of dispute. Charles Masison, chairman of the Foxborough Board of Selectmen, says he broached the idea with all parties. Goldberg says it was the residents who dropped the ball. “They were the ones promoting the idea of a relocation on-site,” Goldberg says, “and I could never get any specifics from them.”

Sewell begs to differ. “He received all that information,” she says of Goldberg. The residents sent both written and verbal relocation plans to him through Masison and the Board of Health, she says. “After we gave them any information that they needed,” Sewell says, Kraft’s representatives told her “they didn’t want to own the trailer park. That was the bottom line.”

In the stadium law, Kraft is also called upon to pay any displaced tenant either the “full and fair market value” of the home, as determined by an independent appraiser, or the actual cost of relocating it to a new community of the tenant’s choosing within a 100-mile radius. But moving to another mobile-home park, the tenants say, is easier said than done. Most wanted to stay in or near Foxborough for their jobs or their kids’ schooling. In addition, the practice in mobile-home parks in Massachusetts, say authorities in the field, is not to accept a tenant who hauls his or her home in from someplace else. Park operators make their money by selling newcomers a new unit. Nor can residents just cart a mobile home to some empty plot of land they might buy or lease–that’s illegal in Foxborough, though it is allowed in other Massachusetts towns, such as Middleborough and Freetown, according to Currie of the Manufactured Homes Commission.

And in the case of mobile homes, the Foxborough residents argue, “full and fair market value” is not as fair as it sounds. Unlike permanent houses, which appreciate in value as real estate prices rise, mobile homes depreciate, like cars. For some, the buyout is not enough to purchase anything–certainly not a house or condo, but many times not even a new mobile home. Vacca said some park residents got $30,000 to $40,000 for their units, though some, including Vacca, got more than that.

The stadium bill did create a three-member committee charged with “assist[ing] manufactured housing community residents who are affected” by the legislation. The local and state officials on the panel have given residents information on mortgages and affordable housing in the area. But there are waiting lists for everything, and the panel has little real authority to make anything happen.

“What the governor and Legislature [have] done to us is outrageous,” says Sewell. “It’s like we don’t count because we live in a trailer park.”

Rob Sargent, legislative director for MassPIRG, the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, says the outrage the mobile-home residents feel is justified. “What [the Legislature] did was they carved out an exemption to a consumer-protection law for a well-connected person,” Sargent says. And that, he says, is “not the way that you’re supposed to make policy in the state.”

Who Pays For Progress?

The lawmakers on Beacon Hill who voted for the legislation, including the Foxborough area’s own representatives, argue it was not the interests of a well-connected man that was foremost in their minds in May 1999. Rather, it was balancing the new stadium’s benefits to the state and the town of Foxborough–economic development, jobs, and tax revenue–against the adverse effect it might have on a few.

Many development projects have winners and losers. And certainly, as the property owner, Kraft has the right to control the use of his land. But Massachusetts memories seem short when it comes to the ramifications of plowing a neighborhood under. Boston’s West End was bulldozed in 1959 and 1960 to make room for the upscale apartments and condominiums of Charles River Park and remains a notorious example of urban renewal run amok. But if the parallel to the Foxborough situation was not so evident, it is perhaps because of the peculiar spell that a professional sports franchise casts not only on fans but on civic, business, and political leaders, too.

Charles Euchner, associate director of the Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, who’s written a book about how cities vie for sports teams, says that with an expensive project like a sports arena, there are plenty of folks who want their piece of the pie. In Foxborough, the pie is certainly big enough. The cost estimate for construction of the new 68,000-seat stadium stands at $325 million, to be financed largely through the National Football League. The state is kicking in $70 million in public money for infrastructure, so the town of Foxborough is looking forward to expanded sewer, water, and road capacity from the deal, as well as a minimum $500,000 increase in the $1 million-plus annual direct revenue payment. Even high school athletic teams that raise money selling concessions at Pats games took their case to Beacon Hill.

“There’s a lot to be gained for a few people, and these are the people who are best at mobilizing and making an argument,” Euchner says. In opposition, the small band of mobile-home park residents in Foxborough, he says, “never had a prayer.”

Neither did legislators who tried to defend them. State Sen. JoAnn Sprague (R-Walpole) says pleading the case of her Foxborough constituents to the leadership in both chambers, as well as to Gov. Cellucci, got her nowhere. “There was just a very strong line drawn by the three leaders of the government here in Massachusetts that any change in this legislation was a deal-breaker as far as the Krafts were concerned,” Sprague recalls. In the end, she concluded that the town needed the team and the benefits that will come with the new stadium. “That revenue,” she argues, “is for the common good.” She voted for the bill, as did Rep. Barbara Hyland (R-Foxborough), who echoed Sprague’s sentiments.

So, too, did Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton), even though he authored the 1993 legislation protecting residents of manufactured housing. He says legislators took their lead from the team’s home town. “The Foxborough community spoke with one voice; they wanted it done,” says Pacheco. “If Foxborough had said, ‘No, we’ll be glad to do it, but only under the condition this residential piece was taken care of,’ that’s the way that it would’ve gone.”

Euchner says the belief that the local economy will benefit from a new stadium is largely false. The money spent by fans, he says, goes mostly to fund the salaries of players–who don’t live or spend money in Foxborough. Local businesses don’t see much of a boost, either, from just 10 Patriots home games a year and 16 or so New England Revolution soccer games, he says. But whatever the perceived benefits, he says, it’s up to government to balance out the gains and the impact. “It’s the public sector’s job,” Euchner says, “to make sure that there’s basic fairness, and one side doesn’t have undue influence.”

The Long Goodbye

As the August 1 eviction deadline looms, the last of the mobile-home park residents were planning their exits, leaving just a handful of hold-outs at press time. Some headed for Florida; a few found their way into subsidized housing in the area. One extended family that had lived in two mobile homes was pooling its resources to buy a house in Foxborough.

With so little affordable housing in Foxborough or Massachusetts as a whole, the Route 1 trailer park is “an important type of community,” says George Young, Foxborough’s health agent. And it’s one that’s on the verge of being lost.

The health board wrote to the town’s housing authority attesting to the emergency housing crisis that park residents faced, allowing them to move to the top of the waiting list for subsidized units. But, Young says, “If there’s no housing, there’s no place for you to go.”

“We have the very real possibility,” Herrman said in April, that people who are now part of the Foxborough community “are going to be homeless.”

But Goldberg says the Kraft organization has helped the residents locate housing and vacancies in other mobile-home parks. Kraft has also waived the $135 monthly lot rent once any resident has committed to sell his unit and offered a cash payment equivalent to another six months’ rent to help with relocation expenses.

Both Sewell and Selectman Masison say it’s possible that one or more stalwarts could be left in the mobile-home park on August 1 and may have to be physically evicted. Goldberg says the Kraft organization hopes that won’t have to happen. He doesn’t say so, but the image of forced evictions is not likely to be one that the Patriots owner wants to see on the 6 o’clock news at the start of pre-season play.

Meet the Author
For some trailer-park residents, Kraft is the enemy. But Pacheco says the town of Foxborough made its choice, as well. “Some people may come down on the side that it wasn’t the right choice for this particular group, and it may well not have been. Now, we’ll have to wait and see whether the general public interest outweighs what some residents would argue is a negative impact.”

It has occurred to Sewell, at least, that it was not just Bob Kraft or even Beacon Hill power brokers who destroyed her neighborhood, but rather her fellow Foxborough citizens, too. Sounding tired and crestfallen, Sewell says, “It’s the people in this town that were the most disappointing.” They may have offered sympathy privately, she says, but they never spoke out publicly. And Sewell says she knows why: “People just figure you’re trailer-park trash.”