Helping at Home
UI sociology professor and students take on research at local mobile home park
Leontina “LT” Hormel first learned about Syringa Mobile Home Park in 2009, when two students in her “Introduction to Sociology” class were residents of the park.
In 2013, Hormel, an associate professor of sociology in the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Idaho, read newspaper reports discussing a water crisis at Syringa, which is just outside Moscow. The residents discovered that the water they had been drinking was contaminated with coliform bacteria, E. coli, lead and chlorine. After the discovery, running water was shut off for 90 days.
Having the connection to the two students who lived in Syringa gave Hormel an interest in the situation.
She began conducting sociological research on the park and its residents after Magar E. Magar, the man who owns the park, and the residents reached a partial settlement. Hormel knew she wanted to act and help the residents in some way, she just needed a place to start. After discussing the matter with her former students, Hormel began her research in March 2015.
“When you are working directly with residents, it’s the kind of situation where you can’t just say things to make things better,” Hormel said. “There are people’s lives at stake.”
For the 2016 fall semester, Hormel incorporated the research project into one of her classes. Six students enrolled in the fall 2016 Sociology 423 course “Sociology of Prosperity: Social Class and Economics in the 21st Century.”
The research team consisted of Cynthia Ballesteros, Haylee Brister, Angelica Lopez, Kenneth Marcy, and Lincoln Smith, all undergraduates who studied different aspects of the Syringa situation. Also at UI, Maureen Laflin, a law professor and the director of clinical programs in the College of Law, led a legal clinic team that handled a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Syringa residents.
Hormel's class began with a book that discussed a similar topic as the Syringa Mobile Home Park: “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond. The book follows the stories of tenants and landlords in two Milwaukee neighborhoods: the predominantly black North Side and the predominantly white South Side. Desmond compares the experiences of poor households in each neighborhood.
The students then conducted archival research, focusing on topics related to their majors. For example, Smith, an economics major, used his skills in business economics and business statistics to contribute to the team by entering data they collected into spreadsheets.
Together, the team learned about the issue of “red tagging” in Syringa. When residents decide to move out of their mobile homes, for any reason from health to safety, Latah County places red tags on the trailers to indicate that the properties cannot be inhabited until the conditions necessary are met by the park’s owner.
Some mobile homes are privately owned, but too expensive to move, leading owners to abandon them. The average value of a mobile home has decreased significantly in recent years, to an average value of $3,000. A study by Boise State University showed it would take $5,000 to $10,000 dollars to move the trailer out of the park, making it not worth moving the home at all.
The main goal of the project was to continually give things back to the residents. Hormel wanted to make sure that the residents were being represented well, and also wanted the people of Moscow to think about the city’s approach to affordable housing.
“A lot of things you talk about in international development are happening right here,” Hormel said. “What we often think about happening somewhere far away in another country is happening right here.”
The class gave the students experiences they would not normally get solely in the classroom, said Ballesteros, a senior from Nampa, Idaho, majoring in sociology.
“It’s the classroom in real life,” Ballesteros said. “That was one of the best things about this class. And it’s affecting real lives.”
WRITER: Jordan Gonzalez, a freshman from Wenatchee, Washington, is majoring in anthropology.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Chuan He is a sophomore from Zhuhai, China, studying secondary education with an emphasis on social studies.