After the Flood

Questions remain about future of Wheel Estate Mobile Home Park

By Bill Dries

When the flood water and debris from Nonconnah Creek receded last week from the Wheel Estate Mobile Home Park on East Brooks Road, it exposed a set of familiar issues for such properties in Memphis.

The Wheel Estate Mobile Home Park on East Brooks Road was hit by the recent flooding in Memphis. The neighborhood is front and center of a flooding problem faced by some properties in the city.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Mauricio Calvo, the executive director of Latino Memphis, described it as a “frustration” that comes as he tries to pin down who makes sure the flooding problem is fixed or is at least minimized so residents of Wheel Estate can salvage what they have and make long-term decisions about their futures.

“We asked earlier this week, ‘Who is enforcing this, who is accountable?’” Calvo said. “We didn’t get an answer on that.”

Calvo said city and county officials are responsible for some of the issues, the owner is responsible for others and the tenants are for yet other specific property issues. And at times, the answers from each have conflicted.

Memphis City Council member Harold Collins, whose district includes Wheel Estate, said the most immediate priority is to get the section of Nonconnah Creek that runs by the park flowing more freely to move the water.

“It has debris growing, shrubbery, all that kind of stuff inside the creek,” Collins said. “We’re going to have to go to TDEC (Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation), I think, to clean the ditch.”

The park is even older than the 1960s- and 1970s-era mobile home parks in Frayser that were forced to close after the near-record 2011 flooding of the Mississippi River and its tributaries near those mobile home parks and Wheel Estate.

Wheel Estate was built in 1962, according to Shelby County Assessor of Property records. It was a year before the current Memphis International Airport opened to the public across Winchester Road from the smaller and original airport. And the nearby interstate was incomplete.

Like the Frayser properties owned by different companies, Wheel Estate was grandfathered or made an exception to rules that would come later that barred such development in flood plains. The Frayser parks flooded repeatedly.

Wheel Estate Inc., listing O.D. Madewell as its president, transferred the property in 1973 to the Wheel Estate Investment Trust for $10. The trust still owns it. Wallace Madewell, a former city chief administrative officer who served as interim Memphis mayor in 1982 following the resignation of Mayor Wyeth Chandler, is the manager of the property who has been talking with Collins and Calvo.

Children play in the Wheel Estate Mobile Home Park in Whitehaven. The property has been dealing with flooding issues from nearby Nonconnah Creek.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Collins said one long-term issue for him is whether the park remains and under what terms.

“What needs to be done in order to ensure that those trailers don’t get flooded? Either they get moved or they raise them up higher such that in the event of another major rain, the flooding doesn’t occur and go into their homes,” he said. “It will probably occur and flood the street, but at least their homes wouldn’t be flooded.”

Like the Frayser parks that are now being converted to RV parks, the tenants are predominantly Latino, which is how Calvo’s organization has become involved.

“Latino Memphis is trying to help families get organized and educated to know both their rights and responsibilities,” he said, pointing to language barriers in some cases that can be complicated by the complex nature of the mobile home business in such parks.

“The land is owned by one individual, but then people who live there – they are either renting a trailer or they own the trailer or they rent to purchase the trailer,” Calvo said. “It’s the only choice they have. … They get to own something long-term. That’s why Latino families tend to gravitate to these places.”

A family living in one of the homes and paying on it might be inclined to move back in before they should because they look at it as an investment for which some paid $300 a month.

“There are some practical issues going on right now. Can people go back to these particular homes? … Some of these houses smell like mold. Just a little bit of water was enough to destroy the flooring and parts of the walls,” Calvo said. “If the trailer is there and you’ve already finished paying that … you’re stuck. You put $20,000 into this thing. They are expensive. … Now they have this question – should I reinvest or where should I go? … We don’t have answers for any of that stuff yet.”

Collins suspects there isn’t any place for Wheel Estate to go after 52 years in which everything around it has changed.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to move the trailer park. Maybe we can move those trailers that are in the flood plain,” he said. “This is all they have. I know the worse thing is for the trailers to be condemned and they lose everything they have.”