(October 2004) Rising housing costs in rural America have put homeownership beyond the reach of many working-poor families. Owning a manufactured home (often also known as a “mobile home”) in a rural trailer park is often touted to these families as an affordable “next best thing”—and a step toward conventional homeownership.
But a new study of trailer park residents in four states finds that, rather than being a step in the right direction, manufactured-home ownership in a privately owned park can be a trap—a declining and often dangerous structure that lacks many of the social benefits of small town life and leaves its owners in a state of “quasi-homelessness,” ever vulnerable to losing their home.
Owning a mobile home but renting the land it stands on in a trailer park amounts to “a kind of serfdom,” says Sonya Salamon, a community studies professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana, and co-author of the study.
“Being landless leaves trailer owners at the park landlord’s mercy,” explains Salamon. “Because the park is private property, the owners have little recourse if they’re evicted.”
Manufactured homes are the fastest-growing form of housing in the United States and a common sight in rural communities, where zoning and housing codes tend to be less restrictive than in urban areas. (According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, nearly one in six homes in nonmetro areas of the United States are mobile homes, compared with 8 percent nationwide and 6 percent in metro areas.)
For their research, which will be published in a forthcoming book, International Perspectives on Rural Homelessness, Salamon and co-author Katherine MacTavish interviewed 250 residents in rural rental and land-lease trailer parks in North Carolina, Illinois, New Mexico, and Oregon.
The researchers found hard-working rural families who took pride in their homes, but who also resented the popular stereotypes of trailer residents and often felt sucked into a financial arrangement filled with hidden costs and limitations.
Owning a manufactured home on land leased in a trailer park amounts to “half the American dream,” says MacTavish, a human development professor at Oregon State University.
“The owners do have a house and it is often better than an apartment, but it is really seen as second best because they don’t own the land,” explains MacTavish. “They don’t have the same control, status, or security as owning a stand-alone house.”
The manufactured housing industry estimates that about half the nation’s 8.8 million mobile homes are located in more than 50,000 landlord-owned parks. Salamon says that, since these trailer parks are regulated in only a few states, the parks’ owners are generally free to abruptly and exorbitantly raise fees and rents as well as make their own rules—for example, limiting whether residents can have pets or repair a car in their driveway.
Salamon and MacTavish also found that park residents can lose their homes without the due process given other types of renters. Lot rents are often raised beyond owners’ means, and trailer park land is frequently sold to developers. Even the misbehavior of a family’s children can be grounds for eviction, according to MacTavish.
And while these units are called “mobile” homes, Salamon points out that actually moving one can be quite costly—$3,000 or more. Faced with eviction, manufactured-home owners of modest means have little choice but to abandon their dwellings.
The median purchase price of an owner-occupied manufactured home in 2001 was $25,512, compared with $68,945 for an owner-occupied conventional home, according to the Census Bureau’s 2001 American Housing Survey.
The cost difference makes trailer homes appear to be an affordable alternative to conventional home ownership. But Salamon and MacTavish argue these homes can be a questionable investment.
The trailer owners the researchers studied were mainly dual-earner couples with children and modest incomes (averaging from $17,000 to $29,000). Most used personal-property loans—not mortgages—to buy their homes, because these loans require no up-front costs.
But personal-property loans are financed by subprime lending companies and carry interest rates up to 13.5 percent. To keep monthly costs low, many buyers opt for payments stretched over 30 years, which mires many families in chronic debt. For every 100 trailers sold in 2001, 20 were repossessed, according to manufactured housing industry estimates.
And while a conventional house tends to appreciate over time, Salamon and MacTavish found that the value of a typical manufactured home declines to half its original price in as little as three years. So trailer owners do not build equity that could be used toward a down payment on a conventional home, and the market for used trailers is weak.
“They tend to lose value quickly, similar to a car,” says MacTavish of mobile homes. “If the owners want more modern housing or more space, often their only option is to trade up to a newer mobile home through the same dealer, extending the payments for decades to come.”
The researchers also found that trailer owners incurred numerous repair costs on their homes. Most new manufactured homes have no more than a one-year warranty. But Salamon and MacTavish write that, even in homes less than five years old, owners were forced to repair or replace basic structural features such as doors, windows, floors, and roofs.
In addition, Salamon and MacTavish report that life in a mobile home presents elevated health and safety risks. For instance, mobile homes have twice the rate of fire death than other types of housing and are five times more likely to be wind damaged than a conventional house in the same area.
And residents also face indoor air pollution hazards, a result of formaldehyde from the plywood and particleboard often used in mobile home construction. A survey of 1,000 California mobile homes found elevated indoor levels of formaldehyde that caused physical symptoms such as dizziness and sore throats.
In mobile homes with tobacco smokers, add Salamon and MacTavish, the lack of airflow combines with other common pollutants to raise health risks for children, particularly during the winter months.
“Shabby” was the word Salamon and MacTavish used to describe the rental trailer parks they visited, where residents leased both trailer and home site. These parks tended to hold the oldest, most run-down trailers and to be located on the least desirable land—often abutting railroad tracks, highways, junkyards, and water treatment plants.
The researchers found that trailer renters were more likely to be “housing burdened”—in other words, spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing—than either rural trailer owners or rural residents as a whole.
Paying the utilities on an old, poorly insulated trailer can also take a substantial share of a families’ income: Salamon and MacTavish report that monthly energy bills of more than $250 were common in the Oregon park they visited.
The researchers also learned of families who signed trailer leases for 100 percent of their incomes, expecting to be evicted but having no other choice besides homelessness.
“In some rural areas, rental parks are the only affordable housing available,” says MacTavish. She adds that these families cycle in and out of homelessness, forced to choose among paying for rent, utilities, and food.
The manufactured-housing industry uses the phrase “manufactured-home community” instead of “trailer park” in their promotional materials. But a name change can’t erase the stigma of the usual setting for rural mobile homes.
Salamon and MacTavish discovered that residents of towns near the trailer parks tended without evidence to blame park residents for local crimes and considered the residents “freeloaders” for allegedly not paying a fair share of taxes for education and other public services.
The isolation of rural trailer parks, which are often located on the edge of a town, also limits contact between the town’s residents and park residents, a lack of exchange that Salamon and MacTavish argue contributes to the stereotyping.
And the stereotypes may explain in part why the researchers found that trailer park residents lacked a sense of community, which is often considered a hallmark of rural small-town life.
“We looked at whether the trailer park was functioning as a neighborhood,” says MacTavish. “Did neighbors exchange favors, for example? While we found pockets of neighborliness, most park residents were much less connected than residents of a typical small-town neighborhood.”
Salamon and MacTavish found one exception in a New Mexico trailer park, where residents owned both their trailers and the lots on which the trailers stood.
“Although the park looked shabbier than some of the others we studied, there were many more community connections and the residents were more cemented in place,” said MacTavish. “They worked together to get the street made into a dead end so children could play safely and cooperated with police to get a drug dealer out.”
But the researchers conclude that creating more cooperatively owned trailer parks wouldn’t eliminate the financial and structural downsides of trailer ownership.
“The question for policymakers is how to ensure a more adequate supply of affordable housing in rural areas that offers residents security, both financially and socially,” says MacTavish.
Paola Scommegna is a freelance writer.