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The Other Affordable Housing Crisis

Mobile home park residents typically own their homes but not the ground beneath them. When land values rise, that’s a problem.

Alex Simangas, a cook at a local pizza restaurant, stands with his son Alex and daughter Teresa outside their home at the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015, in Palo Alto, California. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

One peculiar thing about mobile homes is that most are not really mobile. Once it has been lowered onto a pad, a manufactured home can be expensive or even impossible to relocate intact. That reality can make the residents of mobile homes particularly vulnerable to rent hikes and abuses. In recent years, this dynamic has led to conflict as landlords clear out trailer parks to make room for new development.

Trailer park evictions are a crisis affecting a critical but widely ignored segment of affordable housing. The recovering real estate market is likely to put a growing number of these communities at risk.

"We certainly think, and there's anecdotal evidence to suggest, that these communities are in jeopardy, and that unscrupulous landlords and weak local and state law encourages this, either passively or actively—the destruction, reuse, redevelopment of these communities," says Doug Ryan, the director of affordable housing initiatives at the Corporation for Enterprise Development, a D.C.-based nonprofit.

Trailer parks are the largest segment of non-subsidized affordable housing in the United States, but they are on the radar of few policymakers, says Esther Sullivan, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Denver. Their number grew tremendously during the 1980s as direct federal funding for public housing was slashed, effectively privatizing much of the country's low-income housing. There are an estimated 8,462,461 mobile homes nationwide, according to recently released U.S. Census data.

The vast majority of mobile home parks are located not in far-flung rural areas but in more populous metros, says Sullivan, who spent two years living in and being evicted from closing mobile home parks as part of her research. They predominate in Sun Belt states like Texas, Florida, and California, but you can also find them near New York City, or Cleveland, or Seattle.

Trailer park residents typically own their homes but not the ground beneath them, meaning most of the benefits of homeownership can be destroyed at someone else’s whim. It’s precisely this divided ownership model that helps make mobile home living affordable, but it also leaves residents vulnerable to eviction.

In Palo Alto, the struggle of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park residents to defend their community from eviction amid a booming tech-fueled housing market has garnered widespread attention in recent years.

"It's definitely amped up hugely because of the land value in Silicon Valley," says Kyra Kazantzis, the directing attorney at The Law Foundation of Silicon Valley's Fair Housing Law Project.

A boy rides his skateboard through the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015, in Palo Alto, California. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The park has roughly 400 residents, according to Kazantzis, mostly working-class Latinos who pay about $735 in monthly rent in a city with a median home value that Zillow pegs at more than $2.4 million.

Some states require landowners to pay evicted mobile home residents a small amount of money for relocation, provide notice, or even offer residents a chance to purchase the land under their homes themselves. But in most states, protections are few. In California, owners must provide residents with notice at least one year in advance of closure plans, and financial assistance in relocating. But such provisions don't stop parks from closing. Nearly 4,800 mobile home lots were closed in the state between 1995 and 2014, according to the Department of Housing and Community Development, including many in Los Angeles, Orange, and Alameda counties.

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In Austin, Texas, residents of the North Lamar Community Mobile Home Park have organized the Asociación de los Residentes de North Lamar, and sued their landlords, Frank Rolfe and Dave Reynolds, for allegedly violating their leases by increasing rents and threatening evictions, according to The Texas Observer.

Rolfe and Reynolds, the Austin park's owners, have become major landlords nationwide. The pair also run Mobile Home University, which promises "future trailer park moguls … generous returns on park investments," according to the Observer. The paper describes them as "the architects of a ruthless business model of purchasing mobile home parks and then squeezing the tenants with rent and utility hikes and new fees. The method seems to work particularly well in fast-growing places like Austin, where affordable housing is increasingly scarce and working-class families have few options."  

Rolfe and Reynolds are part of a wave of entrepreneurs who have in recent years entered the trailer park market in force. The difficulty in moving a mobile home, Rolfe candidly told Bloomberg, is one reason the business is so lucrative.

“We’re like a Waffle House where everyone is chained to the booths," he said.

There are no national data on trailer park evictions. But Esther Sullivan undertook an in-depth study of fast-growing Harris County, Texas, using GIS research techniques to map closures. What Sullivan found is that evictions in the Houston metro area spiked at the height of the housing boom and declined during the crash. While traditional homeowners suffered during the recession, Sullivan suspects that trailer park residents experienced something like a respite as the real estate market cooled. That could be over.

"As the housing market begins to pick up steam I foresee an increasing risk to mobile home park residents as the land under their homes becomes more attractive to developers," she emails.

Sullivan also found that the closure of trailer parks in Houston was accompanied not by the development of condos or luxury properties but with the building of other forms of low-income housing, including Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) properties. Overall, Sullivan estimates that 85 mobile home parks closed in Harris County between 2002 and 2011. The total number of parks, however, held nearly constant. She suspects that newer parks "are located in peripheral or exurban areas," where land is cheap.

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The lack of data makes it impossible to paint a comprehensive picture of what is driving evictions nationwide. But Sullivan says that her research has led her to conclude that while different economic forces are at work in different metropolitan areas, the common denominators are the rising value of land and lack of legal protection.

In "South Florida, the parks where I lived and worked were closing to be redeveloped as big box stores and mixed-use developments," emails Sullivan. "In the rural exurban area of Texas where I lived, parks were being closed because the town was attempting to revitalize its image and required landlords to make costly upgrades and improvements or else close (many closed rather than make these costly upgrades). In Houston, where I conducted geospatial analysis, parks were closing in areas where low-value single family housing and federally-backed low-income housing was being developed."

A mobile home being moved out of a South Florida park in 2013. Such moves can cost between $8,000 and $13,000. (Courtesy Esther Sullivan)

Whatever the cause, dislocations can be painful.

In Lafayette Parish, Louisiana, residents of Sunny Acres trailer park say they can't find a new home in the two months they've been given before eviction day. Elderly residents of Scottsdale, Arizona's Wheel Inn Ranch RV and Mobile Home Park have recently been "tasked with uprooting their lives in a little more than six months, risking losing access to life-sustaining medical and financial services," according to the Arizona Republic.

On Long Island in New York, a small cluster of residents recently stayed put to fight their eviction from the Syosset Mobile Home Park, Nassau County's last, in a conflict that dates back to 2007. One of the women holding out, according to Newsday, says she can't afford to move and will struggle to find a place that can accommodate her 20-year-old son with cerebral palsy, and her daughter. Another said the cheapest apartments she could find rented for two or three times more than the roughly $550 a month residents pay to rent their land.​

Another resident, Robert Carman, told Newsday that he anticipated that he will end up homeless. He survives on $1,300 a month in disability payments and breathes with the aid of an oxygen machine.

"I'd literally be living on Jericho Turnpike in a tent," he said.

There are many possible solutions to the crisis. For one, states could pass laws requiring more relocation assistance—enough even to make evictions undesirable for an owner. And municipalities could zone trailer parks as exclusively for trailer parks, making more lucrative development impossible.

Residents could also purchase the parks and own the land collectively. In 2008, a non-profit called ROC USA launched to help people form such resident-owned communities, building off the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund's success in converting dozens of parks in the state to community ownership. ROC USA says that it now has 172 communities in its network, with 10,186 homes. But ROC USA mostly searches out communities that are for sale, with a cooperative seller, and then helps the residents make the purchase. It is much harder to mount a bid for community ownership when residents face sudden notice that a landowner intends to make way for new development.

A double wide home split and prepared for transport from a South Florida mobile home park in 2013. (Courtesy Esther Sullivan)

"The reality is that once a property is slated for closure – presumably motivated by a 'higher and better use'… then it’s too late," emails ROC USA President Paul Bradley.

In Santa Clara County, California, at least four trailer or RV parks have closed since 2004, according to the San Jose Mercury News. If Buena Vista is forced to move, says Kazantzis, they will likely be moving far away—to Fresno, Modesto, or Texas—and out of Palo Alto's elite school district. "Not anywhere in the Bay Area if these folks move because of their income, and the huge and crazy housing market."

Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian has led an effort that has gathered $29 million in affordable housing funds to purchase the park. The Caritas Corporation, a nonprofit that runs trailer parks in the state, has stepped in to assist. But the Palo Alto City Council recently approved a required relocation assistance package and, due to legal deadlines, Kazantzis has been forced to file an appeal on behalf of park residents. In response, the owner, Joe Jisser, has declined the Caritas offer and shut down negotiations. Contacted through his lawyer, Jisser did not respond to a request for comment.

"What we really want to happen is Caritas gives him an offer he can't refuse," says Kazantzis, and that way everyone wins: the owner makes a lot of money and everyone gets to stay in their homes. "But the owner keeps saying no."  

About the Author

  • Daniel Denvir
    Daniel Denvir is a Rhode Island-based contributing writer to CityLab and a former staff reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.