An elderly man stands in the doorway of his mobile home.
An elderly man stands in the doorway of his mobile home in suburban Los Angeles. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

A new book examines how trailer parks trap their residents in a cycle of deprivation.

When the Reagan administration slashed federal funding for affordable housing in the 1980s, the privatization of low-income housing took off. One result: A significant increase in the country’s number of trailer parks. Today, mobile homes remain the largest segment of non-subsidized affordable housing in the U.S., with around 8.5 million units—about 6 percent of housing overall. The average cost for a new, two-bedroom model is $37,100.  

These homes, whether single or double wide, provide low-cost housing for 20 million Americans, giving shelter and stability to those who might otherwise be on the streets or moving from place to place. “That’s the positive around the role mobile homes can play,” says Katherine MacTavish, a professor at Oregon State University and co-author of the recent book, Singlewide: Chasing the American Dream in a Rural Trailer Park. Such stability can even help kids growing up in parks succeed in school and move up the social and economic ladder.

Yet in interviewing 240 residents of trailer parks across the country, MacTavish and her co-author, Sonya Salamon of the University of Illinois, found that such success stories are rare. Moreover, their research revealed that residents of trailer parks are largely unable to parlay their mobile homes into the American dream of conventional home ownership—though most of them saw their mobile home purchase as a path toward just that.

The authors closely followed 39 families who owned their mobile homes but leased the land on which the homes sat—a common practice. These families resided in three parks: a predominately white park in Illinois, a predominately black park in North Carolina, and a predominately Hispanic park in New Mexico.

Private ownership of trailer parks can mean a mom-and-pop model, in which owners may even live in the park and feel a personal connection to the land and its residents. The authors suggest that this makes them more likely to be active, fair caretakers. But in the 1990s, investors began to buy up more parks. “This non-local ownership of parks opened up opportunities for exploitation,” says MacTavish.

Corporate owners, for instance, tend to increase rental rates. The national monthly average to rent a space in a trailer park is around $250, so a 10 percent surge means an additional $25 every 30 days. “This may seem minor to someone from the middle or upper class,” says MacTavish, “but that’s a really big deal for low-income families.”

When such price hikes make staying in a park untenable, it’s then hard for residents to move their homes: Despite their name, most mobile homes are fairly stationary and difficult to transport. MacTavish notes that many states prohibit hauling older homes on the highway. “We often heard about people leaving their mobile homes behind and losing them for this reason,” she says. And even when a resident is able to move their home, they may not be able to find a spot in another park, since overall numbers have declined.

As real estate prices have risen, owners of parks located near small or large cities are often tempted to sell the land to developers who will pay well to build condos, office buildings, and the like on the land, displacing residents. This was common before the 2008 recession, and is on the rise again.

The exploitation of mobile home owners runs even deeper: Buying such a home often means taking on a loan that’s similar to one you would get for a car, as mobile homes are generally classified as “chattel”—personal property as opposed to real estate. MacTavish and Salamon found that people were paying exorbitant interest rates—sometimes 13.5 percent or more—for property that, like a vehicle, loses as much as half its value in three years. Such an arrangement is part of what the authors dubbed “the mobile home industrial complex”—and is what prevents mobile home owners from leveraging equity from their purchase to acquire a conventional home.

Though MacTavish and Salamon found that these issues were common throughout the three communities, each population varied in its version of the American dream. The white families in Illinois were most concerned with making it to the middle class by moving out of the park into the more affluent neighboring area. They were also more concerned with the stigma associated with trailer parks, namely the “trailer trash” moniker. “We came to the conclusion that ‘trailer trash’ is a variant of ‘white trash,’” says MacTavish.

In North Carolina, the black community’s dream was more about living a life close to family and church, which the park allowed them to do. The Hispanic residents in New Mexico were deeply rooted in the community; many of the families had been living there for generations. “One resident even said that if he won the lottery, he’d still live in his hometown—though he said he’d also buy a vacation home in Hawaii,” says MacTavish.

Thus moving out of the park—a dream all families shared—didn’t necessarily mean moving up the socioeconomic ladder and away from the community. For the black and Hispanic families, staying in their mobile home “can be okay,” says MacTavish, “provided they can move that home to land they own.” MacTavish and Salamon argue that all residents should have the opportunity to make that next housing step, and they call for practices to improve those chances. At the very least, MacTavish says, policies should help ensure that mobile homeowners don’t lose economic ground from their purchase.

Communities can, for instance, rezone trailer parks, preventing owners from selling the land to developers. And state laws can guarantee that when owners do sell, they give mobile home residents 12 months’ notice as well as the first right of refusal to buy the park. Residents who are able to pool resources and buy the park together can then run it as a cooperative. If residents must leave, states can also mandate that owners provide compensation for moving expenses. And states can reclassify mobile homes on foundations in parks as real estate instead of chattel, guaranteeing their owners the same loan options as any homeowner.

MacTavish says New Hampshire and Vermont have been frontrunners in efforts to reform the mobile home industrial complex. The two states, along with a few others, require that park owners give residents the first option to buy the land. Nonprofits can also help. In Oregon, the St. Vincent de Paul charity has purchased a number of rural trailer parks with state funding, refurbishing them and running them not as vehicles for profit but as long-term affordable housing.

“If the political will isn’t there to make more of these types of changes, we’ll continue to see exploitive private tactics operating in place of what should be a public effort to ensure equitable housing opportunities,” says MacTavish.

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