Mobile home sweet what? Part 1

May 1, 2006 | Land use, Landlords, Mobile homes, Property rights

In most of the world a home’s value is not primarily financial but psychological: it provides secure tenure. A homeowner cannot be displaced.

Or can she?

There’s a case when owning the home does not secure permanent tenure, as revealed in this feature from USA Today:

HIGHLANDS, N.J. — With the sea just a breath away, it’s not hard to understand why this mobile home park with million-dollar views is called Paradise.


Location is everything.

“It’s really exquisite,” says Pat Boyce, 50, who bought a home here four years ago. “From my living room, I have the skyline of Manhattan.”

But Paradise Park has been sold to a developer,


Sold? What could be sold?

and the people of this half-century-old community fear they’ll be uprooted.

Uprooted? Don’t they own their homes?

It is a scene that’s being played out across the country. Like those in Paradise Park, many mobile home residents own their trailers but rent the land beneath them, leaving them vulnerable to developers who are increasingly converting parks into condominiums and malls.


That’s a trailer (a 1967 Airstream).


That‘s a mobile home.

In the US (and in most countries), renting is cheaper than homeownership, and when the physical structure itself is inexpensive — as were Fifties trailers — then an owned trailer and a rented plot (often called a pad) made sense.

Trailer parks made even more sense fifty years ago (1956), when New York City was undergoing dramatic racial change, manufacturing was in retreat (or upping stakes for the air-conditioned non-union South), and learned urban scholars were busily writing the city’s obituary.


“Come gather home owners wherever you’re home.

And admit that the ground underneath you is owned …”

Times change, and the value of waterfront real estate skyrockets:

The sales are happening primarily in hot real estate markets where land is pricy and ripe for more lucrative development.


Mobile home park, Santa Cruz, California

The dwindling number of parks means that affordable housing is being eliminated where it’s needed most, residents and industry analysts say.

Are mobile homes affordable housing? Opinions vary.


Distribution of mobile homes throughout the United States.

With roughly 8.8 million mobile homes nationwide, they are almost certainly America‘s largest single source of affordable housing — probably as many homes as all Federal programs put together! — yet as the redheaded stepchild they are seldom considered in discussions of housing affordability and new production.


Other than the low ceilings, interiors can be comparable with custom-built homes.

In this they are the ‘dark matter’ of American affordable housing’s universe, a huge ecomass whose presence is barely noticed, and then often with disdain.


  • In Massachusetts, where Chapter 40B inclusionary zoning targets 10% affordable housing in a community, the state resists counting mobile homes as affordable, while upscale suburbs demand they be included. (These are the same suburbs who would be mortified if anyone sought to build a new mobile home park in their pristine enclaves.)

  • The US military, whose soldiers, sailors, and air staff often live in mobile homes off-post, says they are substandard for military families.

Now, with workforce housing so much in the news, communities are discovering that mobile homes enable their service workers to be community home owners (fascinating data on a Florida park here):

“The people putting on your roof, your teachers, the nurses in your hospitals — those are the people that are living there because it’s what they can afford as they start out,” says Ed Speraw, president of the Manufactured Homeowners Association of America.

With so many mobile home parks on rented land, affordability can be blown away by a market updraft:


Dorothy’s house got caught up in the market frenzy.

The development boom is taking its toll on the supply of mobile homes. Nevada has lost 30 mobile home parks in the past four years, 16 of them in Clark County, home of Las Vegas, says Renee Diamond, administrator of the Nevada Manufactured Housing Division.

“We have the yin and yang,” Diamond says. “The beautiful homes being built for a million dollars, but what we don’t have is affordable housing anymore.”

Not ‘but,’ Ms. Diamond. They are two aspects of the same phenomenon: rising values create demand pressure that drives out uneconomic uses in favor of economic ones.


Each contains some of the other.

Yesterday’s immigrant is today’s established resident; yesterday’s voting bloc is today’s constituency group. It should be no surprise, therefore, that throughout America, government has intervened to retrofit property rights into mobile home owner/ pad landlord relations, with laws such as rent control, anti-eviction ordinances, and rights to buy.

Efforts to help park residents vary from state to state. They range from requiring that a park owner relocate the residents within 50 miles of their previous homes to giving residents the first opportunity to buy a park that’s for sale.

Although as a general principle I find rent control pernicious (and self-destructive of cities), owners of mobile homes have three distinguishing features that change the public-policy equities:

  1. Lack of proper mobility. Though the homes are advertised as ‘mobile,’ in fact they grow roots, as their owners install screen porches and decks in addition to the typical plumbing, piping, and electricity.
  2. ‘Detrimental reliance.’ Mobile home owners frequently improve their property, based on the presumption that they in fact have a permanent tenure. That post-purchase investment is often given weight in courts (and in the public’s mind).

  1. Consumer protection. Consumers who buy homes (and even more clearly, those who buy resold homes) have a good-faith expectation that no amount of fine print eradicates.

Until the day the ground is sold out from under you ….


[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]