Saturday, June 24, 2017

Mobile Homes: Cheap Housing ... But With A Catch

From a recent story in the Houston Press (Houston, Texas):
  • [W]ith costs significantly lower than standard houses, mobile homes have become the main source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the United States. Almost two million Texans live in mobile homes, according to the 2015 American Community Survey, including more than 130,000 people in Harris County.

    But while these parks offer bargain prices, they don’t always provide stability. That’s because they lease their land. In Texas, residents can be evicted from a property with 60-day notice, even if they’ve owned their homes for decades.

    When trailer parks are sold or forced to close, the void often leaves hundreds of low-income families searching for a new place to put their home — as well as the funds necessary to move it. Esther Sullivan, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Denver, spent two years living at trailer parks in Texas and Florida. Her study, published in April, looks at what happens when people are evicted from trailer parks in these states.(1)

    Texas has one of the highest numbers of trailer park residents in the country, but provides no aid for people evicted from them.

    The costs of a mobile park eviction can easily eat up a lower-income resident's finances, Sullivan found. She also discovered that Texas trailer parks don’t always give the appropriate legal notice before evicting tenants. A common theme among residents was the desire to control the “terms and timing” of a move-out, Sullivan said.

    For many, evictions became a semi-regular part of life. “These aren’t one-time traumas,” Sullivan said. “There were significant numbers of residents in parks that had previously been evicted.”

    In her study, she proposes community ownership as a way to give trailer park residents more stability. That would make trailer parks more like condominiums, leaving residents in charge of their park’s destiny.

    Sullivan spent time at five parks that were closing or in a precarious position. She lived for eight months in 2013 at Ramos y Ramos, a trailer park in the town of Alvin, near Pearland. The Alvin City Council had passed an ordinance in 2007 requiring expensive upgrades to parks. Ramos y Ramos survived, but she watched as two other parks were forced into closure. (Sullivan used pseudonyms for the names of the parks she studied to protect the identities of residents.)

    There would be three generations of the same family living in these parks,” she said. “Evictions were extremely traumatic.”

    Trailer park residents have about the same legal protections as normal renters. The problem, she says, is that the stakes are higher. Renters don’t own or maintain their apartments. If they’re evicted, they don’t have to take their apartment with them.

    Theoretically, a mobile home can be moved and reinstalled elsewhere. But after transportation, reinstallation and permits, the cost of moving a mobile home even a modest distance could run from around $5,000 to $12,000, according to estimates given by people in the mobile-home business.

    So long as a trailer park wasn’t closing, mobile-home residents could choose to sell their homes instead of transporting them. But unlike standard houses, mobile homes almost never appreciate in value. Like cars, they lose value as soon as they leave the factory or sales lot.

    How many mobile-home owners face the prospect of eviction? Sullivan says it’s almost impossible to know for sure. Property deeds and tax filings record the name of the trailer park and its owners — not every resident. Many residents don’t even have real addresses. Unless an eviction goes to court, there could be no public record that it happened.

    Nor is it easy to get data on how many trailer parks are closing, Sullivan says. There are no federal or state registries of trailer park closures. For her study, Sullivan had to collect some of this data herself, by recording whenever a trailer park changed its zoning.

    Loopnet, a commercial real-estate website, shows 85 mobile home parks for sale in Texas, including a few in the Houston area. The Houston Press called one seeking comment for this story. When a reporter mentioned evictions, an employee hung up and did not answer again.

    The median listing price for a home in Houston is $319,000, according to real-estate website Zillow. A brand-new mobile home can go for around $60,000, said DJ Pendleton, executive director of the Texas Manufactured Housing Association.

    “When I say affordable housing, what image pops into your brain?” he asked rhetorically. “You need a $65,000 house for it to be truly affordable.”

    When asked about evictions, Pendleton points out that not all mobile home owners live in trailer parks. Some build their homes on family land, or buy a plot way out in the country.

    He said around 90 percent of mobile home sales were “personal property transactions,” meaning the purchaser was not also buying land. He didn’t think all those people lived at trailer parks, but admitted it was hard to know for sure. Census data on mobile homes don’t record how many people own their land.

    Sometimes, Pendleton said, a trailer park decides to sell. This was more of a problem in cities, where land was a hot commodity. But often, he said, mobile homes are driven out when local governments impose zoning changes or make expensive demands for upgrades.

    Pendleton said he sees a classist and racist tinge in the hostility to mobile homes. “Nobody will say at an open city council hearing, ‘We’re going to create all these pretenses, but the real intent is, we just kind of want to move all the poor people out and we don’t really care where they go,’” he said.


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