MotherJones JF93: Home sweet mobile home

One in every sixteen Americans lives in a mobile home--the fastest-growing form of new housing in the United States. Short Home sweet mobile home.

A quarter of all the new homes built in the United States in the last twenty-five years were rolled to their sites on wheels. Once one adjusts to the cubist similarity of the trailers, even a low-income court can be a pleasant place to live. Children play safely on common lawns. Cars are held to a crawl by speed bumps. Everybody knows everybody, sharing sugar and snow shovels, conversation and child care.

But according to a 1990 study compiled by the American Association of Retired Persons, more than half of all mobile-home owners live on someone else's land, tied down by the huge investment of a trailer yet subject to the whims of an unregulated landlord. While almost all states regulate the relationship between apartment tenants and their landlords, few laws exist to protect residents of mobile homes from those who own the parking pads beneath them.

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The rural states of the South and West, where mobile homes are most popular, tend to offer the least regulation. Although one in five residents of Montana and one in six residents of Wyoming and South Carolina live in mobile homes, none of these states has a single law specifically protecting people who live in trailer parks.

Mobile homes are more expensive than they look. Federal manufacturing standards enforced since 1976 have done away with the stuffy tin boxes whose paneling reeked of formaldehyde. But as mobile homes have gotten better, they've gotten a lot more costly. Although trailers cost about half as much per square foot as a conventional house, banks usually lend the money at consumer rates, which means an interest rate up to 5 percent higher than that of a mortgage. For many of the sixteen million people who have taken the mobile-home route to the American dream, life in the trailer court is a risky game.

Helen Studt lets the screen door slam behind her, dangles her bare feet over the edge of her front stoop, and, as though to illustrate her gripes about trailer-court life, lays down the law.

"Kyle! Stop that! " Her two-year-old son has buried his nose in a fat lilac blossom and is drinking in the perfume of Montana's brief springtime. "They're not allowed to touch the bushes," Studt explains, depositing the toddler safely in front of a droning TV inside the family double-wide. "You work and work, and then you're treated like naughty kids," she mumbles angrily, struggling to sustain our conversation about the rules in Missoula's Target Range Trailer Court. "Randy!"

Four-year-old Randy is dumping a Tonka truckload of gravel into a wagon beside the stoop. "They're not allowed to move the gravel around," says Studt, who works odd shifts as a clerk at a nursing home so that she and her husband can share the parenting of four children. As she points Randy back toward the road, a pretty, dark-haired neighbor named Lee Jaffe walks over with a story of her own. Years before, a boyfriend became violent and threatened her with a pair of scissors, Jaffe says. After she called the police, the owner of Target Range threatened to evict her, and her home, if she called the cops again - a threat he now denies.

"He said he didn't like that sort of thing," growls Jaffe, a young mother of two, with ferocious eyes. "Not my boyfriend beating me up - my calling the police."

With that, the two women launch into all the petty rules that make this community of homeowners feel they're living in a reform school: No toys left out in the yard. No sandboxes or swing sets allowed. No visitors staying for more than two weeks. When Jaffe and her new husband tried to plant flowers in a bare spot on their lawn, they were told no. Jaffe worries that the owner's rule against leaving "junk cars" around might apply to the bruised 1978 Datsun she commutes in.

It's un-American," says Bruce Hietala, another Target Range resident, who ambles over from a car he's working on. Hietala, a wiry social worker who studies community organizing at the local college and is quick with the language of resistance, points out that Montana and twenty-one other states have no law requiring "good cause" for eviction. "We need that before we can negotiate anything," he says, wiping wire-rimmed glasses on a tail of his khaki shirt. "I go to school and read Saul Alinsky and get all fired up to do something, but then I come home and think of my family. Even my four-year-old has nightmares about digging or playing with the rocks. We're all afraid of eviction."

It's not like being evicted from an apartment either, where if you're kicked out you spend a bad day moving the couch. Even if you can find a place to put your trailer, eviction still means moving the whole house. And the big mobile homes of today aren't very mobile; the AARP estimates that the average move costs upwards of ten thousand dollars. In short, mobile homes like the ones at Target Range combine the worst of two worlds: the insecurity of renting and the enormous financial risk of homeownership.

In the minds of city planners and of many people who live in comfortable houses, mobile homes come with weedy yards and rusted pickups crawling with snot-nosed kids and snarling mutts. Trailers still carry a stigma of transience, a stigma that many communities, including Missoula, codify in their zoning. And mobile-home communities are generally zoned "commercial-industrial," so they tend to be wedged between gravel pits or stretched along train tracks.

"The thinking goes like this says Gary Evans, a Missoula city planner who's working for zoning reform. "Mobile-home parks are not very attractive, and these are not very nice people. So you approve low development standards, and the whole thing is circular."

The common, unflattering image of a mobile-home court is especially galling to people who live in parks like Travois Village, which is across town and up the economic ladder from Target Range. Travois, a community of sawmill workers, students, Hmong immigrants, and relatively wealthy retirees, is more affluent than many of the "conventional" neighborhoods around it; its 282 homes are landscaped into a lush setting of sweeping park-land and quiet cul-de-sacs. On a sunny afternoon in Travois' central park, young mothers push their toddlers on swing sets and seesaws, while older children roughhouse on a jungle gym. "This place seemed like heaven when we moved in," says Cindy Moree, a waitress, jingling car keys in her pocket as she waits for her son Mike, in a Little League uniform, to finish warming up his arm with a neighbor boy. "In an apartment, you have to deal with landlords, and someone else's dirt, and windows painted shut. This was a nice clean house we could afford."

Moree doesn't call her house a trailer, or even a mobile home. It is "manufactured housing," intended to move just once, from factory to hookup site. Residents, to her, are not tenants. There is in fact a whole semantic movement afoot to transform trailer courts into manufactured-housing communities, single-wides into single-section homes, landlords into owners, rules and regulations into guidelines for living.

Unfortunately, Moree has what can only be called a landlord. In early 1991, Moore Enterprises of Mission Viejo, California, bought Travois Village, and the neighborhood became a battleground. There is nothing unusual about absentee ownership of trailer courts; it is the norm in rural states and common elsewhere. "Mobile-home parks in a lot of these states are cash cows for absentee owners," says Jim Fleischmann of Montana People's Action, an advocacy group for low-income people. "They milk high rent out of them and put in very little maintenance."

But just as at Target Range, what most rankles Travois Village residents is the sheer volume of rules imposed by their owner. No sooner did these rules land in their mail slots than the residents organized into the Travois Residents Association. Jim Moore of Moore Enterprises made the mistake of calling them redneck people" in the daily Missoulian. Before he could blink, the activists had packed city hall with angry mobile-home owners and spectators rooting for the underdog.

"Our responsibilities to them take up fifteen pages," said Moree's neighbor Joel Wasinger, as he unfurled a streamer of computer printout at a hearing. Then he held up a scrap of paper as big as his hand. "Here's their responsibilities to us."

The list of proposed rules had something for everyone at Travois Village. For Christina Weimer, who ran a neighborhood child-care center: no baby-sitting. For Chou Yang, a father of eight, who cultivated vegetables: no gardens, and a five-dollar-a-month head tax on six of his children, which would raise his rent 30 percent. For Cindy Moree: no dogs over twenty pounds. It was as though all the paranoia of Target Range were being dumped on Travois Village, in elaborately detailed form: No laundry hanging out after sunset, no working on cars in driveways, no "excessive" drinking or "vile" language. No visitor!; cars parked for more than an hour. No roommates except the immediate family And, presciently, no political activity.

When I first telephoned the association, its members were cagey. Return calls came from pay phones at odd hours. Are you taping this?" one woman demanded. A man who called himself a freelance writer had attended the group's first meeting and reported back to Moore's manager, Derie Kain. "Management wasn't invited," explains Kain in a tone of pure innocence. "It was the only way to find out what they were thinking."

In a long telephone conversation punctuated with insults about "rabble-rousers," Jim Moore insisted that the rules were for the tenants' own good. "If you keep your place nice and then all of a sudden your neighbor starts growing corn and tomatoes, how are you going to like it?" he asked.

Never mind how I might like it. Chou Yang is crushed. For him, and for dozens of other Hmong immigrants, Travois Village is Plymouth Rock. Yang's spiritual well-being in this strange new world hinged in part on his ability to grow vegetables. His plot of Lao cilantro, onions, and pumpkins made America home; it also helped feed a family of ten. Now it's returning to dandelions.

The association has taken Jim Moore to court, charging that forbidding a tenants' union, imposing a tax on families of more than four, and deciding who can live in a mobile home are violations of existing law. Waiting for the lawsuit to be settled, Cindy Moree is nervous: "We think there's an eviction list," she says.

Across town at Target Range, Helen Studt and her husband, Rich, have found a way out of an unlivable situation.their double-wide is being jacked up for hauling to a site behind the private school where Rich works. "We lucked out," Helen says with a shrug. The Jaffes were less fortunate. They managed to buy a piece of land, but then read the fine print on the covenant: No trailers allowed for longer than eighteen months. So Lee Jaffe and her neighbors organized the Target Range Trailer Court Residents Association in June 1992. "It's a start," she says.

More than six million American families, as they try to buy themselves entry to the homeowning middle class, are discovering a truth that goes back to the days of serfdom: Whoever owns the land makes the rules.

WHERE PEOPLE LIVE (1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990) Single-family dwellings: 64.4%, 75%, 69.7%, 72.3% , 66.35% Apartments: 29.9%, 23.6%, 27.4%, 22.9%, 26.9% Mobile homes: 0.7% , 1.4% , 2.9%, 4.8%, 6.75% Sources: 1990 U.S. Census; 1989 American Housing Survey; American Red Cross

WHO LIVES IN MOBILE HOMES AGE Under 25: 6.2%, 25-44: 44.9%, 45-64: 26.2%, 65 and up: 22.7%, Median age: 44 RACE White: 93.6%, Black : 5.1% Other: 1.3%

HOME SPACE 905 square feet in mobile-home households 1,688 square feet in all other households

MEDIAN INCOME $18,758 in mobile-home households $27,735 in all other households

IF A DADE COUNTY HOME WAS DAMAGED BY HURRICANE ANDREW, ITS CHANCES OF BEING COMPLETELY DESTROYED: Mobile home 8.5 in 10 Apartment 3 in 10 Single-family dwelling1 in 10

Margaret L. Knox is a freelance writer who lives in an apartment in Missoula, Montana, and wishes she could own both a home and the land under it.

The "Manufactured Home Owner's Bill of Rights," drafted by the National Consumer Law Center, is published by the American Association of Retired Persons. Copies are available from AARP, 601 E Street N.W., Washington, DC 20049.

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