LAS VEGAS, Nev. - The West would hardly be the West without the occasional trailer house breaking up the horizon. The trailer of the imagination is almost picturesque, like the image of Christmas lights dangling from a battered mobile home at dusk. But the West is changing fast, and today's trailer progeny, the "manufactured home," is everywhere - one of three new homes arrives on a flatbed truck.
At the same time, escalating
land prices and tougher zoning have herded more than half of
mobile-home dwellers into parks like Pueblo del Sol in east Las
Vegas, where residents can find themselves signed up for a kind of
domestic boot camp.
There, inside her yellow,
aluminum-sided double-wide, Betty French hosts a small gathering of
neighbors. They're not just swapping casserole recipes and drinking
coffee. They are part of a growing social outlet in trailer parks:
political activism. Although they pass cookies around a green
formica table, they're here to complain, mostly about their
landlord, and to strategize. French and her neighbors own their own
units but pay rent to park them on a narrow swath of grass and
pebble. It's an uneasy
"If the park
owner (a California real estate corporation) has to put in a new
sewer or trim some trees, we shouldn't have to pay for that," says
French, 59, who moved to Nevada with her husband, a retired Army
serviceman, two years ago. "We didn't realize how much our rent was
going to increase every year."
Dee Burdell, a
widow who has lived in Pueblo del Sol park for 15 years, agrees.
"It never ends," sighs Burdell, a retired hairdresser who pays $450
a month for her minuscule patch of ground (not including mortgage
payments on her double-wide), two-and-half times what she paid a
"Now the park is
putting double-wides in spaces designed for single-wides so they
can charge more rent. It's too crowded." And, she says, she and her
neighbors are subject to a restrictive array of codes and
regulations that most conventional homeowners would never tolerate,
including limits on stays by houseguests, the height of their
grass, what they can leave or plant in their postage-stamp-sized
yards, the size and number of their pets, what color they paint
their mobiles, even where they can change a
As nearby-park resident Gloria Shorter
puts it, "They pick and pick and pick. They boss us around like
If finding affordable housing has
never been easy, neither has living in affordable housing. As the
West booms, some residents are more squeezed than ever. No longer
are trailer parks the nonexclusive ghettos of the down and out;
now, they increasingly house the working service class, the retired
middle class and transitional young families. Some have owned their
own "stick-built" homes in the past, and found selling out well
worth the price. But many are finding mobile-home life more
difficult, and pricier, than they expected.
started out looking like affordable housing has in many cases
become an expensive trap for its residents. "We are captive
tenants," says Karl Braun, who lives in a 25- by 54-foot model.
"There are too many bad managers of parks and too many park owners
that are, I'd have to say, quite greedy."
Business is booming
after the tenants' meeting in Betty French's double-wide, the
Manufactured Housing Institute hosts its annual congress in
Caesar's Palace. Based outside of Washington, D.C., the MHI is the
soft-shoed lobby of the industry. Its members come to Las Vegas not
to discuss tenants' rights, but to celebrate the vibrant health of
their market and to play a few slots while they're at
From his podium in the dazzling Circus
Maximus theater, Gub Mix, director of the group's Nevada affiliate,
welcomes the grateful throng of industry builders, vendors, park
owners and bankers. Outside the grand auditorium, dealers pass out
chips and hostesses pass out drinks.
The mood is
euphoric. Fleetwood homes has just sold its millionth house, and
business is booming across the board. Mix tells the crowd that the
conference includes 2,000 registrants from 47 states, "with a
combined net worth of over a billion dollars." He commends their
prowess at the golf tournament, invites them to a poolside cocktail
party, and encourages them to enter the annual
The day offers sessions on
everything from how to benefit from real-estate investment trusts
(REITs) to how to place bigger, more profitable mobiles on small
lots. Solutions include reducing landscaping, building retaining
walls, updating older models. Nearly every state has an affiliate
of the Manufactured Housing Institute. Its top priorities are
relaxing zoning, increasing profitability and fluffing up the
one MHI employee intones, "these are not mobile homes. These are
Whatever you choose to
call them, they make some people very rich. In 1994, Forbes called
mobile home parks "one of the wisest real estate investments
around." Wall Street has caught the whiff as well, with more and
more real-estate investment trusts buying parks and going
Chateau Communities Inc., an Englewood,
Colo.-based public company, owns and manages 50,000 mobile home
sites across the
"It's sort of the
investment du jour," says California affordable-housing banker
Deane Sargent, "and it's driving up prices, forcing buyers to seek
a high return on their investment." For tenants, he says, that
generally means higher rents and reduced maintenance in the
Arguably the West's newest extractive
industry, real estate has built great fortunes while rolling over
the region's poorest residents. That it has done so points to a
manifest failure of the region's burgeoning communities to address
the thorny and persistent issues of affordable housing, land-use
planning, poverty and the aging of the
Consider the statistics: Despite a
rise in manicured, gated and pricey trailer parks, most mobile-home
residents are still blue-collar workers or fixed-income elderly.
Nationally, seniors make up one-third of the mobile-home
population, and that percentage will keep rising. Almost half earn
less than $10,000 a year, according to a report by the American
Association of Retired Persons.
as its land prices and population boom, the West has lagged behind
the rest of the country in income gains. In Montana, for example,
the average real wage has fallen 6 percent since 1989, and the gap
in income between rich and poor continues to spread. Nevada's
plight is typical: Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, has
grown 49 percent since 1990. A recent county study there found that
60 percent of residents experience a serious housing-cost
Not only are park residents exploited by
landlords; they also fall prey to the bigger market forces of
land-use in the West. The list is long: Unlike other homes in the
West, mobile homes depreciate, even as their landlords' land values
skyrocket. Cities like Las Vegas don't allow individual mobile
homes on city lots, shutting owners out of that market. But even
peripheral, suburban or sub-resort trailer parks are not a
long-term solution, since as Western towns and cities grow, many
rental parks convert to Wal-Marts, hotels or expanding
In Washington state, for example, 56
mobile-home parks have closed since 1989, often displacing tenants
with nowhere else to go. Eyeing future land sales, some park owners
slack off on maintenance, creating unhealthy and unpleasant living
conditions for their tenants.
Far from petering
out, manufactured housing in the U.S. increased 230 percent between
1970 and 1993. Nationally, one in 16 people lives in a mobile home.
In the West, the figure is even higher: one in six. In four Nevada
counties, mobile homes make up over half the housing stock; in some
towns, the figure is closer to 80 percent.
Across the West, mobiles account for one in three new homestarts.
At the same time, mountain towns have grown more rarefied, zoning
has tightened and the market has waged a fierce battle for the land
beneath the trailers (see accompanying story). But the question
remains: Where will people - ordinary people not seeking a second
home - live?
Few communities, it seems, really
like trailer parks, despite the red-faced efforts of the industry
to improve designs and call them "manufactured housing
communities." Typically, mobile homes are forced by zoning laws to
the edge of town, often to sub-marginal land, where residents face
floods, fires and, famously, hurricanes and tornadoes. (Joke: What
do a tornado and a Moab divorce have in common? Sooner or later,
someone loses a trailer.)
Most land-lease parks
won't allow residents to build foundations, hence the tornado
problem. Of 54,000 home fires in Oregon in 1996, over half were in
trailers. Notoriously poor health and safety standards are
improving, however, as federal housing codes change. But planning
In Apache Junction, Ariz., a
sprawling suburb east of Phoenix, the trailer and RV boom created
what was, until 1996, the largest town in America without a central
sewer system. The population there, mostly retirees and snowbirds,
balloons from 20,000 summer residents to 100,000 during the winter.
And near Lake Mead, in Cottonwood Cove, Nev., "the census gives it
a population of nine, but you go down there and there's 400
trailers, so the demand for services is clearly going unmet," says
Clark County planner Don Mattson.
Looking for friends
Paradoxically, trailer parks are both unsightly and invisible at
the same time. Few advocacy groups exist. The stereotype is that
trailer parks are a drain on social services and a source of crime.
Environmental groups generally dismiss them as a land-use nuisance.
All this puts mobile home parks in a kind of
"It comes down to the
social character of our towns," says Jackson Hole demographic
consultant Jonathan Schechter. "Do we really want to become like
the social Darwinists of Martha's Vineyard and say "piss off" to
anyone who can't afford it here?" Jackson, he says, has not
approved a mobile-home park "in decades."
most communities acknowledge the desperate need for affordable
housing, they often reject new mobile-home parks - usually for good
reasons - but fail to provide adequate alternatives. In Bozeman,
Mont., a proposed 243-space park in the 100-year Gallatin River
floodplain was unanimously rejected by the planning board in March.
Nearly everyone in town opposed it, from local ranchers and
environmentalists to people concerned about impacts on local
schools, roads and other services.
Even the one
statewide group advocating on behalf of mobile-home residents was
displeased with the proposal. "The developer wouldn't meet with us
about our concerns," says Kevin Pentz of Montana People's Action.
"We wanted long-term leases and the right to have an older mobile
home. So we didn't take a stand." With the newer homes required
there (typical cost: $45,000), the average lot-rent plus home
mortgage would come to approximately $619 per month, according to
developer Rex Holland. That is hardly a low-budget steal,
especially for an insecure arrangement.
not cheap, land-lease parks can represent the best of bad options
for mountain workers. Nevertheless, they combine two ills: the
burdens, risks and inflexibility of home ownership and a largely
unregulated landlord relationship. While they help instill "pride
of ownership," (another favorite phrase of the industry), many
residents view them as transitional housing, though often less
temporary than they thought.
pouring money into the hidden costs of the mobile-home commitment:
higher interest and insurance rates, the depreciating property
value, the escalating space rents, the time spent in tenants'
rights meetings, the immobility of the "mobile"
"If I knew everything
then that I know now, I would probably have done something
different," says Alyce Maas, 55, who lives in Bozeman's King Arthur
Moving, the solution that might seem
obvious, is not as easy as it sounds. In Nevada, Burdell and the
Frenches own trailers that are 20 years old, and many mobile home
parks, eager to spiff up and boost rents, will not accept units
older than five or 10 years. Even if they find a place to put them,
moving a trailer can cost $5,000, a chunk of cash most owners don't
have. (The term mobile home, of course, is a misnomer; 90 percent
of units, once delivered, never move again, according to the
Manufactured Housing Institute.) Because these homes may represent
nearly all their equity, owners can't just abandon
It's easy to see why groups and
individuals fighting to reform the practices of lease-land parks
face formidable challenges. Pushing laws through state legislatures
often involves butting heads with the well-oiled industry. Montana
finally joined 28 other states in passing legislation requiring
"good cause" for eviction in 1993. Previously, landlords had thrown
out tenants who engaged in political organizing, says Jim
Fleischmann of Montana People's Action.
the Nevada Association of Manufactured Homeowners helped pass one
of the strongest landlord-tenant laws governing mobile homes in the
West. Nevada landlords can no longer evict renters without cause;
they must post a sample lease agreement; they must give tenants a
month's notice if the park is going on the market. The Nevada
group, founded in 1973, now has 2,600 members, according to
president Karl Braun.
Even with such victories,
"we're way behind in the West in terms of rights and protection,"
says Boulder, Colo., housing activist Mark Fearer. Unlike
California and Florida, which have strong housing
consumer-protection laws, the interior West has a strong aversion
to regulation, especially for anything resembling rent
stabilization, a top priority among homeowners'
Some tenants have discovered the best
way to fight the landlord is to get rid of the landlord altogether.
They simply buy the parks, or have a nonprofit do it for
Residents at Smuggler Mobile Home Park in
Aspen, Colo., became among the first to band together to buy their
park in 1982. Two years ago, Aspen's Lazy Glen followed suit. Such
deals, however, require creative financing, savvy, assertive
residents and a fairly hefty down-payment, making them few and far
Last year, promising co-op deals fell
through in Bozeman and Durango, Colo., among other
"Most people have
limited credit, no money, and they don't believe they can convert
to cooperative ownership," says Sargent, who helps put together
financing packages for residents seeking to buy parks. "The biggest
hurdles are the willingness of the owner to sell, and the tenacity
of the residents. But when it works, these are real communities."
But, in Washington state, a positive trend has
emerged. A new nonprofit, Manufactured Housing Community
Preservationists, gathered local and federal funds to help it buy
three parks in the sprawling Seattle suburbs in the last three
years. The group renovated ancient sewers, upgraded trailers to
meet new fire and safety standards, and still managed to lower the
"My rent went from $425
to $350," says Jan Thompson, a nursing student and mother of two
who lives in the Avon Villa park in Microsoft-enhanced Redmond.
"The people who owned it before were obnoxious. They wouldn't let
me have a compost box behind the shed. Now I have that and a
The city of Boulder, Colo., also
recently bought a mobile-home park with the intention of selling it
back to the residents in five years. Affordable-housing banker
Sargent estimates that about 1 percent of the nation's 55,000 parks
are either cooperatively owned or owned by a
"Our future is in
buying or building our own parks," says Braun of the Nevada
Association of Manufactured Homeowners. "It's different to be
self-governed." Lisa Hardiman, an affordable-housing advocate in
Bozeman, agrees. "We need more parks, but we'd like to see
residents own the land. Otherwise, there's just too much
insecurity." For example, says Hardiman, in the last 10 years,
three parks around Bozeman have been sold out from under tenants,
housing is a problem that is not going to solve itself," she
continues. "I'm going to push for mobile-home co-ops or other
housing co-ops. A family can't afford to own land around here, but
as a group, we can afford it."
states' homeowners' groups, having inherited the West's union
tradition, keep plugging along. "You have to keep dogging the
legislature," says 77-year-old Vickie Demas, a former casino
hostess who helped start Nevada's culinary union. Incrementally,
such groups are making headway. Colorado is looking at legislation
requiring licensing of mobile-home dealers and installers. Nevada
will soon try, for the fourth time, to pass a "rent justification"
law, requiring park owners to open their books prior to a major
rent increase. Oregon recently passed a law making it illegal for
park owners to charge tenants extra for pets.
Moved to act
Back in Nevada,
the Pueblo del Sol women are smoking cigarettes and cleaning up
from their meeting. Linda Raabe says that just before moving here,
she and her husband won a $250,000 lottery prize in Wisconsin. But
they spent most of the money, and now they're living in a used
kicking my husband," she says. "We definitely should have bought a
Dee Burdell, for her part, is making
plans to move into a conventional frame house next year. She hopes
to sell her mobile and to have enough money for a down payment.
"I've always enjoyed mobile home living, but I'm tired of the rules
and regulations, the escalating rent." In the meantime, she won't
Says Burdell, "I'm going to head up
the park's political committee."
Florence Williams writes in Helena,
You can contact
* Nevada Association of Manufactured
* National Foundation
of Manufactured Home Owners, which tracks state issues,
* Montana People's Action,