Living out the trailer dream

In the West, one in six people lives in a trailer

  • IMMOBILE MOBILE: Home alone in the rural West

    photo c. 1990/Ed Nielsen
  • Double-wide mobile, an outhouse and a home near Moorcroft, Wyo.

    Mike McClure photos
  • Linda Raabe, Dee Burdell and Betty French fight for their rights

    Florence Williams
  • Living the trailer life in the desert near Santa Fe

    Jim Burgel photo
  • Near Gillette, Wyo., circa 1980

    Mike McClure photo
  • Burgel and his model trailer now in the Smithsonian

    Jim Burgel photo

Note: two sidebar articles, one giving a timeline of trailer evolution and another titled "The high end of home economics: Aspen's trophy home phenomenon," accompany this feature story.

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 relationship.

"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 decade ago.

"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 tire.

As nearby-park resident Gloria Shorter puts it, "They pick and pick and pick. They boss us around like Hitler."

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.

What 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

Two days 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 it.

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 prize-o-rama.

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 industry's image.

"Remember," one MHI employee intones, "these are not mobile homes. These are manufactured housing."

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 public.

Chateau Communities Inc., an Englewood, Colo.-based public company, owns and manages 50,000 mobile home sites across the country.

"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 parks.

The hidden poor

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 population.

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.

Meanwhile, even 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 burden.

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 airports.

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 challenges remain.

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 limbo.

"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."

While 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.

While 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.

Others regret 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" home.

"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 Court.

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 them.

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.

In 1995, 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' groups.

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 them.

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 between.

Last year, promising co-op deals fell through in Bozeman and Durango, Colo., among other places.

"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 rent.

"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 garden."

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 nonprofit.

"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, for development.

"Affordable 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."

Meanwhile, the 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 single-wide.

"I'm still kicking my husband," she says. "We definitely should have bought a house."

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 be bored.

Says Burdell, "I'm going to head up the park's political committee."

Florence Williams writes in Helena, Montana.

You can contact ...

* Nevada Association of Manufactured Homeowners: 702/384-8428;

* National Foundation of Manufactured Home Owners, which tracks state issues, 717/284-4520;

* Montana People's Action, 406/585-1703

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