‘Home Sweet (Trailer) Home’ Yes!

Until the Vultures Swoop In.

In the heartless pandemic-fueled sweep of non-paying “deadbeats” from rental housing, plenty of innocent households are being pushed to the streets. A particularly egregious eviction process ravaging the last bastion of affordable housing, the house trailer, aka manufactured housing gets little attention. We’re not talking recreational vehicles, another story for another time.

To no surprise, private equity firms are scooping up mobile home parks with a devious strategy to get rich(er) by upending income-challenged house trailer-owners. NBC news recently reported:

“Since the 2008 financial crisis, private equity firms have piled into the manufactured home sector. Because manufactured homes are difficult and expensive to move, they are viewed as stable investments by private equity firms and shareholders. If a tenant is evicted, the property inherits the abandoned home and can rent it out again, producing a consistent source of revenue growth, said Linda Jun, senior policy counsel at Americans for Financial Reform.”

Private equity firms’ typical strategy:

  • buy out the park owner,
  • install new management, and
  • raise lot rents (residents own their trailer but not the land it sits on).

The park owners either rake in higher rents or force the mobile home owner to move it, a $5,000+ endeavor. Or worse, the beleaguered owner abandons their home, forfeiting equity and defaulting on their loan. The new park owner can re-rent it at pure profit.

That scenario, happening all over the country, is bad enough. Few pay attention because manufactured housing residents get scant respect, much like the rest of the low-income population.

An estimated 8.5 million households live in manufactured housing, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute. The Institute, understandably, extols the benefits of mobile home living as an answer to the affordable housing crisis. They don’t mention the private equity debacle or other hazards.

a burnt-out house trailer
a burnt-out house trailer
The suspected cause of this house trailer fire — electrical. Photo Diane Nilan

Mobile Homes — Vital ‘Affordable Housing’ for Country Folks Until They’re Not

In my copious backroads travels these past 15 years for my nonprofit HEAR US Inc., I’ve passed what seems like millions of bedraggled house trailers. I’ve been in several, and witnessed the dilapidated conditions that imperiled the renters, but evidently didn’t cause HUD inspectors to balk at qualifying the unit for subsidized housing. I’ve stood in the smoldering ruins of a trailer that burst into flames and turned into toxic ashes, leaving a family homeless.

Evictions happen in the the mobile home world, especially during covid-19 despite the moratorium. Recently I met Jamie’s family, who fell outside the narrow pandemic protections, after they found themselves kicked to the curb in their resource-less rural community.

jamie shared what it meant to be interviewed for a short documentary. https://vimeo.com/509553222
jamie shared what it meant to be interviewed for a short documentary. https://vimeo.com/509553222
Jamie shared what it meant to be interviewed for an upcoming short documentary. https://vimeo.com/509553222

Jamie, John, and their 2 kids, a 9-year-old boy with severe autism and an intellectual disability, and an 11-year-old girl, now stay in a tiny, crappy motel room off a noisy interstate. They fled to the nearest city, Raleigh, North Carolina’s state capital, figuring they’d find assistance.

Jamie, formerly a self-employed dog groomer, described their previous living situation as I filmed her compelling interview while we huddled in a vacant parking lot across from the motel. (This short, powerful documentary will be released soon.)

She and her family “once lived in a good house, a car, a good paying job…we lost everything.” Most of the time they lived “in a single-wide or a little bitty house.” Now the 4 of them try to exist in a 12’ x 15’ privacy-deprived space where they’ve been stuck for 9 months.

So much is wrong with Jamie’s situation. Here are just a few:

  • Cost. They pay a whopping $315 a week for what is described as the worst motel in Raleigh. Over $1,000 a month. Sometimes that comes out of the family’s pockets (the boy’s disability check is about $750). Sometimes an agency helps them out. Or Jamie panhandles, sells her plasma, or friends kick in. That complicates things…
  • Status. HUD considers a family “homeless” when agencies pay for a family’s motel room, but not when it comes out of a family’s meager coffers. If they’re qualified as homeless, they can get housing help. When they’re not, they don’t get counted as homeless by HUD-funded agencies, therefore they don’t qualify for housing assistance.
  • Stuck-ness. Because they have an eviction, they have a bad mark on their credit history, the sacred standard for getting into other rental housing. I bet their utilities are in arrears, too.
  • Application fees. Jamie astutely described the scam of property owners charging exorbitant application fees, $50+ per adult, and then telling them “sorry, nothing’s available,” as they pocket Jamie’s precious money.

Those are just a few problems families in these situations endure. A previous Medium post I wrote offers a few solutions, as does my latest book, Dismazed and Driven — My Look at Family Homelessness in America.

When families living in the cheapest housing they could find, a humble trailer, lose their place to live, they are on the fast track to homelessness. Private equity firms, again, make out like the bandits they are. The Manufactured Housing Institute probably doesn’t mentioned these huge risks as they promote trailers as affordable housing units to the income-challenged market.

The next “affordable housing” option — a tent, if you can find a place to pitch it.

Dismazed and Driven — a must-read for those interested in family homelessness or curious about full-time van life. https://bit.ly/2ITtkZz

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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