US cities buy trailer parks to keep home prices affordable
Soaring home prices in some metro areas and cities have prompted park owners to sell their land to developers
Here in the heart of one of Colorado’s most expensive cities, Isabel Sanchez bought a mobile home seven years ago for just US$6,000. Her four-bedroom bungalow now sits on a lot she rents for $355 a month.
The mobile home park Sanchez and her family live in offers a glimpse of Boulder’s hippie past. Small houses and trailers, many dating to the 1960s and ’70s, sit close together on tree-lined streets.
“I love the space, I love the location, I love the community here,” Sanchez, 55, said recently, relaxing in a blue armchair in her spotless living room.
Affordable neighbourhoods like these have become hard to find in Boulder and cities across the country where home prices are soaring. In some metro areas, rising prices were prompting park owners to sell their land to developers, affordable housing advocates said.
“When the mortgage crisis came about it sort of slowed down, and now it’s heating up again,” said Carolyn Carter, deputy director of the National Consumer Law Center.
So Boulder and a handful of other localities, desperate to hang on to homes middle- and working-class people can afford, have stepped in to buy parks, fix them up, and transfer ownership to residents or to a non-profit on condition that rents be kept low.
In Oregon, Portland’s housing authority financed a deal last year that saved a mobile home park from being sold to a developer.
Pitkin County, Colorado, is buying a park it intends to set aside for people who work in the area. And Boulder bought a park this summer, with the twin goals of improving its infrastructure and maintaining affordable housing.
Affordable housing advocates said that the best way to preserve mobile home parks was to turn them into co-operatives owned by residents. But in Boulder, land is so valuable – and parks need so many infrastructure upgrades – that it would not be possible for low-income residents to finance the purchase alone.
About 20 million Americans live in manufactured homes – so called because they are built in a factory, rather than on site – and about two-fifths of those can be found in mobile home parks, mostly in suburbs and exurbs.
Mobile homes are an important source of low-income housing. But home ownership can be precarious for people who live in mobile home parks. Because they do not own the land beneath their houses or trailers, they have to move if the park closes down.
And many mobile homes are not all that mobile. Sanchez, who works at a non-profit in Denver, said she could probably move her house if she had to because it was built recently. Her daughter’s house across the street may be a different story. It has sat there for over 40 years, like most of the homes in the park.
Even if a home can be safely moved, its owner may not be able to find an open lot nearby or be able to afford relocation costs, which can run from $5,000 to $10,000, according to Prosperity Now, a Washington, D.C., non-profit that studies and advocates for policies that help low-income people become more financially secure.
The closure of a mobile home park could create a crisis for residents and for the city or town they live in as dozens of displaced people scramble to find new housing, said Esther Sullivan, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Denver who has studied mobile home parks in Texas and Florida.
In her research, she found that city council members who agree to rezone a park often argue that park residents can move into low-income housing elsewhere. But that was not always the case, she said.