Given that “redneck” and “hillbilly” remain the last acceptable stereotypes among polite society, it isn’t surprising that the stereotypical urban home of poor, recently rural whites remains an object of scorn. The mere mention of a trailer park conjures images of criminals in wifebeaters, moldy mattresses thrown awry, and Confederate flags. As with most social phenomena, there is a much more interesting reality behind this crass cliché. Trailer parks remain one of the last forms of housing in US cities provided by the market explicitly for low-income residents. Better still, they offer a working example of traditional urban design elements and private governance.
Any discussion of trailer parks should start with the fact that most forms of low-income housing have been criminalized in nearly every major US city. Beginning in the 1920s, urban policymakers and planners started banning what they deemed as low-quality housing, including boarding houses, residential hotels, and low-quality apartments. Meanwhile, on the outer edges of many cities, urban policymakers undertook a policy of “mass eviction and demolition” of low-quality housing. Policymakers established bans on suburban shantytowns and self-built housing. In knocking out the bottom rung of urbanization, this ended the natural “filtering up” of cities as they expanded outward, replaced as we now know by static subdivisions of middle-class, single-family houses. The Housing Act of 1937 formalized this war on “slums” at the federal level and by the 1960s much of the emergent low-income urbanism in and around many U.S. cities was eliminated.
In light of the United States’ century-long war on low-income housing, it’s something of a miracle that trailer parks survive. With an aftermarket trailer, trailer payments and park rent combined average around the remarkably low rents of $300 to $500. Even the typical new manufactured home, with combined trailer payments and park rent, costs around $700 to $1,000 a month. Both options offer a decent standard of living at far less than rents for apartments of comparable size in many cities. The savings with manufactured housing are a big part of the story: where the average manufactured house costs $64,000, the average site-built single-family house now costs $324,000. The savings don’t come out of shoddy construction either: manufactured homes are increasingly energy efficient, and their manufacturing process produces less waste than traditional site-built construction. With prosperous cities increasingly turning into playgrounds of the rich due to onerous housing supply restrictions, we shouldn’t take these startlingly affordable rents lightly.
Trailer parks are not only cheap due to manufacturing; they’re also cheap thanks to their surprising exemption from most conventional land-use controls. Most cities zone very little space for trailer parks—presumably a reflection of the general bias against low-income housing. But where they exist, they are often subject to uniquely liberal land-use regulation, with minimal setbacks, fewer parking requirements, and tiny minimum lot sizes. The result is that many trailer parks have relatively high population densities. The New World Economics blog explains:
“If you had 70% home plots/15% roads/15% shared amenities like parks and squares, 1000sf plots, and 2.5 people per household, that works out to population density of 46,000 people per square mile — with one or two story construction! At this level of density, compared to about 9,000/mile for the denser Los Angeles suburb, you could easily have a lot of neat commercial stuff (bars, restaurants, shops, schools, etc.) within walking distance.”
By combining these liberal land-use regulations with narrow streets shared by all users, we ironically find in many trailer parks a kind of traditional urban design more common in European and Japanese cities. With functional urban densities and traditional urban design, the only thing missing in most trailer parks is a natural mixture of commercial and industrial uses. Many urban trailer parks likely bypass this zoning-imposed challenge by locating within walking distance of commercial and industrial uses.
Besides revealing a natural acceptance of traditional urban design, trailer parks also illustrate the capacity for low-income communities to engage in private governance. Compared to many low-income neighborhoods, trailer parks are often fairly clean and relatively safe. How could this be? The answer lies in the exchange at the heart of a trailer park: a trailer owner pays rent not only for a slice of land in an apparently desirable location but also for a kind of club good known as “private governance.” Edward Stringham describes the concept as “the various forms of private enforcement, self-governance, or self-regulation among private groups or individuals that fill a void that government enforcement cannot.” The park management provides order within the park, upholding certain basic standards on cleanliness and maintenance while also dealing with unwanted visitors and settling disputes among neighbors. Although costly to move, the mobile nature of the homes allows residents to shop around for governance amenities, punishing incompetent park managers by leaving and rewarding competent park managers by moving in. Residents can shop around for other lifestyle preferences, including parks restricted to retirees or parks managed to be family friendly. While many see the purported incompetence of low-income families as a justification for paternalistic policies—including the above mentioned bans on low-quality housing—the success of private governance in trailer parks speaks to the potential of emergent social orders to address shared ills.
The lesson here is not, of course, that we should all go live in trailer parks. As a Kentuckian, I have spent enough time in and around trailers to think better of that idea. But here are three key lessons: First, urban policymakers and planners must take a more permissive approach to low-quality, affordable housing options like trailer parks. Many cities tightly restrict the location and size of trailer parks, effectively limiting the choices of low-income families and undermining access to affordable housing. Second, we should extend the liberal land-use regulations common in trailer parks to site-built homes and apartments. Besides needlessly restricting the housing supply, conventional land-use restrictions undermine the traditional urban development. Finally, we should respect the complex orders that organize urban life, orders often visible only to members of the community. Where policymakers deem top-down regulation necessary, it should be designed to support rather than replace emergent orders that low-income communities have developed over time. When we stop treating low-income communities as objects of scorn, to be subjected to top-down, paternalistic planning, we might find that we have a lot to learn from them.
Follow me on Twitter at @mnolangray.
Jerome Bigge saysApril 22, 2016 at 8:18 pm
Go on “Zillow” and you can find all sorts of low cost mobile homes. Now that lot rent used to be a lot cheaper in the past than now as parks are now being taxed heavier to make up from the lack of being able to tax the mobile homes themselves to the same levels that houses are being taxed.
mulp saysApril 22, 2016 at 8:43 pm
How are public education and welfare of the disabled and infirm paid for? By State broad-based taxes that tax the rich to pay services needed by those living in trailer parks?
I live in New Hampshire and housing regulation is driven by excluding the poor with children from living in New Hampshire and driving out the infirm and disabled from living in cheap single person housing. It’s all about taxes.
New Hampshire wants families with high incomes paying high private college tuition rates to live in New Hampshire.
SamWah saysApril 23, 2016 at 1:05 pm
Friends of mine stay in one in Arizona4-5 months a year.
Obakeinu saysApril 23, 2016 at 11:59 pm
The average ‘manufactured housing’ owner pays county property taxes; and, the typical county puts forward tax levies to care for the elderly, and the mentally disabled.
WITH a minimum of peeking over the shoulder by the state government.
As to your state’s issues… you get the governance you deserve. Maybe the people you keep electing need some shaking up. At the ballot box.
(And maybe a bit less Big Government…)
Andres Dee saysApril 24, 2016 at 7:36 pm
This essay missed an opportunity: Homes would be more affordable to more people (and we would have more vibrant communities) if we allowed for more places where homes are smaller and closer together, be they stick-built or manufactured.
Other missed opportunities: “Compared to many low-income neighborhoods, trailer parks are often fairly clean and relatively safe.” This comes off as vague and weasel-ly. Finally, “I have spent enough time in and around trailers to think better of that idea.” Without explaining why, this comes off as flip, elitist and undermines your entire thesis.
hcat saysApril 25, 2016 at 12:51 am
Live free or die, indeed! Ha!!
Nolan Gray saysApril 25, 2016 at 11:08 am
From the conclusion: “Second, we should extend the liberal land-use regulations common in trailer parks to site-built homes and apartments.”
Two links in the claim concerning cleanliness and safety flesh out the benefits of private governance.
An elitist defense of trailer parks. An achievement, surely!
Mitchell Brown saysApril 25, 2016 at 12:23 pm
The images below are of Ronda Spain and Marbella. Yes, Marbella is wealthy, Ronda isn’t so wealthy. Why can’t we have places like this? I get the feeling that some will say, “well, those are too nice” or some such.
Would these places be illegal? Would a Form-based Code system allow such building?
Ayn Galt saysApril 30, 2016 at 3:34 pm
This would require disempowerment of bureaucrats, which will never happen.
Andres Dee saysMay 3, 2016 at 8:08 pm
Apologies. I missed the links and the passage you highlighted. Thank you.
Assistant Village idiot saysMay 7, 2016 at 1:03 pm
I live in NH and claim that your assessment is not special to our state. It’s no different than anywhere else. In fact, we do a bit better here. Some people here believe in the magic of broad-based taxes and have been insisting for years they will fix everything.
Angie Schmitt saysAugust 15, 2016 at 9:50 am
This article is off base, IMO. The cheap rents you describe just give people land to park their home on. They still have to make payments on the home. This is the worst of both worlds — they have none of the security of ownership with all the bad issues of ownership — maintenance costs, etc. Plus mobile homes are super energy inefficient. Mobile homes are a poverty trap. i have some direct family experience with this.
Caroline Davis saysAugust 22, 2016 at 11:50 am
The picture included in this article of the trailer park in Lexington, KY is actually one that I spent some time working in during an internship my senior year. You’re from Kentucky, although you don’t say from where. What I learned during my interaction with this trailer park is that it had been nicknamed “Mexington” by some close-minded Lexingtonians because it had a high Hispanic population. I was responsible for surveying residents on community strengths and weaknesses and what we learned in these conversations from the residents in this trailer park, both Hispanic and non-Hispanic, was that the management was just horrible. There were multiple instances of intentionally losing rent checks so they could charge residents a late fee, charging residents for parking violations (i.e. being one-two inches out of the driveway), charging residents for having children’s play equipment on their own plot of land, and there was a consensus among residents (particularly those who were undocumented) that there was nothing they could do about it because they felt so bullied by management. Also, the caption states that there are grocery stores within walking distance, but to the best of my knowledge this area is actually considered to be a food desert (inadequate access to fresh food I think within one mile of the home) or at least was in 2015.
Obviously, the injustices that these residents face is not the case for all trailer parks, but it’s naive to think that low rent doesn’t necessarily come at a greater price.
Nolan Gray saysAugust 24, 2016 at 2:05 am
Thanks for the feedback. I included the combined typical park and new/used home payments in the figures in paragraph three for that reason. In many metropolitan areas, these combined land/home payments are highly competitive with apartments both in cost per square foot and additional amenities (e.g., the common desire for a modest yard, a walk-out front door, mobility).
As for the “worst of both worlds” concern: security of ownership is actually one of the unique advantages of owning a mobile home in particular, although my argument in the piece applies equally to owning and renting. In many ways, mobile home ownership can be the best of both worlds. On the one hand, it comes with some of the benefits of owning a home: mobile homes preserve some value as a consumer durable good—it’s not uncommon to find 50+ year-old mobile homes in decent shape on the secondary market selling for over $25,000—which could a) act as a store of value that could be resold if cash is urgently needed or b) could serve as collateral, enhancing access to credit. On the other hand, it comes with some of the benefits of renting: besides being highly mobile—this is a big reason why they’re popular among seasonal workers—they’re also correctly perceived as a consumer durable good, so they don’t encourage the kind of silly “investing” people do when they plow money into an oversized site-built home. To put it another way, mobile homes encourage consumers to only buy the housing they actually want to consume, and the low housing costs free up additional funds for actual investments: their children’s education, index funds, etc.
In many cases, mobile homes are the best option among otherwise crummy options for low-income families. My aim isn’t to say that they’re the ideal living arrangement, only that we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss/prohibit them. I too have some direct family experience with this.