Immobile Homes

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
The state of Utah has about three million people, and a third of them live in one valley, surrounded on three sides by 7,000-foot mountains, and to the northwest by a great big salty lake. The valley is home to the state capital, Salt Lake City, and a bunch of other small cities and towns that over time have grown together into one big mass. One of the towns amid the sprawl is Midvale.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Okay. We are in Midvale, Utah.

Roman Mars:
Producer Emmett Fitzgerald recently took a trip to Midvale, Utah, to visit a mobile home park.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
I am standing outside of the Applewood Community.

Roman Mars:
Applewood is a small mobile home community for seniors. You have to be 55 or older to live there. It’s about seven acres, with 56 lots. And it looks like a lot like the rest of suburban Midvale, except the houses are smaller and closer together. It has its own little road with its own speed limit, 10 miles per hour.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
It’s a very quiet community.

Roman Mars:
Except for that weed wacker.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And the houses are just a few feet apart, but they all look nice. They’re in really good shape. Little gardens out front of each one, some daffodils. Let’s see, should I use the side entrance or the front entrance?

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Hello.

Shirlene Stoven:
Hi there! Come on in.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Thank you.

Shirlene Stoven:
You found me.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
This is Shirlene Stoven. She convinced me I needed to come visit Appelwood after one phone call.

Shirlene Stoven:
There is something in my voice on the phone that attracts people. I can get on that phone, and I’m not bragging, but I can get anything I want. But I don’t do it.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Shirlene’s home is immaculate. She has spotless white carpeting from wall-to-wall, and all this modern furniture that’s been carefully color-coordinated. And it’s really spacious inside. She says that when people first walk in, they seem surprised that a mobile home could be so nice. They’ll say…

Shirlene Stoven:
“This is a home,” and I’m going, “Yeah, it’s a manufactured home, and it is built stronger and better than 90% of these little tract homes that you find.” But it’s hard for people to get past this tunnel vision of trailers, and trailer trash.

Roman Mars:
Mobile homes don’t get a lot of love in our culture, but they represent a lot of the affordable housing in the United States. Throughout the ’90s, mobile homes made up about two-thirds of new affordable housing.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Shirlene bought her mobile home, or manufactured home, in 1994. She was divorced, her kids were grown up, and out of the house. She wanted to buy her own place, but she couldn’t afford a tract home in the suburbs.

Shirlene Stoven:
When I bought it, I was just excited to think, “I can actually now have a beautiful home that I can afford.” Those tract homes, I couldn’t afford. I had to borrow money, and the loan on the borrowing of the money, plus the pad fee, was less than what I was paying to rent an apartment.

Roman Mars:
But when you buy a manufactured home, the structure itself is only half of the equation. Then you need to find a place to put it.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And Shirlene found what seemed like the perfect spot, a small quiet mobile home park with an empty lot.

Shirlene Stoven:
When I moved here, in February of 1994, I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven. I have a little bit of a backyard, and I plant a little bit of a garden, my little tomato and my cucumber. I want just a little bit of ground, and this is just enough. This is perfect.

Roman Mars:
But it wasn’t actually perfect. The same dynamic that made this housing situation great for Shirlene also made her vulnerable. Because the mobile home was hers, but the land underneath it wasn’t.

Esther Sullivan:
Part of the paradox at the heart of manufactured housing is that, it’s precisely the thing that makes it so affordable, that also makes this a highly insecure form of housing.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
This is Esther Sullivan, a sociologist at the University of Colorado, Denver, who studies the relationship between poverty and housing. She says that about a third of mobile homeowners live in parks like Applewood, where they rent a plot of land for their home. She calls this arrangement halfway-home ownership, because it’s filled with all this uncertainty.

Esther Sullivan:
Residents in parks basically live at the whim of the property owner, where the property owner has the majority of rights in that community. So they are subject to, often times, poor and shoddy maintenance, ever increasing rents, and eventually, they can be subject to park closure and redevelopment, with very little notice.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
One day in 2011, Shirlene came home and found a letter.

Shirlene Stoven:
We all received this letter: “Your rent is now going up $89 per month, and in six months, it’s going to go up another $89 per month.”

Emmett Fitzgerald:
For decades, the owner of Applewood had taken good care of the park, and kept rents low and affordable, but there were new owners now.

Shirlene Stoven:
And we all went ballistic. Who can afford $89, and then another $89? We’re seniors, we’re on limited income. Are you kidding?

Emmett Fitzgerald:
They managed to negotiate the increases down to $70 each, but still, in a six-month period, the rent for each lot went from $320 to $460. And rumors started swirling that the increases might just be the first step in a plan to force them out.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And so, Shirlene started digging into what was going on. And pretty soon, she discovered that the new landlords had submitted a plan to the city, to build a three-story apartment complex, right on top of Applewood.

Shirlene Stoven:
Then we understood why. They were trying to financially evict us.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But Shirlene wasn’t just going to up and leave. She’d have to figure something out.

Roman Mars:
Owning your own home has long been seen as a cornerstone of middle-class stability in this country. Home ownership helps you build wealth, and as long as you’re able to pay your mortgage, you don’t have to worry about getting evicted. That security is kind of why we buy houses.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But that security just isn’t there for many mobile homeowners, including Shirlene Stoven, and the rest of the community at Applewood. We’re going to get back to their story in a second, but to understand how mobile homeowners ended up in the precarious position of owning a home without land, we have to go back to the early 20th Century, and the dawn of the Automobile Age.

Andrew Hurley:
People had cars for the first time, and could go out and explore America by attaching little trailers to the backs of their Model Ts, or whatever cars they had.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
This is Andrew Hurley, a history professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He says that the first trailer owners were wealthy vacationers, known as tin-can tourists.

Song Excerpt:
“Trailing along in a trailer, happy as can be. No rent to pay the landlord, no siree!”

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But then came the Great Depression, when migrant workers started living in trailers full-time, as they traveled the country looking for work.

Andrew Hurley:
And so, there were thousands of itinerant individuals and families in search of work, that didn’t really know when they, or if they, would be coming back to where they had originated. And so, a trailer was something that they could attach to the back of their car, and just take their home along with them.

Esther Sullivan:
And they started to site these homes together, and basically, what became the first mobile home parks. These parks were really seen as a major drain on local resources. Writings of the time refer to these as trailer slums.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
This was the beginning of a kind of classist trailer stigma that is still very much around today.

Roman Mars:
But the event that really solidified the trailer as a viable form of American housing was World War II.

Announcer:
American industry has met the challenge of war. American factories have achieved the impossible. American mass production is delivering the goods.

Roman Mars:
As the war got underway, factories popped up in all these remote parts of the country.

Andrew Hurley:
But because they had been undeveloped, there was no housing, and there was no capacity to build the new housing, because construction materials were prioritized for war production.

Roman Mars:
So the government bought thousands of trailers to house the wartime workforce.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But this was always supposed to be a temporary solution. When the war ended, the expectation was that people would give up their trailers, and move back into conventional homes. But that didn’t happen.

Roman Mars:
Trailers continued to be an affordable housing option for people who didn’t have the money to buy a home in the expanding suburbs. And a lot of these mobile homeowners rented pads in one of the many mobile home parks that were popping up all over the country. Esther Sullivan says these parks continued to spread throughout the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, as the government was investing less and less in public housing.

Esther Sullivan:
So just as we’ve increasingly slashed the budget of HUD, and the production of affordable housing, we’ve seen the incredible rise of manufactured housing, and specifically, manufactured housing in mobile home parks to fill that gap.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Through it all, mobile homes were never really able to shake off the stigma that began during the Great Depression. People just did not want mobile home parks built in their backyard. In fact, cities used all the tools in their urban planning toolkit to render mobile home parks invisible.

Esther Sullivan:
For the last half of a century, planning and zoning laws have required that mobile home parks be walled in, fenced off, visually screened, landscaped out of sight, so that the average citizen in a town or city might not ever know that a park was located where it was located.

Roman Mars:
These parks were often built on marginal land on the outskirts of cities. Because mobile homes are legally classified as a form of transportation, rather than housing, they can be built on land that wasn’t zoned residential.

Esther Sullivan:
So, separate them from residences and single-family homes, and more often, place mobile homes in commercial or industrial zones, as well as in hazarded places, like floodplains, or substandard land.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But as cities develop and expand, mobile home parks become valuable property that can be bought up and redeveloped into something more profitable.

Roman Mars:
A new apartment building, a condo complex, or a Walmart.

Esther Sullivan:
Almost any other land use is prioritized over a mobile home park in the decisions of local city councils, and in the eyes of developers, and the redevelopment of mobile home parks means mass eviction for mobile home park residents.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Which brings us back to Midvale, Utah, and that little mobile home park for seniors, where over 50 manufactured homes were on the verge of being evicted to make way for an apartment complex. I asked everyone at Applewood if they considered the possibility of redevelopment and eviction when they moved in.

Beth Durfee:
I just hadn’t thought about that fact.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
This is Beth Durfee. She moved into Applewood with her husband Russell a couple of years ago.

Beth Durfee:
I didn’t think about the fact that I would have to remove my home, or leave my home, and having to move out. I never thought that that was possible. Until they told me that it was.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
A lot of people, including many developers, assume that if you evict a mobile home park, the residents will just pick up their houses, and move them somewhere else. But the truth is, mobile homes aren’t really mobile anymore.

Roman Mars:
In the mid-20th Century, the mobile home industry split in two. One branch continued making travel trailers and RVs, while the other started manufacturing houses designed to be lived in full-time. These mobile homes started to look less like trailers and more like conventional single-family houses, with multiple rooms and hallways, and more bathrooms, and they got harder and harder to move.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Today, the term “mobile home” is more or less a misnomer.

Esther Sullivan:
A mobile home is not intended to be mobile, except when it is first transported from the factory, and installed on the site.

Roman Mars:
And if you try to move it again?

Esther Sullivan:
It requires specialized trucking and hauling, at great expense to homeowners. It can cost between $5,000 and $15,000 to move one of these homes.

Roman Mars:
Moving can also cause serious structural problems.

Esther Sullivan:
It can damage the home so severely that it becomes unlivable.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And even if residents of Applewood were willing to take that risk, and had a spare $15,000 lying around, finding a new place to put their home could be next to impossible.

Shirlene Stoven:
Because there has not been any new manufactured home communities built in Utah, for a long, long, long time. There’s not that many spaces in any of these parks to put 56 homes.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
This is Shirlene Stoven again. She says that if she got evicted, she would probably have to abandon her home, and move in with one of her kids.

Shirlene Stoven:
Some of these people have no family, or their family’s so far away. Where would they go?

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Shirlene was determined not to let that happen at Applewood, and she talked to some local community organizers, who advised her to start a homeowners association.

Shirlene Stoven:
So our first meeting was at a carport, and I can’t remember which carport, but one of the carports here, we all met. Decided this is what we needed to do to save ourselves. And I of course became president.

Roman Mars:
Of course.

Shirlene Stoven:
Whoopee! And I thought, “Okay. What do I do now? I’m clueless.”

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But she kept asking people for help, and little by little, they started rallying people to their cause. The residents started a petition to save Applewood, and got over 2,600 signatures. Shirlene testified before the Mayor and the City Council, and told them…

Shirlene Stoven:
If we allowed this, guess what? You’re going to have 56 homeowners that will be homeless. And what are you going to do with us?

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Homelessness is a huge problem in Utah right now, and it’s been exacerbated by a housing shortage, and apartment complexes are going up all over the Salt Lake Valley, to try and meet a growing demand. Shirlene says that’s good.

Shirlene Stoven:
You need the apartments, great, build them. But don’t displace people in order to do it.

Roman Mars:
Shirlene and the other residents of Applewood fought for several years to stay in their homes. There were a lot of twists and turns and late nights and a whole lot of e-mails. But eventually, after a lot of public pressure, the development company gave up on the project, and decided to put Applewood up for sale.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And when Shirlene heard that, she remembered an organization that she thought might be able to help them out. It was called ROC USA.

Paul Bradley:
Yeah, so ROC stands for Resident Owned Communities, and we help homeowners in mobile home parks buy their communities as co-ops.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
This is Paul Bradley, the president of ROC USA, which is based in New Hampshire. Bradley began organizing mobile home co-ops with the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund back in the ’80s. They even got legislation passed in New Hampshire that gives mobile homeowners a first option to purchase the land whenever a park goes up for sale.

Paul Bradley:
Today, about 27% of the manufactured home communities are mobile home parks in New Hampshire are resident-owned, so that’s 127 or so communities.

Roman Mars:
Bradley thinks we need to build more affordable housing, but he also wants to protect the affordable housing we already have. Right now, mobile homes represent the largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing produced in this country. Bradley says that if we can help mobile homeowners buy the land beneath their parks, then the risk of mass eviction disappears.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And so, in 2008, Bradley launched ROC USA, in an effort to spread New Hampshire’s cooperative ownership model nationwide. So far they’ve been really successful.

Paul Bradley:
So we’re a national network of just over 220 communities, 14,000 homeowners, and we’re operating with co-ops in 15 states.

Roman Mars:
When Shirlene called Paul Bradley, things were not looking good for Applewood. The land had already been sold to two new developers, for $4.8 million.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But Shirlene and Paul approached the new owners and explained the situation. They talked about how difficult it would be difficult to move their homes, and asked if the new owners would be willing to sell the park to the residents.

Paul Bradley:
And they said, “We didn’t realize you wanted to purchase the property, but if you want to, and you can do it within the next couple of months, we’ll sell it to you. Otherwise, if we’re going to own it, eventually we’re going to close it down.”

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Buying a mobile home park worth at least $4.8 million seemed like a very tall order for the residents of Applewood. Individually, no one in the park could even come close to getting a mortgage for that kind of money. But together, as a co-op, the financial picture was different. ROC USA was willing to give the residents a low-interest loan for $3.6 million.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
They would still need to find some more money, though, and so, they went to a low-income housing firm in Utah, called the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund.

Shirlene Stoven:
So there I am again, pleading my case, and Gloria, who is the director, said, “I’ve thought about this the last three months. And I’ve decided, we need to help these people. We need to give them the money they need.”

Shirlene Stoven:
So between it all, we’ve finally come up with the five million that we needed, and on February 9th, we signed for, we own the land.

Roman Mars:
After four and a half years of fighting for their little piece of ground, the land officially belongs to the Applewood Homeowners Cooperative.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
To pay off their collective mortgage, the residents agreed to pay $60 more a month than they had previously been paying in rent. It’s going to be a challenge for some of them, but the monthly costs should be stable from here on out, and will no longer need to worry about eviction.

Russell Durfee:
We could breathe again, and not to worry about losing our home, and everything we’d had in it. Now we can own our home, and feel at ease.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
This is Russell Durfee, who lives in Applewood with his wife Beth, who you heard from earlier. He says that, at their age, they’re just happy to have a secure place to live.

Russell Durfee:
We’re getting so old and feeble, that we don’t know how much longer we’re going to live, so when we go grocery shopping, we don’t necessarily buy a green banana. It better ripen fast (laughs).

Beth Durfee:
That’s enough of that joke.

Russell Durfee:
You could never get enough of that joke. Get out of here!

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Shirlene is also relieved, but the stress hasn’t gone away completely. They own the place now. They’ve got a co-op to run, and bills to pay.

Shirlene Stoven:
Before, it was fighting to gain the land. Now it’s a whole different set of pressures of just getting this running smoothly, and the co-op is a different ball game. Because now we’re in charge. It’s up to us to make it work. Otherwise, we’re in deep, deep doo-doo.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But they aren’t on their own. ROC USA is helping them structure the co-op and deal with the finances. And of course, a cooperative Applewood means cooperative living. There lots of meetings and elections, committees, more committees.

Shirlene Stoven:
There’s the Community Rules Enforcement Committee. There’s the Finance Committee. There is the Orientation Committee. There’s the Maintenance Committee. There’s the Social Committee. These are all committees we’re trying to get organized.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Russell Durfee says he’s not well enough to participate as much as he would like, but he went to the first general meeting of the co-op, and he was really impressed.

Russell Durfee:
They asked to be volunteers to be president and vice president, and so forth, and every position, they had volunteers. Didn’t have to coax people to serve as leaders, they just automatically volunteered to do it.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Russell says they have lots of different skills and decades of experience here in Applewood. And they’re trying to take advantage of everyone’s talents. The head of the Maintenance Committee, for example, is a retired engineer.

Russell Durfee:
Our secretary’s kind of automatic. She was the secretary for a police department. I asked her how she could possibly listen that fast, and get all the notes down, and so forth, said, “Well, I did it for many years.”

Roman Mars:
The co-op is going to be a lot of work. But at least for now, people are glad to be part of it, and to finally own the land under their homes, together.

Comments (14)

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  1. Sam

    The owner of the property has every right to sell their land, the people leasing the land are doing just that, leasing. The fact that they stopped the owner from selling the land or developing the land as they pleased is wrong. It is sad that these people would have to relocate but that is a risk you accept when you rent.

    The owner had an investment that was artificially and unjustly blocked. The true value of the land was likely far from the sell price they ended up receiving.

    1. 99pi

      Actually, the Applewood property was resold for about the same price to the residents as it initially was to the developer. And there was no blocking or forcing.

    2. Adam

      “But that is a risk you accept when you rent”
      Yes, but it seems some people do not have any other option other than to rent.

    3. John

      I agree with Sam that the property owner has the right to own or sell, and to modify rental prices as the market allows. This is one of the fundamentals in a free market, which the tenants of these spaces agreed to when they signed a contract to rent a space in the park. “The system of private property is the most important guarantee of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not”, Friedrick Hayek.
      While the communal purchase of the park is a novel idea, given that the residents are generally on a fixed income, as prices increase they are less likely to be able to increase their revenue stream, and will most likely fall short of costs for maintenance, infrastructure repairs, and other communal commodities within the park. They will then be in the same situation as the previous land owner, and will need to raise rent prices. Checking back with this group in five years and seeing how they’re doing would be an interesting follow-up.
      Roman, you missed an opportunity talk about design (both good and bad) of mobile homes and manufactured housing and how it has helped and hindered affordable housing and habitability. I do wish that 99% would go back to its roots, focus more on design, and less on the SJW perspective. It was so much more better in the beginning episodes than the last few years.

  2. Karen

    Another term used for mobile homes is park models. I’m wondering if this is a term that is only used in Canada? Seems like a more appropriate name…

    Also, one of the issues with mobile home parks is the declining infrastructure. In some places, the underground infrastructure was built under the homes, so fixing it involves moving structures that are no longer easy to move. It becomes a very challenging problem for both the homeowner and the land owner. I wonder how much the co-ops know about the infrastructure under their land and what future of reparation costs might mean?

    1. Hi Karen,
      Park models are built to the RV code. Manufactured housing is built to the HUD-code. The latter is intended for full-time and long-term occupancy and while some people do live in park models and RVs full-time, they’re not designed for it.
      In terms of co-ops and infrastructure, every co-op we work with hires and civil engineer who inspects the systems and develops a 10 year Capital Improvement Plan on which their reserve deposits are budgeted. Getting the CIP right is one of the key elements in the due diligence process.

  3. hazy

    Insuring a manufactured/mobile/trailer home is more expensive than a conventional property, so keep it in mind if you are considering purchasing one.

  4. Jacob

    One of the other oddities about mobile homes is that while the homes themselves are less expensive (selling price), the loans people use to pay for them can be more expensive (interest rates/loan terms). Because mobile homes are often titled as “personal” property (moveable) as opposed to “real” property (land/buildings) they fall outside the scope of many of the subsidized housing/housing finance programs people might otherwise be eligible for. And worse loan terms can have a big impact when it comes to securing an affordable monthly payment.

    Luckily there are policy initiatives being developed nationally (right now) to better serve these communities. See the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s, Duty to Serve guidance, Manufactured Housing initiatives- https://www.fhfa.gov/PolicyProgramsResearch/Programs/Pages/Duty-to-Serve.aspx

    Hopefully these programs will provide more affordable financing for individual mobile home borrowers and for mobile home communities (so it’s easier for ROCs to gather the funding needed to purchase and save their communities).

    Great work, as always, 99pi !

  5. EM

    Great episode.

    I live in Goshen Indiana, which claims to be “mobile home (or rv or manufactured housing) capital of the world” because so many rvs are made here. Neighboring Elkhart even has the RV Hall of Fame. I am not making this up.

    My question is why isn’t this a problem for the manufacturers? Seems like it would be their best interest to help their customers solve this problem. But wait, I’ve seen how they operate and I already know the answer.

  6. Casey Jensen

    I Lived in a park about a couple miles from applewood. Developers bought the land evicted everybody, it was called the meadows on creek road. You cannot attribute risk valuation with rent when there are not enough affordable homes in a place to live. What really ends up happening, is that the most marginalized people are taken advantage of for being lucky enough to live in “not a slum” that can be bought and sold to someone who’s money is more valuable. Where I used to live has 4 million dollar house on it now and my daughters friend was just shot next to the park where I was forced to live.
    I know that this episode was about a really great story of people who found a way, but most dont. It was only possible because of the personal charity of the developers who bought the land. That is an outlier and is not “design”.
    If 99% of people get evicted by design that is the story, not the 1% who found charity. I’m really sorry I love your show, but you picked low hanging fruit on this one. You didn’t talk to SLC CAP or the director of housing authority, or talk to anybody who suffered fall out from a closure of a park.

    1. Casey, I’m really sorry you didn’t have the opportunity to buy your park, but what happened with the folks at Applewood wasn’t charity. The developers got their $5 million price. ROC USA is working to change the “design” of evictions by making financing and technical assistance available to groups of residents so they can save their homes and communities.

  7. Over listening to the end story, I was reminded of a company called Kasita around the Austin area. It’s a current concept for mobile living and interchangeable urban stacks. Their design definitely wins over the Ready Player One imagery but still very reminiscent of the Emmert’s idea.

  8. Terrific reporting. Thank you!

    The resident-owned community (ROC) movement is an important factor on preserving affordable workforce housing. It could become exponentially more so if legislatures can be persuaded to title these homes as real property, as Jacob notes.

    To address John’s thoughts above on the resilience of manufactured-home communities, the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund converted its first park in 1984. There are now 124 in the state, containing more than 7,000 homes, and not one community has failed.

    Homeowners in the co-ops continue to pay rent, but the rent goes to the cooperative (as opposed to profits for owners and shareholders) and is invested back into the community. Homeowners in our earliest co-ops now pay pay extremely low rents, and have been able to improve, then maintain, their infrastructure.

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