A hot real estate market has revived an old threat to people who live in mobile home parks.
Vacant land is scarce in the Treasure Valley, making trailer parks natural targets for development. If a park is sold, the people who live there often have to move, usually to homes that cost a lot more.
This is what happened at Tammy’s Riverside Park in Garden City. Earlier this year, a company run by developer Bill Truax bought the 25-unit mobile home park on the east side of 43rd Street just south of the Boise River from Larry Weeks. The deal became official Nov. 15, according to documents on file at the Ada County Recorder’s Office.
Truax and several residents said Weeks was beyond patient with the tenants at Tammy’s. They said some hadn’t paid rent for several months.
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Truax said Tuesday he might build townhomes on the 2.4 acres he bought, but he hasn’t ruled out re-establishing it as a mobile home park, albeit a better maintained one than Tammy’s has been the last few years.
In September, Truax’s company sent Tammy’s residents notices that their tenancies were terminated and that they needed to move out by Oct. 15. The deadline was extended, and as of early this week, a handful of tenants were still in the park. They said they have until the end of the year.
Adrean Devereaux, one of the tenants, said it’s been difficult finding a place she can afford. She said $1,000 a month in government assistance is her only income, so most market-rate apartments aren’t in her budget. She said she was homeless before she moved into Tammy’s two-and-a-half years ago, and she’s worried she’ll end up in the shelters or on the streets again.
“What are we supposed to do?” Devereaux said. “And it’s nobody’s fault. I understand my landlord giving up and wanting just to not deal with this stuff anymore — the chaos and the drama.”
WHY TRAILER PARKS?
For decades, trailers — some prefer to call them mobile homes or manufactured homes — have been a staple of low-income housing in America.
Are they worth saving? Todd Shallat thinks so. In 2006 and 2007, Shallat, a Boise State University professor, oversaw “Mobile Home Living in Boise,” a study that examined the history, state and unstable future of the city’s trailer parks.
The study identified several benefits of trailer parks that apartments don’t offer. Among them are a sense of community that’s less likely in an apartment building; and a low bar to home ownership.
It’s kind of a poor man’s gated community, you might say...Some of them have a real feel of community where they watch out for somebody.
Boise State University professor Todd Shallat on mobile home parks
Even if a homeowner rents the land under a trailer, at least there’s land, not shared walls.
“Even if it’s four feet around your trailer, there are people, and I don’t blame them, that want their own piece of earth,” Garden City Mayor John Evans said.
Traditionally, trailer parks are more likely to accept people with felony records or bad credit who were rejected by landlords of apartments and traditional houses.
“In Boise, therefore, housing advocates mostly believe that a stock of subsidized affordable housing should include a few mobile home parks,” according to the BSU study.
A few decades ago, when trailers and manufactured homes were becoming a common housing choice in the Treasure Valley, land was cheap and plentiful, Shallat told the Idaho Statesman.
Rent for a $1,000 mobile home lot might have been $50 a month. Not many people saw the valley’s land rush coming. And so, assuming they’d always have a cheap place to put to park their investments, many mobile homeowners never bothered to buy the land under their homes.
Time passed, and the cost of land increased. Meanwhile, the homes themselves aged, losing value and becoming more difficult to move. In 1976, the federal government instituted building standards for manufactured homes.
Then the inevitable happened. Here and there, trailer park owners sold their land to developers. Displaced homeowners found themselves looking for new places to live, whether they owned their homes or rented, and finding more barriers than options.
Before moving, a mobile homeowner first has to find a place to put it. The new lot has to have water, sewer and electrical hook-ups, meaning it probably has to be part of another trailer park. Vacant lots can be tough to find.
Second, because there’s a limited supply of lots, park owners are often selective about the age and condition of trailers they accept. Many don’t accept trailers that don’t meet the 1976 standards.
The third problem is cost. After finding a lot, a homeowner has to actually move the home, a process that can cost thousands of dollars, not to mention the damage that might occur during the move. Even owners who abandon their trailers are sometimes charged thousands of dollars for demolishing and disposing of them.
Amanda Olsen got lucky.
Someone moving out of Tammy’s Riverside Park left a trailer behind and no one else wanted it. Olsen, a young mother of five who lives across from Devereaux, claimed it. She said she found a lot in a park off Chinden Boulevard that will accept the trailer.
A friend told her he’d move the trailer for free. Her new trailer is smaller than the one she lives in now, but all in all, she’s making out OK.
A few hundred feet south of Olsen, in Dee Mar Homes, Amanda Anderson has no faith that kind of luck will find her if — or when — the owner of Dee Mar sells the land under her trailer. Anderson said the cheapest estimate she’s seen for moving her home is $3,500.
Anderson said she refuses to live in an apartment. She said it’s almost impossible to find a house she can afford that’s big enough for her family, including dogs. The cheapest house she’s found is $750 a month — $300 more than she’s paying now.
Like her neighbors, Anderson worries Dee Mar will be sold someday, and she’ll be stuck in the same situation as Devereaux, Olsen and the rest of the Tammy’s tenants.
“It’s a scary thought,” she said.
We knew stuff got real when they started tearing down the building that sat in behind us.
Amanda Anderson, Dee Mar Homes resident, on the potential of the land under her mobile home being sold
Howard Olson, another Dee Mar resident, is an example of another problem facing trailer park tenants, the majority of whom are older than 60, according to the BSU study and nationwide data it cites. At 73, Olson faces health problems that are a major obstacle to relocating.
“I’d like to sell the place and move, but how in the hell am I going to do it?” Olson said. “My heart’s failing me. I can’t do the things that I did a year ago.”
Fair or not, trailer parks have a reputation for being trashy hives of illegal behavior.
A common belief among residents and some affordable housing advocates is that cities in the Treasure Valley don’t like trailer parks and wish they’d give way to gentrification.
The evidence is mixed.
On one hand, Garden City allowed a trailer park on Veterans Memorial Parkway to be redeveloped as an apartment complex called Trailwinds.
In 2006, the city of Boise condemned Overland Park near Curtis Road and cited owner Randy Hoffer for safety violations stemming from electrical, plumbing and other problems. Today, Hoffer is the owner of Dee Mar Homes, where Amanda Anderson and Howard Olson live. The Overland Park closure was the catalyst for BSU’s study.
From a certain perspective, those two examples could point to a prejudice against trailer parks.
On the other hand, Trailwinds brought an overall increase of affordable housing to Garden City, even when the loss of mobile homes is accounted for. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment is as low as $411.
And seven years before shutting down Overland Park, Boise helped establish Mellodee Thornton Park in the Vista Neighborhood to replace a trailer park that was removed to make way for the Fred Meyer-anchored shopping center on Federal Way.
“That’s probably the most extreme thing you could do in response to a closure, which is to actually build a replacement park,” Boise planning director Hal Simmons said.
Simmons pointed out that the Great Recession struck shortly after BSU released its mobile home study, and the threat to trailer parks seemed to fade a little. Since the study came out, he said, Boise has lost only two parks.
“There’s been a fear about the threat of closure of mobile home parks for many, many years. And mostly that threat hasn’t materialized,” he said. “In a way, it’s a lot like the situation with old shopping centers. You look at them and you think they can’t possibly generate money, but the fact is they do. And they generate money with little need for reinvestment.”
Still, Simmons said, Boise leaders “absolutely worry about” the future of trailer parks now that Boise’s real estate market is roaring again.
“We’re not trying to push them out,” he said. “But we also recognize that there are some that are in pretty bad shape.”
Many Treasure Valley mobile homeowners live in parks that are stable and well-kept.
Stonegate, located northwest of Esther Simplot Park, is an orderly neighborhood. It’s sitting on top of some of the most valuable land in Idaho.
Mellodee Thornton is another example of a clean, well maintained mobile home park. Its streets have curbs, gutters and sidewalks. Neighborhood Housing Services, an affordable housing nonprofit, owns and manages Mellodee Thornton. That keeps rents lower — by about $200 a month right now — than market rate. It also provides stability that’s lacking in dozens of parks across the Treasure Valley, because the owner’s mission is to offer affordable housing, not maximize profits.
In Golden Dawn Estates, next to Harris Ranch in East Boise, landscaping is neat, and homes are impeccably maintained. Many of the people who live there own their lots.
If you own them free and clear, they’re cash cows. And they don’t necessarily go away that quickly and easily when they generate such a steady stream of revenue.
Boise planning director Hal Simmons on the profitability of trailer parks
But the ownership paradigms at Mellodee Thornton and Golden Dawn are exceptions, not the rule.
According to BSU’s 2007 study, 63 percent of Boise’s trailer park residents own their homes but not their lots. That was twice the national average. These percentages may have changed as mobile home residents age, Shallat said, but probably not by much.
In a way, owning a trailer without the land is worse than renting. Renters can be evicted, but so can owners, and they’re on the hook for moving their homes or, sometimes, the cost of demolishing them.
Some research shows manufactured homes don’t necessarily depreciate, especially if they’re well maintained and on owner-occupied land. But without the land, a mobile home’s value usually progresses more like a car than a traditional home, Shallat said.
The BSU study listed five recommendations to help keep trailer parks viable and help people who lose their mobile homes to redevelopment.
These “strategies” are: using taxpayer money to help evicted trailer tenants relocate; educating consumers about the risks of owning mobile homes on rented land; encouraging housing cooperatives in which mobile homeowners manage the parks they live in; removing regulations that are barriers to new mobile home parks and other affordable housing options; and considering inclusionary zoning, which requires residential projects to include a certain number of affordable homes.
Boise has, at times, provided relocation assistance for evicted tenants. But owner-run coopertatives, if they exist, are rare. And Treasure Valley cities aren’t doing enough to educate people about trailer park living or expedite the development of new trailer parks, Shallat said.
I'm not sure there is such a thing as affordable housing anymore.
Garden City Mayor John Evans
The prospect of inclusionary zoning gives Scot Ludwig some heartburn. Besides being a Boise city councilman, Ludwig is an attorney and real estate developer. He thinks inclusionary zoning could be a violation of Idaho law — an obstacle the BSU study anticipated.
“Developers should be encouraged to be philanthropic and help the community with their efforts at helping solve this issue,” Ludwig said in an email. “I believe in the free market. Incentives and/or compensation for developers to provide affordable housing is an important policy I would support.”
Legality aside, there’s reason to doubt inclusionary zoning’s effectiveness. One example cited in the BSU study is the literally side-by-side comparison of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Starting in the 1970s,the two states took different approaches to the loss of affordable housing.
New Jersey embraced inclusionary zoning. Pennsylvania opened municipal zoning to “market-rate development of all types of housing,” according to a November 2003 article by James Mitchell in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.
Mitchell found that, after 20 years of these opposing policies, Pennsylvania ended up with more affordable homes and more diverse housing types.
Mobile homes in Boise
Though some mobile home parks have disappeared since Boise State University counted them in 2006, fears of widespread closures haven’t materialized. The numbers a decade ago compared to today.
Sources: Boise State University, Boise planning director Hal Simmons