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Mobile-home parks represent changing face of affordable housing challenge

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The changing demographics of mobile homes, including a growing Latinx population, shine a light on larger changes in the U.S.

Image from a resident protest in September in the Denver Meadows mobile homes park; they’re fighting to save their home in light of the owner’s potential plans to sell the park.
Photo courtesy 9to5 Colorado

When Marco Garcia began looking for a place for his family to live in the Denver area in 2011, he found himself searching for what many renters want: homeownership and a piece of the American Dream.

He found it at Denver Meadows, a mobile home park in Aurora, Colorado. Lacking enough money to buy a traditional home, Garcia, a roofer, found the park to be a great fit for his wife and two kids. A ten-acre park with roughly 400 residents split between 83 homes, it’s a place for young families: More than half of the residents are kids, and netting connects many of the trailers, indicative of multigenerational households. “It’s quiet, and a good community to live in,” he says. Lot rent is $560 a month.

Garcia loved being close to job sites (the community is next to Interstate 225). And, even more importantly, he felt a sense of community at a park that was majority Latinx.

Like many Latinx immigrants in the United States, Garcia has worked for the opportunity to own his own home. And, increasingly, as a lack of affordable housing impacts cities across the country, mobile and manufactured homes have become a way to achieve this goal.

The sun sets behind the Waples Mobile Home Park in Fairfax, Virginia, February 4, 2016. About 15 residents in the mobile home community who do not have legal documentation have been given eviction notices.
Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

“It’s interesting that our cultural perception of mobile homes is almost always synonymous with white residents,” says Dr. Esther Sullivan, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, who has done extensive research into mobile and manufactured homes. “This is an incredible source of affordable housing and a route to homeownership for Latinos in this country.”

Sullivan, who is finishing on a book about mobile homes scheduled for release next year, spent extensive time in parks in both Florida and Texas, many of which were majority—and even more than 90 percent—Latinx.

“For decades, the mobile home has offered a path to the American dream on a budget,” says Sullivan. “One Latina in Texas, who was telling me why she didn’t want her park closed, said, ‘we’re not apartment people,’ meaning we want a house and a yard. That’s a clear cultural value, and that’s not unique to Latinos.”

According to Doug Ryan, director of affordable homeownership at the non-profit organization Prosperity Now, an increasing number of mobile home parks are becoming predominately Latinx as the country and U.S. workforce also become more Latinx. While it’s hard to get exact figures on how many mobile-home park residents are Latinx, Ryan has said Latinos represent a larger part of the mobile home population than the population at large (nearly 18 million Americans lived in manufactured homes in 2015, with an average income of $28,400). Some of this, he says, is due to seasonal and mobile labor in the agricultural and construction industries.

“We have such a serious home ownership crisis in the country,” says Ryan. “This is another example of the crisis coming to a head.”

Like other residents in mobile and manufactured housing, Latinos face challenges of perception. Often these parks are looked down upon by city officials, sometimes even seen as a nuisance, a big reason construction of new parks has dramatically slowed down. Those issues can become even more serious for Latinx residents, especially those who don’t have legal immigration status.

Mixed-status families often can’t turn to government affordable housing programs, Ryan says, and the ability to purchase homes with cash, often after showing a few pay stubs or basic bank account info, offers relatively unfettered housing for those who don’t want to discuss immigration status.

The perception that authorities won’t take them seriously can give owners and landlords more of an upper hand. It’s uncomfortable to own your house over land that belongs to someone else—it’s half of the American dream.

“Cities really do stigmatize the land use, and there’s a clear penalty to being a Latino resident of a mobile home park,” says Sullivan. “In my study, many said they felt like they couldn’t make claims to local officials, ask for help, even go to the city to get clarifications.”

Owners are also seeing opportunities to sell the valuable land under mobile-home parks, and push out current residents. According to Ryan, there are a number of properties whose owners have attempted to push residents out, including a mobile-home park in Manassas, Virginia, that was recently saved by a nonprofit group. In Richmond, Virginia, residents of a park sued the city for “racially discriminatory” practices.

“The housing market, broadly, is filled with exploitation of the poor, whether it’s lack of service or poor maintenance,” he says.

Garcia’s community is an example of this threat. The owner of the park wants to sell to take advantage of lucrative opportunities; a nearby light-rail stop and medical campus has raised the possibility of transit-oriented development. That led Garcia and his neighbors to form a homeowner’s association, and attempt to buy out the owner and form a coop via ROC, or Resident-Owned Communities, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit that works with 200 communities in 14 states.

“These neighborhoods are fairly dense in terms of homes,” says Mike Bullard, communications director of ROC. “And once they go co-op, people really start to know their neighbors and look after each other.”

Garcia’s community and ROC made a $20 million offer, which has been rejected (the owner wants $27.5 million). The group has petitioned the city for help, and without any new decisions or help, faces potential eviction next July.

According to Andrea Chiriboga-Flor, a transit and housing organizer with 9to5 Colorado, an organization that supports working women and has worked with Denver Meadows residents, this potential loss of their homes comes on the heels of three rent increases in a little less than a year, and increasingly difficult relations with park ownership.

Right now, the future is uncertain for Garcia. As the homeowner’s association he’s a member of seeks some kind of solution, he’s not sure what’s next for him and his family.

“I don’t know what I can say about that, it’s a problem,” Garcia says. “To find a new home is kind of expensive.”