The authors closely followed 39 families who owned their mobile homes but leased the land on which the homes sat—a common practice. These families resided in three parks: a predominately white park in Illinois, a predominately black park in North Carolina, and a predominately Hispanic park in New Mexico.
Private ownership of trailer parks can mean a mom-and-pop model, in which owners may even live in the park and feel a personal connection to the land and its residents. The authors suggest that this makes them more likely to be active, fair caretakers. But in the 1990s, investors began to buy up more parks. “This non-local ownership of parks opened up opportunities for exploitation,” says MacTavish.
Corporate owners, for instance, tend to increase rental rates. The national monthly average to rent a space in a trailer park is around $250, so a 10 percent surge means an additional $25 every 30 days. “This may seem minor to someone from the middle or upper class,” says MacTavish, “but that’s a really big deal for low-income families.”
When such price hikes make staying in a park untenable, it’s then hard for residents to move their homes: Despite their name, most mobile homes are fairly stationary and difficult to transport. MacTavish notes that many states prohibit hauling older homes on the highway. “We often heard about people leaving their mobile homes behind and losing them for this reason,” she says. And even when a resident is able to move their home, they may not be able to find a spot in another park, since the number of parks has declined.
As real estate prices have risen, owners of parks located near small or large cities are often tempted to sell the land to developers who will pay well to build condos, office buildings, and the like on the land, displacing residents. This was common before the 2008 recession and is on the rise again.
Owners of mobile homes face other problems too: Buying a mobile home often means taking on a loan that’s similar to an auto loan, as mobile homes are generally classified as “chattel”—personal property, as opposed to real estate. MacTavish and Salamon found that people were paying exorbitant interest rates—sometimes 13.5 percent or more—for property that, like a vehicle, loses as much as half its value in three years. Such an arrangement is part of what the authors dubbed “the mobile-home industrial complex”—and is what prevents mobile-home owners from leveraging equity from their purchase to acquire a conventional home.
Though MacTavish and Salamon found that these issues were common throughout the three communities, each population varied in its conception of the American dream. A lot of the white families in Illinois were most concerned with making it to the middle class by moving out of the park and into the more affluent neighboring area. They were also more concerned with the stigma associated with trailer parks, namely the “trailer trash” moniker. “We came to the conclusion that ‘trailer trash’ is a variant of ‘white trash,’” says MacTavish.