Mobile homes, a low-cost housing option, are getting squeezed out

no more park closings
Mobile home advocates say a recent spate of mobile home park closings is displacing hundreds of low-income Minnesotans from their homes.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

We all know the stereotypes about mobile home parks. Terms like "trailer trash" get bandied about in jokes, and a lot of people think of mobile homes as run-down, last-resort housing for the down and out. What you don't often hear are the biases mobile home residents themselves might harbor against other forms of housing.

"I hate condominiums, townhouses and apartments! I just detest 'em," says 75 year-old mobile home resident Doris Onstad.

inside doris's house
Doris Onstad will have to leave her mobile home at Whispering Oaks in Oakdale. She doesn't know if her mobile home can be relocated to another park.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Onstad, a retired teacher, lives in a three-bedroom mobile home in Oakdale, in a park that bears the romantic name of "Whispering Oaks." Green and red antique lanterns decorate the spacious living room, which is anchored by Onstad's piano.

"I can play the piano as much as I want and nobody hears. If you're in a condominium, someone next door is going to hear you play," she says. "Here, I can make all the noise I want and nobody hears me. I love it!"

Onstad moved into her mobile home nearly nine years ago, after her house in Grand Forks, North Dakota was destroyed by a flood.

She bought her mobile home for $9,500. As is the case with most mobile home residents, she owns the unit she lives in, but rents the lot on which it sits for just over $300 a month.

I hate condominiums, townhouses and apartments. I just detest 'em. Here, I can make all the noise I want and nobody hears me. I love it!

"Where else can you live for $310 a month? Where?" Onstad asks. "I couldn't afford an apartment. Wow, the minimum is over $600. Have you ever priced apartments? They're high."

Mobile homes have become more permanent than they were in their early days, when people used them for vacations or temporary housing. But now they face a transience of a different sort -- a number of parks, including the one where Doris Onstad lives, are closing down.

According to a mobile home advocacy group called All Parks Alliance for Change, 12 parks in Minnesota have closed since 2000, displacing more than 200 households. Five park closings currently underway will force another 250 families from their homes. A number of other parks are at risk of closing, which could affect an additional 1,500 families.

At Whispering Oaks in Oakdale, residents tried to buy the property to keep the park from closing. But the landowner, the Washington County housing agency, says the park needed major infrastructural improvements, and the return on investment just wasn't there to make the changes worth it.

Doris Onstad has some time to figure out what to do after Whispering Oaks closes, but she will have to relocate.

Residents of Shady Lane mobile home park in Bloomington recently went through their own relocation process. Earlier this spring, they demonstrated outside the Bloomington City Hall along with supporters of the park, chanting, "Build affordable housing! Don't tear it down!"

Vanessa Ramirez
Vanessa Ramirez received a voucher for subsidized housing when the Shady Lane mobile home park in Bloomington closed in early April.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Residents didn't come up with enough money to buy the park, and the city declined to kick in money to keep the park open.

People like Shady Lane resident Vanessa Ramirez sometimes get displaced by mobile home park closings. "I didn't think I'd have to move," Ramirez says. "I thought I was going to be here for a couple years more at least."

On a Sunday morning a couple months before the park shut down, Ramirez was getting ready for a long day of work, fixing her wavy dark hair with hair spray and brushing her teeth. On any given day, you might find her working at Sam Goody. Or Nordstrom's Rack. Or Tony Roma's restaurant.

She says she works 15 hours a day between the three jobs. "And it is tiring," she adds.

Ramirez, 24, is wiry with muscular arms and long eyelashes. She came to Minnesota via the Bronx and Puerto Rico. Her husband and 4 year-old daughter have been living in Mexico, but they'll come up to join her soon.

more johnson pix
City of Bloomington attorney Sandra Johnson shows pictures of some of the rundown trailers at Shady Lane.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Her mobile home is simply furnished. A picture of Jesus hangs on the wall, and leopard-print pillows decorate the couch. A big swath of mold covers part of the ceiling in the living room, but the trailer is tidy.

"I like everything in my house," Ramirez says. "It took us a long time to get this house. Everything we have we struggled to have."

Ramirez didn't want to leave her mobile home, but when the park closed April 1, she ended up getting a voucher for subsidized housing. About 10 out of 60 or so households received vouchers.

The City of Bloomington says it's sympathetic to the housing needs of its low income residents, but the closing of Shady Lane had to do with forces beyond its control.

"It was really a question of money," says City of Bloomington attorney Sandra Johnson.

run down house at shady lane
Before Shady Lane closed, some of the trailers had been abandoned and sat in disrepair.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Johnson says it would've been great to see Shady Lane residents buy the park and turn it into a co-op, but market pressures were at play. The land under the park is worth a lot more for redevelopment than it is for 50 or so mobile home units.

"Park owners are going to be tempted to sell that land for redevelopment, because they can make a lot of money," says Johnson. "This park owner doubled his money in, I think, just seven short years or less. It's the economics of the situation that may determine the fate of mobile home parks or manufactured home parks in the metro area."

Mobile home advocates say in addition to the economics, there's another issue at play. They say cities have never been fans of the parks, and that keeps them from fighting to keep them open.

Attorney Sandra Johnson had indeed been documenting problems at Shady Lane for a long time before the park closed. Bankers boxes of files on Shady Lane line the floor under her desk.

Bev Adrian's porch
Former Shady Lane resident Bev Adrian looked out from her porch before the park closed in April. Her home doesn't look very different from a "stick-built" house, as they say in the mobile home industry.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

"I've got archive boxes on this particular file that start from the mid-'90s, when it became a real eyesore, at least from the city's perspective," Johnson says.

Johnson reaches into a box and pulls out pictures of dilapidated units with junk-strewn yards. Some files contain police reports; Johnson says the park has had an unusually high number of cop calls.

There's also documentation of some of the more idiosyncratic residents. As Johnson puts it, mobile homes sometimes draw people who want to live under the radar. She holds out a picture of a unit where the windows are covered with flies.

"We did have a gentleman who had a psych issue, and he had dead cats in shoe boxes as his treasure. And this is the trailer that he was evicted from, that the owner didn't want to remove from the property," Johnson says. "So he transferred the title to me, but ultimately did take care of the trailer."

Becky with cat
Becky Ruddy says the co-op at Sunrise Villa has brought residents together, and now many people are donating their time and skills to make repairs to the park.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Some of the stranger stories are the stuff of lore about trailer parks. But according to Johnson, the real problem at Shady Lane was the array of health, environmental, and building code violations.

The culpable party on that front is hard to pin down. Oddly enough, the Department of Health, not a housing agency, is the primary state body overseeing mobile home parks. That's a vestige of the era when parks were used by vacationers.

But the Department of Health says it doesn't have the resources to oversee the parks effectively. That means they don't always get around to issuing citations to park owners who let their properties decline.

When park owners do face penalties, they might decide to sell their parks instead of spending the money to make necessary repairs.

Margaret Lund is with the North Country Cooperative Development Fund, one of the main groups working with mobile home parks. She says the upshot of the park oversight problems is that critics just assume mobile home residents are at fault when parks are in poor condition.

Outside Sue's place
The mobile homes in the co-op at Sunrise Villa in Cannon Falls are well kept. Park rules demand that it be so.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

"It really has led to situations where residents were blamed," Lund says. "The community might say 'Look at that park. It's in such poor condition. And there's all these violations all over the place and nobody ever fixes them, therefore we need to get rid of the park.'"

Lund and other mobile home advocates say there's a way to improve both the economic picture for mobile home living and the social stigmas of rundown parks.

They point to Minnesota's first co-op mobile home park in Cannon Falls. The co-op's president of the residents association, Dan Grunenwald, gives a tour.

"This was one of our first projects," Grunenwald says, pointing to a jungle gym on a playground. "We redid the playground because this used to be a disaster. The playground that the previous owner had, some kids busted it up and he never did nothing with it. And as soon as we took over we cleaned up the area and put in a whole new playground."

The park is called Sunrise Villa, and it was founded as a co-op in September 2004. It's a community of about 50 mobile home units that don't look all that different from what people in the mobile home industry call "stick-built" houses.

I wanted to wake up in the morning and know that I still had a place to live.

The streets of the park are lined with neatly maintained, rambler style homes. Yard ornaments and satellite dishes dot the lawns, which are otherwise free of clutter.

Grunenwald has lived at the park since the 1960s. He took interest in going co-op when he learned the owner of Sunrise Villa planned to sell the park. Grunenwald says he knew residents had the first right of purchase.

"I wanted to wake up in the morning and know that I still had a place to live," says Grunenwald. "Because with them selling out, you'd never know when they'd give you a notice and you'd have so many days to find new living quarters."

The North Country Co-operative Development Fund helped residents get financing for the nearly $1 million purchase price. Once the residents succeeded with their purchase, North Country advised them in hiring a management company that would enforce park rules and keep riff-raff out.

Dan Grunewald's house
Dan Grunenwald has lived at Sunrise Villa mobile home park since the 1960s.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

For residents like Becky Ruddy, going co-op was an exciting change.

"It was kind of fun the morning after the sale. I was like, 'Oh, I've never bought something this big before. I own this.' You kind of look around. It's kind of fun," she says with a laugh.

Supporters say co-ops provide a form of investment otherwise unavailable to mobile home owners. If residents ever want to sell the park, they're the ones who benefit from increasing land values.

Under a co-op, residents are also more in control of their costs. The co-op decides what the maintenance and operating expenses are and charges residents only what's necessary.

This model of resident ownership is slowly picking up steam elsewhere in the U.S. About 1,000 co-op parks have sprung up around the country. New Hampshire is leading the trend, where 15 percent of its mobile home parks have gone co-op.

Dan Grunenwald hopes the success of his park's co-op will dispel some of the negative associations with mobile home parks, and pave the way for more.

"It's the old myth of, 'You live in a trailer park.' Well, we're trying to get away from that and improve it," says Grunenwald. "We're trying to get it to where it's like if you were living in town in a house. These are our houses; this is what we can afford."

A second mobile home co-op has sprung up in Lexington, Minnesota, and a third is under consideration in Moorehead.