Trailer Park Urbanism

By Elijah Gullett

Manufactured homes (also known as mobile homes or trailers) are a significant component of the housing stock in the United States. In North Carolina alone, mobile homes make up 12% of the housing stock.[i] Despite their prevalence, manufactured housing is plagued with stigmas. The derogatory term, “trailer trash”, is still a common phrase. These stigmas appear in state and local regulations as well. Manufactured housing is often perceived by local citizens as a nuisance or a drain on their property values, which in turn encourages regulatory barriers to manufactured housing development. These barriers include forcing trailer parks off to urban peripheries, permitting them in only undesirable locations, or banning them outright.

But are these regulations just or optimal?

Where is manufactured housing now?

Despite the lingering stigmas, manufactured housing has advanced substantially in the past few decades. The Hollywood image of run-down trailer parks riddled with crime is no longer an accurate depiction of the manufactured housing industry. Since 1976, manufactured housing has been subject to HUD regulation under the Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standards.[ii] These standards have raised the quality of manufactured housing since, and the industry has worked hard to combat stigmas.

Trailer parks are also not associated with higher rates of crime, unlike comparable housing developments targeted at low-income individuals, such as public housing. Research from the University of Illinois-Chicago finds that mobile home communities and adjacent residential communities do not have substantially higher levels of violent crimes or property crimes.[iii] This is despite popular perception that trailer park communities are hotbeds of illicit drug use, violence, and property damage.

Mobile homes are also an important source of affordable housing stock in the US. Local and state governments have a long history of banning and heavy-handed regulation of low-income housing. Housing types, such as residential hotels and boarding homes, are regulated and banned under the presumption of protecting low-income citizens from low-quality housing. Certainly, these housing options, and many mobile homes, are not necessarily ideal. However, the tradeoffs between the ideal aesthetics and qualities of housing, and the quantity supply of affordable housing, cannot be ignored.

In 2020, the average rent for mobile homes in the United States was $568.[iv] This makes mobile homes easily one of the most affordable options. Furthermore, the construction costs for manufactured housing are less than half that for similar detached, single-family homes. 71% of mobile home residents also own their home (the structure itself, but typically not the land). This accessible ownership provides low-income people access to property ownership and to have more control over their living environment.

What can planners learn from mobile housing?

The aforementioned lack of criminal activity in trailer park homes, as compared to some other low-income housing developments, can provide us with a useful blueprint for how to create safer low-income neighborhoods. Traditional, concentrated public housing developments have historically been associated with higher levels of violent crime and property crimes.[v] Trailer parks do not have these same tendencies, despite being areas of concentrated poverty. Furthermore, many trailer parks are noticeably clean and well-kept.[vi] So why the disparity?

Trailer parks are often governed by residents’ associations.[vii] These associations are legal bodies that allow residents to manage the park, ensure all residents are meeting a set of behavioral and aesthetic standards, and mediate conflicts between residents. They are also powerful actors in fighting large, corporate buyouts of mobile home communities and keeping rents stable.[viii] Unlike other low-income housing communities that are often made up heavily of renters, mobile home communities are made up of people who own their homes and rent the land, creating a unique set of incentive structures that allow residents’ associations to work.

The polycentric governance structure of locally owned mobile home communities is a powerful tool planners should look to as a potential model.[ix] Low-income communities are often barred from having a voice in how their communities change and are maintained. These residents’ associations, however, demonstrate how low-income individuals can be empowered to take control over how their communities are run.

The future of manufactured housing policy

It would be intellectually dishonest to not recognize the specific challenges faced by those living in manufactured housing. As previously mentioned, trailer park communities are often vulnerable to being bought up by larger corporations who raise rents on low-income residents with little community input.[x] Furthermore, the specific ownership structure common among mobile home residents – owning the building, but not the land – makes their claims to full ownership precarious.[xi]

These shortfalls, however, do not have to be intrinsic to trailer parks, nor do they mean manufactured housing should be ignored as a viable means to increase affordable housing supply. The nature of manufactured housing means a lot of affordable, accessible housing can be created relatively quickly with lower input costs. To protect this affordability, local governments can rezone trailer parks to prevent them from being purchased by investment companies and keep them in local hands.[xii] Communities can also be empowered to purchase the land their homes sit on and create a “resident-owned community” (ROC), or the land can be purchased by local non-profits.

If local policymakers, planners, and activists care about affordable housing, manufactured housing policy cannot remain at the margins. Manufactured housing is a powerful tool for creating and sustaining affordable housing for millions of Americans. Local community leaders should be creating open lines of communication with mobile home communities in their areas; creating protections for these parks from corporate purchase, and fully integrating mobile home parks into the community at large.

[i] U.S. Census Bureau (2020). Selected Housing Characteristics: North Carolina.

[ii] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standards.

[iii] McCarty, William P. (2010). Trailers and Trouble? An Examination of Crime in Mobile Home Communities. Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research, 12(2).

[iv] Statista Research Department (2021). Average monthly rent for manufactured housing in the United States from 2010 to 2020.

[v] Hartley, Daniel (2014). Public Housing, Concentrated Poverty, and Crime. Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

[vi] Geoghegan, Tom (2014). Why do so many Americans live in mobile homes? BBC News.

[vii] Patton, Dan (2018). How Does A Mobile Home Owners Association Work? EZ Homes.

[viii] Kolhatkar, Sheelah (2021). What Happens when Investment Firms Acquire Trailer Parks. The New Yorker.

[ix] Carlisle, Keith and Gruby, Rebecca L. (2017). Polycentric Systems of Governance: A Theoretical Model for the Commons. Policy Studies Journal, 47(4)

[x] Kolhatkar 2021

[xi] Kirk, Mimi (2017). How Mobile Homes Hinder the American Dream. CityLab.

[xii] Manufactured Home Park Solutions Collaborative (2016). Local Agency Toolkit.

Elijah Gullett is a rising fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in Public Policy with minors in Urban Studies and Environmental Justice. His academic interests include fair and affordable housing, sustainable development, and LGBTQ+ urban life.

Edited by Eve Lettau

Featured image courtesy of Anthony Fomin, Unsplash