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Here's Why Cities All Across America Are Suddenly Buying Up Trailer Parks

Much like the historic run that nearly resulted in the collapse of the global financial system in 2009, home prices in the U.S. are once again looking more like an Amazon or Facebook stock price chart than a stable store of value that should probably grow roughly inline with overall inflation. 

And while these price gains are great news for the private equity firms that scooped up foreclosed homes after the last housing crisis, they're once again making it nearly impossible for the average American family to find affordable housing. 

As such, as the Pew Charitable Trusts points out, municipalities all across the country are suddenly scooping up trailer parks in an effort to prevent them from being converted to the next McMansion track-housing project and maintain some affordable housing options.

Here in the heart of one of Colorado’s most expensive cities, Isabel Sanchez bought a mobile home seven years ago for just $6,000. Her four-bedroom bungalow now sits on a lot she rents for $355 a month.

 

The mobile home park Sanchez and her family live in offers a glimpse of Boulder’s hippie past. Small houses and trailers, many dating to the 1960s and ’70s, sit close together on tree-lined streets. “I love the space, I love the location, I love the community here,” Sanchez, 55, said recently, relaxing in a blue armchair in her spotless living room.

 

Affordable neighborhoods like these have become hard to find in Boulder and cities across the country where home prices are soaring. In some metro areas, rising prices are prompting park owners to sell their land to developers, affordable housing advocates say. “When the mortgage crisis came about it sort of slowed down, and now it’s heating up again,” said Carolyn Carter, deputy director of the National Consumer Law Center.

 

So Boulder and a handful of other localities, desperate to hang on to homes middle- and working-class people can afford, have stepped in to buy parks, fix them up, and transfer ownership to residents or to a nonprofit on condition that rents be kept low.

 

Portland, Oregon’s housing authority financed a deal last year that saved a mobile home park from being sold to a developer. Pitkin County, Colorado, is buying a park it intends to set aside for people who work in the area. And Boulder bought a park this summer, with the twin goals of improving its infrastructure and maintaining affordable housing.

 

Affordable housing advocates say that the best way to preserve mobile home parks is to turn them into co-operatives owned by residents. But in Boulder, land is so valuable — and parks need so many infrastructure upgrades — that it wouldn’t be possible for low-income residents to finance the purchase alone.  

As Pew notes, roughly 8 million Americans live in trailer parks around the country and when their land is sold off for the next housing development they have no choice but to scramble to find new housing.

About 20 million Americans live in manufactured homes — so called because they’re built in a factory, rather than on site — and about two-fifths of those can be found in mobile home parks, mostly in suburbs and exurbs.

 

Mobile homes are an important source of low-income housing. But homeownership can be precarious for people who live in mobile home parks. Because they don’t own the land beneath their houses or trailers, they have to move if the park closes down.

 

And many mobile homes aren’t all that mobile. Sanchez, who works at a nonprofit in Denver, says she could probably move her house if she had to because it was built recently. Her daughter’s house across the street may be a different story. It has sat there for over 40 years, like most of the homes in the park.

 

The closure of a mobile home park can create a crisis for residents and for the city or town they live in as dozens of displaced people scramble to find new housing, says Esther Sullivan, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Denver who has studied mobile home parks in Texas and Florida. In her research, she found that city council members who agree to rezone a park often argue that park residents can move into low-income housing elsewhere. But that’s not always the case, she said.

Meanwhile, national nonprofits have sprung up to help residents form co-ops and finance purchases.

One way to preserve mobile home parks is to give the people who live in them a chance to buy the park themselves at a fair market rate, says Carter of the National Consumer Law Center. A national nonprofit called ROC USA will, with the permission of the park owner, help residents form a co-operative and finance a purchase. ROC USA has sponsored some 200 resident-owned communities in the United States.

 

At least 19 states have laws on the books that help residents buy a park, Carter says. Some states require park owners to give residents months of advance notice before a park is sold, to notify residents if they request a zoning change for the property, or to allow residents to organize into homeowners associations. Other states will free up money when a park closes to help residents pay their relocation costs or require park owners to chip in.

Of course, we could also just reduce artificial demand for McMansions by reversing a decade of misinformed Fed policies...but that might result in the bursting of yet another nasty little bubble...