America’s most invisible communities — mobile home parks | Esther Sullivan | TEDxMileHigh

America’s most invisible communities — mobile home parks | Esther Sullivan | TEDxMileHigh


Translator: Rhonda Jacobs
Reviewer: Laura Pasquale Right now, there is no state in the nation where a person working full-time
for minimum wage can afford rent for a fair-market,
one-bedroom home. In fact, affordable housing
is so hard to find you’ll actually spend less of your income if you can afford to buy a house
rather than rent. But even an entry-level home,
the cheapest homes on the market, will cost you $370,000 in L.A., $245K in Boston, $222K in Denver. What if instead you could buy a brand new, three-bedroom,
two-bathroom home for $45,000, which would put your total housing costs somewhere in the range
of $400-700 per month? (Cheers) (Applause) Right, exactly! It seems like you’d be crazy
not to jump at the opportunity. Well, 18 million Americans
are already in on the secret. They’ve achieved the American
dream of homeownership and they’ve done it on a budget. How? You’re totally hoping
I’m going to say “tiny home.” (Laughter) Mmmm. Alright. Well sort of. Enter the mobile home. Okay, it lacks all the hype,
but 18 million Americans live in one. In fact, one in every five
new single-family homes sold is a mobile home,
and that’s a serious statistic. It’s serious because homeownership
has long been a source of stability and a principal source
of wealth in the U.S. And mobile homes are a primary way
that low-income households break into homeownership
and start building that wealth. Mobile homes provide a massive source
of owner-occupied affordable housing at a time when the U.S.
has a major affordable housing problem. We hear that a lot, right?
We’re in an affordable housing crisis. But what does that really mean? It means we don’t have enough housing
to meet the needs of millions. At the lowest income levels,
the people who really need housing help, we’re short 7.4 million units. That’s just 35 affordable units
for every 100 households that need it. The good news is that cities
have begun to recognize that access to quality affordable housing
is good for everyone, not just those that need it,
but larger communities as well. Sociologists like myself,
who study housing, show us why. Housing is an incredible
source of stability, which translates into positive
educational outcomes, health benefits, employment opportunities,
and neighborhood safety. So recognizing this, cities are building some affordable units, but many remain unaffordable
for low-income people. This problem is simply too big. We can’t just build our way out of it. If we’re serious about solving it, we need to preserve the affordable housing
that we already have. Enter, once again, the mobile home. Mobile homes are this country’s
single largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing, and could play a major role in addressing
our affordable housing crisis, but there’s a problem. One of our largest sources
of affordable housing is also one of our most insecure. Mobile homes are insecure for two reasons which are like two trains
heading right for each other. The first reason isn’t the home itself; it’s the land. About a third of mobile homes
are installed in mobile home parks, where residents own the home
but rent the land. Now, this is part of what makes
the housing so affordable, but it also means that homeowners
can be evicted at any time if the property owner decides
to sell or redevelop the park. The second reason they’re insecure
is they’re invisible. Think for a second about the mobile home park
closest to your house. Some of you can probably picture it. Maybe it’s off a highway,
behind a strip mall. But many of you might not actually know
where the nearest mobile home park is, and that’s not by accident. That’s by design. For over a century,
planning and zoning regulations have required that mobile home parks
be walled in, fenced off, and, in the language of planners,
visually screened from view. But perhaps the most damning
of these regulations comes from laws that don’t allow mobile home parks to be established
near conventional housing. As a result, mobile home parks
are disproportionately located in commercial and industrial areas. So now you can see those two trains
about to collide, right? When communities of homeowners
that rent the land are isolated onto commercial properties
owned by a third party, they’re the first victims of urban growth. When a big-box store
is looking for a place to build, a mobile home park is an easy target. Mobile home park brokers
actually make a living selling off parks for redevelopment. One broker told me
that Walmart is his best client. When parks are redeveloped, communities of homeowners
who have lived in their homes for decades are evicted with as little
as 30 days’ notice, and entire communities are dismantled. And this is happening
at an alarming rate, right now. We have an affordable housing crisis
in this country, yet we are allowing one of our largest sources
of affordable housing to disappear. As a sociologist, I wanted to document
the effects of these mass evictions, so beginning in 2012, I rented
a mobile home inside closing parks, first in Florida and then in Texas. I moved in and lived beside neighbors
over 17 consecutive months as they scrambled
to deal with their eviction. I then followed them for six more months
after they were evicted. This is what I learned. The term “mobile home”
is a complete misnomer. Mobile homes are not RVs,
they’re not campers. They’re not intended to be mobile once they’re first transported
from the factory. Once installed on land,
just like any other home, they settle. Moving them can cause
serious structural damage and cost up to $15,000, and all of that is if they can be moved. In the parks where I lived,
lucky residents lost entire savings and months of their lives
dealing with eviction. Unlucky residents lost everything. Their homes were not
structurally sound for relocation, and they were forced to abandon them. These residents were real people,
like my neighbor Stella. Stella prided herself on being able
to live independently at the age of 87. Stella was blind and completely homebound, but her cheap rent and knowing
every corner of her mobile home had made that possible. Stella had paid off her home
many years ago, but when her park closed, she couldn’t afford to move it
on her $790 Social Security check. In the end, Stella lost
her home of 20 years and her prized independence. She moved into a guest room
in her son’s apartment. Two blocks over from Stella,
Randall meticulously maintained his home. It was the first home he’d ever owned. The first time he had me over,
he apologized for it being so messy, but then he later admitted
he’d just been scrubbing the cabinets. Randall learned that this home
could not be moved, and he desperately searched
for housing nearby so he could keep his job. But he found nothing he could afford,
even after months. On the day before Randall’s park closed, he transitioned from
homeowner to homeless, and to this day, he sleeps on a park bench
about a mile from where his home once was. When these parks close,
residents lose homes but also neighbors and social supports. So Stella lost the neighbors
who would come and check on her, and Randall lost the people who could
give him a ride when he needed it. Randall and Stella are just two of about 200 evicted homeowners
I met during those two years, and while everyone’s story
is a little different, the common reality
is that mobile home park closures create a cycle of housing instability that extends well beyond
these moments of eviction, and that affects all of us. Housing instability
means that local teachers get an influx of new kids
partway through the year. It means social service providers
are stretched thin managing new caseloads. It means small businesses
lose reliable employees. Zoning communities into invisibility
creates housing instability. But more than that,
it creates social vulnerability because it’s hard to care
about what you don’t see. But there’s hope
because over the last century we’ve solved some of our toughest
housing challenges by shining a spotlight
on invisible problems. We passed the first progressive
tenement housing reforms only after a photojournalist
showed the world the unsafe conditions in crowded slums. We passed the Fair Housing Act
only after African American Vietnam vets showed us that they’d
risked their lives for this country but couldn’t buy a home
in a white neighborhood. We passed the housing measures
in the Americans with Disabilities Act only after activists
with disabilities demonstrated that they couldn’t fit through
a standard entrance and into a home. So perhaps we’re primed to bring this next housing
challenge into the light. And that starts by working to change
some of the very regulations that keep mobile home parks invisible. We’re ready for this. I mean, you’re already binge-watching
“tiny house” shows on HGTV. (Laughter) Your Facebook feed is full of them,
you love them, you want to retire in one. So we’re ready to push for new policies that better integrate
different forms of housing into the fabric of our
residential communities. And we’re ready to address
that underlying land ownership issue too. We already have a model to follow:
the condo model, where residents own their unit
and hold the condo property collectively. There are parks that have actually
tried this and it’s working. In about 200 parks across the country, nonprofit groups have helped residents
collectively get a loan so that they can buy their park
and run it themselves, and residents in these parks
report seeing immediate improvements in the maintenance, quality,
and stability of their communities. But maybe we can take
an even more important step to ensure housing security for everyone. If we can reshape our thinking
about the mobile home park, we can go further to imagining housing
as a basic human right. The UN and most developed nations recognize and have policies
that affirm a human right to housing, for all of the reasons
that we’ve been talking about. It’s hard to have health,
wealth, and stability if you don’t have a roof over your head. Plus, housing insecurity is expensive. It has costs for social services,
businesses, schools. Those are costs we all bear,
so a dollar spent on housing is a dollar saved on healthcare,
infrastructure, and education. Yet the U.S. remains
the only developed nation that doesn’t guarantee
a fundamental human right to shelter, but perhaps it’s time to change that. (Applause) So if we want to, then that’s going to require
enacting legislation and shifting budgetary
priorities, absolutely, but we’ve made just these kind
of legislative shifts before. And it turns out that the mobile home park
provides a pretty good roadmap for why and how we should do this. Parks show us the value of homeownership
for all income levels. Parks even show us how we might imagine new,
collective forms of property ownership. And most importantly, parks show us
that entire cities can benefit when housing is secure for everyone. Housing is one of our most
fundamental human needs and perhaps our biggest blindspot. Let’s bring our attention back home so we can create communities
that work for all of us. Thank you. (Applause)

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6 thoughts on “America’s most invisible communities — mobile home parks | Esther Sullivan | TEDxMileHigh”

  • Really Enjoyed this. Never realized that this was actually what I've been looking for – a moderately sized, stand alone, but community enveloped, housing option. I've been a renter my entire life and never seriously entertained the idea of home ownership because of all that was involved, of which price was just one consideration. Completely agree with the two biases that you set out. We need to stop treating mobile homes as an eyesore (to be kept out of sight on the commercial side of town, behind the warehouses) and as the punchline to a joke. Will be keeping any eye out for updates on this topic, especially out here in California.

    And just one more comment, for Esther Sullivan – you are a remarkable public speaker, really quite talented. Poised and professional, relaxed and completely owning your topic. Great pacing and timing. When I grow up I want to be able to public speak like you! Well done!

  • Many today can't afford the housing that's available. Worse yet, many government officials say they want affordable housing, but their actions contradict their stated intentions. They discriminate against lower value homes is stealth ways – requiring min home sizes, over large streets, requiring min lot sizes, requiring high roof pitches, restricting them to less favorable locations in town… These are all means of discriminating against low income housing. Cities do this because lower value homes generate little in local property taxes, yet the occupants use similar services to those in larger, higher paying homes.

  • Great talk. For the sake of surprise, I just wish the title didn't include "mobile home parks". Dr. Sullivan had a great build up but I already knew what she was going to say!

  • This TED talk was AWESOME! This lady really knows her stuff! As a social worker, much of my time is spent assisting clients in locating and securing adequate housing. However, the problem is there is not enough affordable housing available, and waiting lists for housing programs can be years long!!! Dr. Sullivan could actually have a viable solution to the housing crisis! and it is a crisis! We all know that statistics consistently show that homelessness continues to rise in the richest country on the planet! I think we owe it to ourselves to keep an open mind about this obvious solution to a problem (homelessness) that continuesto drain resources in our society! Bravo Dr. Sullivan!

  • Private equity firms and Investor groups buy up these parks then set un reachable standards and rules that bankrupt the residents.  If you live in a park and are still paying off your mobile home the owners of the park can come in and declare your home is in violation or not in compliance with their standards which can change on the very day of one of their inspections . Some of their rules have more to do with an individual personal tastes than actually be wrong such as flower pots that do not match or a small patch of tomato plants in a well kept garden in a back yard . They can declare your roof needs to be replaced even though there's nothing wrong with it , who can pay for a new roof most standard houses the owners have to save or finance such a repair that takes years to payoff. If you try to sell your mobile home and you are still paying it off and you find a buyer that buyer must apply to live there (credit check and background check) They could reject anyone who wants to buy the home just so they can drive the price down to pennies on the dollar when seller gets desperate they have no choice but to sell or walk away. The owners fix the house up and flip it for a profit and raise the rent much higher than the currents residents are paying. They are predators there are many investor groups such as IPG who have seminars on how to do this and how to kick people and take their homes. You might be surprised on how many people attend these seminars and find it funny that they are able to do this because the owners hold all the cards and the tenant has to pay for everything. Such investor groups have lobbyists who as you know lobby politicians to make sure things go they're way and even offer a piece of the action.

  • The best and most affordable thing to do is buy a mobile home and your own land to put it on. The mobile home park is ok only as a temporary place for maybe 3 to 5 years; enough to save up the cash to buy your own land, move the home there, and install the necessary infrastructure (electric, water, and sewer facilities). People need to plan ahead and save the cash to become a true homeowner.