America’s Most Invisible Communities: Esther Sullivan at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

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 LA, $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? 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.” 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 US.

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 US 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 74 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.

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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.

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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. 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 US remains the only developed nation that doesn’t guarantee a fundamental human right to shelter, but perhaps it’s time to change that.

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 .

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