‘The Truth They Are Vulnerable’: Inside America’s Mobile Home Crisis

yoAs urgent as it may be, the affordable housing crisis is a term that can make one’s eyes shine. News coverage of how Americans who don’t belong to the 1% get out of the housing market tends to rely on data, reports, statistics and graphs. A Decent Home, Sarah Terry’s heartwarming and heartwarming documentary about the crisis plaguing the nation, tells this story spread on a refreshingly human scale.

Terry has spent six years working on her film, which tracks groups of residents in a group of mobile home parks under threat from developers looking to increase rents – sometimes by more than 50% – or repurpose the land for profitable uses. Moving a mobile home can cost up to $20,000, making it easier for landlords to get away with inflicting significant rent hikes. “I guarantee you they won’t move if they can avoid it. The feeling was: they’re going to go to the local Walmart and get a few extra hours of work,” Terry told the Guardian. It was my goal.”

A Decent Home was inspired by a 2015 article in The Guardian detailing how investment companies were coming after trailer parks, one of the last remaining reliable sources in the country for affordable housing. Mobile home owners usually buy their homes but unlike other homeowners, they must pay rent for the land they live in. At the same time, they have much less powerful protection than that of typical apartment dwellers. This fact has become more and more apparent over the past decade, when a wave of financiers have been surfacing mom-and-pop properties rewriting the rules, declaring what homes should look like, and issuing uncontrollable rent increases. Terry’s movie shows different ways of responding to his subjects. Spoiler alert: There are a few wins.

This shift in the mobile home market is a microcosm of what is happening across America, as more and more private equity firms are buying single-family homes and reconfiguring them as rental properties, forcing home ownership out of the reach of many working Americans. Many societies to dismantle. “I read a report by two academics that 41% of housing in Los Angeles is corporate-owned,” said Terry, who left an early career in print journalism to pursue photojournalism and documentary filmmaking. Mathematics is mind boggling. While inflation and stagnant wages hamper the ability of average Americans to survive, rents are skyrocketing. “By the time the New York Times releases a story titled ‘The Next Affordable City,’ this city is already very expensive,” Terry said. “We’re just pushing the affordable housing crisis all over, from city to city, and from city to city.”

With the announcement of the Terry movie opening, 4.7 million Americans lost their homes in the 2008 recession. Investors spent $60 billion on closed home purchases. As American households decrease in size, the typical home is moving in the opposite direction, with premiums awarded on massive housing accessible to a small segment of the population. Units of modest size that can keep their residents safe and warm, from two-bedroom apartments to locations in mobile home parks, are becoming increasingly rare. According to a 2021 report from market research firm Real Capital Analytics, institutional investors made up 23% of apartment complex purchases over the past two years, up from 13% in the previous two years. “The easiest homes to take are the ones least able to fend for themselves,” Terry said.

Her film deconstructs popular perceptions of mobile home parks as sites of misery and despair. Her film depicts humble, intelligent people who do their best – cooking and drinking coffee, looking after family members and pets, in scenes of life bathed in sunshine and the tweets of birdsong. Grandmothers, immigrants, kids, and veterans gather for Thanksgiving dinner or a big party with a rubber castle. “You hear people refer to them as ‘trailer trash,'” she said, “but the truth is that they are weak and in many cases, they are wise. A lot of the people I’ve worked with know when that’s enough.”

Terry said finding members of mobile home communities willing to open up about their plight was easy. The film contains interviews with people who live in a Santiago villa in Mountain View, California, the expensive motorhome park down the road from Google headquarters, and scenes from a resident-owned motorhome community in New Hampshire. The film’s fulcrum is the fight for residents of Denver Meadows in Aurora, Colorado, to stay in place when the owner staged a play to repartition the land.

Kristen Cray Rudin paid $54,000 for her mobile home in the mobile home park of Santiago Villa, next to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View. Photo: mobile movies

Scenes depicting those seeking profit are sensational in their abstract depiction of the hardness of the heart. The apparent relief of investors and politicians sympathetic to their position is alarming—from Frank Rolfe, one of the founders of the get-rich-quick course Mobile Home University, to Bob Legare, who until recently was the mayor of Aurora, Colorado. Legare, a former real estate developer, held closed-door meetings and paved the way for the Denver Meadows owner to bring the land to market, displacing an entire community.

“I think of Hannah Arendt’s expression: the banality of evil,” Terry said. “There was a banality in the way they responded to me in terms of not having any sense of how terrible what they were doing and saying was.” Terry’s footage from a session at Mobile Home University, where Rolf is seen instructing aspiring mobile home park owners in such ceremonies that they never became friends with residents, ends up in a 2019 clip from John Oliver Tonight. After the damn episode aired, Rolf stopped collaborating with Terry.

which was fine. Her top priority was to capture the grace and tragedy behind the story. There is a scene near the end of the movie, after the residents of the mobile home community Aurora have to pack up and move out of the house, when displaced resident Petra Bennett returns to the site of her previous home. The ground is now bare, except for a couple of bustling gnomes that were left behind in the weeds. “When will the rich be rich enough?” She meditates quietly.

“People who live in mobile homes may have to work two or three jobs to hold them together,” Terry said. “But I think they know a lot more than some of us do.” The Denver Meadows site was evacuated, but thanks to the efforts of activists and politicians who responded to what happened there, a new law has been passed in Colorado that expands protections for mobile home owners. While it doesn’t address rising rents, it gives mobile park residents more time to make an offer to a landlord looking to sell the land, and it also addresses the often unaddressed problem of tenant complaints.

“It’s important to pay attention and connect the dots,” Terry said. “Most people don’t care until it’s in their neighborhood, but we can’t wait that long. Because if we don’t get ahead of this, all our neighborhoods will be gone.”

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