“It’s actually the fact that we sort of stuck the poor away in these places that makes them vulnerable,” Andrew Rumbach, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, told Fast Company about mobile home parks.
A record number of about 20 million Americans currently live in mobile homes, according to NPR. The prefabricated structures have become popular living spaces in recent years due largely to their relative affordability during the ongoing housing crisis. Such homes “can help solve both the housing and climate crisis,” according to the Fast Company story.
But as Rumbach said, mobile home residents face risks that have less to do with their actual housing and more to do with where they are parked: many mobile home parks are located squarely in flood plains or other areas susceptible to extreme weather events, places where wealthier residents refuse to build homes. And though the name might suggest that residents can easily pick up and move, these manufactured homes are actually not very mobile at all.
Despite their locations, mobile home parks are primed to be a force for change in the face of the climate crisis. For mobile homes to endure the impacts of climate change—and in order for owners to do their part to combat it—they need to organize.
A Changing Reputation
Modular home construction has existed in some form for over a century. A hundred years ago, a potential homeowner could have ordered a house kit from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Over the years, the mobile home has acquired a less desirable reputation, a stigma that the homes are cheaply made or associated with poverty. One current mobile home resident said on TikTok, as reported by Apartment Therapy: “I feel like trailers are slept on, and they are judged.”
That reputation is shifting. Home affordability faces “its worst level since at least 1989,” according to CNBC, due to high mortgage rates, slim housing inventory, and incomes that have failed to keep pace with skyrocketing home prices. In 2023, “the median family was already $9,000 short in August of the income needed to buy the median existing home,” CNBC reported, “and the recent surge in rates since has moved another five million U.S. families below the qualification standard for a $400,000 loan.” When mortgage rates were at 3 percent, “50 million households could get a loan that size.” Now, less than half that number of households can.
For some families, the mobile home is a viable solution. Manufactured housing is “the Ugly Duckling of affordable housing,” according to the Niskanen Center, which describes the mobile home as “a grievously underutilized, deeply affordable housing resource.” As the Niskanen Center wrote, “Today’s manufactured homes are not your grandma’s vacation trailer or 1970s-era mobile home.”
To…be truly responsive to the changing climate, mobile home owners need the power to own their land.
Instead, contemporary manufactured homes are regulated under a strict code from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Indoor construction means the materials of the home are not exposed to outdoor elements until completion, allowing builders to work more efficiently. And the average construction cost of a manufactured home is just $90,000.
Those savings are passed onto the consumer, expanding the potential for home ownership. In November 2022, the US Census Bureau reported that the average sale price of a new manufactured home in the United States was $125,200. Meanwhile, the average price of a traditional family home that same year was nearly three times as expensive at $348,000.
More than traditional homes, newer mobile homes also have the potential to be built with more sustainable materials and, because their locations can be flexible, to incorporate environmental considerations in their site designs. But to fulfill this potential and be truly responsive to the changing climate, mobile home owners need the power to own their land.
Residents Taking Control
Mobile home parks have their own infrastructure, from water and sewer lines to electricity and gas to tree removal (or planting). The owner of the park controls the infrastructure. As Fast Company wrote, “In other types of housing, such as apartments or single family homes, a municipality is usually in charge of providing electricity, water, sewage, and tree maintenance. But in mobile home parks, residents are reliant on owners to provide those services.”
In worst-case scenarios, this can lead to delays in services or disputes. Residents of one mobile home park outside of Dayton, OH, dealt with intermittent water service for years. Research has shown that residents of mobile home parks nationally are more than three times as likely to experience water outages than residents of traditional houses.
More and more, mobile home owners are taking their infrastructure into their own hands. They are working with their neighbors to buy the land their homes are positioned on, to form resident-owned cooperatives, or ROCS.
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NPQ reported in 2017 about the emergence of these co-ops, which at the time were relatively modest in number: about 11 in the state of Vermont, for example, which contained 214 parks that year. “You may own your own home, but a good third of the nine million households that own manufactured homes do not own the land underneath,” NPQ wrote.
In the years since ROCs have surged. Nonprofits like ROC USA provide mobile home communities with the tools to organize, including loans, grants, and other help as needed. The Washington, DC-based nonprofit has worked with more than 300 mobile home co-ops nationwide—and none have defaulted or closed. The members of one ROC near Seattle, WA, worked together to secure a loan and buy the park their homes were located in once they learned the owner planned to sell.
And when mobile home residents own land, they have the power to not only make sure the water stays on, but to improve the infrastructure of their communities. “Everybody thought, ‘You know what?….I’m going to make this place the best that I can,’” Gadiel Galvez, who is 22 and a co-op board member of the park outside Seattle, told the AP. “Some people painted their homes, some people remodeled their interiors and exteriors, and some are working on their roofs.”
ROCs are also adding renewables like solar power. Mobile homes can use heat pumps instead of the propane or natural gas that older, larger homes require. New mobile homes can also be built with sustainable materials. Such changes improve the energy efficiency of mobile homes and can help keep them safe in a changing world.
During the height of the pandemic, the top filer of evictions in Cincinnati, OH, was the owner of a mobile home park.
Less Valuable Land, More Vulnerable Homes
At present, manufactured homes are more likely to be a climate change issue than a solution. This is particularly true for mobile home parks that are not ROCS. Parks that are not owned by their occupants face increased eviction risk, putting their residents in danger in times of emergencies, from floods to severe cold.
During the height of the pandemic, the top filer of evictions in Cincinnati, OH, was the owner of a mobile home park. As the Ohio Capital Journal reported, land for mobile homes is “increasingly in demand for other projects.” Park owners may also abruptly alter leases or raise rents. When it comes to evictions, “residents have few protections under a patchwork of state laws.”
If residents own the land of their mobile home park, they have the opportunity to improve it.
Another group helping mobile home residents organize is Mobile Home Action (MHAction). In Tallahassee, FL—an area at high risk from climate change impacts, including hurricanes and floods—MHAction brought mobile home owners and renters together to generate specific action steps in the face of eviction threats, rent increases, and unsafe conditions. “I think it’s important to have [residents] all at the meeting because that way they can all listen to each other’s stories, build relationships and build power in numbers to fight back,” MHAction’s Florida Community Organizer Nicole Soza told local news channel WCTV.
Mobile home parks, in general, are more likely to be located in climate-risky zones—flood plains, for example. “You see a disproportionate amount of mobile homes located in hazardous areas,” Rumbach told Fast Company. “The demand is being driven by a segment of the housing market that’s looking for lower costs. And as a result, you see a lot of manufactured housing being placed into relatively climate-vulnerable places, because that land tends to be a little bit less valuable.”
In the severe cold of early January 2024, at least one death occurred in a mobile home when a tree uprooted by the storms fell. Last year, Vermont announced a state program to help the residents of mobile homes whose housing had been destroyed by floods. Meanwhile, as of 2023, mobile home residents in Colorado were still struggling to recover after the floods of a decade earlier.
If residents own the land of their mobile home park, they have the opportunity to improve it: to include sump pumps or graded yards in case of floods to clear dead trees that could fall in a storm or ignite in a wildfire, to guard against poor living conditions, and to take care of each other.
“We’re hoping to get all these people together,” said Caroline Hardy, a Washington State mobile home resident who helped start a new tenants association, “so that we can fight.”