More Mobile Homes, Please

Smitty’s Mobile Home Park in Norfolk

by James A. Bacon

The good news is that the poverty lobby has recognized that mobile home parks provide a valuable source of affordable housing in Virginia. The bad news is that… the poverty lobby wants to help.

There are about 600 mobile home parks in Virginia. The average sales price for a single-width mobile home is about $53,000 (not including lots), a fraction of the $280,000 median price for a single-family house. These parks provide affordable housing for tens of thousands of Virginians — more than 11,400 in Central Virginia alone.

One way to approach mobile homes in Virginia is to say, “Fantastic! A source of affordable housing. How can we open up more land for development of mobile home parks? How can we increase the supply and give poor people more options for where to live and whom to rent or buy land from?”

Another way to approach mobile homes is to look at the negatives. It turns out that many are in disrepair. Figure that — homes owned by poor people are in disrepair. Not only that, Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, tells Virginia Public Media (VPM), many trailer parks have less than desirable surroundings. “They didn’t have street lights, they didn’t have paved roads, they didn’t have up-to-date electricity or sewer systems.”

Moreover, Marra says, people renting lots in mobile home parks are vulnerable to exploitation. Corporations are snapping up mobile home parks around the country. Sometimes they raise rent. Sometimes they want to convert the land to townhomes or luxury condos. Inhabitants don’t have many options. Moving a mobile home can cost up to $10,000.

The answer? VPM highlights a bill introduced by Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, that would require landlords to give residents at least 90 days notice of their intent to sell a park. The idea is to give residents time to organize themselves so they can make an offer to the landowner and purchase the land themselves. A more intrusive proposal would require landlords to cover some of the mobile-home relocation expenses.

The Virginia Poverty Law Center has other ideas on how to help mobile home dwellers by tweaking the Mobile Home Lot Rental Act, but the VPM article provides no additional details.

Bacon’s bottom line: It’s true that corporations are buying trailer parks all over the country. The Wall Street Journal published a front-page article on the phenomenon just a few days ago. Trailer parks enjoy extremely high occupancy rates — 96.4% for Sun Communities, owner of 422 parks in the U.S. and Canada. That’s because, as the WSJ says, “Even if residents can afford to move their homes, there aren’t many places to plop an old double-wide. Plans for new parks usually meet resistance. The right zoning is hard to find.”

“People don’t want to have a trailer park in their backyard,” says John Pawlowski, an analyst at real-estate research firm Green Street Advisors. “It’s nimbyism to the nth degree.”

Restrictions on competition are what make trailer parks so appealing to corporate investors. Increase the supply of mobile home parks and many of the consumer problems go away. Greater supply gives mobile-home owners more options, which gives them more bargaining power with landlords. There’s nothing terribly wrong with giving tenants an opportunity to buy out their landlord, as Torian proposes to — although I question how many poor people have the skill sets to execute a complex financial transaction like that. My objection is that the measure doesn’t come close to addressing the underlying problem.

If poverty warriors want to increase the mobile-home option, they should focus on eliminating barriers. The VPLC’s Marra knows what some of those barriers are. She mentions them in the article. Virginia law requires mobile homes to get titled as vehicles through the DMV; as a consequence, owners cannot get traditional mortgages. Zoning and nimbyism — restrictions on the rights of landowners to develop property as they please — are an even bigger barrier, especially in more densely populated localities.

Surely it should be possible to build a legislative coalition of poverty warriors, home builders, property-rights advocates and free-market adherents to eliminate those obstacles.

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23 responses to “More Mobile Homes, Please

  1. The thing about mobile home parks is that there are not new ones approved and built within the confines of urbanized areas.

    What you’re looking at is old mobile home parks created long ago often on the outskirts of an urbanizing area and then growth overtook them.

    A mobile home park that is surround by high dollar subdivisions or multi-story buildings is doomed as a mobile home park. The land is far too valuable for other uses – what the real estate industry calls “highest and best use”

    Is it fair or right for the govt to restrict the ability of a property owner to make the most he/she can of their investment – as a way to “help” others?

    Some of these mobile home parks are owned by people who view the park as their old age 401k plan. They’re counting on it to fund their retirement when it gets sold for multi-story apartments.

    I don’t think these folks should be targeted because of what they own to be the ones selected to “help” those who need affordable housing. That’s government used in a wrong way in my view.

    I’ve noticed one more thing on my summer camping travels – and that’s the number of campgrounds that are de-facto mobile home parks – people live there year around in their camper. They have added permanent steps and porches, chairs, etc…

    • “The thing about mobile home parks is that there are not new ones approved and built within the confines of urbanized areas.”

      This is true. But as Mr. Bacon points out in his article, another thing about mobile home parks is there are not new ones approved and built ANYWHERE.

      Certainly, a property owner has a right to utilize (or sell) his property for its highest and best use. And as growth centers expand, the land upon which some older mobile home parks are located will be re-purposed for other, “higher” uses.

      But the “highest and best use” philosophy also applies to property owners who may want to construct mobile home parks on the new outskirts of town or on large tracts of land in a rural or semi-rural area.

      However, such uses are being systematically eliminated by localities throughout the Commonwealth via restrictive zoning. Local governments have a marked tendency to bemoan the lack of affordable housing on one hand while utilizing weapons-grade nimbyism to prevent the development of “any more of those low-class trailer parks” on the other.

      Maybe local governments should open their minds to the possibility that having a few new, well-designed, mobile home communities in or near their locales will help solve their affordable housing problems, and could possibly help [a little bit] in reducing homelessness.

  2. I think the trailer parks will gradually evolve into “tiny house” communities. Great way I think to reinvent and attract a wide range of new tenants. One thing that has caught my eye in recent years are camp grounds. I know a number of people who live out of their RVs and move from campground to campground. For some it is the only way to stay above water in retirement.

  3. well… “Tiny” houses are faux mobile homes! Most have “wheels” so that in theory they can be moved. Some folks say they should be able to set them up in another house back yard…etc…

    I think any mobile home that is on the edge or surrounded by multi-story apartments is destined to become multi-story apartments itself – and multistory is much more efficient use of land than single story.

    I have the same observation as you on the camping. We spent 8 weeks camping out west last year, the 4-5 year we done this and many campgrounds have become in part or all – for all practical purposes year-around housing. some of the “campers” are decades old, others are fairly new but they often have porches, yards, bird baths, you name it – it’s “home” for someone – and in most cases – smaller footprints than mobile homes.

  4. Jim, as a former business reporter for the Roanoke Times, given the industrial base for that industry in that region back in the 80s, you know those are called manufactured housing! Not mobile homes…..

    • And we had a rather large kerfuffle in my own subdivision a few years back and it had to do with the covenants written for the subdivision that restricted homes to being “stick built”.

      Sure enough someone hauled in a double wide and all hell broke loose as they say.

      The ones that were already here and built “nice” homes did not want to lose their investments. The folks wanting to move in with their double-wide just wanted “affordable” housing in a “nice” subdivision.

      I think I heard that subsequent to that – that “manufactured housing” got significant discussion in the General Assembly and some changes made.. I do not know specifics – but since that time – no more double-wides have made it into the subdivision though one did go up across the entrance to a guy that owned 20-30 acres, he brought in one for his mother who no longer could live by herself without someone close by.
      I’ve heard no complaints about that.

    • Mr. Haner the trailers that I teach in over in Loudoun County are known as “Learning Cottages”. How quaint! I bet Mark Twain was raised in one.

  5. re: ” But the “highest and best use” philosophy also applies to property owners who may want to construct mobile home parks on the new outskirts of town or on large tracts of land in a rural or semi-rural area.”

    You may a point there. I’m not sure. It’s hard for me to conceive that a property owner would want to develop their property at a lower value than they could achieve if they sought the most advantageous zoning that would benefit them personally and financially.

    Most folks who own mobile home parks are not developers – but they sell to developers – and they want to maximum what the developers will pay them for their property and they really do not care what the locality zoning practices are – they just want to get top value for the property.

    Having said that, ANY developer in Virginia CAN make ANY proposal they want and that includes changes to zoning.

    We have such proposals up my way – all the time – it’s the norm when rural land gets developed into residential housing.

    Almost all developers also want to maximize profit and I’ve never heard of one proposing a mobile home park or even a development that is all 100% affordable housing. They’ve discussed it. Most say that they’d make so little money on it and they are competing against other developers who have no interest in it that they feel they are just hurting their own businesses in making such proposals.

    What they typically do is try to designate some units as affordable or they propose fairly dense apartments that they label as workforce housing but it still does not meet the “affordable” standards that affordable housing advocates say is affordable.

    We live in the middle of this issue as an exurban county with a huge number of folks who commute 50 miles to jobs in NoVa.

    Anyone who does not do that and works local – makes far less money and most of the housing that is built, is built to the wants of those who have NoVa incomes sufficient to afford hefty sized homes.

    So the conundrum is that for a given piece of land that any developer can propose anything and for that parcel to be affordable – the county would have to restrict it’s zoning so they it can only have affordable housing on it. The local developers would avoid it and build around it on land not so restricted.

  6. I am reasonably certain that I did not use the word “developer” anywhere in my comment.

    The specific mobile home parks I have specifically seen rejected by localities were proposed by property owners who wanted to own/run the park as a business – on property they already owned.

    Regarding “Having said that, ANY developer in Virginia CAN make ANY proposal they want and that includes changes to zoning.”

    Okay. And ANY locality in Virginia CAN (and often does) craft their zoning ordinance so that it effectively prevents land from being used for mobile home parks.

    PS – I feel sorry for you for not being able to conceive of anyone doing something for reasons other than maximizing their personal gain. I hope I never become that cynical – and make no mistake, I am already plenty cynical.

    • Don’t feel sorry. My view is to deal pragmatically with the realities. I CAN conceive of a few property owners wanting to do that.

      Most folks who own land are acutely aware of the value – the county “helps” them know that when it is taxed.

      We’re told up where I live – over and over – that people who own raw land – consider it their 401K when they get older and/or what they want to leave to their kids.

      I know there are other folks who think differently.

      I’m just pragmatic about how that works out in a lot of cases.

      One of the things you might have missed is that when the county changes the raw-land-use designation, if they change it from rural to higher level density or commercial – it changes the taxes on it – it increases them and people who are “land-rich” but money poor sometimes don’t have enough income to pay the taxes and they have to do “something” to have that land generate sufficient income to pay the taxes on it.

      So , no , not a cynic, just pragmatic, and realize that most folks know the value of their land – and they pay taxes on it and they count on it as an asset. There are others who do not care – they car about helping others.

      You don’t have to own land to do that. For instance, I “work” at a food pantry and I do volunteer taxes for folks – that’s not cynical, it’s a desire to help others.

  7. Wow! I just now read the caption on the photo attached to this article.

    I lived the first three years of my life in Smitty’s Trailer Park in Norfolk – at the corner of Newtown Road and Virginia Beach Boulevard.

    Of all the trailer parks, in all the towns…

    • Sixty years ago lived in a very small trailer with a lean to on an overseas USAF base. Good news was the base was Wheelus in Libya and the trailer was across the road from a Mediterranean beach….Read through your comments, Larry, since you were on point to the issue 🙂

  8. If the people bought the land on which the manufactured housing was placed, the land could not be repurposed without their consent.
    Implicit in the discussion is the recognition that people would rather live on their own land than in a condominium apartment. Suburban governments favor apartments. They do not recognize the desire for private ownership of land.

  9. Pretty sure localities can change the land-use and zoning on property. I’m sure folks have heard of “downzoning” for instance.

    The taxes on land is based on appraisals of it’s worth. Every two years,
    localities re-do it and those who own land that increases in value, pay higher taxes.

    I’m not 100% sure how all of it works. Perhaps there are others here that do know.

    I know this. I paid 24K for a piece of undeveloped land 20 years ago and now I’m paying taxes on 100K of appraisal of raw land. I have no choice in the matter other than challenge the appraisal which they tell me is based on “comps” – comparable property near by.

  10. One of the problems that has been overlooked in these comments is rooted in a fact that Jim pointed out in the original post–Virginia law treats them as vehicles, titled through DMV. Not only does that mean the owners can’t get a mortgage, but rather have to settle for less favorable financing, it also means that local governments have to tax them as personal property, rather than real property. Of course, local governments are less than enthusiastic about this. Many years ago, when I was a lobbyist for local governments, one of the biggest fights we had was against legislation making it easier to site manufactured housing and mobile homes in localities. There is the tax issue as well as NIMBY.

    • Dick – I’m watching my county BOS action on setting the proposed tax rate for 2021 and there is a separate line item for Mobile Homes – and the tax rate is the same tax rate for real estate – .8474 and the tax rate for vehicles is different.

  11. Dick – are they still considered “vehicles” if they are put on a foundation and the wheels removed?

    We have a home in our subdivision that was towed in , in two halfs and put on a cinder-block foundation. Then it had a brick facade put on it – and
    the only way you can tell it might have been a double-wide is a side view of it that is not as wide as many stick-built homes.

    Also – in our county – the land is assessed as well as the “improvements” – like sheds and other out buildings…

    So if the wheels are taken off , is it still a “vehicle”?

    • Assuming the cinder-block foundation included mortar, and not just stacked blocks at intervals, the “double-wide” in your neighborhood may be a modular home rather than a double-wide trailer. That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it is not.

      A double-wide mobile home (aka manufactured home) is built on two trailer chassis which are integral parts of the structure of the home. The two halves are towed to the building site where they are joined together on some form of foundation (sometimes temporary, sometimes permanent). The wheels are removed from the chassis following placement of the home, but the trailer frame stays in place. This is what makes it “mobile” even if it is placed on a permanent foundation. While it is not necessarily easy to do once a double-wide is placed on a permanent foundation, it can be separated, wheels refitted to its trailer frames, and the two halves can be towed to a different location. Fortunately for their owners, double-wide trailers are taxed at the real-estate rate (albeit the value will be less than a comparably sized house). However, they are typically not considered permanent structures for lending purposes.

      A modular home is essentially a stick-built house constructed off-site in two (or sometimes three) sections and then transported to a building site. Certain additional structural features are included which allow the sections to be moved over the road, but the pieces are only moved once. Upon reaching the building site the sections of the house are permanently joined together on a standard house foundation. Once a modular home is put in place and completed, its sections cannot easily be re-separated. Typically, such a house can only be moved using the same methods utilized to relocate conventional constructed-in-place buildings. For mortgage purposes a modular home is considered a permanent structure.

      • Wayne –

        You know exactly what you are talking about. There is no practical difference between a stick built home and a modular home, save that one can expect, in some cases, to find that the modular home is better build because there is more assured quality control in modular construction, especially in regions where building codes are weak or shoddily enforced.

        Also modular construction can often give the homeowner more bang for his buck as well as more assured quality in construction.

        This should be a wave for the future in more regions and places.

        • Yes. Modular homes do tend to be sturdier and have a better structural build quality than conventional stick-built houses.

          They need to be able to be towed down a highway at 50+ mph and stand up to all the associated bumping, jarring and twisting stresses. The average stick built home would only ever experience similar forces during a significant earthquake.

          • Yep, I’m on board with modular in general but they are better for simple type floor plans than more complex floor plans.

            The big issue that dramatically affects a lot of thing including children education is the character of the neighborhood.

            Many people seek out subdivisions that have strict standards on the type of housing and often with cul-de-sacs so the subdivision is more like an enclave where folks can keep an eye on folks who do not live there. The subdivision also has to be within a “good” school district. They don’t want their kids going to a school that has a high percentage of low income kids.

            They also do not want to invest 300K into a house and then have a much less expensive house built next to them or across the street or throughout the subdivision.

            I’m NOT advocating the above. I’m saying that it’s a reality that we see up where I live. People who have jobs in NoVa, have college educations and commute to our area to live – they are particular about housing types, neighborhoods and schools.

            Double-wides, and modular that people think are double-wides will send them looking for another subdivision.

            Here’s an example of the type of house that typically is not a modular – at least most that I see constructed up my way are stick built not brought in as modular.

            Even our apartments up my way are stick built!

            ?maxwidth=730&maxheight=416&encoder=freeimage&progressive=true

          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            Actually, Larry, modular houses can be, or appear to be, far more complex than what you typically see on many sites. So you can built high priced, large modular homes that appear stick built, and that act like many big stick built homes. The Maryland Eastern shore is filled with many such homes.

            Why don’t we see more of them?

            I suspect there is much in built bias against modular in the high priced market, and that many modular builders shy away from reliance on more complicated and varied component homes because there are much higher risk factors in that market, and that the custom nature of such houses invariable intrudes in buyer decisions, which then stall manufacturing lines. On the other hand, I suspect in many places there are far more modular out there in plain sight than meets the untutored eye.

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