Could trailers be the new face of affordable housing?

By: - February 15, 2021 12:01 am

Project: HOMES’ Bermuda Estates community in Chester. Mobile home residents face few protections in the face of a booming housing market that can make trailer park land attractive to developers. (Project: HOMES)

Tacky trailers or the new face of affordable housing? That’s the debate policy-makers and advocates are having across Virginia as they work to figure out what role manufactured units should play in addressing the commonwealth’s affordable housing crisis.

So far the biggest challenge has been that no one knows exactly how many mobile homes exist in the state, where they are and what condition they are in. However, that uncertainty could come to an end if an obscure budget amendment survives the 2021 session of the General Assembly.

Counting them all

“I couldn’t tell you how many mobile home parks are in Virginia,” said Jonathan Knopf, executive director of the Manufactured Home Community Coalition of Virginia. “There is no record. We know how many units exist, but we don’t know if they are in parks or on single lots. They’re the largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the country, but it’s the one that we know the least about.”

To unravel the ambiguity surrounding mobile homes in the commonwealth, Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax introduced a budget amendment to establish the Virginia Manufactured Home Park Registry. If it passes, the Department of Housing and Community Development will collect a registration and an annual $100 database maintenance fee from each mobile home park in the state by the end of the year. The $153,474 set aside in the amendment would pay for one full-time employee to manage the registry as well as the IT costs to set it up.

In a state where not a single locality even does trailer park licensing, a database with basic details could prove transformational. “Without this registry, it would take hundreds of hours of work to identify all of these parks and units via in-person visits and satellite imagery,” said Knopf. “This will help us to know which parks are at risk so we can prepare the advocacy community to step in should they come up for sale and need rescue.”

That risk isn’t hypothetical. Knopf first got involved with mobile homes in 2015 when hundreds of residents of Rudd’s Trailer Park on Richmond’s Southside faced eviction as a result of owners who allowed code violations to pile up until much of the park was condemned as a fire hazard. 

“There were a lot of low-income, mostly Hispanic households that were left homeless with few resources to help them,” said Knopf. “We had no gameplan for helping these folks even though mobile homes are a fairly important piece of the affordable housing puzzle, especially in places like Northern Virginia and Richmond where prices are already high or rapidly increasing.”

Under pressure

Across the state, many larger trailer parks hide in plain sight behind the fast food chains and strip malls that characterize Virginia’s neglected arterial roads and inner suburbs. That proximity to main corridors and plentiful amenities, however, is increasingly proving many mobile home parks’ downfall.

“The biggest problem is that the land is so valuable,” Krizek said. “These parks are a gold mine for someone who wants to come in and build a 20-story apartment complex. I understand the need for density, but it’s sad when one of these communities goes away because they have been there for 20-30 years.” 

To try and protect two trailer parks on the chopping block in Fairfax, a group of housing advocates and community organizers has come together under the banner of the South County Task Force. Since the county’s affordable housing strategic plan excludes mobile homes, they have had to lobby the district supervisors, the planning commission, and the developers themselves to try and preserve the parks or at least secure a one-to-one replacement guarantee for residents.

“This is another form of displacement driving people of color out of their communities so developers can make a lot of money,” said Mary Paden — chair of the Fairfax NAACP’s Fair & Affordable Housing Committee. “There’s no place else for people to go in Fairfax. They’d have to move to another county and lose all the schools, clinics, access to transit and community services they have built relationships with.”

Repair, replace, rezone?

Around Virginia’s capital, affordable housing providers have taken a different tack. To preserve Bermuda Estates, project:HOMES recently purchased the 52-unit mobile home park in Chesterfield County. Through a combination of replacing decrepit trailers and making improvements to existing units’ foundations, skirting and waterproofing, the Richmond-based housing nonprofit hopes to undo the stigma manufactured housing faces.


“Our vision is to keep all of our current residents in the park while improving the quality of their housing and keeping their costs relatively the same,” said Zack Miller, project:HOMES’ manager of housing innovation. “If done right, manufactured homes are a great place to live and not much different than the quality you can find in stick-build housing. We’d love to find some space to not just preserve these older communities but also to create some new parks over the coming years.”

Building new mobile home parks, however, can be a near-impossible task under some local zoning laws, many of which have been rewritten over the last few decades to include lower densities, larger setbacks and street circulation requirements that make new parks cost-prohibitive. To get around the new rules and develop a classic layout mobile home park necessitates a special-use permit — an onerous process involving a public review, the local planning commission and city council or the board of supervisors, none of which tend to be keen on new trailer parks. Existing parks have been grandfathered in, but the updated zoning ordinances bar them from adding new homes lest the entire park be brought up to the new code.  

“Localities don’t have to explicitly ban trailer parks,” Knopf said, “they can do that by omission.  In Virginia, there aren’t any proactive zoning or land use codes to help preserve mobile home parks, let alone encourage the creation of new ones.”

Draft plans for a zoning update in Henrico don’t include a manufactured housing designation at all, increasing the odds the county’s last remaining park will get rezoned to make it much easier for the owner to redevelop the tract into apartments by-right.  Even the MH-1 designation that enabled the establishment of Bermuda Estates no longer exists in Chesterfield. A new M3 category in the county permits manufactured housing, but the willingness of local leaders to authorize additional trailer parks has so far gone untested.

Discrimination against mobile homes isn’t unique to Virginia according to Nolan Gray — a city planner and affiliated scholar with George Mason University’s Mercatus Center: “Historically we hate any low-income housing in America. Many places banned apartments, and most cities across America have no zoning that allows manufactured housing and if they do, they likely require some type of complex zoning waiver.”

In praise of trailer parks

The stigma surrounding manufactured housing began in the 1960s, when mobile homes were unregulated. The Department of Housing and Urban Development only released federal standards for manufactured housing in 1978, and many of the stereotypes around trailers result from the era before their enforcement. 

Since then, both units’ quality and safety have increased tremendously even if perceptions and nomenclature haven’t caught up. “These homes haven’t been mobile since the 1970s and only get moved from the factory to the plot,” said Paden. “The reality is these homes don’t even have wheels anymore.”

While trailer parks may not get much love in popular culture, they offer many of suburbia’s pluses without its often prohibitive price tags. “In many of these communities everyone has their own home, their own little yard, driveway and sometimes a community center or a pool,” Krizek said. “They have all the amenities they need and it’s affordable.”

Today one of the drawbacks of living in a trailer park is that residents often don’t own the land beneath their homes, but even that can be overcome with the right governance structures according to Paden. “If you subdivide the land and let residents own it, then they can get mortgages and build equity,” she said. “If we solve that problem then we have a whole new layer of affordable housing in which mobile homes can serve as a stepping stone to home ownership for a lot of folks.”

‘There’s a ton of demand for this housing’

In recent years the merits of mobile homes have not gone unnoticed, especially since the pandemic placed a premium on private living space. “Just in the time that we’ve been doing this over the last year or two the market for manufactured housing has exploded,” Miller said. “The wait time on new units has gone from two months to six or eight months; material costs have gone up too.”

The boom in the mobile home market is a sign that the lack of MH zoning is holding the market back, according to Gray with the Mercatus Center. “If you look at the fads of tiny homes or people living in shipping containers, they’re all evidence there is an appetite for smaller houses and smaller living,” he said. “There’s a ton of demand for this housing that we have effectively made illegal.”

The idea that manufactured housing could become a large scale solution to America’s affordable housing crisis is not just a fantasy, it’s an approach Gray first advanced in an essay entitled “Reclaiming ‘Redneck’ Urbanism: What Urban Planners can Learn from Trailer Parks.” Their minimal setbacks, limited parking requirements, and tiny lot sizes allow mobile home parks to use less land than the suburbs and still achieve densities as high as the average block of apartments.

Incremental improvements

To expand the impact of manufactured housing in Virginia, advocates have a laundry list of technical tweaks and policy changes the General Assembly could advance. “We need to think of these parks in a nuanced way that gives residents more control, agency and security, but there are a lot of things that need to be done to make that happen,” Knopf said.

A first step came last year in the form of HB 334 — a bill Krizek introduced which guarantees trailer park residents 180 days’ notice if their park is going to be redeveloped as well as some money to help cover relocation expenses. Most trailers cost five to ten thousand dollars to move, but $3,000 for Northern Virginia residents and $2,000 for those in the rest of the state is still better than the nothing those forced to relocate would have received prior to the bill’s passage.

Within the next few years Knopf hopes to bring a resident ownership cooperative model to Virginia which would allow trailer park tenants to band together, purchase, and manage their communities themselves. Currently organizing tenants and financing the deals can prove huge hurdles, but that may not always be the case if Krizek gets his way.

“I would love to dedicate 10-20 percent of the state’s affordable housing trust fund toward mobile home parks,” he said. “The role of the state in this is to leverage some resources. We’re not talking about developing new mobile home parks, but we should be.”

For now, affordable housing advocates like Miller are focused on making sure Krizek’s budget amendment to establish a mobile home park registry makes it out of the General Assembly in one piece: “We have seen really exciting examples of nonprofits being able to step in to offer support or buy parks outright to preserve them here in Virginia, but we can’t do that if we don’t know where the parks are and which are under threat.”

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network.