Respond to this Article November 2002

Wheel Estate

A review of J. Hart, M. Rhodes, and J. Morgan's The Unknown World of the Mobile Home Buy the book

By Joshua Green

It's hard to imagine a more maligned sector of the housing market than mobile homes: The very term calls to mind rural poverty, tornado damage, and the tawdry domestic violence of "Cops." The authors of The Unknown World of the Mobile Home, all geographers, have set themselves to the considerable task of rehabilitating this image in this careful examination of the history, economics, and public-policy issues surrounding mobile homes, one of the fastest growing segments of today's housing market.

The earliest mobiles appeared in the 1920s and were often homemade travel trailers consisting of little more than canvas and wood. Arthur G. Sherman, the president of a Detroit pharmaceutical company, is generally credited with being the first to mass produce them. Sherman's six-by-nine -foot rolling wooden box (with coal-burning stove) appealed mightily to the newly mobile post-war generation that embraced "automobile camping." Such sporting titans of the day as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and even President Warren Harding were renowned enthusiasts. By 1933, Sherman dominated a market restricted only by state highway regulations. Municipal campgrounds sprang up along roadsides nationwide to cater to this new breed of tourist.

The idyllic image of camping along the open road didn't last long. Practically from the outset, trailer parks and campgrounds attracted undesirables--not vacationers, but traveling salesmen, seasonal workers, and transients. The Great Depression drove the financially desperate into trailer homes in ever larger numbers, sparking what today are common complaints: Trailer parks depress property values; they're dens of iniquity; and their inhabitants don't pay their fair share of taxes. By 1937, Fortune magazine was stigmatizing them as "crowded rookeries of itinerant flophouses." Their image was forever tarnished.

To stave off trailer folk, municipal governments began charging fees, limiting stays, and passing restrictive zoning ordinances that banished trailers to the outskirts of town. Prudish civic leaders charged that children reared in one-room mo-biles were gaining a corrupting early knowledge of sex. Moreover, trailers were "uniquely susceptible" to fire and high winds. Mobile homes got a brief respite from

this opprobrium during World War II when they served as convenient housing for war workers who flocked to cities like San Francisco for defense-related manufacturing jobs. Even the government bought in. In 1942, the National Housing Agency oversaw 35,000 trailers that served as temporary housing for GIs.

But public acceptance of trailers as permanent homes never really took root. The mobile housing industry's Reformation came in 1963, when the trade group for the tonier self-propelled recreational vehicles, or "RVs," split with its downmarket sibling, thus cementing the complicated pecking order that still obtains among enthusiasts of various forms of mobile housing, and essentially dooming the trailer to its current ignominy. In a bid for respect, the industry successfully lobbied Congress to stipulate in the 1980 Housing Act that the term "mobile home" be changed to "manufactured housing" in all federal law and literature. Yet, tragically, the effort seems to have been for naught. The Census Bureau counts mobile homes in the same category as railroad cars and "permanently inhabited tents."

Though The Unknown World of the Mobile Home bills itself as a dispassionate academic study, there's little doubt where the authors' sympathies lie. Hart, Rhodes, and Morgan are vexed by the public's low regard for mobile homes, and defend them with the devoted gusto that academics with obscure specialties frequently display. They tout the advantages that mobiles hold over traditional homes (the authors like to call them "monster" or "stick" homes): They're cheaper; they're portable; and, especially among seniors, they foster a close-knit sense of community. The old joke about trailers--residents are either "newly wed or newly dead"--is turned on its head; the authors argue that, in fact, mobiles fill vital gaps in the housing market by providing starter homes for young couples and affordable housing for seniors. They envision trailers filling other needs, as well, suggesting that they might be rolled into vacant lots in inner cities, and even hinting (somewhat preposterously) that, had the government adopted such a policy at the time, the urban race riots of the 1960s--partly sparked by a shortage of low-income housing--might have been avoided. In essence, they consider mobile homes a public-policy solution on wheels.

Despite such engaging attributes, however, mobile homes are hardly the panacea they're presented to be, as a closer exegesis of the book reveals. As a housing option for the poor, they may be necessary, but they're hardly ideal. Unlike traditional homes, which appreciate in value, mobile homes depreciate. One reason so many are sold is that so many wear out. Though they are built ever wider, sturdier, and, with a little landscaping, can be made to look like traditional homes, this comes at the cost of their portability. Moving a "mobile" home--especially a fancy "double wide" or "triple wide," the McMansions of the well-to-do trailer set--has grown prohibitively expensive. As a result, 95 percent stay put. And (in case you're wondering) mobiles remain uniquely susceptible to disaster; even the weakest classification of tornado will sweep them away.

But perhaps the surest sign that mobile homes won't soon replace brick ones comes from the authors' own anthropological research, which included journeys to several trailer parks and scrupulously documented interviews with residents. While there were those who seemed happy with their lot, many more were not. Eager as the authors are to get more Americans into mobile homes, many already in them seem awfully eager to get out.

Joshua Green is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


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