Keynote: Esther Sullivan, PhD

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Esther Sullivan is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado Denver. Her research focuses on poverty, spatial inequality, urban governance, and housing, with a special interest in both forced and voluntary relocation. Her 2018 book Manufactured Insecurity: Mobile Home Parks and Americans’ Tenuous Right to Place, winner of the Robert Park Book Award, provides examines the social, legal, geospatial, and market forces that intersect to create housing insecurity in manufactured housing communities, which provide a central source of affordable housing in the United States.


Can you speak to the differences in perception of MH between residents and non-residents? I recall your intentional decision to use “mobile home parks”/”trailer parks” vs “manufactured home communities”

In the book, Esther refers to them as mobile home parks and mobile homes because that is what the residents call them. Many of the residents in her study were Latinos so they would call them their “trailer.” She believes it is semantics and that the residents did not see the HUD code distinction between their home being produced after 1976, which would make it a manufactured home. Most of the homes were produced after 1976. At times when Esther would use the term manufactured homes they would be confused. In the beginning she followed what sociologists believed, that researchers should use the language of the participants of their study, so she stuck to the phrases mobile homes and mobile home parks. After doing research for 10 years she has come to a place where she can refer to homes as manufactured housing due to the advancements of many housing advocates.

For homes that cannot be moved, how much of that is because of feasibility based on structural soundness? How much of that is because municipalities won’t approve older homes for installation at another site?

It’s really both. Most of the homes in Florida were unable to be moved because of some type of structural soundness. It’s not because they were old, it was because most of the residents made improvements to their home. Any time a resident made improvements to their home (ex. new flooring) it created issues about the weight of the home, this became a liability to manufactured home movers. In Texas, it was almost exclusively the former that the municipality had created an ordinance that resulted in the closure of many parks in the jurisdiction and required landlords to make expensive upgrades to parks. Some of the upgrades were public health concerns like drainage, but many were esthetics. In Esther’s study it was both: homes were unable to be moved because municipalities would not allow it and that of structural issues.

Do you have any policy suggestions for the health intersections you identified?

The clearest policy prescription is to keep people in their homes. Housing insecurity is not only the catalyst for many of these negative health outcomes but it also complicates the resident’s ability to address that doctors are further away or just dealing with the stress of a move. All of those who are interested in housing and health the first thing that we need to look at is the security, economics and health benefits that come with keeping people in their homes.

Did you find a positive pattern in some mobile home communities that could serve as a model/best practice guide?

Esther’s Research: in Florida, the state has a statewide assistance fund for residents when their park closes. Residents pay a very small fee each year for a sticker that registers their manufactured home. The fee is fed into a general fund that then gives assistant to residents. Direct assistant to residents is better, a voucher would make MH residents vulnerable and would most likely lead to exploitation. Colorado: Aurora, a suburb in Denver, declared a moratorium on closure of all new parks, this will last until the city council can get a handle on how important MHs are in their city’s affordable housing stock. In Aspen (a luxury resort) the county has stepped in to directly purchase a MH community, which is the last MH community in their jurisdiction. The county realized that the MH community provides a key source of affordable housing for all the service industry folks and that they are a key power in the community. The county is also looking to potentially fill the community with tiny homes or additional MHs, in hopes to improve the community and to help build the community density.

How can one assess the dollar value of a MH in a community within the context of the affordable housing supply in the area? When I’ve tried to get a sense of that, smart people have had a hard time figuring that out. They suggest looking at the size of a mortgage the homeowner could get. But of course, older manufactured homes can’t get that, but they’re obviously worth something because homeowners can sell them for thousands of dollars. And losing a 200-lot community will have some effect on the affordable housing market. How can we quantify that? Or should we not try?

Most municipalities know if they have a shortage of affordable housing and many of them have done some type of study to quantify how many units they are short of. In Aurora Esther’s team used geospatial analysis to map all the parks and then they counted the number of units. MHs creates a significant amount of affordable housing and by closing parks, it only amplifies the affordable housing crisis. To actually quantify the value is difficult because when homes are not attached to property it is hard to tell. Esther’s team used appraisal district data for property level research, but even with that MH are viewed as a secondary class (private vs. MH communities). There are still limitations and oftentimes it is difficult to find the data.

How should localities think about the deep pocket money interests who are entrenching themselves in MH parks? Should they develop policy to compel them to maintain the parks at a particular level or provide a standard of living w/in the communities?

The MH industry has a real interest in security and the long-term security of these communities. In many cases they are being lost forever and are becoming a big box store. This limits where the industry can place new homes and ship new homes. State associations and industry associations should work together and talk with local municipalities to explain the innovations they are creating. There is a clear role between cities, jurisdictions and the industry. The industry should continue to make models that appeal to residents and buyers, and the industry should continue to make MHs that are ready for natural disasters. (Ex: Miami has wind zone ready homes.)

What would be a way to discourage the super-wealthy billionaire investors from investing in (and wringing profits from) these MH communities? And, is there a way we as housing advocates can encourage co-op models and shared ownership among residents?

I think we cannot stop them, the floodgates have already been open. Private equity model is about short term profit.They know that they can go into parks that have been there for decades and immediately raise rents since there are not many state laws that can stop them. What we need to do is get smarter and get there first. Housing advocates, local jurisdictions and non-profits need to become interested in facilitating resident purchases of communities first or pursuing non-profit ownership of a land (community land trust). A way to encourage this is to educate the residents and the city council, develop funds to assist residents and also find additional funding. Lastly, we have to provide incentives.

Have you seen the creation and development of completely new manufactured home communities as a way to increase the supply? Have you noticed a trend to create new parks under new models (creation under non-profits)? Is there an opportunity for MH construction companies to advance positive change in MH communities?

No, I have not seen the creation of new parks, even though it is a clear way to make more affordable houses. It is difficult to market new parks, the old way created a stigma for MH and created fear. Planning ordinance and local planning regime have made it hard to develop new parks. There is also a limited supply of MH parks.

Can you speak to some of the issues around displacement and immigration? How can communities mobilize or come together if there is fear of displacement and added fears surrounding immigration?

Most people believe that the manufactured home population is disproportionately white, which it is nationally. But in manufactured housing communities the residents are more Latino. In Florida, communities are aging, retired white households; in Texas, Latinos dominate (90-99%). When parks close many of the residents who are undocumented are scared to go to the city to ask questions. They do not want to bring visibility to their household (sometimes the owner might be documented but someone in their household is not). Oftentimes they pack up and move fast and hire bad movers which sometimes causes damage to their homes. There needs to be clarity that their undocumented status has no baring on information or services they need.

What enforcement rights could a community like Aurora have vis-a-vis a moratorium on closings?

Colorado is a home rule state. When they consider rezoning there will always be an argument that it is a property taking, which is a difficult thing to get around. Aurora is a stop gap measure where the moratorium is temporary. They think it’s going to stop property owners from pursuing rezoning.

Our governor has voiced support for increasing funding towards affordable housing – have you seen successful state-level programs to support preservation and expansions of these parks?

The best model is Oregon state law. They have increased their direct cash assistance to residents in the case of a closure and instituted an independent system for residents to lodge complaints and has a  meditation process between resident and landlord. They also have information to help residents in event of a closure with either cash assistance or information about resident purchases.

Many lenders still have no interest in financing MH which is frustrating since auto loans seem to be a major offering of most banks. Cars depreciate and probably quicker than a MH. What is holding banks back from more robust MH loan offerings?

The paradigm of property citizenship, when property is private the buyers can get a traditional mortgage. If it is not, they get a chattel loan. Duty to serve ruling requires Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to facilitate a secondary market for mortgages for low income families and specifically included manufactured housing.

Overall trend in MH? Number of homes produced increasing or decreasing?

Unsure about the number produced. The census documents the number of shipments and that number is steadily increasing, this parallels the decline in direct federal support for affordable housing production. Manufactured homes continue to pick up the slack for the government’s disinvestments in affordable housing production.There is also a really robust secondary market in formerly used homes.