Change the rules

Change the rules August 6, 2008

So what we seem to have here is a no-win situation, a conflict between fundamental rights.

Millions of people in America live in manufactured housing. Most of those people own their homes, but not the land underneath those homes. Those millions of people are thus in an extremely vulnerable situation. Landowners might evict these homeowners at any time, or they could raise the rent on the land so that the homeowners could not afford to stay there. When that happens, relocating a manufactured home may be prohibitively expensive or flat-out impossible, resulting in these people losing not just the land beneath their homes, but their homes as well.

It seems that somebody’s rights will need to be restricted. Either the landowners’ rights to do what they want with their own land will be severely constrained, or else the homeowners’ rights not to be exploited and abused and kicked while they’re down* will be tossed aside. Neither choice is acceptable, and the usual approach of splitting the difference isn’t particularly attractive for either side.

So the dilemma is real and serious and perplexing. It seems almost like the Kobayashi Maru, the academy test from Star Trek designed to measure officers’ character when faced with a no-win situation. There was only one way to beat such a test, Capt. Kirk decided: cheat. When faced with a no-win situation, you have to change the rules of the game.

As long as one party owns the home and another party owns the land underneath it, conflicts of fundamental human and property rights will be unavoidable. So, then, change the rules of the game. The solution to a situation in which the land and the home are owned by different people is to create a situation in which the land and the home are not owned by different people. The solution is to create a situation in which those millions of Americans living in trailer parks become the owners of those trailer parks.

This is already starting to happen, at least in a small way. Here’s a press release announcing the involvement of one New Jersey-based nonprofit in such an effort in Delaware. READS will be working with the Delaware Manufactured-Home Owners Association to help the First State’s 38,000 manufactured-home owners become the owners of the land underneath their homes. This is happening as part of the nationwide effort coordinated by New Hampshire-based ROCUSA. ROC stands for “resident owned communities,” which is what we’re talking about here.

Here, again, is how ROCUSA summarizes its mission:

ROC USA is a social enterprise that offers training, networking, and financing to help homeowners gain security through community ownership.

ROC USA solves the financial and technical challenges faced by homeowners when they seek to acquire their manufactured home communities. Today there are roughly 3.5 million US homeowners in an estimated 50,000 manufactured home communities.

Through ROC USA and its national network of Certified Technical Assistance Providers, homeowners can join together with their neighbors to acquire the manufactured home community in which they live, and be secure and thrive in resident-owned communities.

Here’s my immodest proposal: Let’s turn all of those 50,000 manufactured home communities into resident-owned communities.

To get there from here might require some changes in state and local laws, tax codes and zoning regulations, so state legislators are going to need to get in touch with people like the folks at ROCUSA to find out what kind of changes would help to ease and expedite this transition, what kind of incentives might be offered and what hurdles (such as access to credit for the homeowners) might need to be cleared.

The only problem with the goal of this transition would be that it would mean the end of the trailer-park owner industry. That’s not really much of a problem, though, since everybody in that industry is already looking for a way out. (That is, after all, the basis for this whole dilemma in the first place.)

Some of these communities might adopt a land-trust model, many others might simply become more traditional neighborhoods, where individual lots are individually owned. There’s nothing socialist about this idea — it’s not like we’d be creating kibbutzes or something. We’re talking about real homeownership — red-blooded American capitalism.

There’s also nothing inherently partisan about this goal. It seems to me that both Democrats and Republicans would have ideological reasons for supporting such a transition. Apart from the question of local or regional vested interests — particular developers with their particular corrupt legislators — I don’t see much reason for any political opposition.

Obviously, therefore, I’m missing something. So here’s where I need your help: Why shouldn’t the transition to resident-ownership be a goal in every state or province with land-lease manufactured-home communities? What political, ideological, economic, etc., reasons might there be to oppose such a goal?

Unnecessary clarifying addenda: I didn’t anticipate that the idea of manufactured-home owners purchasing the land under their homes might be interpreted as the moral/legal equivalent of Hugo Chavez nationalizing them. I don’t really need anyone to point out the potential objections to government confiscation of landowners property because I object to that myself already, thanks. If I didn’t, the dilemma discussed above wouldn’t be much of a dilemma.

What I’m looking for is what rational, real-world objections anyone might have to what ROCUSA et. al. are actually doing: Helping homeowners purchase the land under their homes at a fair price. I’m beginning to suspect that there aren’t actually any rational objections to such a goal, only irrational ones that involve seeing socialist bogeymen where none exist.

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* Where, you may be asking, is this right not to be exploited and abused guaranteed? It’s not explicitly enumerated in the Constitution. Nor is it recognizably honored by custom. That will lead some people to argue that talk of such a “right” makes no sense. Perhaps they’re right about that. Maybe even this most fundamental right is meaningless unless it is explicitly enumerated in the law. And maybe Moses and the prophets were fools. Maybe there is no God or gods, or at least no God or gods that give a rat’s ass about the poor, the powerless, the orphans or widows. Maybe there’s no such thing as karma. Or ghosts. Maybe Dives isn’t in torment. Maybe all talk of justice is just a mask for envy or the will-to-power. But then again maybe not.

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