10/2 Flashback: Trailer-park democracy

10/2 Flashback: Trailer-park democracy October 2, 2022

From October 2, 2007, “Trailer-park Heroes

This post from 15 years ago was one of the first times I addressed this topic. I regret that I haven’t followed this as closely in recent years, but it’s still both hugely important to millions of our neighbors and largely invisible in any national conversation about politics or government.

I am not a savvy political insider who can speak with towering confidence about what kind of political agenda or messaging would appeal to voters in rural America. But my guess is that any politician who championed the rights and security and stability of manufactured-home owners would earn their gratitude. My guess is that making this a tangible and visible part of a political party’s agenda would win votes from the millions of Americans who desperately need their government to take action on their behalf. In other words, I believe the Democratic Party could win over rural red-county voters by, you know, actually helping them.

But, again, I’m not a savvy insider and politics-knower, so that’s just my guess. And, in any case, that’s just a far-distant second reason for why I think Democrats should become actual-factual champions of this cause. The main reason is because it’s the right thing to do. Manufactured-home owners — the working class and retired people who live in “trailer parks” — are being exploited. Their situation is unfair, unjust, and untenable.

We know how to fix this. We could and should do so. That’s what democratic government is for.

The word “landlord” is pretty brazen, if you think about it. Look at each of those syllables and consider their combined meaning.

As an apartment dweller, I have a landlord, but our relationship is more politely contractual than that feudal-seeming word makes it sound. For people who live in manufactured housing, however, those connotations of serfdom can be devastatingly real. They own their homes, but not the land their homes sit on, which means those who own that land can lord it over them.

Patrick Jackson of The (Del.) News Journal [dead link because Gannett laid odd Delawareonline’s copy editor in 2011] reports on the situation facing the owners of manufactured housing (i.e. what are less delicately known as mobile homes or trailers) in Delaware:

According to the most recent Census data, there are about 42,700 mobile homes in the state. In most cases, homeowners in manufactured housing communities own their dwellings but rent the space they occupy.

If homeowners are forced off their lots either by rent increases or the sale of the community, they face challenges because the homes are expensive to move and other communities sometimes reject homes that are 5 years old or older.

Rent and ownership issues have been heated in recent years, especially in Sussex County, where some landlords have dramatically increased rents or sold communities to developers who closed them to build different projects.

Two bills to protect the owners of manufactured homes are working their way through Delaware’s legislature. Here’s a summary from the paper:

Senate Bill 122: Requires manufactured housing community owners to give notice of an offer to buy a community by an outside party and allow tenants the chance to match the offer within 90 days. Tenants could either match the offer and buy the community as a group of individual homeowners, or do so by forming a tax-exempt homeowners association to handle the purchase.

House Bill 258: Limits manufactured community owners to one rent increase per year and sets guidelines for rent increases, generally limiting them to the annual increase in the Consumer Price Index. It also gives community residents the ability to challenge an increase they think is unjustified in the Court of Common Pleas.

I realize that these bills — particularly the latter with it’s guidelines and limits on rent increases — raise red flags for those with an instinctual or ideological bias against any regulation that interferes with free markets. But we’re not dealing with a perfect free market here.

Market forces limit the size of the rent increases I might face here in my apartment. If my landlord were to attempt to raise our rent too severely, we would all move out. Switching apartments is a pain in the neck, and it can be expensive, but we apartment-dwellers are still mobile enough to take our money elsewhere. The owners of manufactured homes do not have that option. The expense and effort of moving their homes means there are no market constraints on the lords who own the land and they’re stuck paying whatever those lords demand. In the absence of such market constraints, regulation becomes necessary.

I have no idea what sort of rules govern manufactured home communities here in Pennsylvania or in any other state. I would guess that most states are ahead of Delaware in adopting such regulations, since the First State tends to be among the last to do so. But for any state without such protections already in place, I think this legislation serves as a good model.

I also think this issue is something that the Democratic Party should get behind at a national level. Democrats have expressed an interest in reaching out to rural red-state voters and this seems like a far more promising and substantial approach to doing so than, say, sending John Kerry out to hunt wild turkey.

The bottom line is this: Poor people are getting screwed. Keeping the weak from getting screwed by the powerful is part of the government’s job.

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