Senior Living: How the Trailer Park Could Save Us All

A healthy, inexpensive, environmentally-friendly senior living solution for housing millions of retiring baby boomers is staring us in the face: time to rethink the trailer park.

Trailer Park Community

Notoriously underloved, manufactured-homes can provide organic communities and a lifestyle that is healthy, affordable, and green, and not incidentally, fun. But in order to really see their charms, we need to change a mix of bad policies and prejudice.

Photo By Arnaldo Abba Legnazzi

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Residents call life at Pismo Dunes Senior Park “Pismodise.” Park manager Louise Payne calls it “a holding tank for the great beyond.” Louise has short hair and blunt bleached bangs that give her the air of a preteen skateboarder, but at 72 she’s often found rolling by the park’s 333 trailers in her electric golf cart, alternating between her roles as mother hen and whip-cracker. California is a notoriously youthful culture, but eventually the perpetually young get very old. If they’re lucky enough to live in Pismodise, which is on the Central Coast, they can exit its palm-lined entrance, cross the road, amble across the capacious sand of Pismo State Beach, and dip their toes in the Pacific Ocean while contemplating eternity (or a cocktail).

To move into Pismodise you must meet four conditions: Be 55 or older, keep your dog under 20 pounds, be present when guests stay at your home, and be comfortable with what most Americans consider a very small house. “If you need more than 800 square feet I can’t help you,” says Louise with a shrug. There seems to be some leeway on the dog’s weight. The unofficial rules are no less definite: If you are attending the late-afternoon cocktail session on the porch of Space 329, bring your own can, bottle, or box to drink. If you are fighting with other residents, you still have to greet them when you run into them. Make your peace with the words “trailer trash.”

No one in California aspires to be old or to live in a trailer, but we need to be more open to the possibilities inherent in both. Every day since January 1, 2011, some 10,000 American baby boomers have retired, and that will continue until 2030, when people over 65 will make up 19 percent of the population (up from 13 percent today). Old is the new boom and it is changing the culture and the conversation. In Washington, D.C., anxiety about the decreasing proportion of workers to retirees underlies the frenzied discussion of “entitlement reform.”

Baby boomers aren’t going to retire the way their parents did. They are poorer and more likely to live alone. They can’t depend on pensions, and the real-estate bubble destroyed almost 50 percent of their wealth. Today one in six seniors lives in poverty, and that proportion is rising; the generation of Americans now facing retirement is so financially ill-prepared that half of them have less than $10,000 in the bank. The coming swell of retirees will strain our current system to its limits—in terms of not only health care, but also incidental things like road signs, which are hard for drivers over 65 to read in a majority of American cities and towns.

Emily Greenfield, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Social Work, who researches elder-care networks, says a change is occurring under our feet, whether we see it or not: “Baby boomers have critical mass—they’re covertly revolutionizing society again” as they retire.

One of the biggest questions facing the nation with regard to aging boomers is: Where are they going to live? The options amount to a tangle of euphemisms and politically correct titles: independent living, nursing homes, aging-in-place, naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs), retirement village, memory-care units, age-restricted communities. All this complexity disguises a simple fact about money, happiness, and aging: Seniors who can live on their own cost the country relatively little—they even contribute to the economy. But those who move into nursing homes start to run up a significant tab—starting at $52,000 a year. People who are isolated and lonely end up in nursing homes sooner. Hence, finding ways to keep people living on their own, socially engaged, healthy, happy, and out of care isn’t just a personal or family goal—it’s a national priority. Among seniors’ living options, there is one we overlook: mobile homes. Time-tested, inhabited by no fewer than three million seniors already, but notoriously underloved, manufactured-homes can provide organic communities and a lifestyle that is healthy, affordable, and green, and not incidentally, fun. But in order to really see their charms, we need to change a mix of bad policies and prejudice.

Louise and I get in her golf cart and zip down the street in front of a row of homes, each one six feet from the next, most decorated differently and elaborately: There are rocks, nautical themes, many angels, some pelicans, some sunflowers. There are lots of signs: every day is a gift, old farts at play. One house, near the little grassy dog run at one end of the park, is surrounded by potted plants. Nearby is a fence, followed by a railroad track and a view of the Los Padres mountains. All is orderly, quiet, and attractive. The streets are a smooth ribbon of black asphalt—perfect for pushing a walker.

Louise has lived in the park for 12 years and managed it with brusque efficiency for the last seven. After raising a family and owning houses in the Central Valley, she found a “cute” unit in the park, bought it, and fixed it up with the sort of attention people give to tricking out their cars. She sees Pismo Dunes as a community, and as we move along, she points out the units where retired firefighters live, and then takes me to visit Ferne, a bright 92-year-old who recently rode on a zip line during a visit to a winery.

As we wind through the park’s little streets, I realize Louise is not just managing relationships with the living. She points out a unit where the owner is ailing, and another where the owner’s husband had recently died; park employees had sat with the woman until the coroner arrived. As for retirement, it’s not in Louise’s future, and neither is leaving Pismo Dunes: “They’ll carry me out of here in a box.”

Trailer parks have reputations: they’re considered havens of crime, perches for transients; they’re flimsy rusting structures, dangerous during disasters—“blight” that brings down neighborhood property values. Legally and financially, manufactured homes have a second-class existence. They are not treated as real estate, but as chattel or personal property. Owners don’t get the same rights or financial benefits as do other homeowners. For this reason, sociologists have described trailer parks as “quasi-homelessness” and “a kind of serfdom.” Among the few recent pieces of research about parks is a paper describing the strategies residents use to “manage” the “stigma” of living in a trailer park. Included: dressing well, not telling people where they live, and disparaging other trailer parks as worse than theirs. We all have an ugly prejudice when it comes to the trailer park. “Trailer trash jokes are still acceptable in polite circles where other prejudicial humor wouldn’t be considered funny,” says Paul Bradley, the president of New Hampshire’s ROC USA, a non-profit that helps residents buy their parks and turn them into co-ops.

This prejudice prevents us from seeing a modest but otherwise pleasant house. Travel-trailers evolved into mobile homes, which eventually lost their wheels and became manufactured housing. By any name, they are the largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the country. There are seven million manufactured homes housing 18 million people. In some counties they make up 60 percent of dwellings. Approximately one out of every 12 Floridians lives in a manufactured home. Units built since 1976, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development started regulating their construction, can last as long as site-built homes when they’re well built and maintained. Yet they cost far less: $41 per square foot versus $85 per square foot and up. At least one study, from the University of Illinois-Chicago, on trailer parks in Omaha, Nebraska, found that crime rates in mobile-home parks are the same as the rest of the community; the parks do not cause crime nearby; and that the parks appear to depress crime levels because residents own their homes. In one survey, nine out of 10 owners of manufactured homes said they were satisfied with their dwellings. They’ve found a housing option that suited their budget and needs.

Like a number of trailer parks, Pismo Dunes started as a camper park in the 1970s. Some of those campers stayed in place, and concrete blocks surrounded their wheels as they became layered with porches, awnings, sunrooms, and carports. Some have been replaced with new factory-built homes that resemble townhouses—but still have wheels hidden underneath, because Pismo Dunes is still technically an RV park. Though the homes have changed dramatically from the trailers they once were, the business model has not: Residents own their homes but not the land under them. If you want to buy here you can go through Louise (who has a license to sell RVs) or buy directly from the owner, but you can’t buy or sell using a realtor. Louise is advertising units that start at $6,500 (for an old camper) to $185,000 (for a nearly new, splashy vinyl-sided Chariot Eagle one-bedroom manufactured house with a loft). Everyone also pays rent to Louise’s employer, the park owner, of between $400 and $700 a month, depending on the space and how long they’ve occupied it. The homes are taxed as automobiles, and fees are paid to the DMV. The park still has community showers and bathrooms, a remnant of earlier days, but most folks use the ones in their homes. Residents can hobnob at a clubhouse that hosts games every night and serves lunch twice a week.

Pismo Beach’s residents are 36 percent seniors, a third of whom live in mobile-home parks. In 2010, a city survey found seniors in mobile homes spent a smaller percentage of their income on housing than renters or homeowners, even though their incomes were lower. The Department of Housing and Urban Development found that mobile-home dwellers “do substantially better,” nationally, than owners and renters at keeping housing costs below 30 percent of their income.

What surprises me is the wide range of incomes in the park—more than in subsidized housing, for example, or a retirement community. Little trailers nestle next to much more impressive house-like units with bay windows, fancy porches, and nice cars in the drive. Louise tells me that some residents of Pismo Dunes survive on less than $900 a month, while others have monthly incomes of $15,000. For half of the residents, this is their second home. This is not a fluke: Farmers Insurance surveyed seniors in mobile homes in 2012 and found that while 30 percent have assets under $25,000, 9 percent had more than $250,000 and some had more than $500,000. “When you consider we’re called trailer trash, it’s a joke,” says Louise. “I have very wealthy people here. They think it’s the coolest thing there is.” Lunches at the clubhouse are priced at $5 so that those who would never ask for help can bring home leftovers, those who are better off can put a little extra in the jar. One resident likens the diverse incomes and classes in the park to the old canard about nudist camps—everybody’s naked so you can’t see the differences. “In here we’re all equal. Some can hardly afford food. It’s all over the playing field. There’s no tension because some of the trailers are run-down. Who cares? It’s their home.”

Just before sunset, Louise and I make our way to the evening’s “therapy session” at Space 329, at the junction of the two biggest streets in the park, where Deenah and Ronnie Stockton have an elevated porch that allows them to see everyone coming and going. “Therapy” in these circles is meant as a joke, except it happens to be true. One of the longest-running studies of aging, conducted over a period of 34 years in Alameda County, California, found that among the predictors of healthy aging are: not smoking, moderate drinking, having five or more friends, avoiding depression, and walking for exercise. Older people who do two out of the three last activities (friends, avoiding depression, and walking) are more likely to spend their next six years in a sort of golden old age, without becoming dependent upon others—or, god forbid, nursing homes—for the basics of daily living. In other words, sitting on the porch, drinking and yakking, is exactly what the doctor suggests. (It’s also good for all that residents can drink without driving.)

Most places in America make it hard to grow old. Older people in neighborhoods with high crime, lots of traffic, and poor lighting have been found to “lose functioning” (in other words, need nursing homes) earlier than those who live where they can walk. Those who live in the suburbs lose their social networks when they stop driving and become isolated. Loneliness is a killer: Over a six-year period, lonely seniors are 45 percent more likely to die and 59 percent more likely to decline than those who aren’t lonely, according to a University of California-San Francisco study. Pismo provides no formal services to elders, no healthcare, no exercise room. To the extent there’s a safety net here, it’s made by residents themselves.

We don’t do a great job of stitching people together through families or institutions in the United States, and that shows up in how we treat elders. UC Berkeley social welfare professor Andrew Scharlach, who is studying how to create communities as people age at home, says that in the U.S. aging is seen as an “individual problem,” rather than a societal one. He tells me that in this country, a third of elderly people who are disabled don’t have adequate help dressing, but in Sweden, where policies and communities are more integrated, less than 5 percent lack such basic care. Scharlach says American negligence is an embarrassment: “Swedes look at me like, What’s wrong with you people?” Pismodise—a for-profit, down-market entity without a professional staff—pretty much organically fills some of the smaller holes in the American system.

I don’t have any hard numbers on aging in the Pismo Dunes, or even more than a dozen interviews over a couple of two-day-long visits, but I can say that sitting on Deenah and Ronnie’s porch, drinking rosé, I felt better about getting old. I wanted to find out more about what made the place tick. What made this miniature trailer park more than just a cheap and funky place to live, more than a nice environment to push a walker? Everyone asked if I’d talked to Charlie and Margaret.

Charlie Henson started coming to the park for vacations with his wife in the 1970s. He moved in full time after he retired in 1985 from maintenance work at a refinery in Taft, California. In his sunroom, a stuffed panda sits under a painting of an oil derrick. He’s been fixing something with a cold chisel, which he’s left on the kitchen table. Charlie is active on the residents’ committee, cajoling management to improve the park. He makes the rounds, checking on people. (He’s found several people who had passed away in their homes.) And residents check on him. When his wife was ill with cancer, neighbors dropped by all the time. In the mornings Charlie likes to dance to Nat King Cole, with a broom. One morning his neighbors knocked, making sure he was okay. “Since we’ve been here all these years we help each other.” Even with inevitable tensions in the park, he says, hardly anyone locks their doors.

Margaret Julkowski walks in, tallish and luminous in Charlie’s dark house. Margaret and Charlie fell in love a year ago, and they still glow. Margaret was a social worker in California’s Central Valley. She moved to the park five years ago with her husband, who died six months later. “People were good to me even though they didn’t know me,” she says. One woman convinced her to come to clubhouse, where she played cards with Charlie and his wife. When Charlie’s wife passed away, he and Margaret started taking sandwiches out to where they could look at the ocean. They told me they were amazed to find out they were in love. And then word traveled fast. Residents gossiped that they’d seen Charlie kiss Margaret good night. “It’s a small Peyton Place,” Margaret says. In her golf cart, she whispers to me that now she kisses Charlie anytime she wants to.

Gossip is the currency of the kind of community that doesn’t form on Facebook. Here people watch each other, and they know they’re being watched: bad behavior is noted, people who “do the right thing” are admired. Pismo Dunes, with its little streets, is a virtuous circle where you can bank social capital. Margaret has a serious respiratory condition, and she’d ended up in the hospital for weeks at a time. Her daughter had qualms about letting Margaret move back to the park, but when she saw the parade of visitors, some carrying food, she realized Margaret was likely in the best hands here.

And another thing that unites Pismodise is death. Outside, dying is essentially a taboo topic. Here, people bring it up, in one way or another, every 15 minutes. Margaret and Charlie shared the deaths of their spouses, as well as their current lives. I’ve never been in such a vibrant, deathy place. “We’re living to the fullest because we know mortality is close,” Margaret tells me.

When Portland State University professor Andrée Tremoulet held focus groups with seniors in mobile-home parks, she was surprised that so many said they’d do it all over again. In a paper published in the Journal of Housing for the Elderly, Tremoulet speculates that mobile-home parks can, for some seniors, do a better job of meeting needs than more traditional arrangements in apartment buildings or in the suburbs. The design of the community allows seniors to own and modify their homes, have dogs, and putter around with hobbies like gardening in a way they couldn’t in an apartment building. Meanwhile, because parks have boundaries and streets, they function a bit like a gated community, where residents feel safe and have an easier time making friends than in either an apartment or a suburb. Mobile-home parks give residents a lot of control over their desire to be alone or to be social, Tremoulet found.

But buyer beware, all is not right in the mobile-home park: Residents have to contend with a parallel world of second-class legal rights and financing that needs to be changed before manufactured homes are a really good investment. The legal problems start with the parks themselves. Because most residents own their homes but not the land under them, they have the rights of neither renters nor homeowners. Rent control is rare in mobile-home parks. (Pismo Dunes’ owner managed to fight rent control in 2002 because of the park’s designation as an RV park.) But residents don’t really have the ability to move if landlords raise rents because moving a full-size manufactured home can cost as much as $25,000. Sometimes park owners can raise rates indiscriminately and even take over homes or sell the land under the park for another purpose. “A park in the hands of the wrong owner can be milked for income. The power is primarily in the hands of the landowner,” Tremoulet says.

The financial system, meanwhile, treats manufactured homes more like cars than houses—which means they depreciate like cars rather than gaining value the way houses do. New manufactured homes are sold by dealers on lots, similar to cars, with similar high-pressure sales tactics. In most states, buyers can’t get a real-estate mortgage for a mobile home. Rather, they have to get a personal loan for “chattel,” with higher interest rates than a mortgage’s. Even though manufactured homes last as long as conventional site-built houses, they start losing value as soon as the buyer moves in. Likewise, in some areas, manufactured homes have been excluded from projects that weatherize low-income homes. (Some homes at Pismo Dunes, however, have received government assistance for weatherizing and disability access.) Insurance can also be a struggle; in hurricane-prone areas like Florida it is impossible to insure some mobile homes.
 

The U.S. has an impressive crowd of people working to provide affordable housing through infrastructure bonds, HUD loans, and IRS tax credits. Ironically, a lot of effort and money are put into federally-funded programs that have created a few hundred thousand units, while manufactured homes provide housing to almost three million seniors. “The problem is there’s a huge stigma,” says Rodney Harrell, a senior strategic policy advisor for AARP. “As a housing person myself, I had to learn a lot to appreciate that manufactured homes could be a good choice.” The image of the trailer as a rusting hulk, a blight on the landscape, and a scam-laden investment aimed at poor people make activists and policy makers shy away from changing the very policies that could make it a better investment. Tremoulet thinks some of the prejudice is the result of HUD incentives themselves, which offer carrots to builders of low-income housing but not of manufactured housing. And then there are the residents, often stereotyped as blue-collar whites, who may be “less interesting” to foundations and non-profits looking to help marginalized communities like the homeless, Tremoulet says. “The whole culture has a spiraling effect,” says Harrell, which perpetuates a cycle of bad policies.

Harrell believes that if policies were dramatically changed, manufactured-home parks could offer low-cost housing while serving as hubs that provide health care, recreation, and other services. “But getting over that stigma is step one—before the policies and the financing can change, you have to convince policy makers that there’s something good there.”

As I got off the phone with Harrell, it crossed my mind that, as Mayberry RFD was to small towns in the ’60s, Pismo Dunes Senior Park is to mobile-home parks. Call it Mayberry NORC if you like—Louise and her staff may be closer to the mythically benevolent Sheriff Andy Taylor than the usual park managers and staff. And the diminutive size of its RV-derived manufactured homes, and its sunny California beach location just add to its charmed air. The owners of Pismo Dunes, who have kept the park in their family for more than a generation, seem to be in no hurry to cash out, which is the opposite of the national trend. Pismo Dunes is the mobile-home park as it could be.

Lisa Margonelli is a contributing editor at Pacific Standard and writes frequently on energy and the environment. Excerpted from Pacific Standard (May/June 2013), a bimonthly magazine that provides a unique perspective and insight into the political and economic forces defining the world today.