In which the poor get poorer and lose their property rights
'Drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, and you never know what you'll find.' So goes James Carville's famously snooty dismissal of Paula Jones -- not to mention the roughly 19 million Americans who live in mobile homes. These folks have long been seen as the low end of the American class system (think stereotypes of mullets and beer-can chicken), but according to journalist Elizabeth Austin, that's nothing compared to their second-class status in the legal system.
Because many mobile home owners rent the land underneath them, their homes are legally defined as personal property instead of real estate, Austin writes in Legal Affairs (July/Aug. 2005). This means that they're not 'afforded anywhere near the protection that local, state, and federal laws provide to . . . 'dirt-bound' neighbors.' Interest rates are much higher (the majority of mobile homes are purchased not with conventional mortgages but with 'chattel loans' commonly used to finance cars and furniture), and in many instances, mobile home owners are not entitled to homestead protection.
What does all this mean? That if you don't own the land your mobile home sits on (and only about half of all residents do), you're out of luck.
'In many states,' Austin writes, 'a mobile home is legally the same as, say, Malibu Barbie's Dream House.'
Recent reports, however, indicate that land ownership is on the rise, as is a heartening trend toward owner-run cooperatives. Perhaps one day soon, Austin hints, it will be as unseemly to slag mobile home owners as it is to mock other disadvantaged groups: 'Imagine the public outcry if Carville had said 'housing project' instead of 'trailer park.''