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Mobile homes are essential alternative

TIM ASHE , - September 14, 2006

You often hear it ? home ownership is a badge of social respectability and long-term rental housing is akin to throwing money out the window. But when you begin your housing search, you quickly learn that many options are out from the start.

A new home would be ideal, you think to yourself. But your household income is $45,700, the state median, which would support the purchase of a $124,000 home, and the median price of a newly constructed home is a whopping $245,900. Maybe an existing home would be a better fit. Unfortunately, like 73 percent of Vermont households, your household income is less than the $65,000 it takes to purchase an existing home at the 2005 median price of $182,000.

OK, maybe you'll rent for a while and save up to buy a home. But like 155,000 other Vermonters, you work a job that pays less than the $13.90 an hour needed to afford the 2005 fair market rent of $723 a month for a two-bedroom.

You've just taken a journey 50,000 Vermonters took before you. They are the 50,000 Vermonters living in manufactured housing.

In Rutland County alone, there are 28 mobile home parks, home to 444 households.

We've all heard stereotypes about mobile homes and mobile home parks. You know, about the concentrations of jobless poor people living in dilapidated homes with poorly maintained yards and common areas. (Anyone who's been to Haven Meadows in Fair Haven knows that, in fact, many parks are beautiful neighborhoods).

What are the people like who live in Vermont's mobile home community? It may come as a surprise, but they are not so different than any other group of Vermonters. They are young families and retirees, school kids and nurses, carpenters and teachers' aides. But most significantly, they are workers.

Take a midday visit to any Vermont mobile home park and you'll notice something missing. The people. Why? Because they're at work. Unlike residents in any of Vermont's burgeoning starter castle developments, mobile home residents are dependent upon a day job to make ends meet.

In an ideal world, would everyone have the option to be in a starter castle over a mobile home? Sure. The economic reality, though, is that conventional home ownership is out of reach for a significant slice of the Vermont work force, leaving manufactured housing as the attainable first rung on the homeownership ladder.

This is not to say mobile home residents do not face some very significant challenges, because they do.

Perhaps foremost among them is the lack of affordable mortgage financing. In mobile home parks, particularly privately owned parks, interest rates between 10 and 15 percent are the norm. Rates for mobile homes on privately owned land are better than in parks but still pale in comparison to stick-built homes.

Second, Vermont's 250 mobile home parks are similar to Vermont's bridges. Many of them are nearly 50 years old, so their infrastructure (water, septic, roads) needs major rehabilitation. Park owners are often reluctant to reinvest rent payments into upkeep of their parks, and those who are so inclined rarely have the capital necessary to get the work done.

Finally, despite state laws prohibiting municipal discrimination against mobile homes, some municipal leaders take a hostile approach to mobile homes in their communities. For example, at a November meeting of the Stowe Planning Commission, one member stated: "I don't see a mobile home park anywhere in Stowe and, frankly, I think that we should make it as hard as possible. It just doesn't fit." Just imagine the message that sent to residents of Stowe's two mobile home parks.

Vermonters must recognize the important role mobile homes play in bringing homeownership to many working families, and take positive steps to improve the status of mobile home residents in their communities. Those steps include:

  • Working with state representatives and senators to expand access to low-interest mortgage financing, thus reducing mobile homeowners' need to resort to subprime lending.

  • Seeking an increase in state grant and loan funds to repair broken mobile home park infrastructure.

  • Convening stakeholder task forces to address housing challenges specific to low- and moderate-income families.

    If our society is willing to tolerate the ever-widening income gap, and to allow wages at the lower end to remain flat and even lose ground, then the least we can do is fortify the first rung on the homeownership ladder.

    Tim Ashe is mobile home project director for the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity in Burlington.

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