Fall Real Estate 2004

Publication Date: Friday, October 1, 2004

A reasonable alternative
Mobile-home living offers a culture unto itself

by Avital Binshtock

A mention of Silicon Valley is likely to conjure images of posh mansions, digital millionaires and venture capital to spare. While these stereotypes may be true of some neighborhoods (Atherton and Portola Valley jump to mind), the valley has a largely unseen side.

For people in the service industries, retired folk who did not happen to start a company, even teachers, mobile-home parks offer suitable lifestyles and tight-knit communities.

According to Affordable Residential Communities Inc., one of the nation's foremost developers of inexpensive housing, some 22 million Americans live in mobile homes and trailers. Redwood City has eight such parks; Mountain View and Sunnyvale both have seven; Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Belmont each have one.

Diana Johnson, a retired accountant and a 20-year resident of Redwood City's Harbor Village Mobile Home Park, has always been pleased with her living situation. According to her, trailer park folk are extremely protective of each other. Johnson always feels safe leaving home because she knows her neighbors will watch over her property.

She added that hers is a "very diverse" community, as are most of California's trailer parks. Harbor Village has its share of Latinos, Asians, blacks and whites. About half of its residents are retired, while young families comprise most of the other half. Though only 290 of Harbor Village's 304 lots were occupied at press time, Johnson reports that vacancies are not an urgent issue.

Generally, trailer park residents buy a trailer before settling on a park. Trailers run from $10,000 for a one-bedroom used home to approximately $200,000 for a new multiple-bedroom structure. In addition, tenants pay a monthly rent for their lot (though some parks offer the option of buying the land underneath a home). In the Bay Area, trailer park rent usually runs about $400 to $600. Most tenants also have to pay for utilities such as heat and water.

Local mobile park home options

Chuck Barnes, the manager of Sunset Estates, a mobile-home park in Mountain View, maintains the park, enforces the park owner's rules and helps solve resident problems such as electric breakdowns. Essentially, he is the middleman between the park owner and its residents. Barnes (who is also a resident of Sunset Estates) said of his job, "It's like being the city manager of a small city."
Sunset Estates boasts a clubhouse and an active social committee that coordinates activities such as holiday dinners, waffle breakfasts, bake sales and live entertainment. The park also has a heated swimming pool, saunas, a car wash, and as Barnes put it, "a real old-fashioned clothes-drying yard."
The minimum age to live in Sunset Estates is 55, so the place is relatively quiet most of the time. "At times we do have a waiting list, but it doesn't last long because we're a senior community and there's some transition," Barnes said.
In July, none of Sunset Estates' 144 lots were vacant and several of them were occupied by units as large as 2,000 square feet (though the average home size in Sunset Estates is 1,400 square feet).

As Barnes explained, "We have upscale as well as modest homes." Of late, mobile homes have started to incorporate more luxurious features such as Jacuzzis, custom kitchens, even garages. In fact, the terms "mobile home" and "trailer home" have almost become misnomers. Many units that would have once been constructed with mobility in mind are now built to be permanent, with nary a trailer hook. As a result of this recent trend, many communities that were once called trailer parks are now euphemistically referred to as "manufactured home communities."

A manufactured home, then, is usually a home meant to stay put. At Sunset Estates, about 40 percent of the lots are occupied by manufactured homes, while the other 60 percent have bona fide mobile homes.

Though manufactured homes are usually more expensive than mobile homes, they can save owners money in the long term. For example, manufactured homes have insulation, so they cost less to keep warm. (For a manufactured home, heat costs about $40 per month, while a traditional mobile home costs approximately $150 per month to heat.)

According to Johnson, living in a mobile-home park is more of a commitment than living in an apartment, because it involves owning property in addition to paying rent.

Harbor Village's Johnson is a regional manager of the Golden State Manufactured-Home Owners League, a San Jose-based advocacy organization. She accepted the position 10 years ago and has not relinquished it since. "The goal," Johnson said of GSMOL, "is lobbying Sacramento for laws to protect residents that live in mobile homes."

Johnson acts on behalf of those having problems with managers, educates tenants about relevant laws (such as the one that mandates that managers must respond to tenants' letters within 30 days of receipt) and gives mobile-home residents administrative tips (one of her best: create a solid paper trail when filing complaints). In addition, she and other members of GSMOL wage battle against rising rents.

Redwood City does not have rent ordinances, which means that park owners are not restricted in terms of how often or high they can raise rent. Most parks do not have internal rent-control policies, either.

"You hear a little grumbling from those on fixed incomes when the rent rises, but the owner is very conscious with any raises," Barnes said. He estimates that rent at Sunset Estates rises approximately 3 percent yearly, depending on cost-of-living indexes.

Although the lack of rent control, the cost of purchasing and renting and occasional quibbles with managers are undeniable drawbacks to mobile-home life, many residents believe the positives outweigh the negatives.

Barnes, like Johnson, agrees that "there's a great social awareness in our community. It's so cohesive." Despite the stereotype that would have people believe that trailer park residents are mostly poor white folk, Johnson said the people in her community are from "all walks of life," including the animal kingdom. (Harbor Village, like many parks, is pet-friendly. Residents are permitted one cat or dog under 20 pounds.)

As diverse and kindred as any other neighborhood, the distinct culture that exists in mobile home communities makes them a viable living option.