|Fall Real Estate 2004
Publication Date: Friday, October 1, 2004
A reasonable alternative
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
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.
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
the park owner and its residents. Barnes (who is also a resident of
said of his job, "It's like being the city manager of a small
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
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
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
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
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