Troubled times for some modest American dreams

Beneath a canopy of conifers, about 40 weather-beaten mobile homes arranged at odd angles along narrow paths make up Beulah in the Pines, a village on wheels that has rolled well past its glory days.

Despite its lack of outward charms – it was built on top of a dump back in 1975 – this park, landscaped with bent TV antennas and dilapidated cars, is home to a diverse community. An accountant lives here, as does a professional wrestler. There are stay-at-home moms and retired people, mostly black, but also white and Hispanic.

But now, these homes are slated to be towed out by force. Citing it as a "nuisance neighborhood" because of two murders and cases of drug-dealing, the sheriff is moving to shut the whole place down.

The showdown at this Johnston County outpost is a surprisingly common one. From Maryland to Iowa, trailer parks are being scrapped to drive out crime or make room for a new development. In fact, the rooting out of old mobile-home parks is only accelerating as the nation's mobile-home stock ages (not always as gracefully as "stick-built" homes) – and profitable redevelopment beckons to landowners.

"This is happening to people all over the country, almost everyday: their American dream, gone into the dust," says Clarence Cook, the director of the National Mobile Home Owners Association in Shelby Township, Mich.

Three recent examples:

• In March, the last of 450 residents of an Atlanta trailer park moved out after being given notice last summer.

• In Pittsburgh, 16 families in the Mifflin Road Mobile Home Park face eviction by late April despite the fact that some residents are the owners of their trailers. The park's owner, who bought the land in 2000, aims to sell the land to the city at a profit.

• In Saginaw, Ore., 100 residents of Saginaw Mobile Home Park have until May 20 to move due to safety and sanitation concerns cited by Lane County officials.

Some say that what's happening in these parks illustrates a pervasive gap in protections for a stratum of society that some privately dismiss as "trailer-park trash." Though 16 states have special laws to guard mobile-home owners, most of the 17 million American homeowners who live in mobile-home parks have fewer housing rights than even the lowly apartment dweller.

Barred from home equity loans to raise emergency cash for moving, often lacking basic leases, and locked out of most newer parks, thousands of Americans are said to have already had to abandon their older mobile homes – or have been forced to sell them at a loss.

"Every time, homeowners are the ones that lose out," says Terry Nelson, a housing activist from Des Plaines, Ill., who has advised on behalf of victims in some 200 eviction cases across the country. "The landlord takes the money, doesn't keep code, waits until the [municipality] closes it down, rezones it, and sells the land for a profit. That's the cycle we're finding all over the country."

For many, affordable housing

An outgrowth of the popular camping trailers of the 1950s, mobile homes evolved into the new American ranchette in the 1960s. They sold briskly through the 1970s until new home sales reached a peak in 1995.

But as Americans have changed and expanded their use, most laws still treat mobile home parks as though they were campgrounds, with lots of rules and no leases. Now, many towns and developers are interested in replacing old parks with today's newer- model trailers, which tend to look more like regular homes.

"Trailer parks are now being called manufactured home communities," says Judy Smith, director of the Modular Building Institute in Charlottesville, Va. "There's not a difference: They're all on a chassis. But now they're putting them on solid foundations and making them look like a community.

Those in the industry say few homeowners actually are forced out of their homes. Most people, they say, find a way to recover, sometimes with the help of local welfare agencies. Older homes can be also be traded in like cars, and it's fairly easy for past mobile-home owners to find a mortgage for a new one.

"The older mobile homes, that's something that will be a problem, just like in any city where you get to the point where houses are falling to pieces and neighborhoods have gone down, and somebody comes in to rebuild – there's some social fallout from that," says Kami Watson, a spokesperson for the Manufactured Home Institute, a trade group in Alexandria, Va.

Lawmakers step in

Still, more and more lawmakers are looking to further protect these homeowners. Running for governor of Michigan, House minority whip David Bonior just became the first national figure to put "home-equity rights" for mobile-home owners in his campaign platform.

In Florida, California, and New Hampshire – where senior citizens (about one-third of the country's mobile-home-park population) have lots of political clout – there are stronger laws. New Hampshire has "fair displacement" laws mandating that landlords have to assess moving costs for all residents, and include those costs in the asking price for the property.

Here in Johnston County, two murders led the sheriff to threaten closure. In each case, the victims knew their attackers, who were not residents of the park.

Some see the sheriff's threat as election-year hubris. But only last year, a park in a nearby county was evacuated over a similar "nuisance" argument.

"The sad thing is that these are communities like anywhere else, where people own their homes, and where some people have lived for 20 or 30 years, and where there are lots of retired people on fixed incomes," says Laylon Boykin, a neighbor of the Beulah in the Pines park.

Lawrence Allen, a retiree in the park, has a tough time moving himself around, and, like others here, says he can't afford to move.

"I like it here," he whispers hoarsely. "I do want to stay."

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