Life in a trailer park, Florida circa 1930-45
Life in a trailer park, Florida circa 1930-45 (source: Massachests collections online)

While we think of US trailer parks as populated exclusively by white trash and criminals (how many TV bad guys live in trailers?), that’s a long way from the reality. Around 18 million Americans live in trailer parks, known more respectably as manufactured housing parks. That’s 6% of the population; it’s roughly the same as the proportion of Australians living in public housing.

I’ve been reading some fascinating material on the manufactured homes phenomenon in the US: The case for trailer parks by Alanah Semuels; How the trailer park could save us all by Lisa Margonelli; and Reclaiming “redneck” urbanism: what urban planners can learn from trailer parks by Nolan Gray.

These writers make the point that trailer parks provide the largest source of unsubsidised affordable housing for households of modest means or on low incomes in the US.

“The manufactured home is probably the most cost-effective way to provide quality affordable housing,” said Donna M. Blaze, the CEO of the Affordable Housing Alliance, which helped provide manufactured homes for Sandy refugees. “Most of our new units are light years ahead of the apartments for rent in today’s market.”

The key reason so many Americans choose to live in trailer parks is they’re remarkably low-cost, requiring an all-up outlay on trailer and park site of between $300-$1,000 per month. They have other benefits too. They have an effective governance mechanism for managing services, facilities and relationships between residents; and they promote social interaction more effectively than other housing forms.

Manufacturers of homes have made advances in sustainability, but Nolan Gray goes further; he argues trailer parks have some of the characteristics promoted by new urbanists. The relatively liberal land use regulations applicable to parks – narrow streets, small lot sizes, modest minimum parking requirements, and small setbacks – yield remarkably high population densities.

He cites an estimate from the New World Economics blog:

If you had 70% home plots/15% roads/15% shared amenities like parks and squares, 1000 sf plots, and 2.5 people per household, that works out to population density of 46,000 people per square mile — with one or two story construction! At this level of density, compared to about 9,000/mile for the denser Los Angeles suburb, you could easily have a lot of neat commercial stuff (bars, restaurants, shops, schools, etc.) within walking distance.

That’s around 180 persons per hectare. By way of comparison, new fringe suburban developments in Melbourne are around 16 persons per hectare and the NSW government says its new Waterloo redevelopment will be 220 persons per hectare (see Is “denser than Singapore” too dense for Sydney?). Even if his assumptions are rough and ready, it’s evident parks have many of the characteristics – like walkability and density – sought after by new urbanists.

The other side of the coin is trailer parks come with downsides too. Of course, that’s a key reason why they’re low-cost. The major negatives are a lower level of privacy and limited private indoor and outdoor space compared to detached houses (but not apartments). It’s also inevitable that some operators will be unscrupulous. That’s important because while some residents own their manufactured house, they mostly rent the site from the park manager. Another issue is finance to purchase a manufactured home – like any vehicle, it depreciates – is expensive.

But for a small but significant section of the population, the trade-offs inherent in trailer park living are worthwhile; the benefits exceed the costs. When they retired, my parents lived for a year in a caravan park on the Sunshine Coast while they sorted out their housing requirements and were very happy with it. They especially liked the sociability that well-managed parks seem to promote and sustain.

The broader issue thrown up by this discussion is the relationship between standards and costs. There’s a long history of authorities imposing minimum standards that increase costs and reduce options for those with the least resources. Nolan Gray:

Any discussion of trailer parks should start with the fact that most forms of low-income housing have been criminalized in nearly every major US city. Beginning in the 1920s, urban policymakers and planners started banning what they deemed as low-quality housing, including boarding houses, residential hotels, and low-quality apartments… In light of the United States’ century-long war on low-income housing, it’s something of a miracle that trailer parks survive.

This is a vexed issue. Unless it’s subsidised, housing is only low cost because it has disadvantages; it’s either in a location marked down by the market or the dwellings themselves have undesirable attributes. Legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs knew this; she argued that cities need to have a diversity of buildings, especially old ones that offer cheap rent for residents and businesses at the expense of lower standards.

Here in Australia, policy-makers are nevertheless quick to impose regulations to ensure all housing meets broader social objectives like sustainability, or is of a “decent standard”. These often increase housing costs, but they don’t cut those on low incomes much slack in relation to the former, and they frame the latter as a necessary and humane action: “nobody should have to live like that”.

These are understandable and laudable impulses, but in the case of low income housing they’ll only be equitable if any impact on affordability is offset by increased public funding. If it isn’t, those who’re meant to benefit from the tighter regulations might be worse off. Naturally, no one asks them if they’d be happier with a better dwelling that they can’t actually afford to live in!

Above all else, providing housing for low income Australians needs a massive increase in government funding. That’s an important objective that must continue to be pursued, but it’s not going to happen any time soon. What we can more plausibly do is take a positive and flexible approach to alternative housing options that acknowledge having a home is almost always better than having nothing.

There’s inevitably a slippery-slope argument that those with the least resources will end up living in dogboxes. We need a well-informed debate about where the line on minimum standards that genuinely promote the well-being of residents – after taking into account the impact on affordability – should be drawn.