When scholars Sonya Salamon and Katherine MacTavish set out to examine life in rural American trailer parks, they decided to focus on the young families who lived there. They also wanted to describe a spectrum of places in terms of park quality. For their book, Singlewide: Chasing the American Dream in a Rural Trailer Park (Cornell University Press, 2017), they studied families with school-aged children in three areas where trailer parks proliferate: eastern North Carolina, central Illinois, and southern New Mexico. For privacy purposes, all the book’s references to people and places, including cities and trailer-park names, are pseudonyms, but the book realistically portrays trailer living in each unique area chosen by the authors.
One of the economic markers in these parks is the presence or absence of doublewide units, which cost at least twice as much as singlewides. In Illinois’ Prairieview Manor, 38 percent of residents live in doublewides. By contrast, none of the lots in the trailer parks of the town the authors call Mesa Vista, located south of Albuquerque along the Río Grande, are large enough to accommodate a doublewide. And as one of the resident park managers said, “If you can buy a doublewide, you can usually afford a piece of land to put it on.”
The book’s title, and a pivot for the study, is the notion that owning a home on your own piece of land is an important value in the United States. The citizens studied by Salamon and MacTavish all appeared to believe that life would be better in a “real” house. In a recent interview, Salamon said, “We do make a policy argument in the conclusion that this is really good low-income housing. It can be better than putting people in rural apartment buildings. We do see it as a good option, but they’re often not well built.” A Consumers Union survey showed that one-fourth of mobile-home owners had particle-board subfloors that swelled when wet and about one-third had leaky sinks, showers, windows, doors, or roofs.
The fundamental point explored by the authors, as they put it in their introduction, titled “Galvanized Ghettos,” is “whether trailer parks are a good, or at least neutral, place to raise families.” New Mexico’s Mesa Vista is a place with more than a dozen trailer parks. A short profile is given of Darlene, a resident of Tumbleweed, which is one of the nicer parks, with a small children’s play area and mature cottonwood trees shading the trailers. She has two kids, works at a fast-food restaurant, and gets help from her brothers to keep her vehicle running because her husband, a trucker, is usually on the road. At the other end of the quality gamut is Sandia Estates, where all the trailer-park stereotypes seem to be validated: “A dirty young child dressed only in a diaper wanders unsupervised, a shirtless man works beneath the hood of a truck with no wheels, a mangy stray dog roams the streets in search of scraps, and a toothless woman sits on her back steps smoking an afternoon cigarette.”
The field studies for Singlewide were made between 1998 and 2001. To immerse themselves in each distinctive milieu, the researchers shopped locally, ate in the restaurants, attended sports events and church activities, and subscribed to the local newspapers. For the Mesa Vista profile, they surveyed 79 (randomly selected) households and did more intimate studies of 10 families.
According to 2000 census data, New Mexico has the second highest proportion of manufactured homes to the overall housing supply. At 18.6 percent, it’s outranked only by South Carolina. In the Mesa Vista parks, 60 percent of the trailers are occupied by families, and two-thirds of the households are primarily Hispanic. Many of the Anglo residents there had migrated from California and the Midwest, in the latter case because of the milder climate in southern New Mexico. At the time of the study, the median income was $17,355. Looking at education, 23 percent of the owners had not graduated from high school, but 14 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Interestingly, the “trailer trash” epithet was raised only a few times during the study in Mesa Vista,and in fact, class distinction based on economics did not appear to be crucial. MacTavish and Salamon said status “is more about claims to community than about being a have or a have-not.”
During the yearlong study periods in the three U.S. locations, just one family from each location made the move from trailer to houses on owned land. The one from Mesa Vista was Ruby Martinez-Roberts, a Hispanic divorcee in her thirties. When MacTavish first visited her, she found a “well-designed singlewide trailer [owned by Ruby] with a large, cheerful kitchen.” The researcher discovered that Ruby had kin living nearby. That meant a source of support but also annoyance: “My family is nosy and dominating,” Martinez-Roberts said. During the study, Ruby met an acquaintance of her brother who had a good job in a neighboring state. The two were subsequently married and moved into a conventional home. The authors emphasize that this was a marriage based not on love, but on Ruby’s pragmatic plans for more stability and a house that would offer her kids more space, more solitude, and less “adventuring,” as she described trailer life. “They’re still married and they’re still in their home,” MacTavish said in late March.
MacTavish is a fourth-generation New Mexican from Magdalena in Socorro County who earned her doctorate in human and community development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Salamon taught for more than four decades. A Pittsburgh native, Salamon and her husband have had a second home in Santa Fe since 1990, but have been full-time residents of the city since 2013. She is the author of Prairie Patrimony: Family, Farming, and Community in the Midwest (1992) and Newcomers to Old Towns: Suburbanization of the Heartland (2003). “Sonya was my major professor for my PhD. I chose that school in large part because I wanted to study with her,” said MacTavish, who is associate professor of human development and family science at Oregon State University and lives in Corvallis.
In their book, MacTavish and Salamon say that Ruby and the two others who evolved out of the mobile-home situation had some significant commonalities. All were high-school graduates with some higher education or skill training; all had at least one partner in a stable full-time job; all had firm plans — not just fantasies — about transitioning into a conventional home; and none were overwhelmed with debt. “The three families understand James Baldwin’s memorable observation about the struggle ‘with how extremely expensive it is to be poor,’ ” they write in the conclusion, “Family Dreams and Trailer-Park Realities.”
Park residents’ expenses typically included high-interest-rate “chattel loans” for their trailers and for rent prices “that essentially make families, as Baldwin said, a captive population.” The authors said the residents they surveyed all held the dream of being able to move into a regular house on their own land, and saw trailer living as a stepping stone. “I think the key was finding someone in the community to mentor them,” Salamon said. “That could be a minister, or we had one that got involved with a middle-class family.” However, on this matter of moving, the authors make this point: “Each family was strongly motivated by their rejection of living permanently in a trailer park rather than by rejection of a trailer as housing per se.”
One of the four questions explored in the book is, “Are there lasting effects to family and child identity that come from living in a trailer park?” “That was mixed,” Salamon said. “We thought it had the most impact in the whites and not in the minority populations. The Hispanics in the Mesa Vista parks and the blacks in North Carolina were so attached to the community with church.” MacTavish, who once lived in an Oregon trailer park, added, “Ironically, when people owned the land, which we think of as one of the policy solutions, that gave them more freedoms that not everyone appreciated: the chicken coop and the several vehicles that don’t run, for example.”
The second question was, “Does owning a trailer home in a trailer park pay off as the first rung on a housing-tenure ladder for rural families?” The answer is a qualified yes: just three out of 248 families made the move during the study year. A big part of the problem — part of the trap — is the financial fix in which trailer folks find themselves. No one is immune from the impacts of their own decisions, but predatory business practices are definitely at play here. Salamon often refers to the “Mobile Home Industrial Complex.” “That was coined by my husband, who’s a physicist,” she said. “The largest manufacturers, financers, and trailer park owners are interlinked and some are vertically integrated [co-owned].”
In the chapter titled “The Mobile Home Industrial Complex,” the authors examine manufacturers, dealers, and financers, trailer parks that are operated as a real-estate commodity, and the industrialization of trailer-park investment and management. “Look at Clayton Homes, the biggest producer of mobile homes. They sell them and I think they have trailer parks, too,” Salamon said. “It’s part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway company.” Clayton Homes also sells property insurance on its mobile homes, and repossesses them when borrrowers are in arrears, according to the results of a joint investigation by The Center for Public Integrity and The Seattle Times. The findings, released in 2015, said Clayton Homes “operates under at least 18 names, leading many buyers to think they’re shopping around.” In addition, the investigation found that “Clayton Homes lends at interest rates that can top 15 percent, and often adds thousands in fees to borrowers’ loans.”
“Does living in a rural trailer park affect a family’s sense of belonging to their immediate neighborhood or the nearby community?” On that third question posed in the study, MacTavish said about the New Mexico trailer parks, “We were really struck that they were strongly part of the community. Part of that, we thought, is that there was only the one church, the Catholic church, so they weren’t divided.” That underlines their point about the critical importance of social structure.
The final question was, “Does a rural trailer park have the power to define the life chances of the children and youth who grow up there?” On the surface, the question has disappointing implications, but there is a rainbow visible in their first profile snippet in the book: a twenty-year-old single mother named Amy whose purchase of a new trailer home was a dramatic step in providing a stable environment for her daughters. “Trailer parks for many of those parents were a much more stable existence than what they had themselves experienced,” Salamon said. “They were able to step away from the alcohol and drug addiction, the high mobility, and the hard living to give their kids a different kind of launching place.” ◀