Double-wide trouble for mobile-home owners

The Wonderland Estates mobile home park in Renton, Wash.

KAI RYSSDAL: Consider just for a second the mobile home park. Depending on who you talk to, they're either icons or eyesores. But either way, these double-wide slices of the American dream might soon be nothing more than historical footnotes.

Rising land values are putting the squeeze on trailer parks. In Washington State, so many have closed it's turned into a full-blown housing crisis. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports.


SAM EATON: Follow Seattle's old highway 99 out of the city and a patch of green eventually breaks up the rows of car dealerships, Home Depots and fast-food chains.

This small, wooded trailer park is where 63-year-old Karen Mason, a double amputee, planned on spending the rest of her life.

KAREN MASON: I'm happy here. It's light, bright. I get around easily. I take care of me and two little cats that have been in my life for a long time.

Five years ago, Mason paid $80,000 for her home. Now, her only remaining asset has become a liability. She owns the home, but not the land. And the owner of that land has decided to turn it into a BMW dealership.

Mason and the other tenants of Evergreen Estates now have to pay to remove their mobile homes. Mobile is a bit of a misnomer — it can cost up to $16,000 to move these units. They don't have wheels, and are hooked up to utilities like any other house. Half the time, the only place to move them is to the dump.

MASON: Who can afford that in their heart? To stand back and watch the home you invested in being demo . . . and then to being handed a bill for it?

Usually, the state's relocation fund would have picked up the bill. But the pace of park closures in Washington has snowballed in recent years, quickly draining the fund.

That leaves Karen Mason, and the residents of 20 other mobile home parks scheduled to close this year, pretty much on their own.

MASON: I don't easily get defeated. I don't know where to go at this point.

For the poorest, there aren't many options. Few of the remaining mobile home parks have free space. And there's a one to three-year wait for subsidized housing.

ISHBEL DICKENS: We are definitely in crisis mode in Washington State.

Seattle attorney Ishbel Dickens is working with the evicted residents. She says mobile homes, which she prefers to call manufactured homes, are an essential piece of the nation's affordable housing. But that affordability comes at a price.

DICKENS: People who live in manufactured housing communities own the home, but they rent the lot. And so it's pretty vulnerable to land values increasing, and the land underneath their homes literally being stripped away from them.

Dickens says preserving these communities should be a priority. Several bills in the state legislature aimed at doing just that failed to pass. And for good reason, says Ken Spencer, who heads the landowners trade group the Manufactured Housing Communities of Washington.

KEN SPENCER: The highest and best use of the land is not as a manufactured housing community anymore. And so there's tremendous pressure. It's worth more as another use.

Spencer says it's wrong to prevent the owners from taking advantage of their land's rising value.

Don't tell that to the residents of Wonderland Estates, south of Seattle. They're part of a growing grassroots movement aimed at saving their parks — one pancake breakfast and fundraiser at a time.

AYOLA PUCKETT: OK folks, listen up for your drawing, listen up! The first number is 3-5-6.

WINNER: Me!

PUCKETT:All right!

Seventy-two-year-old Ayola Puckett raffles off donated bread makers and barbeque sets to the breakfast crowd. The goal is to purchase the park, possibly through a joint venture with the county or a nonprofit. They've even asked Bill Gates.

PUCKETT: We put in a request. We haven't received any answer back.

She says they've raised $11,000 so far. That's a long way from the landowner's $14 million asking price.

PUCKETT: If you look in the bottom of the barrel, there's a bunch of change. For some people, that's all they had to give. And it makes it pretty cool.

Puckett says before this crisis, none of the residents of Wonderland Estates knew each other. Now, they're all in it together.

In Seattle, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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