Houston's Trailer Parks Offer Cheap Housing in a Pricey City, But With a Catch
The Duval Mobile Home Park in southeast Houston has 182 lots.
Elizabeth Perez loves her trailer park. But if she's ever forced to move, at least she has a back-up plan.
A chatty 45-year-old with a wide smile, Perez has lived at and managed the Trinity Duval Mobile Home Park in southeast Houston since 2008. Used mobile homes here typically sell for $12,000 to $38,000, depending on their size and condition, she says. She remembers one woman buying a home for just $2,000, using her IRS refund.
The Duval Mobile Home Park first opened in the 1950s. It was purchased last year by Trinity Community Group, a trailer park management company — and Perez worried about the future of the park.
“I kept thinking, ‘Shoot, they're going to want to tear it down,’” Perez said. “I was kind of scared.”
The company promised it would keep the park operational, according to Perez. Still, Perez accepts the possibility that it could be sold away from her.
“This land is not my land,” she said. “When something doesn't belong to you, you can't do anything about it.”
If she does have to move out, she says she'll go to Rock Island, where her family has a ranch. She thinks she could get her home moved for around $2,000. Anything else — like another trailer park — would be too pricey. “That would be money I don't have,” she said, referring to all the extra charges that would come with permitting and new gas and sewer lines. “I'd have to take out a loan.”
With costs significantly lower than standard houses, mobile homes have become the main source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the United States. Almost two million Texans live in mobile homes, according to the 2015 American Community Survey, including more than 130,000 people in Harris County.
But while these parks offer bargain prices, they don’t always provide stability. That’s because they lease their land. In Texas, residents can be evicted from a property with 60-day notice, even if they’ve owned their homes for decades.
When trailer parks are sold or forced to close, the void often leaves hundreds of low-income families searching for a new place to put their home — as well as the funds necessary to move it. Esther Sullivan, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Denver, spent two years living at trailer parks in Texas and Florida. Her study, published in April, looks at what happens when people are evicted from trailer parks in these states.
Texas has one of the highest numbers of trailer park residents in the country, but provides no aid for people evicted from them.
The costs of a mobile park eviction can easily eat up a lower-income resident's finances, Sullivan found. She also discovered that Texas trailer parks don’t always give the appropriate legal notice before evicting tenants. A common theme among residents was the desire to control the “terms and timing” of a move-out, Sullivan said.
For many, evictions became a semi-regular part of life. “These aren’t one-time traumas,” Sullivan said. “There were significant numbers of residents in parks that had previously been evicted.”
In her study, she proposes community ownership as a way to give trailer park residents more stability. That would make trailer parks more like condominiums, leaving residents in charge of their park’s destiny.
Sullivan spent time at five parks that were closing or in a precarious position. She lived for eight months in 2013 at Ramos y Ramos, a trailer park in the town of Alvin, near Pearland. The Alvin City Council had passed an ordinance in 2007 requiring expensive upgrades to parks. Ramos y Ramos survived, but she watched as two other parks were forced into closure. (Sullivan used pseudonyms for the names of the parks she studied to protect the identities of residents.)
“There would be three generations of the same family living in these parks,” she said. “Evictions were extremely traumatic.”
Trailer park residents have about the same legal protections as normal renters. The problem, she says, is that the stakes are higher. Renters don’t own or maintain their apartments. If they’re evicted, they don’t have to take their apartment with them.
Theoretically, a mobile home can be moved and reinstalled elsewhere. But after transportation, reinstallation and permits, the cost of moving a mobile home even a modest distance could run from around $5,000 to $12,000, according to estimates given by people in the mobile-home business.
So long as a trailer park wasn’t closing, mobile-home residents could choose to sell their homes instead of transporting them. But unlike standard houses, mobile homes almost never appreciate in value. Like cars, they lose value as soon as they leave the factory or sales lot.
How many mobile-home owners face the prospect of eviction? Sullivan says it’s almost impossible to know for sure. Property deeds and tax filings record the name of the trailer park and its owners — not every resident. Many residents don’t even have real addresses. Unless an eviction goes to court, there could be no public record that it happened.
Nor is it easy to get data on how many trailer parks are closing, Sullivan says. There are no federal or state registries of trailer park closures. For her study, Sullivan had to collect some of this data herself, by recording whenever a trailer park changed its zoning.
Loopnet, a commercial real-estate website, shows 85 mobile home parks for sale in Texas, including a few in the Houston area. The Houston Press called one seeking comment for this story. When a reporter mentioned evictions, an employee hung up and did not answer again.
The median listing price for a home in Houston is $319,000, according to real-estate website Zillow. A brand-new mobile home can go for around $60,000, said DJ Pendleton, executive director of the Texas Manufactured Housing Association.
“When I say affordable housing, what image pops into your brain?” he asked rhetorically. “You need a $65,000 house for it to be truly affordable.”
When asked about evictions, Pendleton points out that not all mobile home owners live in trailer parks. Some build their homes on family land, or buy a plot way out in the country.
He said around 90 percent of mobile home sales were “personal property transactions,” meaning the purchaser was not also buying land. He didn’t think all those people lived at trailer parks, but admitted it was hard to know for sure. Census data on mobile homes don’t record how many people own their land.
Sometimes, Pendleton said, a trailer park decides to sell. This was more of a problem in cities, where land was a hot commodity. But often, he said, mobile homes are driven out when local governments impose zoning changes or make expensive demands for upgrades.
Pendleton said he sees a classist and racist tinge in the hostility to mobile homes. “Nobody will say at an open city council hearing, ‘We’re going to create all these pretenses, but the real intent is, we just kind of want to move all the poor people out and we don’t really care where they go,’” he said.
In part, he blamed civics groups like the Association for Cities and the Texas Municipal League, which put out model city ordinances that, he said, were hostile to mobile homes. “Let’s face it: When you start talking about manufactured homes, the first image that pops into people’s minds is the worst image of the nastiest 1970 trailer home that’s just gone to total disrepair,” he said. “That’s something our industry constantly tries to battle with.”
Elizabeth Perez enjoys living in her mobile home, and does not know where else she'd live if that were not an option.
Trinity Duval has 182 lots. Each rents for $340 per month — far less than Houston's average two-bedroom rent of $1,428. They’re almost never vacant. Perez says she knows every resident by name.
There’s a school and public transportation nearby. It’s just like a regular neighborhood, except that no one owns his or her land.
Perez uses one of the park’s homes as her office. She’d recently redone the carpet. Over the course of a few hours, residents and visitors streamed in and out, checking on mail deliveries or just making small talk.
One of the visitors was Linda Reynoso, who’d come with her mother and son. Reynoso grew up at Trinity Duval. She now works as an ad hoc mobile home real estate agent and broker, offering loans and advice to mobile home residents.
Reynoso compared the costs of mobile home maintenance to those of an actual house. Roof repair could be just a couple of thousand dollars, she said. But she thought low prices were only part of the appeal. The cash transactions attract people who are wary of formal leases, such as undocumented immigrants.
For now, Reynoso is living in a house. “When I retire, I want to go back to a mobile home,” she said, looking wistful. “Definitely.”