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New book ‘Singlewide’ explores the role of the American trailer park as affordable housing

Kate MacTavish

Co-author and CPHHS Associate Professor Katherine MacTavish

America’s rural trailer parks offer the promise of the American home ownership dream, but often fail to deliver on that dream as residents get caught in the trap of rising cost of home rental space and depreciating home values, a new book on rural trailer park life has concluded.

“Singlewide: Chasing the American Dream in a Rural Trailer Park,” by Oregon State University’s Katherine MacTavish and Sonya Salamon of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explores the trailer park’s role as affordable rural housing and a path to home ownership.

“All of the people we interviewed saw their purchase of a mobile home as progress toward the American dream, but that just doesn’t happen,” says Katherine, an associate professor of human development and family science in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “Owning your own home but having it parked on someone else’s land doesn’t net the same benefits for families as conventional home ownership would.”

Katherine, whose academic research focuses on how the places where children grow up shape their life experiences and their futures, spent more than 18 months immersing herself in the culture of rural trailer park communities in Illinois and New Mexico. Another researcher conducted similar fieldwork at a trailer park in North Carolina.

“We spent a lot of time in people’s homes, talking with them, sharing a family meal, hanging out with the kids at the church youth group and visiting children in their classrooms,” Katherine says. “We also interviewed a range of stakeholders, including park managers, school leaders and elected officials.”

The book is the culmination of that work, offering an in-depth assessment of the role of trailer parks in meeting affordable rural housing needs and helping people move up the economic ladder.

The researchers found that mobile homes depreciate rapidly, like vehicles do, making it hard for families to build equity; sales of homes located in parks can be hampered by landlord rules; and lot rent or lease costs continue to rise, making it difficult for families to save money or to move out of parks.

Singlewide book cover

The book will be available for purchase on Oct. 15

They also found that an interrelated system involving the manufacture, sale and financing of mobile homes, along with investor ownership of land-lease parks – a system they termed the “mobile home industrial complex” – undergirds the struggles for the rural homeowner of modest means.

“This system, in which a number of players earn substantial profits, leaves families struggling to gain the benefits they anticipated from buying a home,” Katherine says.

The researchers interviewed people in more than 240 trailer park households and followed 39 of those families closely. They found just a handful who were financially able to move from the trailer park to a conventional home or a mobile home on land they owned – the American dream of many in the parks.

But they also found little truth to the concept of “trailer trash” – a moniker applied almost exclusively to white families living in trailer parks but not to African American or Hispanic families living there. Within the parks, the researchers found parents working hard to move their children out of poverty and attain higher social class.

“These were not neighborhoods riddled with crime, noise and disarray,” Katherine says. “They were mainly people who worked full-time for not great wages and not great benefits, just trying to get by and improve the lives of their children.”

Overall, Katherine and Sonya found that trailer park families see themselves as doing the best they could for their families, despite the financial and social pitfalls they may face.

“They are just trying to give their kids a chance at a more stable and secure life than they had, and they are optimistic that they can manage that,” Katherine says.

“Singlewide,” from Cornell University Press, publishes Oct. 15 and is available for purchase online at www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/ and from a wide range of booksellers.