Manufactured Insecurity: Mobile Home Parks and Americans' Tenuous Right to Place

Manufactured Insecurity: Mobile Home Parks and Americans' Tenuous Right to Place

by Esther Sullivan

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Manufactured Insecurity is the first book of its kind to provide an in-depth investigation of the social, legal, geospatial, and market forces that intersect to create housing insecurity for an entire class of low-income residents. Drawing on rich ethnographic data collected before, during, and after mobile home park closures and community-wide evictions in Florida and Texas—the two states with the largest mobile home populations—Manufactured Insecurity forces social scientists and policymakers to respond to a fundamental question: how do the poor access and retain secure housing in the face of widespread poverty, deepening inequality, and scarce legal protection? With important contributions to urban sociology, housing studies, planning, and public policy, the book provides a broader understanding of inequality and social welfare in the United States today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520295667
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/07/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 611,528
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Esther Sullivan is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado Denver.

Read an Excerpt


The Mobile Home in America and Americana

The owners of the singlewide on lot #83, Marta and George had abandoned their mobile home and their investment in a Florida retirement after they received the notice of an application for a rezoning of Silver Sands Mobile Home Park. At first, they debated whether to abandon the home or wait to see what the city council would decide with regard to the rezoning. The notice, delivered to every household in Silver Sands, was not an eviction letter but to many residents it signaled the probability of eviction. Marta and George decided they could not continue to invest $250 in lot rent each month while they waited to be evicted. They had banked on a Florida retirement on a budget. The weather would help with George's arthritis and the proximity to Marta and George's adult son would help them both as they aged. They thought of attempting to sell the pre-owned, circa-1989 trailer, which they had purchased on site in Silver Sands, but any purchaser would need to commit to moving it at a cost of up to $10,000. The many For Sale postings in the Silver Sands laundry room indicated that the sale of their aging singlewide was unlikely. They signed over ownership of their home to Ron Silver, owner and landlord of Silver Sands, rather than pay continued rent or abandonment fines. In May 2012, Mr. Silver rented the fully furnished singlewide to me for $600 a month on a month-to-month basis so that he could continue to earn income on the lot in the months during which the sale of the park was finalized and the eviction was carried out. Over the next 11 months I would sleep in the couple's abandoned bed, eat off their abandoned mixed-matched plates, and work into the night transcribing that day's recordings on their old corduroy recliner.

On first arriving in the home I boxed up George and Marta's abandoned items, making note as I went: a prescription bottle of cholesterol medication, children's beach toys with price tags still on them, a hanging calendar marked with dates of doctor's appointments at the VA hospital (the month turned to April 2012), a guide to other Florida mobile home parks, a metal wall-hanging that read "Bless This Home." Outside in the screened-in porch that ran the length of the singlewide, I swept the linoleum floor, took a break in the aluminum patio furniture, dusted off and rearranged a seashell collection.

But what I learned about the owners of this Florida mobile home came less from the objects I found inside and more from the neighbors just outside, many of whom could recount intimate details of George and Marta's life. The details were similar to others in the park. George and Marta were staging an incremental move into their mobile home, downsizing from their long-term home in New Hampshire. They were drawn to Jupiter, Florida, because they had a son who lived nearby; he had stopped by frequently to check on them. The extra help from their son was especially important now as Marta's Alzheimer's progressed. But Marta's illness and the expense they knew they would incur if they were forced to move their home also played into their decision to abandon the home in the face of eviction rather than continue to pay rent in a gamble that the rezoning of the park might not be approved. They gave up the singlewide and their investment rather than deal with eviction on top of their many health problems.

Neighbors were able to recount the details of George and Marta's life because of a unique closeness that existed in the parks where I lived, where homes might be only 10 feet away from each other. The social and spatial closeness I noted in every park where I spent time is constructed, in part, by the tools of urban governance. Zoning regulations, for instance, often restrict mobile homes exclusively to mobile home parks while also requiring a separation of uses between land zoned as a mobile home park and land zoned as single-family residential. Though overdetermined by local planning, this closeness feels organic, creating an internal cohesiveness that leads many to define their neighborhood as the park rather than the surrounding community (Apgar et al. 2002). Historic zoning and restrictive covenants require separation between mobile home parks and "conventional" homes, but also lead to the development of self- contained communities, walled off and separated from their neighbors, accessed by single entrance points that require residents to drive or walk past the homes of neighbors as they wind their way home. Municipal regulations that protect neighboring real estate values require parks to be visually screened or fenced off, but this often creates networks of safe internal streets where people can meet or children can play without the threat of through-traffic.

This chapter explores how the regulatory treatment of the mobile home park is intricately linked to the historical development of the mobile home as a uniquely American housing invention. Planning and zoning regulations have shaped the development and proliferation of mobile home parks as well as the everyday life that occurs within them. By tracing the production and regulation of the housing form over the last century, this chapter helps to contextualize the social and spatial stigma that is central to constructing mobile home park residents' housing insecurity and disposing them to dislocation.

Paradoxically, the spatial containment and social segregation produced by a century of restrictive regulations also contribute to a sense of neighborliness found in parks. In both Texas and Florida, park residents used the open spaces inside parks as their personal playgrounds. In Twin Oaks and Trail's End in Alvin, Texas, even the most diligent parents let small children play freely in the park, out of eyesight, often in and out of neighbors' homes. In Silver Sands, elderly neighbors could be seen each evening riding alone or in pairs on the stable three-wheeled bicycles that were a popular item among residents. They biked their rounds along the park's nine internal streets, stopping to talk with neighbors while perched right in the center of the road.

Silver Sands resident Hanna did this each evening. She did not drive, seldom left the park, and dutifully rode her bike each night to stay active. At 80 years old she was tanned and toned and said, "I am feeling pretty good!" When I first met Hanna out on her bike she stopped to get the details on who I was and how I was able to move in to Silver Sands, which was one of Florida's many "55 and older" parks devoted to seniors. She guessed that the rules did not mean as much since the park was now up for sale. Hanna moved to Jupiter, Florida, from Switzerland in the 1950s at a boom time for mobile home parks in the United States. She lived nearby with an uncle while Silver Sands was being constructed, and in 1969 they decided to move into the park. In those years, the road outside Silver Sands was still unpaved and the park was on the outskirts of the town. By moving into Silver Sands, Hanna and her uncle were able to purchase a brand new, two-bedroom doublewide and live only three miles inland from the ocean. A mobile home cost $5,000 on average that year compared to $25,000, the median price of a new site-built home with land in 1969 (U.S. Census Bureau 2016a). Hanna's home joined the 3,799,730 mobile homes shipped from factories nationally in the years from 1967 to 1976 (Wallis 1991), a record that decade and a trend that would continue to grow.

In 1967, just two years before Hanna moved into Silver Sands, planner Margaret Drury concluded in her pioneer study of the mobile home industry: "Being forced out of the conventional market, the mobile home industry has been operating in an extraterritorial market where it has had free rein. The industry has thus produced an innovative low-cost housing unit, and indeed, mobile homes have effected an unrecognized revolution in American housing" (138). Drury's conclusion begins to encapsulate the inherent tensions that have characterized manufactured housing since its inception. Through a brief architectural and social history of the mobile home, this chapter explores these tensions: between innovation and defamation, necessity and marginality, demand and derision. These tensions are literally built in to the mobile home as a cultural object and a uniquely American housing invention. This chapter examines the historic roots of these tensions, and of the perceptions of trailer life they have produced. It traces the origins of the mobile home as a techno-legal artifact as well as a place that low-income Americans call home. Through emphasis on modularity — the standardized but flexible prefabrication systems that are critical to factory-produced housing — it documents the changing social and political needs the mobile home has been adapted to fill over the last century and demonstrates how, in filling these needs, the mobile home has come to hold a distinct and denigrated position in the iconography of Americana and the hierarchy of American housing.


Throughout its history, design innovations and manufacturing technologies have shaped the production of manufactured housing and revolutionized its final product, the mobile home. Unlike conventional site-built housing, the rate of innovation in manufactured housing was accelerated by techniques of standardization and prefabrication that were introduced into home construction through factory production beginning in the 1920s. While standardized production methods facilitated affordability, the modular design of the mobile home facilitated innovation. Experimentation and flexibility were more practical and less risky within the strict parameters required to factory-produce a self-contained, transportable housing unit.

The concept of modularity describes the degree to which distinct functional units can be combined or interchanged to form a biological, electronic, or mechanical system. In manufacturing, modularity refers to the use of interchangeable parts in the fabrication of a product. But the importance of modularity in the system of mobile home production and the rise of the manufactured housing industry is best understood in light of definitions of modularity from other fields. In contemporary art and architecture, modularity refers to the use of standardized units of measurement to create larger compositions. In ecology, modularity is the organization of an ecosystem according to discrete, individual units that can increase the system's overall resiliency (Thébault and Fontaine 2010). In computer science, studies of modularity build off seminal work on complex adaptive systems, which "change and reorganize their component parts to adapt themselves to the problems posed by their surroundings" (Holland 1992: 18). Understandings of modularity and complex adaptive systems have been used to explain technological revolutions like the rise of the internet.

These concepts of modularity are useful for understanding the development and spread of other innovative technologies and industries, like the manufactured housing industry. Modularity in design parameters supports experimentation while still managing complexity and uncertainty (Baldwin and Clark 2000). In this way modularity is at the core of design evolutions that produce industry evolutions, which can be highly responsive to broader societal changes. Thus in the case of manufactured housing, itself a hybrid between the house and the automobile, the very concept of modularity has a hybrid meaning. It applies to the technical design and construction of mobile homes, those components which make them prefabricable, replicable, transportable, and incomparably affordable. But modularity also encapsulates the responsiveness of mobile homes to broader societal changes. As this chapter explores, mobile homes have filled multiple distinct roles throughout U.S. history as they have been adapted to respond to pressing social and economic needs of the times. This dual role, this hybrid techno-social modularity, has characterized manufactured housing since its inception and has served to anchor the mobile home in the American housing stock.


From its early beginnings, the history of manufactured housing was a ballet of innovative technological responses to new social needs. In the Americas, the first appearance of prefabricated housing was spurred on by the demands of "forty-niners" in the Gold Rush of 1848 (Peterson 1948). By 1850, five thousand prefabricated houses were contracted or produced in New York alone. The homes were produced at a cost of about $400 and shipped to California where they were sold for about $5,000 to prospectors who were in search of fortune and in need of housing (Kelly 1952).

These Gold Rush mobile dwellings demonstrate the globalism of early revolutions in prefabricated housing. Designed with sheets of corrugated iron — an 1830s English invention — mobile structures were being built and shipped all over the globe (Herbert 1978). The global prefabricated housing network had its roots in the demands of colonizing British forces, who expected to transport the comforts of a familiar home to new colonial settings. The response, corrugated iron "portable houses," was a technology of colonial expansion (ibid.). Indeed, factory production taking place in England shaped the built environments of colonies overseas. In the latter half of the nineteenth century corrugated iron became the most conspicuous building material in the colonial territory of South Africa, where whole towns were made of "iron houses" and the beams of the Johannesburg railroad station were factory-rolled in Birmingham, England (ibid.).

The period of importing prefabricated homes to the United States was brief. Enterprising U.S. manufacturers quickly intercepted the foreign export of housing demand and ramped up domestic production. Beginning in the 1860s, manufacturers throughout the United States introduced improved prefabricated designs that ranged from standardized wood-panelized cottages to a 1908 precast iron and cement multistory home proposed by Thomas Edison (Kelly 1952).

In an example of the essential hybridity at the heart of manufactured housing, the technological innovations that eventually propelled the mobile home into a national place in American housing came not from the house-building trade, but rather from the automobile and aerospace industries. In 1919 Glenn Curtis, a founder of the U.S. aircraft industry, designed and built a "motor bungalow" that he named the Aerocar, a towable version of the factory-built home. The idea took off. Early 1920s trailer designs took the form of "covered wagons" and "autocampers" (Wallis 1991). The streamlined design and curved metallic edges of early mobile homes showcased the automotive lineage and factory precision of their construction. This aesthetic hybridity is referenced in the Airstream trailers popularized in the 1960s, which have experienced a rebirth as trendy recreational homes today.

The American popularity of the automobile catalyzed the popularity of the trailer. Meanwhile, the techno-social modularity of the mobile home meant that households quickly began to adapt the design to changing social needs. While the first factory-built trailers were a luxury item of the upper class, improvised knockoff models came to be increasingly used by lower-income households. In 1926, the New Republic termed an emerging mobile breed of residents "gasoline gypsies," noting that their passion for mobility led them to accept pop-up auto camps as "real" neighborhoods (Schneider 2005). Magazine and newspaper articles often mistook these households' pressing economic needs for a "passion for distance" that they believed characterized the early population of mobile home dwellers.

The manufactured housing industry of the time was equally misguided in its designs. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s high-tech, yacht-like designs were offered for sale, catering to the original class of luxury consumer. Yet the most common versions of the trailer were less expensive towable homes of wood and canvas developed by residents themselves. During these decades three out of four trailers were homemade (Wallis 1991). The techno-social modularity at the heart of the mobile home continued to allow a subset of the country's most impoverished residents to adapt the design to their own housing needs. This shift was illustrated by the changing face of the municipal campgrounds where these trailers were parked. By 1924 the municipal campgrounds originally designed to attract vacationing recreational vehicles were beginning to suffer: "A less desirable class of camper was moving in, encouraged by the free facilities ... Unlike the vacationing camper, the 'hobo tourist' often had no permanent home and was likely to stay on in a campground for as long as possible" (ibid., 40).


Excerpted from "Manufactured Insecurity"
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Copyright © 2018 Esther Sullivan.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Prologue 1

Introduction: Halfway Homeowners 12

1 The Mobile Home In America And Americana 31

2 Socio-Spatial Stigma And Trailer Trash 53

3 Daily Lite Under The Specter Ot Dislocation 75

4 "We Are Not For Sure Wherever We Are" 100

5 Relocation And The Paradox Of State Interventions 126

6 Communities As Currency Within The Mobile Home Empire 159

Conclusion 186

Methodological Appendix 205

Notes 223

References 233

Index 247

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