Be It Ever So Humble
Often derided, mobile homes are becoming a better choice for many. But how good can they get?
By Joe Tarr
JULY 13, 1998: Squirreled away behind a thick cluster of scrub and trees on Clinton Highway sits Missy Turner's rectangular home. It is set parallel among dozens of others, each of them 20 to 30 feet apart. There is litter along the community's driveway, and in spots the grass cannot manage to poke its way through the dirt and gravel. A can of Raid sits on the stacked concrete blocks leading to Turner's door.
But it is neat inside, and a small mutt named Scrappy with coarse stringy hair will greet you at the door, lick your leg, and plop his head on your lap while you sit on the Turners' comfortable couch.
A few miles away on Amherst Road, you must drive past three fish ponds, a tennis court, and an in-ground pool to get to Joy and Jim Finkhouse's home. On their impeccable yard sits a goose lawn ornament always dressed for the seasonas a pilgrim, or the Easter Bunny, in Volunteer orange, or some other costume. You reach the Finkhouses' door by way of a wooden deck adorned with brilliant flowers. Inside, a Cockapoo named Ginger sniffs your shoe. A friendly, but quiet dog, Ginger lays at Joy's feet while she talks with guests in their living room. The two-bedroom homewhere they live with their 16-year-old grandsonis furnished with a large screen TV and wood fireplace.
The Turners and the Finkhouses don't travel in the same circles and they have different names for their homes. But both live in trailers (or manufactured homes), though for different reasons, and with vastly different experiences.
East Tennessee has long been associated with trailer homes. Knoxville is home to Clayton Homes, the third largest manufactured housing producer in an industry that builds one-third of all new single family homes. There have also been the taunts of "Tennessee trailer trash"most recently from an ESPN commentator annoyed by the phone calls from UT fans championing Peyton Manning for the Heisman Trophy.
A tour of any trailer home lot will show that manufactured homes are no longer solely for the poor or uncouth. The industry is producing affordable housing that is luxurious, sturdy, and modern. Even its low-end housing has improved vastly from 10 or 20 years ago.
But some of the stigmas and problems associated with manufactured homes remain: high interest rates that gouge low-income people, shoddy installation, park owners who take advantage of their tenants, cheap materials, and general ugliness.
Stereotypes are bound to forever linger, but manufactured housing has become an inseparable part of Tennessee life. Why are they so looked down upon?
Call Joy Finkhouse's home a trailer, and you're certain to get a stern lecture.
"Dammit, we're not trailer trash. Don't call it a trailer park and don't call it a trailer," Joy says. "This is different. It's a manufactured home.
"I don't want to be considered trailer trash because we live in a manufactured home, or a double-wide, or whatever you want to call it," she says. "You have to take care of these places, like any home, or it won't look nice."
Most people still refer to them as trailers or mobile homes, even though once attached to the ground, they are rarely moved. A more accurateif somewhat clunkyterm is manufactured home. (The three terms will be interchanged here. None of them is meant as a pejorative.)
The Finkhouses bought their home in 1994 when Jim was retiring from Philips Consumer Electronics Company. They wanted to move out of the home they were renting and get a place of their own, without sinking their life savings.
"Why spend all that money? I think we spent $6,000 [down payment] to come in here," Jim says.
"In seven-and a-half years, it's all paid for," Joy adds.
The couple gushes about the advantages of Clayton Estates, one of 71 manufactured home communities in 12 states owned by the company, which is working hard to shatter stereotypes.
Surrounded by a wooden fence, it hardly stands out among the middle-class developments that surround it on Amherst Road. Clayton Estates combines the security and orderliness of upscale gated communities with the affordability of traditional trailer homes.
All the residents own their homes. They pay rentan average $230on their lot, says Lanell Owenby, who manages the community. The park projects an anti-trailer park image. Four pages of rules are strictly enforced.
"Everybody's supposed to keep their yards looking nice," Owenby says. "You're not supposed to have junky cars sitting around. So it makes it more like a community than a trailer park."
Many of the rules are sensible: All homes must have a deck and skirting (paneling around the base of the home, which covers up the foundation), lawns must be cut, no parking on the grass. Others forbid common things, which nonetheless may be associated with trailer parks and poverty: No hanging laundry outside, no window AC units, no TV antennas or satellite dishes, no pets chained outdoors, and no children out after dark without a parent.
The rules were a strong selling point for the Finkhouses.
"If you live in Seven Springs and your neighbor lets his home go to pot, who do you turn to? There's no one," Joy says.
This approach to manufactured homes has been so successful that Clayton is building two more similar to itone in Halls and one in Seymour, which will include a horse stable.
It'd be hard to see developments like these as a blight on any community. But residents in Seymour were alarmed when Clayton announced plans to build "The Stables" on Boyd's Creek Road. They couldn't stop the development, since Sevier County has no zoning laws to relegate high density developments to certain areas. Many residents are still upset about the project. However, others believe that President Jim Clayton listened to their concerns and addressed them, says Steve Brenner, who lives on Boyd's Creek Road near the development. Construction is now underway on The Stables, which will at first contain 67 homes.
Brenner says he was worried about high-density developments, not living next to manufactured homes.
"I am not concerned about Jim Clayton. I know for a fact that he is going to make that an A-plus community," Brenner says. "But it is a precedent for people in the community who are going to put in twice the density at half the quality. The flavor, the ambiance, the texture of that community are going to be changed.
"This is not a fight or problem with the people who move into them. Many of them are moving there for the same reasons I did: Because of the mountains, it's quiet, it's a nice community," he adds.
Sevier County now has a few laws regulating manufactured homes and residents there often panic when new parks are built. Common complaints are that these communities will lower property values, dramatically boost the population density (thus stressing roads and schoolsand forcing more of the tax burden on people living on larger properties), and destroy the character of the neighborhood.
Brenner admits that many people making these complaints are simply snobs, who fear their neighbors will be shirtless rednecks who drive rusty pickups and swill cheap beer.
"It's an argument out of fear, and it's a class issue," Brenner says. "All they know is if people move in with trailers it attracts a bad kind of people and hurricanes."
Clayton recently hired Knox County Schools Superintendent Allen Morgan as executive vice president and chief operating officer of its communities. As part of his job, Morgan will no doubt have to challenge the negative perceptions of manufactured home communities.
What distinguishes manufactured homes from site-built houses like Brenner's is that they are built in a factory, on a non-removable steel chassis. Singles are built in one piece and shipped to the land it will be secured to. Double-wides are built in two pieces (usually 14 feet wide each), shipped, and put together on site.
(A hybrid of manufactured and site-built housing is modular construction, where various sections of a home are built to local building codes in a factory, and then assembled on site on a permanent foundation.)
Building homes in a factory improves the construction and cuts expenses, says Ronny Robertson, of Clayton Home's Appalachia plant in Andersonville. By working with pre-cut materials in an environment out of the weather, the company can minimize the mistakes and guesswork that traditional house builders face, he says. There are far fewer waste materials. And they can perfect their designs and techniques.
The price range for a 1,500 square foot manufactured home (which could include three bedrooms, two baths, kitchen and family room, along with major amenities) is about $35,000 to $38,000, Robertson says. Competitor Oakwood says their 1,500 square foot homes run $42,000 to $49,000. A site-built home that sizeincluding land, a garage, and amenities like a fireplace and applianceswill cost about $80,000 to $100,000, according to two local construction firms.
"Today we'll build eight homes in about eight hours," says Robertson. "But we've got 250 people doing it. And they're not measuring pieces of wood and cutting them. They're putting the home together."
Robertson is walking through the factory floor, while a flurry of nail guns and power tools grind and bang around him. The wall of a double-wide hangs from the ceiling. It is dragged across the factory and lowered into place. Quickly secured, it becomes the front of a new double-wide. Inside the windowless home, workers are installing plumbing and insulation.
Clayton is one of the big four mobile home producers. In 1997, it built 17,170 single section homes and 9,133 multi-sectionsfor a total of $540 million, according to the company.
The company's homes are all built from orders, which are placed two to three months before construction. As the homes are wheeled down the assembly line, each becomes more personalized. Oak cabinets, a gable roof, thermopane windows, a garbage disposal, Jacuzzi, and other options are added, depending on the order. Prices for new manufactured homes range from $20,000 to well above $100,000.
It is expensive and inconvenient to ship mobile homes more than 300 miles, so the manufacturers simply build factories in each of its market areas. Clayton will soon open a plant in Arizona, its 19th.
Keith Richardson, an affordable housing advocate who works for the Partnership for Neighborhood Improvement and the East Tennessee Foundation, agrees that building homes on an assembly line can indeed improve their quality while cutting costs. But often consumers don't benefit from those savingsparticularly those who buy the inexpensive models.
"It's designed and developed to look good at the point of sale. And after living in it for a while, you learn the durability of some of the finished materials is not as great," says Richardson, who has a degree in architecture.
Richardson would like to see the industry pay less attention to the glitz and focus more on functional floor plans and architecture.
"We need something that fits into a community," he says. "[The manufactured housing industry] has got more challenges to face because of transportation and the limits that places on dimensions, both height and width.
"Unfortunately, here in East Tennessee, we've shown that we're capable of doing ugly, whether it's manufactured or stick-built housing," he says. (Stick-built is slang for the traditional way of constructing homes on site).
Until the late '70s, there was little control over the construction process, Robertson says. Anyone could build and sell mobile homes. Many companiesespecially the smaller onesbuilt shoddy homes that weren't safe to live in, he says.
In 1976, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development stepped in and began regulating the industry. Today, all homes must meet its standards. The industry totes HUD's oversight as proof that mobile homes are as safe, if not safer than traditional homes. One promotional magazine reports manufactured homes are half as likely to catch fire than site-built ones, according to an insurance survey. It reports that 1996's Hurricane Fran had little affect on trailers built after '76which fared better than site-built homes during the storm.
However, a February article in Consumer Reports notes that 1992's Hurricane Andrew in Florida destroyed almost all of Dade County's mobile homes, but just 28 percent of those built on site. And Southern California's '94 earthquake knocked almost half the area's mobile homes off their foundations. That same year, HUD imposed more rigorous wind resistance standards for homes in coastal areas. (Now heralded to customers, the industry initially fought the tougher standards, according to Consumer Reports.)
At any rate, the problem is not so much construction, the magazine reports, but installation.
Deborah Chapman, chairwoman of the National Foundation of Manufactured Home Owners, agrees. "We are seeing a lot of structure damage because of poor installation, and no one will take responsibility."
Manufactured home owners and renters are also often victimized by the owners of trailer parks.
"Unfortunately, people found out this is a pretty lucrative business to be in. It's easy to gouge, to put it nicely," Chapman says. "When you have someone in a situation where they can't get out of it, you have total control. It's very easy for the landlord or the owner to do whatever they want."
Chapman speaks from experience. She bought a manufactured home 10 years ago and stuck it in a trailer park. When she had saved enough money to buy a nicer one, she tried sell her original home. But each of the six people who made offers on the $9,500 home were rejected as tenants by her trailer park's landlord. He then offered Chapman $2,000 for her trailer.
She ended up paying $1,500 to move the home, and it sat empty for year until it was sold for $7,000. After paying fees for the legal battle with her landlord, she lost all she'd invested in her first trailer.
Some locals tell horror stories of being duped by pushy salesmen. Betty Dockery, who lives in Wood Hill Mobile Home Court on Sutherland Avenue, says one salesman conned her into buying a home she couldn't afford.
"I was tellin' him how much we brought in each month. He'd say, 'Yes, you can buy this. Yes, you can; yes, you can.' He would bring me flowers," Dockery says. "My daughter even called the salesman and said, 'She can't afford that.' I was sick with my nerves. I was ready to go to the insane house."
Dockery relented and bought the home, but only stayed in it for two months. She says the landlord of the park it was in would patrol the grounds in a golf cart, armed with a shotgun. She let the home get repossessed and bought her current trailer from her son.
It's hard to say whether Dockery was taken or whether she's just naive about finances. But there is money to be made selling trailer homes.
Yet another way that trailer home owners are often victimized is through financing. Few banks lend money for manufactured homes. As a result, financing is done through the dealer.
Consumers may only have to put 5 percent of the home down, but they could end up paying more than 12 percent interest on a 15- to 30-year loan. And many will have to pay all the interest, even if they pay back the money early.
"The bad part about mobile homes is you can't hardly get out of the financing," says Janis Parks, an accountant who also lives in Wood Hill. "Banks won't finance them so you have to go through these loan sharks. That's what I call them."
Banks are beginning to offer mobile home loans, says Pat Meyer, manager of the Oakwood Homes dealership on Alcoa Highway. The fourth largest manufactured home producer, Oakwood is one of Clayton's major competitors.
Meyer says that those who put their homes on rented property pay 10 to 12 percent interest on loans. However, banks will offer mortgages when people buy a manufactured house and land together, offering rates in the 7.5 to 8.5 percent range, he says.
Mortgages for site built homes are running just below 7 percent on 30-year mortgages and about 6-5/8 percent for 15-year mortgages, according to one local banker.
The way the system is set up, poor people pay higher interest rates.
Meyer says the mobile home business is a lot more consumer-friendly. The construction, the financing, the transportation, the installation, and inspection can all be handled by one company. Whereas when you buy a traditional home from a real estate agent, you'll have to get your own financing and hire your own inspector.
"A real estate agent is going to try to pass the buck. They represent the seller, not the buyer," Meyer says.
"This is the housing trend of the future," he adds. "Any home under $100,000 is going to be built in a manufacturing plant."
The future may look bright, but problems and stigmas from the past linger.
Mike Blazer stalks slowly through a plot of luscious green grass that stands ankle-high in between two trailers at a park on Allensville Road in Sevier County. Cut through the middle of this green patch running parallel to the trailers is a white plastic pipe. Blazer follows it with his eyes. It ends abruptly, and a murky fluid trickles out into a channel eroded in the ground, flowing several yards to a woods and down a bank, where it joins a stream.
"That's sewage right there," says the soft-spoken Blazer, environmental health director for Sevier County. "That's pretty bad there. I've never seen anything like that just running into a creek."
It's Blazer's job to make sure that Sevier Countians follow the state laws for installing proper septic systems on their property, whether it be for a stick-built home, a business, or a trailer park. If the department finds violatorslike the trailer park on Allensville Roadit tries to get the owner to comply or takes them to court.
As long as developers comply with the state health laws, Blazer has no control over how they build the mobile home parks. He says many landowners simply try to cram as many homes as they can onto their property.
"It's a money thing. If they've got land, they don't have to spend too much money. Three to an acre is a pretty good return. Some of them try to get even more," he says.
Built on a steep hill near Douglas Lake is a development of about 10 mobile homes called Catletts. Though a couple of the homes are well-maintained, the park is what people envision when they think of trailer trash. One rusted old trailer is surrounded by junk and old appliances.
The health department ordered two of the homes vacated because sewage was leaking out the back of them, down into a steep, wooded gully, Blazer says. Grass and weeds have grown up around these, and there are bags of garbage laying outside.
Possessions of the people who live in the trailer park are scattered around the road and the individual lots. A rusted white Toyota with an "I Love Jesus" ornament is parked near one residence. A few feet away sits an open tool box with an inch of water corroding the socket wrenches inside. The driver's side window of a nearby sedan is covered in cellophane. There are bikes laying around, and in the road is a child's lost Matchbox car. Blazer trips over an empty plastic oil container. A mangy brown dog eyes strangers curiously but keeps his distance.
"There's nothing wrong with living in a mobile home, but why they got to have all that junk sitting around?" Blazer says.
One resident, Martha Hurst, says the trailer park charges $75 a month rent. On a hot Saturday afternoon, she and her 14-year-old son are watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Two frayed couches are covered with blankets and sheets. Paintings of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary hang on the walls. Sheets have been converted to shades over a large sliding glass door. A window air conditioner keeps the living room cool.
Built in 1976, they bought their home used a few years ago. Hurst says it has held up fairly well. "They redid the floor, but they didn't do a good job. The stuff they made the floors out of is no good," she says.
Hurst's husband washes dishes at a nearby restaurant. Martha is unable to work because of a leg injury, and she receives disability. She gardens a small piece of land behind the home, but it is tough to grow food there. "The soil is not all that good. It's slate rock. When it rains, it gets so hard," she says.
The soil is the reason the land is so poor for development, Blazer says.
It is extremely rocky, making it unsuitable for septic systems. The county rejects land of this type for trailer park development, he says. However, the state allows developers to run perk tests on soil designated unsuitable (which measure how fast water can be absorbed into the ground). If the soil passes these tests, the owner can build on it, Blazer says.
When you pull into Rifle Range Estates on Black Oak Ridge, you can see the sun glistening off of the steel roofs of about 80 trailers. It looks as though you are entering a high-tech agricultural plant or a place where intricate scientific experiments are done.
But when you drive into the park, it is just another neighborhood. Children play by a creek in the summer heat, men water their lawns. It is one of the nicest parks of five clustered in this stretch of Rifle Range Road. Robert Carroll stands on his deck grilling steaks for his family and company, who lay in lounge chairs reading magazines. Carroll pays $200 a month for his home, and $130 rent for the land it sits on. Before this, the family had been renting a home but decided they needed a place of their own.
"I don't necessarily like it, but it's what I can afford," says Carroll. "Buying a [traditional] home wasn't in our plan."
Comments like those were echoed by many manufactured home owners interviewed. Many say they would rather live in a traditional house, but they're happy with what they have.
Others are saving to get out.
Like the Finkhouses, stereotypes bother Turner, too. Not long ago, her mother derided someone as "trailer trash." Turner cringed.
"I said, 'If they're trash, I am too.' Just because you live in a trailer park doesn't mean you're trash. It means you're poor, and that's all you can afford," says Turner, who lives in Oak Grove trailer park.
When they were married 13 years ago, Turner and her husband were sharing a house with relatives. "No house is big enough for two families," she says.
They looked at apartments and at buying land. But they were either too expensive or didn't meet their needs. So they ended up moving to a trailer park, and have lived in them off and on since.
"We kind of only wanted to stay a year or two. But it keeps getting longer and longer," she says. "Everybody in a trailer park always wants to get out. You're just stuck."
Turner and her husbandwho have 7- and 12-year-old daughtersare paying $120 a month lot rent. They recently paid off the loan on the 20-year-old trailer where they have lived for six years. They are saving for a place of their own, she says.
She dreams of living in a house on their own property.
"We want that one next to my aunt's house," chimes in her 7-year-old. "It's got a clubhouse and a basement and three bedrooms."
For now, they are settling for what they have. "It's a roof over our heads," Turner says.
An affordable roof. That is why manufactured housingdespite the stigmaswill always be around.
There just aren't many other options in providing decent affordable housing, especially in the rural areas.
"We tend to look down our noses at manufactured housing. We frankly can't afford that elitist approach," Richardson says. "Our future almost has to be in manufactured housing."
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