23 November 2014

Nearly 10 percent of Americans – more than 30 million people- now live in mobile homes. Recently, my wife and I became two of them.

We had been living in a $1,000 per month (rent plus utilities) Wilmington, NC site-built house whose owner, following five years of our tenancy, chose to re-occupy. We had to go. With little savings, two dogs and three cats our options were limited. Other rental houses were too expensive and apartments that would accept our menagerie were non-existent.

Luckily, we found a 1968 40’x12’ fixer-upper with an 8’x16’screen porch for four grand ($2500 purchase price and $1500 renovations). Now we’re on Lot 16 in a tree-packed RV park in Holden Beach, midway between the Myrtles and Wilmington, - ground zero of Trailer-land.

Holden is a quasi-resort town which still has anti-Obama billboards mixed in with the Repent signs on the main drag nearly a year past the election. It has its share of million dollar homes on the waterfront but two miles inland, where we are, the stock is mostly working-class.

We scraped up the cash to buy our little piece of the American Dream upfront and now pay a monthly lot fee of just $400 which includes electricity, water, sewer, cable TV and internet. Tax is a small vehicle assessment. Our monthly expenses dropped by more than $600! Much of the anxiety we felt about the economy has been mitigated. If one of us were to lose our job, we’d still scrape by.

Mobile home dwellers, we learned, were green before green was cool.

Mobiles cost far less to heat and chill, though heating efficiency of older homes is far from optimal especially in northern states.

Mobiles hold less crap so rampant consumerism must always be balanced against what will ultimately fit in the space.

They tend to be on dirt lots along gravel roads so their placement does not contribute to groundwater issues the way large asphalt developments do.

They require fewer resources to construct and maintain.

And you don’t have to cut down as many trees to place them. In fact the more trees around them, the better protected from extreme weather they are. Mobile home residency is concentrated in the south, is largely white and lower income, and its occupants tend to be more conservative than people of similar income in apartments or site-built homes – perhaps due to where most mobile homes are, along the so-called bible belt. In the Carolinas, home to the nation’s highest percentages of mobile home occupancy – 19% in SC, 17% in NC – they represent the most affordable, and plentiful housing available.

Progressives, who tend to be concentrated in states where mobile home occupancy is lowest, for the most part have little contact with, or understanding of, this rapidly growing demographic, and vice versa, despite the obvious benefits which progressive policies could provide to them: Ending the wars, rescuing the environment, extending public education to the “14th”grade, to name a few.

In my experience as a community journalist in Ohio, Carolina and Jersey I've reported firsthand how republicans and democrats alike come together to engineer zoning and planning policies designed to keep“trailers” out of their jurisdictions. Liberals, under the banner of quality affordable housing advocacy, tend to lump trailers on the same heap of sub-standard living arrangements with slums, squatter buildings and the tent cities of the homeless.

And so, in the necessary hunt for coalition, has the left written off mobile home Americans – at its peril? In purple states like Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida their numbers are more than sufficient to swing any – hell, every - election. The mobile home electorate sits squarely under the tent of the 99%, but vote with the 1% far more reliably than their urban/suburban low income peers.

They turn the tide in the exurban counties that ultimately decide the composition of state legislatures which in turn gerrymander districts into safe havens for the right, all the while suffering many of the same injustices and prejudices as the urban poor. Trailer parks are disparaged in our popular culture as much, perhaps more so, than the ghettos of the inner city.

However, mobile home communities are diversifying to include more minorities, immigrants, faiths, and sexual preferences. As the emerging dominant rung of low-income housing, in the south at least, it's inevitable. And this emerging diversity can open these huge fertile fields of mostly white but marginalized citizenry to new ideas, and more progressive thought.

To be warned, though, libertarianism and the Tea Party are already here.

In previous Free Press commentary, I argue a key to preventing the poor from organizing for social justice is to keep them too busy and tired making ends meet to act. But $12-per-hour mobile homeowners have much more disposable income than $12-per-hour apartment dwellers, and thus might not need idealism-sapping second jobs to stay afloat. Mobile home communities also have a much greater percentage of retirees than other lower-income neighborhoods. In other words, there is a valuable pool of feet on the ground and eyes on the news to be mined, as well as the votes. As I walk my quite happy dogs down our dirt lane to the park mailboxes it occurs to me:

How well we engage, educate and energize “trailer treasure” may make or break American progressivism. Because if and when a viable third party emerges – Green, Tea or perhaps Green-Tea – it will brew right here, in the trailer parks.