‘Trailer Trash’ deserves a place in the New West

Essay by Dewey Linze

Housing – October 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

IN THE MID-1930S, when poverty had a stranglehold on the country and sliced bread was a nickel a loaf, we lived in a trailer park, or trailer court, and everyone outside of the encampment called us “trailer trash.”

It was insulting, but this was the way the “haves” set themselves apart from the “have nots,” or the trailer people. To the cops and welfare and truant officers, the trailer court was where all evil spawned and spread.

The old trailer, I remember, had no street address, and it was bare of heat, water or electricity. It sat about 50 feet from the Missouri Pacific’s main-line tracks in St. Louis, Mo. The train noise was deafening, clacking wheels crossing the rail seams, day and night.

The hobos who knocked on the trailer doors to beg for a bite to eat were never turned away. More than a few were educated and proud men, young and old, and down on their luck.

Well, after many years, the scars of that era have healed over, although many of the trailer trash kinsmen died without ever knowing a cure was coming. At the end of WW II, my family sold the old trailer and came to California. I bought them a mobile home, a clean, three-bedroom, aluminum-sided house in a San Pedro mobile home park. It was our home until the beginning of the Korean War.

Trailer houses have vanished. Yet this rickety and fragile structure for poor families was the precursor to the mobile home, and the mobile home was precursor to what is now the manufactured home, built in a factory to a strict federal building code. Most neighborhood folks have seen the changes in the construction technology, design, interiors and exteriors, siding materials, and roofs to compare with sited dwellings.

Manufactured housing is now a multi-billion-dollar business, booming particularly loud in the West. In Arizona, the number of manufactured homes is 300,000. Nevada hosts 90,000, and California’s tabulation is 600,000.

The growing strength of the industry reveals its most attractive characteristic: affordability.

In 1998, families in California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, New Mexico and Wyoming, spent more than $2.2 billion on 47,147 manufactured homes, the homes averaging $48,000 each. And now nearly one of every three new single-family homes built in the United States is a manufactured home. Twenty million Americans opted for a manufactured home to satisfy their unbridled craving of home ownership.

No politician in her or his right mind would dare to debunk manufactured homes, after learning that seven percent of the nation’s population call them “home.” Yet some still do, acting as the cowbells of tract-home builders and challenging every move to give manufactured homes the same recognition as sited homes.

Heads-up California was one of the first states to introduce and pass a law which permits manufactured homes to co-exist with regular sited homes in a single neighborhood. But in western communities, the fight continues between the haves and the have-nots, with some upscale towns still unwilling to allow mobile homes or even manufactured homes within city limits.

IN OTHER PLACES, manufactured home parks, where homeowners pay a nominal fee for spaces for their homes, are getting squeezed. In California, various agencies, authorizing fees for permits to build parks, have steadily increased them to the point that developers find them equal to the cost of carving the home space from raw land. As a result, the California parks are filling rapidly, and no new ones are on the drawing boards to remedy the situation to any appreciable degree.

That’s unfortunate. Affordable housing is the foundation of the American Dream. And manufactured housing offers Americans the best housing that a limited amount of money can buy.

The modern trailer park also offers something else increasingly rare in our society: a close sense of community. Manufactured-home park residents have a camaraderie that the dwellers of million-dollar home enclaves will never have. Over the years I have attended many Saturday afternoon potlucks at manufactured home neighborhoods. At one, I counted over 200 entrees.

Such abundance was unheard of when I was a child. But the soulful honor of sharing and helping your neighbor remains the hallmark of “trailer trash” living.

Dewey Linze is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo (http://www.hcn.org). He lives in Gardnerville, Nevada.