David R. Henderson  

Tocqueville's Trailers

In the Land of Interest on Res... Open Borders in The Atlanti...
To move into Pismodise you must meet four conditions: Be 55 or older, keep your dog under 20 pounds, be present when guests stay at your home, and be comfortable with what most Americans consider a very small house. "If you need more than 800 square feet I can't help you," says Louise with a shrug. There seems to be some leeway on the dog's weight. The unofficial rules are no less definite: If you are attending the late-afternoon cocktail session on the porch of Space 329, bring your own can, bottle, or box to drink. If you are fighting with other residents, you still have to greet them when you run into them. Make your peace with the word "trailer trash."
This is from Lisa Margonelli, "How the Trailer Park Could Save Us All," Pacific Standard, April 22. The deck line is: "A healthy, inexpensive, environmentally friendly solution for housing millions of retiring baby boomers is staring us in the face. We just know it by a dirty name."

The whole article, though long, is beautifully written and informative.

Another excerpt:

Among seniors' living options, there is one we overlook: mobile homes. Time-tested, inhabited by no fewer than three million seniors already, but notoriously underloved, manufactured-homes can provide organic communities and a lifestyle that is healthy, affordable, and green, and not incidentally, fun. But in order to really see their charms, we need to change a mix of bad policies and prejudice.

Louise tells me that some residents of Pismo Dunes survive on less than $900 a month, while others have monthly incomes of $15,000. For half of the residents, this is their second home. This is not a fluke: Farmers Insurance surveyed seniors in mobile homes in 2012 and found that while 30 percent have assets under $25,000, nine percent had more than $250,000 and some had more than $500,000. "When you consider we're called trailer trash, it's a joke," says Louise. "I have very wealthy people here. They think it's the coolest thing there is." Lunches at the clubhouse are priced at $5 so that those who would never ask for help can bring home leftovers, those who are better off can put a little extra in the jar. One resident likens the diverse incomes and classes in the park to the old canard about nudist camps--everybody's naked so you can't see the differences. "In here we're all equal. Some can hardly afford food. It's all over the playing field. There's no tension because some of the trailers are run-down. Who cares? It's their home."

The above two excerpts are what made me think of Alexis De Tocqueville.

Also, note the difference between government-financed and private:

THE U.S. HAS AN impressive crowd of people working to provide affordable housing through infrastructure bonds, HUD loans, and IRS tax credits. Ironically, a lot of effort and money are put into federally-funded programs that have created a few hundred thousand units, while manufactured homes provide housing to almost three million seniors. "The problem is there's a huge stigma," says Rodney Harrell, a senior strategic policy advisor for AARP. "As a housing person myself, I had to learn a lot to appreciate that manufactured homes could be a good choice." The image of the trailer as a rusting hulk, a blight on the landscape, and a scam-laden investment aimed at poor people make activists and policy makers shy away from changing the very policies that could make it a better investment. Tremoulet thinks some of the prejudice is the result of HUD incentives themselves, which offer carrots to builders of low-income housing but not of manufactured housing.

HT to Tyler Cowen.

COMMENTS (12 to date)
Shane L writes:

Well perhaps this is going from the sublime to the ridiculous, but I remember seeing a behind-the-scenes documentary about the hilarious Canadian TV comedy "Trailer Park Boys", where the team explained that they had some difficulty finding a trailer park to shoot their show in. Why? Because the trailer parks were quite nice and clean and the TV crew wanted to make a bit of a mess and shoot guns off during filming!

So, yes, sounds like some trailer parks are actually quite nice!

If the supply of housing were deregulated (no zoning, building codes, land use planning), the quantity and quality of housing supplied would increase, while the price would fall, as with other manufactured goods.

I worked in one of my careers as a house builder. I found it satisfying to build houses one stick at a time. And I was able to keep my bills paid.

But I came to realize one-stick-at-a-time building could survive only because any serious entrepreneur who tried to automate the process would be tripped up by local, rule-of-man regulation (as opposed to rule-of-law). The biggest difficulty in building a house is in getting the long list of permissions from government. These permissions vary not only from place to place and time to time, but also from building inspector to building inspector.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Shane L,
Not "sublime to the ridiculous" at all. Totally on point. Thanks.
@Richard O. Hammer,
Thanks for the insight.

kebko writes:

Interesting comment, Richard.

It always seems strange to me to see crews of workers, on site, building houses “one stick at a time”, in this day and age. It’s not crazy to think that with automation, even the poor among us could have been living in palacial villas by now.

Imagine if every town had a technology code that detailed the color of your computer, the size of the hard drive and the specs of the cooling fan. A tech inspector who had to be convinced that transistors were a safe alternative to vacuum tubes for the citizens of Gilbert. We’d be lucky to have pocket calculators by now. And, if you said to me, “You know, if we just got rid of these tech inspectors in every town, developers could invest enough capital to make tiny chips with billions of electrical connections on them, and then right there in your pocket you’d have a gadget where you’d be able to connect to the entire world with a sweep of your finger.” I’d say, “Yeah, sure buddy, and monkeys would fly."

The problem with the opportunity costs we impose on ourselves is that we just can’t imagine what we might have given up. Since we’re lucky enough to be living at a time where we have seen the transformative power of emergent progress, it should be easier for us to believe that the costs we impose on ourselves might be very large, but I suspect that we will always underestimate the downside of protective institutions.

gwern writes:

The link is broken; it is http://www.psmag.com/health/how-the-trailer-park-could-save-us-all-55137/

David R. Henderson writes:

Good insight. I've often thought that building inspectors are among the most destructive people in America.
Thanks. Fixed.

Krishnan writes:

If indeed this idea takes off - thereby putting pressure on "building inspectors" OR drawing revenues away from traditional cities/towns OR otherwise reducing the power cities/municipalities ... have over peoples' lives - I anticipate that someone will demand that a "Minimum Area Law" be passed - that for people over 55, housing cannot be less that 1000 sq feet and must have three bathrooms and have a garden and have a parking space and ... (i.e. we should not underestimate the ability of those who have power over others to sit still when a trend takes off - and when people figure out how to live without being bothered by others)

Mark Brophy writes:

I've lived in quite a few RV parks, including a month in Pismo Beach. Almost all were nice and that's why I sometimes choose the lifestyle. However, living by the Pacific Ocean is cold except in September and October. A town 5-10 miles inland such as San Luis Obispo is 10 degrees warmer.

Some of the people in Pismo own their spaces. I think state government regulation prevents builders from constructing more mobile home parks in Pismo and other towns on the ocean. As others have mentioned, local government is evil, too.

Rent control is a problem, too, in towns like Ventura. Rent control constitutes an illegal taking but courts won't recognize reality; socialism dominates the judiciary and legislatures.

MG writes:

This article -- especially the bit about "stigma" in the last para you quote -- also makes me think of the college versus appretice debate, and the high cost of prestige for the sake of prestige.

MingoV writes:

Small manufactured houses make more sense than mobile homes. Here's why:

1. Almost no owner moves a mobile home, so the costs of frame/chassis, axles, wheels, hitch, lights, etc. are wasted.

2. Mobile homes have mediocre insulation, so those living in hot or cold climes pay a lot to keep temperatures livable.

3. Mobile homes are noisy. Rain and wind, traffic, sirens, loud neighbors, etc. are continual noise problems.

4. Mobile homes have low resale values compared to comparable manufactured houses.

awp writes:


The frame/chassis, axles, wheels, hitch, lights, etc. are what let you avoid the building permitting process and are thus very valuable.

Hollowbean writes:
If the supply of housing were deregulated (no zoning, building codes, land use planning), the quantity and quality of housing supplied would increase, while the price would fall, as with other manufactured goods.

@Richard this is not a fact or a certainty. It's an assumption based on an efficient market, which you seem to be implying by the simple removal of regulation on housing, which, frankly isn't very efficient, or free, or even reasonable.

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