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Liz Margolies, L.C.S.W. Headshot

Our "Trailer Trash" Education

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Three generations of my family have lived in trailers, so when my partner and I bought a mobile home on the beach in Highlands New Jersey I cavalierly bragged that I was going back to my "trailer trash" roots. Little did I know we were becoming part of the problem in a national housing justice movement. As if to demonstrate the severity of the problem -- we now only have 48 hours to save our trailer park from developers.

For an estimated 8.8 million low-income people in the U.S., manufactured housing or what we used to call mobile homes, is their only foothold in home ownership. Yet unlike stick built home owners, most manufactured housing owners do not own the land underneath them; they live on leased land, like in our park. Suddenly what we thought was a house turned out to be a two bedroom car, and as a result we joined the many people who owned homes but didn't have most of the advantages of home ownership, or sometimes even the protections of basic tenant rights laws. We registered our new home at the DMV; it won't appreciate, we can't get a mortgage, and like many other families, our home would be lost if the owner sold the land. According to National Housing Institute, this is happening more and more often. As land values appreciate, owners can make handsome profits by selling trailer parks to developers.

Actually we learned much of this just as we bought the house -- because as we started to look into the charming yet run-down rows of trailers on the beach we discovered (aptly named) Paradise Trailer Park was actually a local partner in a national project that advocates for policies allowing trailer owners to purchase their land, and therefore start accruing most of the usual benefits of ownership. We learned that Paradise had been purchased by developers seven years previously and after a heroic battle by home owners and one ever-patient housing lawyer -- the owners had finally won the right to buy their land back. Housing justice advocates from across the country were praising little Paradise Park, a true David and Goliath story. Our beach house turned out to be part of a social justice movement. The first thing we did was set up a Facebook page called Occupy Paradise Park.

We also learned "mobile homes" aren't very mobile, so in the unlikely circumstance that the owners couldn't arrange financing we all stood to basically lose our houses. But we didn't worry much; the valiant homeowners had already beaten Goliath. They also had everything in place to secure the mortgages: favorable analyses, experts, technical consultants, and national advisers. The success of Paradise would encourage the many trailer owners in similar situations to think of their homes as a valued link in our social safety net, not "trash" at all.

But we underestimated the depth of the stigma conveyed by those words. Manufactured homes, the most common type of low income housing in our country, weren't just the butt of a social joke; bankers were also laughing.

Yesterday we got the call to come to an emergency Home Owners Association (HOA) meeting. The mood was somber and the news was bad. New Jersey's sole non-profit community financing institution had cut their expected loan amount by two thirds only a few days from the court deadline. Why the reversal? Speculation abounded, but no one knows exactly why. The homeowners talked about a recent letter alleging a group of bankers lunching with the developer, all laughing at our chances of getting funding. One thing is clear -- unless a new commitment is secured within 48 hours, seven years of community-wide effort will go down the drain. Paradise Park will be an inspiration alright -- for other trailer owners to not even fight.

Dejected though we all were, defeat is not an option. Newly approached banks are interested and the President of our HOA, Lori Dibble, will be meeting with them today. Our amazing and yet-to-be-paid lawyer is working long hours to make this happen. Everyone is doing everything they can.

Little did I understand as we joked that the term "trailer trash" was symbolic of a type of systemic discrimination that's allowing low income home owners from Appalachia to Arizona to fall through the cracks. As a queer couple, we were surprised we allowed ourselves to fall into the easy trap of belittling a whole class of people. We of all people know how stigma is rarely benign. And we refuse to believe in this time of real estate crisis banks wouldn't want such a group of impassioned home owners in their portfolio. But we've had a sobering education on many fronts and we know the clock is ticking.

Will they pave Paradise and put up a parking lot?

Our 'Trailer Trash' Education
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