Dick Highter doesn't conform to anyone's stereotype of "trailer trash." The retired postal auditor does live in a trailer park, but it doesn't fit the image of backwoods poverty or roadside blight held by many Vermonters who live on firmer foundations.
Tall Timbers is the apt name of the development that Highter and 150 other trailer dwellers call home. The leafy enclave hidden off Route 4 and bordering Quechee State Park includes a community swimming pool at the center of a web of paved lanes that run past trimmed lawns and driveways filled with SUVs. The scene resembles a suburban idyll more than it does "an Arkansas tin-can setup" -- which is how John Walling, a Vergennes mobile home dealer, describes the common conception of trailer parks.
Tall Timbers may be exceptional, but only in quality, not in kind. It's one of 250 trailer parks scattered around the state, and Highter is one of nearly 50,000 Vermonters who live in what many prefer to term "mobile homes" or "manufactured housing." These units, which account for 7.7 percent of the homes in the state, are by far the most affordable housing options.
The median sales price of a Vermont home stood at $165,000 last year, while a household earning the state's median income could afford to pay only $115,000 for a house, according to the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Affairs. The average purchase price of a new doublewide mobile home was $57,100, and the average price of a used mobile home was $25,000. So it's no mystery why one of every 12 Vermonters lives in a trailer.
What's not so self-evident is the demographic makeup of the state's trailer parks. The Housing Department doesn't compile statistics on the incomes or occupations of Vermont's mobile-home dwellers, but other sources offer informed impressions.
"There's no such thing as a typical customer of mine," says Karl Jensen, owner of Colonial Mobile Home Supply in Winooski. "For a lot of people, it's a first home, and they have dreams of trading up, of buying a regular house. Some have had bigger homes and want to downsize. I also see a lot of families with kids. Some people are happy living in a mobile-home park; some aren't.
"I hate the word 'trailer' because of all it connotes," Jensen adds. "Those associations aren't fair to people who work hard and take care of their property."
Some parks, however, are in sorry shape, and individual irresponsibility is clearly the prime cause of dilapidation in at least a few cases. "Like all homeowners," says Highter, "there are those who let their properties run down and there are many who do not."
Either way, some residents of mobile-home parks live in circumstances that do not encourage a sense of stewardship. Unlike almost all other forms of real estate, trailers steadily depreciate in value. And the land on which they sit can be sold out from under occupants with 18 months' notice.
Other problems besetting nearly all the state's mobile-home communities are attributable neither to the residents nor to the landlords who own the lots, as well as some of the homes. These pressures and predicaments are slowly shrinking the stock of mobile-home parks in Vermont. Forty have closed in the past 20 years, with a total of 352 lots lost in the past decade, says Arthur Hamlin, state housing program coordinator for mobile home parks. In other words, at a time when a majority of Vermonters cannot afford to buy a median-priced home, the supply of eminently affordable housing is dwindling.
An advisory commission on mobile and manufactured housing established last year by Gov. James Douglas has identified the key issues accounting for the drop-off. This is the fourth such commission assembled in the past 18 years, and many of the concerns are familiar.
Some Vermonters who would like to buy a mobile home cannot find financing at rates they can afford. Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining a park has risen sharply in recent years as infrastructure ages and as landlords struggle to comply with stricter federal regulations. Again, the commission observed, financing is often unavailable for repairing or upgrading water and waste systems.
Another reason why the number of mobile home parks is declining, according to the commission's report: "Impediments to development." That's a nice way of saying many Vermonters will fiercely resist proposals to site a trailer community anywhere near their more "respectable" homes. Even self-styled liberals sometimes pale at the prospect of trailer folk moving into the neighborhood.
State law prohibits towns from blocking development of mobile-home parks solely because of what they are. "We've still got to educate some towns as to their obligations," Hamlin notes.
Seeking to clear away some of the impediments to this kind of development, state officials have streamlined the permitting process for mobile home parks. Procedures need to be further modified so more parks can be built, says Mike Momaney, director of development for the Vermont State Housing Authority. "I don't have a lot of sympathy for the NIMBYs," Momaney says. "But I'm already seen as the original evil person. I'm a real estate developer in Vermont."
Only about five mobile-home communities have opened in the state during the past decade. Three were sponsored by nonprofit housing agencies, which are playing an increasingly important role in preserving this crucial and endangered source of housing.
Groups such as the Vermont Housing Conserva-tion Board and the Vermont State Housing Authority are stepping in to rescue parks in danger of closing. These can be redemptive interventions, for many residents of old and battered units could not move their so-called "mobile" homes even if there were other lots to accommodate them -- which, in the most populous parts of the state, there are not.
The statewide vacancy rate in mobile-home parks stood at 3.8 percent as of last September, but that figure conceals significant regional differences. While several parks in the Northeast Kingdom have many empty trailers and vacant lots, in Chittenden County and elsewhere in northwestern Vermont, where 40 percent of the state's mobile-home lots are situated, availability is practically nil.
The squeeze would be even tighter were it not for the nonprofits, which now own 41 such parks in Vermont; three that they purchased have been turned into resident-controlled cooperatives. The 2100 lots owned or leveraged by the nonprofits represent more than one-quarter of all the home sites in the state's trailer parks.
When a not-for-profit housing agency takes over from a private owner, it often makes physical improvements. But these experienced, resourceful and well-intentioned groups have to grapple with the same problems that had put parks up for sale in the first place. The deterioration that can lead an owner to search desperately for a buyer may not be the result of deliberate negligence.
Just as most residents don't conform with outsiders' caricatures, many private park owners aren't the villainous slumlords that leftists might imagine. It's not easy to get rich off the rents at a typical Vermont trailer park. Keeping the place up to code can pose financial challenges, especially when pieces of the infrastructure start to break down, as happens regularly in older parks.
"By and large, mobile-home parks in Vermont were built by Mom and Pop on marginal real estate of little value at the time," says Momaney. "These places weren't designed or engineered. And now they've got infrastructure problems, so Mom and Pop are looking to get out."
The pressures have been heightened by state and federal laws mandating tougher standards for septic systems and drinking water. "Vermont, with the best of intentions, has actually made it more difficult for a lot of owners to stay in business. It costs them a phenomenal amount of money to do what the law requires," Momaney says. Unless some public money is made available to assist in infrastructure upgrades, "we're not going to make housing available in this state to households earning less than $35,000 a year," Momaney declares.
Some industry sources argue that would-be investors have also been discouraged by a state law that gives residents the option to purchase a park when a private owner posts a legally required notice of intent to sell. "The shortage of sites has a lot to do with Vermont policies," says Mark Brault, owner of a mobile-home dealership in Colchester. "That right to purchase a park first has scared off anyone with some interest in developing a park."
Maintenance of the homes themselves can also be costly for landlords. Dick Rooney, owner of Livingston's Trailer Park in Shelburne, owns seven of the 19 units on property within a towering tee shot of the Kwiniaska Golf Club. "I've had some problems with tenants because you don't get the class of people you would have if the homes were owned by the occupants," Rooney says. "Some of the places are left in pretty bad shape." He tells of one family who would lock two young children in a bedroom for hours at a time, leaving the kids to relieve themselves on the floor. "We had to rip out the rugs and really fumigate that one," Rooney relates.
Other tenants do take pride in their homes. Jim Brow, for example, has been living in a rented trailer at Rooney's site since last October. He moved there from an apartment on lower Church Street in Burlington to escape the noise and to have a yard. Brow, who is disabled and dependent on Social Security, points to the roughly 200 square feet of fenced-in grass beside his new home. "This is a fine place," he says. "I'd live in a trailer from now on."
Brow would be hard-pressed to get a better deal. He says he pays $79 a month in rent, thanks to a Section 8 federal housing subsidy.
Rooney says he manages to make a good living from the park, which has deeply rutted roads and a generally ramshackle appearance. He acknowledges that developers would pay plenty for this particular piece of real estate, but Rooney has no intention of selling. "The low-income people pay me enough, and they'd have nowhere to go if I sold out," he says.
Other owners reaching retirement age don't share Rooney's solicitude for lot renters, and are eager to cash out on the best possible terms. In some situations, such as Shelburnewood (see sidebar), the most attractive price may be offered by a developer who plans to close the park and transform it into an upscale development. But the same right of first refusal that Brault complains about can result in sellers still getting a good price even as the residents are able to remain in their homes. Such a win-win outcome is possible thanks to involvement by the nonprofits. They have the expertise and access to financing that can make a deal work for all parties.
Sale to a nonprofit does bring a high degree of security for mobile-home-park residents, among other advantages. The median monthly rent for a lot in a park owned by a nonprofit was $229 last year, compared to a statewide median of $246. In addition, the Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) has not lent money to residents of privately owned parks, but made a total of $10.5 million in loans in its latest fiscal year for mobile-home parks owned by nonprofits. "The types of arrangements we get with the nonprofits would not be agreed to by private owners," says Dave Adams, chief of program operations for VHFA. The agency requires an owner to keep a park open for as long as VHFA has a loan outstanding on a home within the park, Adams notes.
Conditions improved significantly when the Housing Foundation, Inc. (HFI) -- an arm of the agency for which Momaney works -- purchased Mountain View Mobile Home Park in Hinesburg. "All the electrical was upgraded and a new sewer system was installed," says Dave Muzzy, president of the park's residents' association.
Now, however, HFI is failing to enforce some of its own rules, adds Muzzy, 60, who retired from IBM and now works as a screener at Burlington International Airport. Four or five lawns in the 52-lot development are overgrown, and "the roads are in terrible shape," Muzzy complains. In addition, two trailers on the property are abandoned -- one for the past five years. "The manager said it would cost too much to move them out of here," Muzzy says.
"The standard answer we get when we want something done is that there's no money to do it. In my opinion, HFI has gotten too big to manage what it owns. They do a pretty good job overall, but things here aren't as good as they used to be," says Muzzy, who has lived at Mountain View for 30 years.
Momaney acknowledges that maintaining parks is sometimes difficult for his agency, which owns 20 of them in Vermont. He cites one in Springfield where HFI has encountered "constant problems in collecting rents and keeping the park in reasonable shape."
Momaney and other advocates acknowledge that some mobile home residents exhibit social pathologies associated with poverty. "We're often dealing with families that are just one paycheck away from disaster," Momaney says. "And that's a very difficult, stressful way for anyone to live.
Owners of some parks allow deterioration to continue unchecked, knowing they have little to fear in the way of enforcement and penalties from state authorities. The Department of Housing and Community Affairs can't levy fines to force compliance with state standards, according to Tim Ashe, director of a mobile-home project sponsored by the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity. As a result, "when a park resident's rights are being violated, he or she is given two real options," Ashe says. The resident can complain to the park owner and hope for benevolence, or hire a lawyer, Ashe suggests. "Problem is, benevolence and money for lawyers aren't growing on trees for these people."
Rooms With a View: Shelburnewood
Vicki Carleton remembers her amazement about a year ago, when she and her husband, out for an afternoon drive, happened upon the Shelburnewood Mobile Home Park. Carleton was struck by the beauty and tranquility of the almost-secret site, tucked behind the now-shuttered Shelburne Inn, on 22 mostly forested acres bordering the LaPlatte River.
Despite its seclusion, the park is within walking distance of a shopping center, post office, public school and library. Shelburnewood is also steps from the bus line to Burlington. And the monthly rent for each of the 28 lots comes to $258.
Carleton, who had been renting in Burlington, didn't hesitate when one of the units came up for sale. Along with all the other amenities, she now has the garden she'd long wanted.
But Carleton's delight turned to dismay just three months after she moved in. She and the park's other residents received notice in February that the owners, Marvin and Sue Thomas, intended to shut down Shelburnewood. All the households would have to find somewhere else to situate their trailers no later than August of next year.
What the notice didn't say is that the Thomases had signed a tentative agreement to sell the property for $2.2 million to Charlotte developer Gregg Beldock. The couple had also not apprised park residents that under Vermont law they would have 45 days to decide whether to make their own offer for the property, and a further 90 days to negotiate a sales agreement with the current owners.
Having formed a residents' association, the park's homeowners and landleasers appear determined to remain right where they are. Some of the 50 residents also express confidence that a deal will be worked between the Thomases and a nonprofit housing agency that wants to buy the park.
Among the optimists are Pat Lawrence, a self-employed medical courier, and his wife Sandra Lawrence, who works nights at a nursing home in Burlington. They say Shelburnewood is too nice a place to leave. "Where we're at can't be beat," Pat Lawrence declares.
The couple arrived in 1992, after their two daughters grew up and moved away. The Lawrences live in the site's rear-most home, looking out on a meadow where deer occasionally graze. Pat Lawrence says he's also seen a bear walking down the road and has heard that lynx live in the woods near the river.
Because of its desirable location, the Lawrences' home has appreciated in value -- which is the reverse of what happens with most trailers. Pat Lawrence says he paid $42,500 for the unit and was offered $50,000 for it last summer.
Carleton, a photographer, points to the diversity of the park's residents. Several are retirees, but one home is occupied by a PhD student at the University of Vermont, his wife and their 2-year-old child. "These make great starter homes, transitioning homes and senior homes," says Carleton, who hopes to move to a non-mobile home in a few years.
The Lawrences say Shelburne officials and many townspeople have been supportive of the effort to preserve these affordable homes in one of Vermont's priciest communities. And Shelburnewood residents are counting on some local philanthropists to help make the sale happen.
It won't be an easy deal, says Mike Momaney, who has helped engineer several mobile-home-park sales in Vermont on behalf of the Housing Foundation Inc. HFI is looking for ways to finance what would be the most expensive sale of its kind.
Burlington-based Opportunities Credit Union has also offered to help Shelburnewood residents finance the purchase of the property from the Thomases. Opportunities arranged mortgages last year for eight of 14 households in a Waterbury mobile-home park that would otherwise have been sold to a private developer. But a similar arrangement with the credit union would probably not be realistic in the case of Shelburnewood, says Carleton, who serves as vice president of the residents' association. She notes that some of the park's older residents have no interest in taking out mortgages. "How can you expect a 90-year-old to make that kind of commitment?" Carleton asks.
HFI has considerable experience in these sorts of transactions, having purchased about 20 mobile-home parks in Vermont. Momaney says his group can probably find financing to cover the $400,000 to $600,000 cost of the roughly six acres on which Shelburnewood's mobile homes are sited. "This part is a typical deal for us," he notes.
Conservation groups are said to have expressed interest in contributing to the estimated $300,000 cost of preserving other land near the LaPlatte. A pair of non-mobile houses also situated on the Shelburnewood site could fetch $300,000 more as a combined sales price, Momaney figures. But that still leaves the $1 million cost of the rest of the property. Perhaps an upscale housing developer will find the land attractive enough to pay that kind of price, Momaney suggests. A small building lot in Shelburne goes for about $30,000, he notes, so the Shelburnewood site would have to be densely developed.
The residents and HFI have until September to hammer out a deal with the Thomases. "It's too early to know whether it's going to happen," Momaney says, adding, "Everything we've looked at so far does seem positive." The Thomases did not return messages requesting their view of the negotiations.
One potential issue is the condition of the park's infrastructure. Pat Lawrence says it's generally sound, though the sewage system will eventually need to be upgraded -- at a cost that could reach $750,000, he estimates.
The 55-year-old enclave has been more diligently maintained than some mobile home parks half its age. The residents care about their properties, Carleton says. A trailer next to her own has been abandoned for several months, "but the neighbors keep it up," she notes. "We like where we live and we want to keep it looking good."