Are Mobile Homes a Forgotten Historic Resource?
Today, about 40,000 mobile home parks exist across the United States. They were critical to filling housing shortages during World War II and even more so after the end of the war. They have the potential to create opportunities for low-income housing, yet many mobile home parks are in danger of erasure from our cultural landscape.
Eduard Krakhmalnikov, a preservationist and landscape architect, has a passion for these often-overlooked places. His research on mobile home parks was featured in Landscape Architecture Magazine in 2013 and more recently in the Winter 2017-18 issue of Minnesota History. Below, Krakhmalnikov shines a light on the significant role mobile home parks played in United States history, and explains why they are endangered.
Tell me a little more about the history of mobile home parks in the United States.
Mobile homes really started out with the automobile in the 1920s. In this form, they were an attachment to the car, but you could take them with you and live more comfortably.
[Their rise in popularity] split the use of the “proto” mobile home, as it’s called, into two different functions: One was for vacations, and the other was for people who were using them as a more or less permanent home—but also as a place to move around and find new opportunities. It’s really American in that way, and it also created a sense of mobility.
Especially during and after World War II, workers lived in mobile homes near otherwise unoccupied agricultural spaces and railroads [where factories were built]. Mobile home parks were built by both private and government developers next to spaces of production, and they were able to quickly provide housing for war workers and the construction workers who built the factories. If it weren’t for mobile homes, I don’t believe we would have produced nearly as much [ammunitions and supplies] during the war. When the war ended, the country experienced a massive housing shortage, so more mobile homes sprung up. Much of the baby boomer generation’s early years were spent in mobile homes, and the homes became increasingly popular in the 1960s and 70s.
Today, mobile homes aren’t as visible, partly because the most vulnerable groups of people live there. Mobile home parks tend to house single women, people who have just moved to the country, retirees, and young families on a limited income. But, there are also a lot of people who have lived there for generations; they value the mobile home park as their community and a part of their identity.
Do you think that mobile home parks have a place in our current housing discussions?
We talk about affordable housing all the time, as we should, but we never talk about mobile homes or mobile home parks—even though they’re primarily used as affordable housing. When we talk about affordable housing and historic homes as preservationists, we really need to start including mobile home parks in those discussions. They fill a critical gap [in housing opportunities], but they’re also endangered.
Why are they endangered?
[Since most mobile home parks are privately owned], they become too expensive to maintain. To keep them affordable, their original infrastructure usually remains in place while their owners [find temporary solutions for repairs] until the entire mobile home park needs to be replaced. They’re sold off because it’s just too expensive to maintain and the owner is no longer making a profit; these are private places and businesses, and that is a legitimate concern.
Sometimes, mobile home parks are zoned out of their city or municipality because they aren’t wanted. That trend began in the 1950s and ‘60s, when suburbs were growing exponentially, and it continues today. When owners don’t want to own their mobile home park anymore, they sell them to developers who would rather build condos or other forms of housing that don’t have limited profit margins.
But on the other hand, some mobile homes parks are being turned into housing cooperatives [a membership-based housing corporation where each shareholder is given the right to occupy one housing unit], which I think is a great opportunity for the future.
In addition to creating cooperative housing, what are the best ways to preserve these places?
From the very get-go, we [as preservationists] have to acknowledge that mobile home parks are part of the landscape and that people are choosing to live there. These are communities, and many people move in because they’d rather own their home than live in an apartment. Maybe they can’t quite afford a house yet, or they’d rather save for their children’s education, or they’ve lived there for generations. Let’s start there.
In preservation circles, I think it’s particularly challenging because mobile home parks don’t meet any current measure of architectural integrity. They are very flexible spaces, and they could be upended at any time. It would be exceptionally difficult to put them in the National Register, the way it’s set up now, but that ultimately opens up opportunities for the future. I think we need to change the way we measure and create historic places.
Maybe it’s better to go down a grassroots route to try and preserve them—drumming up support in your community, rather than looking for a National Register listing, for example.
Right. Mobile home parks could become their own cities, just like two in the Twin Cities (where I conducted most of my research) have in the 1950s and ‘60s. Hilltop and Landfall [both privately owned] became their own municipalities to protect themselves from creeping annexation by neighboring cities. They’re still privately owned today. They have not only remained intact, but have actually grown over the last 60 years. They would’ve been destroyed otherwise.
What else should we do to ensure their longevity?
I think we should engage with the people who live there. 20 million people live in mobile homes, and about a quarter of them live in mobile home parks. If you put all mobile home parks together, that would create a city three times the size of Detroit. The more we can open people’s eyes to how important these places are, the more we can engage with the people who live there. Their voices should be heard just as much as any homeowner. It’s a massive opportunity.