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The Ghastly Origins of Mobile Homes

A look at a trailer home inside a trailer ark with a beige tone.

Learn more about the origins of mobile homes, its dark American history, its ties to racism, racist housing policies and its future in the world.

Greetings, Homebodies! Long time, no snarking on McMansions. Took a bit of a hiatus to focus on other projects, but I’ve returned, and since it’s the most wonderful time of the year–OCTOBER! I can finally stop running the air conditioner!–it’s time to get into some scary topics!

And there’s nothing more frightening than American housing policy and this country’s refusal to recognize its own history!

So, mobile homes. Often pejoratively referred to as “trailer parks” with the residents dubbed “trailer trash”, there’s more to this type of housing than the stigma of poverty and deeply-entrenched classism. While the “trailer trash” stereotype tends to be depicted as white, did you know that mobile homes were actually a product of Jim Crow laws, and tenant farming, aka sharecropping?

Strap in, we’re in for a rough ride.

 

Why Would One Opt For a Mobile Home?

A beige mobile home with blue accents to match the landscape of blue flowers.

America is a land of extremes. 

Our average home size keeps increasing, topping out at an average of a whopping 2,584 square feet for a newly-built single-family home as of 2019 (the median being 2,355 square feet). Unlike the drastically smaller square footage seen in East Asian nations or across the pond in the UK and Europe, literally just about everything is bigger in America. Whether it’s gas-guzzling vehicles for our rough terrain devoid of public transit or our pizzas, it’s ginormous. Our HECKING CHONKERS of residential architecture is no exception.

Inversely, the tiny house movement has taken off in recent years as people grow tired of spending inordinate amounts of time and money on home maintenance. Although the pandemic age is driving temporary suburbanization and rural housing boom so city folks experiencing cabin fever can get some breathing room for the next year or two, you eventually run out of space to build on.

There’s this entire subculture dedicated to living out of an RV or even a boat. With record numbers of Americans looking to leave the country to the point of buying homes elsewhere, it’s no surprise that Millennials and Zoomers want something else after the dream we were sold turned out to be mostly made of subprime mortgage and student loan notes. 

After all, American culture tends to look down upon housing that’s not a big honking single-family lot or ginormous McMansion full of gaudy features slapdashed together like some kind of grotesque Saw meets Mr. Potatohead. The real estate lobby did a bang-up job for decades on convincing Americans that apartment life, whether you rent one or own a condo or co-op, is simply this lesser thing compared to owning a suburban house with a patch of grass that’s a pain in the ass to maintain.

Since some tiny houses can be put on wheels as opposed to a foundation, it’s sparked a new interest in mobile homes to the point that people who grew up in them are angry that tech yuppies are gentrifying yet another facet of poverty, just like they did with Instagrammable mason jars. But people are beginning to see their virtues: relatively inexpensive compared to most fixed foundation options, plus the ability to relocate the entire property.

But unlike a trailer, a mobile home (also known as a manufactured home) has some degree of permanence–just with the option to leave. What separates a trailer from a mobile home is that it’s got a steel frame and comes in one piece (two, if a double-wide) to where you’re placing it. But it’s not actually designed for regular travel the way an RV or wheeled trailer is. Lot rent in a mobile home park varies greatly. It can be as high as $700 per month in California, or under $200 per month in Missouri. The expanse of mobile home lots covered in this article is a colossal cave; some of the lots described offer shared amenities similarly to condo and rental apartment buildings would, such as trash pickup, pools, yard space, and so on. Every lot is different and should be carefully researched, to make sure it’s worth the expense relative to your mortgage payment plus utilities if they’re not included. Don’t want to rent a lot? You’ll have to buy land.

A trailer is meant to be hitched to a vehicle and transported on a regular basis, and is far cheaper than a mobile home. A new trailer can run you anywhere from $11,000 to $35,000 while a used one could be picked up for under $7,000. New manufactured homes can cost as little as $46,000 for a grade above 1-bedroom condo or large tiny house size, or $70,000 and up for larger models.

So, the stigma has eroded both types of housing despite some of the criticisms. After all, even after factoring in land costs or lot rent, it can still come out to being cheaper than renting a comparable apartment depending on where you live. Ditto if you just don’t want more house to maintain than you really want to. Now that the pandemic is also exposing how being forced to go to the office in one fixed location is a scam meant to control our lives, if you haven’t gone freelance due to job loss in the current upheaval? Entire complexes dedicated to remote work are springing up. When the vaccine hits, we could see a major uptick in trailer and mobile home parks dedicated to semi-permanent, semi-roving remote employee and freelancer communities.

Because here’s something else really freaking wild: did you know that trailers were once considered the pinnacle of luxury?

A black and white image of two luxurious women with a car.
It was Gap, not Gucci, if you know the meme.

In the 1920s, trailers were fairly expensive to acquire and the average family crammed into a tenement couldn’t afford them. This was the era of Sears Manufactured Homes and they came in IKEA-like kits after ordering them from their infamous phonebook-sized catalogs where you built them yourself, as it would be another 20 years until the massive waves of tract housing created the suburbanization boom which characterized postwar America. And well, was rooted in plenty of racism and hegemony what with redlining, white flight, and so on!

But among the wealthier or simply more intrepid set, trailers were a fun way to see America. You didn’t have to be tied down to an expensive permanent home, especially if you didn’t have a family to care for, and could just go from place to place to see the sights just like us digital nomads on Twitter do today. (I’m a baby nomad. I like having a permanent home, and this cheap-ass condo gave me the ability to see the world.)

The highway system was still a spec of imagination, but major roadways would clog up with trailers right before the Depression Era. Trailer parks, mobile home communities, and campgrounds were also not a full-blown concept yet until the people who lived among the major roads got fed up with trailer owners being loud, disrespectful and even downright destructive to neighboring trailers and permanent homes, and leaving their trash everywhere. It gave the people who lived trailer life a bad reputation as raucous criminals who didn’t know how to use a goddamn garbage can. So if you ever wondered where the term “trailer trash” comes from? You’re welcome.

Subsequently, concerned municipalities who didn’t want to lose the tourism dollars but also alleviate locals’ pain decided to go about creating campgrounds and other areas designed specially for roaming trailers. Private owners and local governments offered free space and for-rent options. People took advantage of the free parks and made them permanent homes which caused them to convert to paid and/or privatized spaces, in addition to enforcing strict time limits (often two weeks at a time). Most federal and state campgrounds still have this rule in effect.

Soon enough, these campgrounds evolved into trailer parks and mobile home lots we see today. But what does any of this have to do with the Reconstruction Era? Well, the trailers had to evolve from SOMEWHERE and slavery wasn’t that terribly long ago in 1920.

 

Why Mobile Homes Were Specifically a Product of Sharecropping

A 1936 photo of an old cotton farm home made of wood.
This picture was taken in 1936 in Hale County, Alabama. Floyd Burroughs was a sharecropper and this is what mobile homes of the day looked like.

Before I dive in, I need to give credit to the awesome Dr. Sarah Taber of Twitter, a crop scientist with a farming background who I might not have come across if I didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time on the bird hellsite. This thread is what prompted me to write this article:

Basically, the thread tore into this New York Times article about what would be construed as a modernized, gentrified version of tenant farming, a long-time exploitative practice that still persists today but is just as under-discussed as its historical counterpart in the Jim Crow era. 

As for the couple who decided to do this with an old dairy farm in upstate New York, hey look: we all make honest mistakes and have misconceptions about things that turn out to really suck in real life. Some people are making the whole Stardew Valley thing work out by actually doing their research and demarcating cottagecore aesthetic from actually having a farm as a business–and the former is actually what you need to do more often to qualify for things like USDA loans if this is your dream.

But as the cottagecore trend has taken off and cities are emptying out for suburbs and rural regions in light of COVID-19, even if most of these relocations won’t be permanent in the long run, people are looking for more options than “go crazy in this 1-bedroom apartment in an expensive city” and “move to a quiet suburb that’s not even much more affordable and Grubhub goes dark after 8PM”. The pandemic has pulled back the covers on many truths, untruths, and a really big one is just HOW much our society’s structure is based on deeply-entrenched racism.

Enter sharecropping.

When the Civil War was over, many freed slaves became sharecroppers. They needed incomes, and while they could no longer be forced to work for free, it didn’t mean that institutional racism and subsequent exploitation suddenly ended. Only slavery itself was now illegal. The United States didn’t even have a federal minimum wage until the New Deal in the 1930s, which was overturned in the 1935 Supreme Court case Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, ruling a minimum wage unconstitutional. It didn’t get re-established at a national level until 1938. So if you weren’t cleaning houses, working at mills, or other hard labor for subminimum wages, sharecropping was often the next viable income source with several catches.

A great deal of former slaves went to the same plantations they had been forced to work on but this time, they received pay based on crop portions. Sharecroppers would receive 25-50% of the yield to keep or sell.

But it was still slavery, just under a different name. Sharecroppers didn’t own any of the property, plant, and equipment necessary to get the job done. They had to buy livestock, equipment, tools, and moreover, a place to live even if they just took up residence in their old quarters. Since slavery meant no income, this meant having to buy these things on credit and often from the same people they worked for at usurious rates. Even if the crop yield was bountiful, it was all too easy for plantation owners to overcharge sharecroppers and keep them perpetually in debt without having to pay any of the yield out. Especially since they couldn’t leave until the debts were repaid. Sharecropping was more ubiquitous in areas with labor-intensive crops like tobacco and cotton, and poverty-stricken white farmers would soon outnumber freed Black slaves as sharecroppers since the setup sounded reasonable in theory and they thought they’d get cut a break since they weren’t subject to Jim Crow laws.

A sunset view of a tobacco farm from the vantage of the field.
No one gets cut a break from the almighty grip of Big Tobacco.

 

So, how did mobile homes of today come out of this?

This type of “tenant farming” wasn’t solely a southern system. As Dr. Taber points out, forms of sharecropping existed in the Midwest. Even in New York until anti-rent laws outlawed tenant farming in 1845.

Your home was often the only thing you actually owned and didn’t involve signing your life over to your employer, having to stay on that farm permanently until your equipment-related debts were satisfied. Portable shacks that could be wheeled away so you could go to the next farm to continue the cycle were precursor to the mobile homes and trailers we can easily move around today. If you didn’t want to get stuck in a debt cycle, you had to GTFO once you had a good yield and could just sell the product and run before getting trapped in a scrip at the company store kind of situation.

Tenant farming waned in the postwar era as land was developed into suburbs to accommodate the incoming baby boom, and industrial agro-enterprises began growing and phasing out the “running from one family farm to the next” model. But since the introduction of campgrounds only began in the 1920s and evolved to trailer parks by the Great Depression, these two forces more or less meshed as it was no longer just poor white farmers and Black former slaves and their descendants who were shut out of decent housing. People who lost everything in the Depression but didn’t succumb to deaths of despair sought out lower-cost housing that would enable them to go where the work was. This led to Hoovervilles full of migrant workers and the unemployed, who once again saw those trailers as a luxury item and portable shacks were where it was at if you could take it with you.

This just partly explains why trailers and mobile homes have this massive stigma attached to them, from their roots in generational poverty (specifically, rural poverty).

 

So hey, who needs ghosts, goblins, and horror movies when American history and racist housing policies we’re still feeling the effects of today are FAR scarier!

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