What it’s called depends on who’s talking.
If you talk to a longtime resident, she’ll call it a trailer court. But if you ask a mobile home salesman, he’ll wax on about manufactured home communities.
Mobile home living is on the rise — the number of mobile homes in Missouri has grown more than 20 percent since 1990. Missouri has about 200,000 mobile homes, 5,000 of which are in Boone County, according to MU’s Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis. Only Jefferson, Franklin and St. Charles counties have more mobile homes than Boone.
But in Boone County, most of those new homes aren’t going into parks. And the trailer parks of yore are fading. Living in a manufactured home today is a far cry from what it was in the 1970s.
Newer, more upscale parks around the state cater to retirees, and other parks are cleaning up their acts and booting out those who won’t. Many parks check credit and criminal histories and have age limits on homes, leading to a concentration of “less desirable” residents and the oldest trailers in a few junky, crime-ridden parks.
Most people buying new mobile homes nowadays are moving them to their own tracts of land. Taken together, these factors have combined to create a major shift in the lifestyle associated with mobile homes.
The way we were
Residents of the 45-plus trailer parks in Columbia and Boone County say mobile homes are the most affordable way to live.
“You can save a lot of money,” said James Cooper, a resident of Columbia Regency trailer park who’s working on refurbishing his girlfriend’s 1970s-era trailer. “You move downtown, you’re paying $500 for something you’ll never own.”
Ownership ranks high among the reasons for mobile-home living. A mobile home offers more privacy and often more peace than an apartment complex, and it comes at a price equal to or less than that of an apartment. Most parks nowadays have owner-occupied homes and rent the lots, which go for $120 to $200. Utilities are another story; many park owners manage and bill utilities themselves, while others set up individual meters for each home.
Mobile home residents are as diverse as regular homeowners. They are single parents with teenagers and families with small children. They are elderly retirees and single young people just starting out. What they share is the desire for inexpensive housing and their own space.
William Burnham, manager of Woodstock mobile home park on New Haven Road, said the “trailer trash” stereotype is “a terrible misnomer.”
“They live in a home and are able to purchase that home,” said Burnham, who lives in the park he manages. “They have every right to have pride in that home.”
A shift in lifestyle
Though some local parks are thriving, many have empty lots, especially in the county. And those who are intimately acquainted with mobile home parks see the vacant lots as a signal of things to come.
Rick Brewer says one reason people are moving out of trailer parks locally is because there’s so much rental housing in Columbia.
“I think you’re going to see a big downfall of people living in trailer parks,” said Brewer, who manages Mobile Village with his wife, Heidi.
“They’re starting to get empty, a lot of the parks are,” agrees Bruce Erwin, general manager of the Luv Homes dealership. And he should know — he’s in constant contact with park owners as he tries to place homes.
Although single-wide homes, the kind traditionally found in trailer parks, are cheaper than double-wides, Erwin said he sells more double-wides these days. A new single-wide runs from $20,000 to $40,000, but Erwin’s most popular model is a double-wide that costs about $70,000.
The reason? People are moving them onto land, and mortgage rates are better for mobile homes placed on private property than for those moved into parks.
Randall Blake, manager of Ed’s Mobile Home Park, isn’t surprised by the shift. He blames park owners and managers for letting parks deteriorate and driving people away.
“You’re starting to see people pull out of the trailer parks and go to private land because people’s not wanting to keep it nice,” Blake said. Owners, he said, should take note and clean up their parks to retain residents.
“If these people don’t realize that, there won’t be any more trailer parks in Boone County,” Blake said. “And then everyone will be whining and moaning because they won’t have a place to live.”
Park conditions aside, putting a mobile home on private land simply makes financial sense, said Kevin Weatherspoon, owner of Central Missouri Mobile Homes and Haden Mobile Home Park.
“Look at what you’re paying in a lot — $200 a month — you can pay that on a land deal,” Weatherspoon said.
Old parks less regulated — and they’re all old
It’s been years since Columbia or Boone County saw a new trailer park established. In fact, at least three have closed since 2000. Older parks often close because owners decide to develop or sell the property for other uses.
“I’m not sure if it’s possible to have (a new) one,” Boone County Presiding Commissioner Keith Schnarre said. “The stigma and resistance to it is a hard one to pass.”
The County Commission just last week approved the expansion of Rogers’ Mobile Home Park east of Columbia, but such a move is rare. The commission in 2001, under Schnarre predecessor Don Stamper, repeatedly rejected plans for a new mobile home park that would have been part of Cris Burnam’s Windy Point development north of town. Neighbors argued the plan would have caused their property values to plummet.
Weatherspoon, too, learned firsthand of the resistance to trailer parks when he tried to develop one on Northland Drive in Columbia in 1994. He met such fierce opposition that he had to back down, even though the land was zoned appropriately.
“We couldn’t afford to continue to fight it,” he said.
The Columbia City Council rejected Weatherspoon’s proposal amid complaints from members of the area neighborhood association. After Weatherspoon’s proposal and defeat, the council revised city codes for new mobile home parks, requiring them to have public interior streets and at least two parking spots and a deck or patio for every mobile home lot. Parks with at least 25 homes must also have playgrounds, and the city has detailed requirements for spacing of trailers and screening around new parks.
New requirements, however, don’t apply retroactively, and neither do county regulations.
“All the mobile home parks in Boone County were there before there were zoning regulations, before there were building codes,” county Planning Director Stan Shawver said.
So existing parks are “grandfathered,” meaning they don’t have to comply with the strict new standards. That’s one reason the older parks are sometimes neglected, said Mary Hussmann of Grass Roots Organizing, a local social welfare advocacy group that’s lobbying for more regulation of trailer parks.
“How long does this grandfather live?” Hussmann asked. “They need to make standards that apply right now.”
County officials say parks are private property and therefore outside their reach. But Hussmann said that’s an inconsistent stance, given that many private businesses are subject to county regulation.
“They don’t feed you bad food in a restaurant because they ‘want,’ ” she said.
Neither the city nor the county conducts regular inspections of mobile home parks. Most offices, like the city’s Office of Protective Inspections, send inspectors out when there’s a complaint call, as with complaints from other areas.
The Columbia/Boone County Health Department sends an inspector to five trailer parks each year, but environmental health manager Gerry Worley said inspecting all the parks in the city and county would “put a strain” on the department.
The five parks that are regularly inspected ranked last in GRO’s 2002 assessment of county trailer parks: Wagon Wheel on Wagon Trail Road, Apple Grove on Creasy Springs Road, Southwoods on South Bethel Church Road, Lake of the Woods on St. Charles Road and Crescent Meadows off Prathersville Road.
Inspections are not required by law, but GRO wants to change that. Worley said a legal mandate is the only way all the parks in the city and county would get annual inspections, at least by the health department.
“If the county commission directed us to do so, we would do it,” Worley said.
As many park residents see their surroundings decline, they are raising the question of whose responsibility it is to keep up old parks. Some are arguing for legislation, while others just want their park owners to take notice of their complaints.