Trailers: The Factory, The Business, The Owners
At 7:00 just after the whistle blows, Weighty Freighty heaves luaun paneling onto the sidewall table and stabs at it with his staple gun. His hand and the yellow air hose flourish back and forth along the paneling lines as the gun raps out staples and as Lovell swabs down the remaining stud wall with glue. They are wordless; the din around them gathers up as the rest of the shift starts. Brbrr brreeeeeeeekk. Sound, rather than dust or smell, envelops this mobile home factory, against the stationary power tool background, the air staplers, nailers and screwrunners ripple down the assembly line, high-pitched and increasing in echo and reverb. Lovell scrambles off the table with his glue bucket and longhandled roller, grabs up the other staple gun and begins tacking across from Freighty. They panel the 66-foot wall in 10 minutes.
We can see them. The trailer platforms come jerking and swaying up the track that bisects the plant and stop between our half of the sidewall crew and them. But we can see them, when we loop through the line to fetch paneling and framing and when they take over our table to catch us up their silent speed goads us in ways that little Bud's foremanly stomping and moaning never can. Each day they work faster than the line.
Sidewall is smack in the middle of this factory. On its northside, the trailer platforms rock around like dinghies while carpet and vinyl floor coverings are rolled out, partition walls set, roughed-in plumbing attached to fixtures. We frame the sidewalls on an 80-foot table, panel them, rout the edges and the openings, trim the interior face of window cut-outs. We tilt up the sidewalls with chain hoists, set them on the trailer floors, tie them to the endwalls. With fiberglass insulation patted into wall cavities, the trailer becomes bobbing pink cube, ready to be worked over inside and out. Once past Sidewall, the unit bounces over the next station as electricians hustle from receptacle to switch to panel box, snaps to attention when the topmen hoist their Damocles roof unit onto the wall plates, secure and wire it from the catwalks.
Move it! The trailers bump upline. Building each one takes about 200 worker-hours or one-and-a-half to two collective hours. Lovell turns to the next trailer, scowls and whoops.
Around him. through the plant's splotchy air, concentric outposts of work and storage band the assembly line. The first is a ring of measured movements cabinet shops, sink shop, table saw and radial arm saw, metal shop. The men there work in tiny, disciplined areas most of the day, cutting members or building smaller assemblies. Beyond them, in peripheral buildings, lie a welding shop for fabricating chasses, a millwork and truss shop, materials storage, offices and furniture warehouse by the canteen. That's where we lay out on break, on box springs and veneered particleboard end tables.
In this factory that doesn't have a defining beat, the ragged frantic pace and the tools' whine and chatter make morning break a disproportionate pleasure. It's 10 minutes to be coveted in the furniture warehouse which looks out onto the lot, just outside the plant where Taylor Homes' two women production workers tend to final trim and cleanup as the trailer's prepared to hit the road. "Would you buy one of those things?" Weighty Freighty smiles, gazing out at the 14-wide. "Not after I know how they get built."
City planner Chester Hartman has organized a nationwide network of progressive design professionals and written insightfully about housing issues. Like many other housing strategists, he has advocated industrialized building. In Housing and Social Policy, Hartman writes,
Indoor, mass-produced assembly-line production of housing has several obvious advantages. Interference and delays from inclement weather are averted. Large savings on building materials can be achieved through mass purchasing and direct ordering from manufacturers and wholesalers because this eliminates the substantial dealers' profit. Large and regular orders also make possible development and custom manufacture of new materials. Assembly-line production and the use of heavy machinery permit greater specialization of labor and the use of less skilled labor, increasing labor output and reducing labor cost per unit.
Though he may be an untypical supporter, Hartman has compiled a familiar list of the factory-building's theoretical advantages, the same list the Modern Movement's creators drew up in the 1920s. But trailers have been factory-building's only sustained commercial success, and trailers' costs today rise faster than those of conventional housing: what happened to these supposed economies of scale?
After boasting for years that "mass purchasing and direct ordering" mitigated inflation, the industry now blames soaring prices on materials costs. "There's no way out of it, ' says the general manager of a North Carolina factory who requested anonymity. "If I want to survive have to go up. If the inflationary rate's running 15 percent that means when buy I-beam or tires or lumber it's up a percent a month. If I buy $10,000 of lumber this month, it's going to cost $10,000 plus one percent the next month. And it's on every item you buy."
The official's company is one of the few mobile home manufacturers that produce a significant amount of their own components. No manufacturer has developed miraculous "new materials" that industrialization's fans keep projecting. Framing lumber, sheet metal, paneling, particle- and fiber-board – the trailer's principal structure and skins – have changed only in dimension and appearance if at all. Manufacturers' materials inventories do reflect seasonality. Controlled conditions theoretically permit year-round building. thus an uninterrupted flow of houses, but most trailer factories slow down or close up during winter. Spending patterns and storage expenses determine seasonality as much as weather, so trailer manufacturing's rising capital costs (minimum investment for a new plant is $5 million) paradoxically go towards establishing facilities with low break-even points. Fleetwood Enterprises, the nation's second largest trailermaker, claims its plants "actually turn profits at production rates of 25 percent of their capacity."
Finally, mechanization in trailer factories is incomplete compared to heavier industries. Wood necessitates production techniques and tools fundamentally different from other primary materials. No "heavy machinery" exists to fabricate wall sections the way that auto frames and panels are assembled. That leaves "reduced labor costs per unit" as the industry's trump. Ten major mobile home producers pay starting production line workers in the Southern plants just over minimum wage (see chart). Labor is only 10 percent of mobile home production costs compared to 25 percent of site-building's. Between 1972 and 1977, labor costs shrunk as a portion of the total value of mobile home shipments. Snared in an expansion dilemma, the trailer industry survives by first cutting back on its already miniscule labor costs.
During the 1970s the South became the trailer industry's primary market. Since mobile homes are distributed within 300 to 500 miles of production plants, this region also became the industry's manufacturing base. Nearly half of all mobile homes sold go to the South; and more than half of all mobile homes manufactured are produced in a region with trailer factory wages even lower than the already low national average.
Who provides "increased output" at "reduced cost per unit?" How do they see themselves and what does their work imply for all of us? Working and talking with mobile home builders gave some initial answers.
Taylor Homes, a locally owned, 23-year old company located in the Uhwharrie Forest, was "instrumental in bringing the mobile home industry to North Carolina," according to its vice-president, David Whitesell. Taylor's predominantly black work force produces four to five units each day from a drab, cavernous corrugated-metal building on the outskirts of Troy, the Montgomery County seat. Though it operates just one plant, Taylor typifies most trailer manufacturing in the region, including the biggest companies' Southern divisions: rural location, rural work force (including small farmers), no union contract, abysmal wages, frequently the biggest industry in town and sometimes clustered in or near mill communities. In 1979, Taylor shipped approximately 600 mobile homes worth $8 million.
America's colonial factory buildings were patterned after the period's houses, enlarging them to accommodate industry. Gradually the factory became a dominant influence in building design and technology; industry's orderly, repetitive facades and new uses of materials reversed its model-copy roles with residential structures. Taylor's ramshackle, hangar-like plant completes that reversal by explicitly producing homes in its own image. Inside it, our sidewall crew works on the wrong side of the assembly track, the side with a 28-inch aisle beside the work table. The cabinet shop pushes up against this aisle, narrowing it, and the space is always clogged with three or four of us, scrap material, new material, cords, tools and a couple of dangling overhead space heaters with the radiant futility of a match held up to an ice floe.
Bud controls us; he's been here for years. Buddy is short, stingy, harassed young ex-logger, a white man like all the other Taylor foremen. He's ridden herd on Walter and Willie for several weeks, rations out sidewall-building instructions like miser's gold, leans toward firing Willie rather than teaching him how to read a measuring tape and crudely tries to play the members of the sidewall crew against one another.
The one-by-two rails control Buddy most directly. Whenever the trailer model changes, he lays new one-by-twos – labeled with framing and paneling specs, window and door dimensions and locations, wiring cutouts – into channel on one side of our table. These rails correspond to working drawings where every framing member has been individually drawn. They, along with the red lines painted on the table on 16-inch centers, guide our jigs. None of the framing has a name. No studs, plates, cripples, cats, sills, headers, blocks or jacks. Everything is a "board," identified by lengths which the radial saw operators have written on the stacks where we pick up framing members. Since each piece has a number there's no need to call it anything.
This doesn't mean the industry is indifferent to names. On the contrary, "Increased acceptance of the concept of manufactured housing to replace 'mobile homes'" represents one of the industry's major goals, according to Mobile Home Merchandiser, a trade publication. Recently the producers' trade association changed names from Mobile Home Manufacturers Association to Manufactured Housing Institute, verbally blurring the distinctions between trailers and modular and sectional housing. If this public campaign succeeds, the industry and its converts will be two name changes ahead of its producers. Every one in the trailer factory calls them trailers. The exception at Taylor Homes – the doublewide, called a house. Most of the Taylor line workers live in conventional homes, and few would have a doublewide or a trailer.
While homebuilding has resisted industrialization, the trailer factory embraces its contagious values through the stretchout pace and the weight behind Buddy's authority. Fabricating the same hypnotic singlewide wall pattern five times a day, day in day out, can turn your head around – from submission to rebellion and back again, up and down in and out. Ultimately we love those repetitive singlewide walls. "We're gonna catch hell," Walter says when the pattern changes. In truth Sidewall catches a routine kind of hell in each noise-covered nuance of the workday.
Materials: One name recurs in our work: Weyerhaeuser. Though Weyerhaeuser owns more than three million acres of Southern timberland, we use two-by-fours of lodgepole pine native to the American West to frame Uwharrie Forest mobile homes which will be shipped to South Georgia. Each stud bears the Weyerhaeuser stamp on its waxy white surface. The little conifer superimposed on the big triad represents a timber empire assembled in the nineteenth century by bullying and syndicating rival mill owners, by outright theft, by befriending railroad barons and land-grant universities who owned the American forest courtesy of the Morril Act. Company founder Frederick's great-grandson George Hunt Weyerhaeuser a is a hard-driving member of the Business Roundtable who navigated the company into Indonesian and Brazilian timberlands which may supply framing for future Southern mobile homes. Except for their history and meaning these studs are unremarkable – soft and alien.
Trades: At Taylor Homes the flooring crew is the heating contractor, and our utility knives enable us to do "finish" work to complement the trim crew's. Rather than necessitating broad knowledge and abilities, the trade-less housing factory achieves the kind of de-skilling that earlier industrialization inflicted on other work. At Taylor, we don't need to sight down our Weyerhaeuser studs to turn the crown up because Bo's wiring channel has been prenotched. Crown or no crown, the notched edge is turned down. Trailer walls therefore curl in and out. And one very small but integral piece of the framing carpenter's competence and rhythm has been eliminated.
Industrialization not only saps and disconnects workers' skills, it redistributes power. In False Promises, Stanley Aronowitz observes, "With the reduction of artisan skills to relatively simple tasks, no individual worker or group of workers is able to master the intricacies of either the production process or the market." Capital's recognition of this preceded and shaped the industrial technologies devised during the nineteenth century. Industrialists selected those technologies for their ability to subordinate and fragment workers and to defend their own indispensability in management and distribution.
Buddy, Walter and Willie could call the a cripple a cripple as easily as a 14 and a half. But the power to name and to withhold names shows how "rationalized" building affects its builders. Our sidewall crew understands very little about the next stages trailer goes through once it passes beyond our territory. There's no bonus for learning any of those stages – let alone the entire process – and, as Willie will learn after an unauthorized stroll, there are powerful penalties for wandering eyes or feet. Pace and space also make Sidewall a cynosure, the obsessive and exclusive center of our attention in an ongoing hustle to catch up with ourselves or adjust to everyone else. The cabinet shop behind us might as well be a million miles away, our oblivion to it is that complete. Throw those studs on the jig! Come on you sorry nigger, spread em out, set em up. Come on let's go. Come on they gonna run those short houses in the afternoon. (Willie dumps the studs over our jig; his hands jump over the stack frantically, laying up the studs over the last ones he set up.) Come on nail it. (He scurries back to the cart for more.) Bap bap bap. Nail it! Naw, that's not where that goes! Goddammit! The next pile of studs swims out over the just-finished wall and flashes into position. We can't panel this before lunch. Goddammit it to hell! Bap bap nail bap bap nail nail it nail it shoot it. Pull the stud flush with the plate. Shoot it. Pull the stud flush with the plate shoot it. Not paneled before lunch. Stud's twisted. Fuck it flush with the plate Shoot it shoot it shoot it.
Tools: Inevitably, specialized and non-versatile work evolves with specialized and limiting tools like our air guns. You can only do so many things with a tool designed solely to drive 20 or 30 ten-penny nails a minute (if a you can count that fast or reload that fast in between pneumatic gasps). You surely can't pull nails with them, sink a nailhead flush or countersunk just so or drive a scaffold nail halfway; you can't bend: nail over and pull on it to align two surfaces and you can't tap the end of a chisel with it.
You can't achieve any of those fundamental ends let alone fill up with the sensate pleasure of driving nails rhythmically and well. Instead the builder-triggerman can keep up with his Senco gun. It waits passively but impatiently for two wood members to be lined up, to be aimed, have its trigger pumped as rapidly as possible and hump on to the next joint. Though this is a small tool, not the sheet metal press to which Ray's an extension, it has the same effect as equipment which directly replaces human labor. At Taylor Homes, the Senco gun enables one builder to make walls at profitable high speed and ensures that he will do the job alone; it's another technical advance which promises to "relieve drudgery" but instead creates new forms of drudgery. The tool and the way it's used lie at the source of both more abstract and more visible layers of control • concentrated economic power, aggregated markets, selection of products and inputs, the shape of landscapes. In the ear-ringing isolation of Sidewall, this tool also symbolizes our replaceability. For nail-gun jockeys, standardized parts and production tasks permit the interchangeability of labor.
Out of the Cave and Into the Sun: "Man, this place is the damn penitentiary." it He says it conversationally, sprawled on a pile of one-by-fours stacked against the chain-link fence. Two rows of barbed wire lace across the fence, and a little frame guard house abuts it. Bo stops picking at his coffee cup, wads it up and throws it into the yard. "How much you making?" And then, "They can't keep me here for that for very damn long." Bo is newly interchanged labor; he burrows past our table during the day wiring the sidewalls once they've been set, running cable through the wiring channel that's been notched into the studs' outside edge, then tacking galvanized shields over the notches to protect the cable from errant sheet metal screws. With a brimming a basket of shields slung over his shoulder, Bo figure-eights our station and the next one upline in precise, hurried loops. "It's not so bad," he says on the ride home. But out on the yard, leaning back on a one-by-four to take in the lunchtime rays, he closes his eyes and murmurs it out. "Really, all everybody here wants to do is fuck with you."
Industrialized building's boosters have often lumped organized labor with code, financing and zoning restrictions as obstacles to their dream's inevitable success. Architect-writer Peter Blake contends that many building trade unions "have fought prefabrication tooth and nail ever since they decided it would threaten the livelihood of their members.' But whatever battles have been fought, few occurred over mobile homes.
The trades' perspective on mobile homes comes into focus when union leaders talk about organizing the country's 42,000 trailer workers. At present the Bureau of Labor Statistics has no record of any mobile home plant in the country with a union contract; few union officials hold out hope for I change. "The nature of the business is so mobile,' says the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' Eugene Ruff, that the manufacturers "are just like their units. If you go in and start anything, they'll just pack up and leave."
“Anyone can start one [a trailer factory] that's got a garage," says Steelworkers official Bruce Thrasher. And Charles Dover, president of the North Carolina Building Trades Council, says bluntly that there are "not enough people to justify the expense.”
Mobile home manufacturers have designed their plants to operate with minimal and divided work forces. But to the building trades unions, low-paid, semi-skilled workers don't represent an organizing opporunity so much as a work force which can be easily scared and easily replaced. Without the leverage of skills, good wages, numbers or stability, union tradesmen say, organizing is nearly impossible. Some trade union attitudes towards trailer workers also reflect a superior view of the producer end of "trailer trash." Union officials characterize mobile home workers as "drifters" and "jacklegs off the street;" an officer of the North Carolina Building Trades says, "We're craftsmen; those people aren't professionals. They're not craftsmen, they're just day laborers."
Overcoming prejudice and legitimate organizing problems may in the end be difficult but necessary for the organized building trades. As construction users and openshop contractors make frontal attacks on the building trades, the construction industry continues to undergo profound changes. More and more building workers are industrial workers, producing construction materials and components for on-site assembly. Links between construction's craft and industrial workers could help create more equitable built and working environments for building's producers and its consumers. As the following interview shows, some Southern mobile home workers have organized themselves and defined workplace issues in ways that belie stereotypes of them.
Darrell and Susan Leviner, of Peachland, North Carolina, are a young couple who have worked at mobile home plants much of their adult lives. At the time of this interview in October, 1979, Susan installed doors at Schult Homes' Polkton, NC, plant. Schult, owned by Inland Steel, is the natins' oldest trailer manufacturer. Previously Susan worked at Festival Homes (now owned by the Wick Corporation) in Marshville. Darrell worked at Americana and Wick plants in Robeson County, then for three-and-a-half years at Schult, where his time overlapped briefly with Susan's when she first started.
Darrell: If you was to go down there and apply for a job – say you went in the flooring department. Alright, they take you back in that flooring department and whoever is over you at that time, group leader or trainer or something, he won't stay with you and explain step by step what you got to do, he'll just put you here and say, "Hook up some hot water in your shower," and show you how to do this. Well, you got to hook it up just like that all the time. Then he'll show you how to run the pipes under the floor and that's the way you do that. As far as moving up and learning how to do the sidewalls, floor, or putting the roof on, how to wire a mobile home or hang the doors, they don't do it. A lot of Schult Homes' loss is in waste. If they got a wall that don't fit they tear that wall to pieces. They just take it down, don't try to save it, they just throw it away.
Susan: They have a guy drawing up the blueprints who's never done the work.
Darrell: He's sitting there at desk. He can figure on that chart. But when it comes down to that plant and you're doing it, it's different. I guarantee you that over half of them down there don't go by the print now. They've got their own marks on it that tells them how to do it. That's the way we used to do. If they send a new blueprint down there and you go by it, you'd be messing up. When first went there they didn't have a ground on one side of the plant. I told them about it when I was down there in the maintenance department.
Susan: They couldn't find it. They didn't do anything about it until there was a guy had just come there working on sheet metal. He had a drop cord and he was using an electric saw to cut off the metal roof. When he cut it off it started shocking him. And him up on top of that metal catwalk. And he hung onto a metal chain – and he couldn't turn it loose – and he fell off that metal catwalk right flat on his back on that cement floor. It burnt his chest real bad from the shock. They had lawsuit about that. They had several electric companies checking it out then. But they don't do anything about anything until somebody gets hurt serious and they have to do something about it.
That's the reason I got shocked, cause my screwgun didn't have a ground on it. And if you don't know any thing about your tools – see, I'd been getting shocked but they were telling me that I wasn't getting shocked. It was something in the panel box that was giving me kickback from the screwgun. And knew | was getting shocked [laughs] . And they didn't do anything about it until one day turned it on when I was standing on one of those metal vents and it knocked me on the floor. I got up, I couldn't talk. I was just numb. But when I could talk, I told them I'm not working no more. I wasn't leaving, but I wasn't working no more until they did something about it. They had told me it was all in my mind that was getting shocked.
When our old production manager was there he was hollering at somebody all the time. He was yelling over the intercom, yelling at people, "Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up." As far as I'm concerned nobody pushes me. I've been there about three-and-a-half years. But no matter how long you've been there you don't make no more. Now each department is making different money because of the incentive, because of how many hours you're allowed on each house.
I'm going to keep up with my incentive and I'm going to know what I'm supposed to have on my check. They try to make it complicated down there. Most of the people down there don't even know how to figure their incentive. Whoever's making out their check, they just have to take their word for it. But I always figure mine up. I got my check one week and I was like $55 short on my incentive. So I went up to the production manager's office and was up in the wind about it – I've got a very hot temper – and I went in and, boy, he cussed me out. He was mad because I had the nerve to say anything about it. But buddy when he cussed me out, that was it. I turned around, I cussed that man for everything he was worth. And from that day on he was nice to me. I told him he could have my tools, he could have my job, he thinks he can get somebody else to do it, let em do it. I care about my job but when it comes to him I can't even say anything that he can have. got down there, I got my tools up, I was going to turn them in. But it wasn't long he got sweet with me. And before I left I was his pumpkin.
See, most people down there just take it and shake it off and go on. We a had a sitdown one time since I've been there. Everybody just sat down and everybody was going to keep sitting. They were just walking over the people. Like the foremen, they get a bonus on every house that goes out of there. The people don't get anything. And we're the ones that're doing the houses, not them. That was really the reason we sat down then is that we didn't get any money but the foremen did. But it didn't really do any good. They come up there and told those people they could either gO back to work or hit the clock and get out of there. Most of the people got up and went back to work. If people had stuck together – they couldn't have let the whole plant go. They scared the people. Down there each man's for himself. And now you'd better be, because you're not going to get the people to stick.
Darrell: At Wick, a lot of farmers worked there. The quicker they got their job done, the quicker they could get home and work on their farms in the summertime. The old people ran that plant up in Maxton. If you were just goofing off and your job was not caught up, the older men in that plant said, alright, you got to tighten up or you got to go. What the old people said went. They struck one year for more money. And the plant manager come out and said, alright, if you don't go back to work I'm going to fire all of you. Half of them – the younger people – they got up and went back to work. But that day at dinnertime they sat down again. And in the meantime, the older people come around and said if you don't sit down and stay, people're gonna get on you, boy! So they had to stay that time. We got our money and we got the big wheel fired too.
Susan and Darrell live in a Schult home which was used as a demonstrator in mobile home shows and a dealer's lot. Susan explains: They were going to have to send the whole thing back through to rebuild it. So rather than do that they just sold us the house. We got it at a good price like that. For us it's nice enough and it's ours and it's more than what a lot of people got. So we like it – I guess that's all that matters. Everybody would like to live in mansion, most people would, but you got to kind of live in what you can afford. We could have made our house payments, but it would have tied us down for so many years. Thirty years is a long time to pay on something. For the money I'd much rather have this. Now, if somebody was going to give me a house, I'd rather have a house. We never knew we'd be living in it [when Darrell wired it]. If it'd been me, I'd have been standing there with a hammer over their heads saying, "Hey, you better build it right." [laughs]
Darrell: It don't make any difference who bought that thing, long as I get my paycheck on time, it don't make no difference who gets it.
Susan: Yeah, you're there for the money and not – we do the same thing on all of them. Like me, I try to do a good job. I wouldn't try to send anybody anything that wouldn't have for myself, but things have changed down there. used to go from department to department, work in every department, help every body out. But now know how far I'm going to go down there. And that's no farther than I am now. I'm not going to be a foreman down there, I'm not going to go any higher. Why should you? It's not any honor to go any higher. Now you just go in, do your work and get out. don't like that cause I get too involved with my work. I think that your work should be a part of you, not just something that you just go in and get it done and get out. But if that's the way it's got to be, that's the way it's got to be until something comes along that's better. I'll be there.
In 1978, Inland Steel's INSTUD division – which owns Schult Homes as well as another mobile home company and develops conventional housing – earned profits 40 times greater than in the previous year. Soon after this interview, Schult established new production rates in the Polkton plant which effectively cut Susan's wages in half. "They still expected us to work just as fast and just as hard," she explains, and soon after the pay cut Susan left Schult.
Trailers: the business
During the 1960s and '70s, the homely trailer symbolized the country's most glamorous industry. New manufacturers, production plants and retail lots emerged overnight. In 1973, Forbes ranked three mobile home manufacturers as the three most profitable American corporations over the previous five years. Arthur Decio, chairman of Skyline Homes, the nation's largest mobile home producer, gloated, "Some years ago builders just decided to forget about low-income groups. This was our opportunity and we are trying to make the most of it."
In trying to make the best of good fortune, the trailer industry relied on easy credit, and in 1973 and '74 the great mobile home boom went bust. The general recession of 1974 hit poor families – the primary trailer market – hardest. Unable to keep up with their payments, many lost their trailers, cars, TVs, everything. In two years more than 130,000 mobile homes were repossessed. Production dropped dramatically (see chart, p. 20) and dozens of manufacturers folded.
The industry has not yet recovered. Although threequarters of all American families cannot afford a new single-family home, trailers' share of the single-family housing market has declined every year since 1974, dropping from 37 percent to 17 percent in mid-1979.
As the market share drops, the cost of mobile homes rises, climbing even faster than the cost of conventional housing. The square foot of trailer floor space that cost a buyer $10.60 in 1974 rose to nearly $18 in 1979. Between 1974 and 1978, the average price of a site-built home increased 61 percent to $62,500 (including land) while the average cost of a singlewide trailer rose 71 percent to $15,900 (excluding land). Valueline, a New York investors' service, ranked mobile homes at the bottom of 1980 investment opportunities.
Why are mobile home prices skyrocketing? Why is the market share of this self-proclaimed "affordable alternative" plunging when fewer Americans can afford conventional housing than ever before? Why is the industry stagnating only a few years after its product appeared to be taking over a significant chunk of American housing?
First, throughout its history the mobile home industry has produced more trailers than there is space to put them. Second, it has had to bend to the will of cautiously indifferent banks and other lenders. Third, the four million trailers already in circulation present active market competition and an unwanted performance standard.
These problems are not all of the flimsy trailer industry's making. They also represent a web of institutional controls that shunted trailers outside established housing industry and allowed them to flourish, for better or worse, with the shelter-poor families that couldn't afford conventional housing. That web of controls, and the industry's new eagerness to nestle into it, reveal much about the illness of our housing system.
I have met almighty sheriffs in Florida who thought that no trailer ought to be allowed to roll upon the sacred Floridian roads, meant only for the higher class of cars. Over and over again I heard that the people traveling in trailers were not the kind Florida wanted; that they were undesirables. The poorer trailers were often stopped on the road and examined and some of them were turned back. Their owners' crime was poverty.
-Konrad Bercovici, Harpers Monthly, June, 1937
In the '30s, America's legal system reacted to trailers in much the same way that colonial Poor Laws punished earlier forms of poverty. State and municipal courts ruled that a cities could restrict a trailer's stay whether it was parked on private or public ground. The law formalized an emerging bias against "trailer trash" which was sanctioned in magazine articles like "Trailers, A Public Health Menace" and "Trailers: Liberator or Menace?"
Since then a solid wall of zoning laws has been created to keep trailers outside community boundaries. If allowed, trailers and their residents have been isolated in areas where "eyesores" could merge with industrial landscapes – or worse. During the 1970s, for example, courts upheld a Michigan developer's right to establish his trailer park on land adjacent to an industrial gravel pit and across the river from a sewage treatment facility, ruling that the property was "virtually worthless for any purpose other than a trailer park and was so situated that the mobile homes could not adversely affect anyone."
Sixty percent of all U.S. communities currently ban trailers from privately owned lots. Besides excluding mobile homes from residential neighborhoods, restrictive zoning clumps trailers together, chiefly in rental parks. Except in rural areas, this type of zoning effectively prohibits trailer residents from owning the land under their home or building any equity. It has also made the South – with the country's largest rural population and lowest incomes – fair game for mobile home marketeers. In five Southwest Virginia coalfield counties where mortgage money is tight and residential contractors scarce, 84 percent of all new singlefamily homes purchased between 1970 and 1976 were trailers.
Half of the four million trailers in America are sited in 24,000 parks; three-quarters of the 11 million people who live in trailers rent the property their home sits upon. In the parks, tenants have consistently been subject to high rents, restrictive rules, retaliatory evictions, monopoly sales of homes and accessories by park owners and discrimination by age and race.
The restrictive zoning which bred trailer parks and rentals has also caused a shortage of parking spaces. During the early '70s, manufacturers turned out three trailers for every existing space in mobile home parks. Very few rental parks have been developed since then; Becky Griffin, director of North Carolina's Manufactured Housing Institute, mobile home trade association, says, "There probably has not been a rental park built in the state of North Carolina for two years, I'm sure." Fewer than two percent of all trailers are moved from their sites. Besides locking up the industry's available land, many of these deteriorating homes help lenders justify their credit and valuation policies. "Until zoning boards recognize that we are housing," says industry spokesperson Owen Chaffee, "we are going to) have a difficult time.”
Most states still tax trailers as personal property rather than real estate, a carryover from the first travel trailers, which were registered and taxed as vehicles. Ninety percent of all mobile homes were financed as they are taxed as personal property paid off on installment loans. This consumer credit, arranged chiefly through mobile home dealers, features high rates and short maturities which make the loans attractive to lenders and so expensive to the installment buyer that paying off conventional mortgage can look good by comparison. Additionally, dealers mark up mobile homes a minimum of 30 percent; counting manufacturers' profit, transportation and other expenses the homebuyer's cost can amount to half again as much as the trailer's production cost (excluding land and interest).
Nearly all lenders and tax officials depreciate the value of trailers with an appraisal system comparable to the "blue books" used for autos. According to the National Association of Realtors, blue book depreciation rates range from 12 to 50 percent of the trailer's original cost over its first five years of occupancy. HUD is conducting a study into trailer durability, and though officials acknowledge that life expectancy is "the $64,000 question," head researcher Jim McCullom says that HUD is "not into the numbers game" in evaluating how mobile homes hold up. When released, the study will make recommendations for new federal standards, report the damaging effects of moisture and highway transportation on structural integrity and advise on the "economic cost-benefits" of improving items like structural adhesives.
Industry officials like our anonymous general manager say that "the life expectancy of a mobile home would be indefinite: there's no reason that a two-by-four in a mobile home won't last as long as a two-by-four in a brick home." But depreciation – undergirded by the very visible (and HUD-researched) deterioration of many trailers – remains a major obstacle to the industry's effort to shake its shoddy, quick-buck image. The problem is much more painful for mobile home owners with negative equity at a time when conventional housing appreciates almost geometrically.
During the trailer production boom, the rejection rate from mobile home loans was only five percent. Lenders "got money-hungry," says the North Carolina MHI's Becky Griffin, "and they lost lot because when the economy dropped out we had a lot of repos and they ended up with them. It hurt them bad so they have a bad taste in their mouth." Consequently the lending industry makes trailer loans on exploitive terms or not at all. Recently it's been the latter. Total mobile home credit grew from $14.4 billion at the end of 1975 to only $15 billion in 1978. Seventy percent of the banks surveyed in 1978 by the American Bankers Association's magazine Banking were thinning or had dropped trailer loans from their portfolios. Between 1973 and 1978, trailer loans declined from 35 to less than 20 percent of all consumer loans issued by S&Ls.
The best solution is for the factory builders to do what they can do very well, build shelter in their factories; for the on-site builders to do what they can do very well assemble land, develop the financing, deal with powerful local politicians, get zoning approval and ultimately work jointly in a coalition. That way everybody is better off.
– Arthur Bernhardt, MIT architect, 1974
To dispel the notion of trailers as "lower-class" building, manufacturers have boosted production of doublewides, now the fastest growing sector of mobile home sales (30 percent of all units sold). The doublewide, manufactured as two single units with a common wall, approaches site-built housing in size and, increasingly, in cost. "Today low-income people really can't afford a mobile home," says the general manager who characterized his homes as "a low-end product, the Chevrolet of the industry."
The industry proudly points to new subdivisions of 150 to 600 lots built or approved in several states, nearly all in the South and California. VA financing for permanently sited trailers has stimulated the subdivision movement. Targeted at Vietnam vets, the new VA loans offer 30-year mortgages at 9.5 percent and no down payment; they are financing whole subdivisions like a 459-unit project in Killeen, Texas, home of Fort Hood. This VA assistance not only continues the tradition of trailers as military housing; it is also the first sign of federally supported trailer consumption comparable to the government's promotion of conventional home ownership.
Despite VA financing, it is still difficult to place trailers in communities. Maurice Berk, who plans to build a 366-unit trailer subdivision in the wealthy suburbs of Montgomery County, Maryland, told the Washington Post, "it was a three-year battle to get permission to put factory-produced housing on permanent foundations on individual lots.' According to developer Sydney Adler, a newly opened Boulder City, Nevada, trailer subdivision with 336 lots had to be built as a Planned Use District because "The city didn't want to assume responsibility for roads and other services." While Fleetwood Enterprises plans to undertake at least two subdivision developments, Fleetwood president William Weide told Business Week that the company's ventures resulted from two years of failed attempts to convince land developers to take on the subdivisions. "Since conventional developers won't lend us their expertise," Weide said, "we've decided to get in there and develop our own."
Developers that do take on the doublewides get rewarded quickly. Cheezem Development Company, which has built trailer subdivisions in Florida, told Professional Builder that the company gets its money out as soon as lots are sold rather than operating an income property which would take 12 to 20 years to recoup land costs through monthly rentals. While the future of trailer subdivisions is questionable, there's no doubt about their most salient feature: they're expensive. Lot and home packages in the new developments start mostly at $40,000.
Subdivisions and doublewides are highly publicized because they're the closest thing the industry has to a strong case. But Bob Berner, vice-president of Citicorp, a major trailer financing company, says "I foresee no radical change in the present (financing) terms for singlesection homes. What we need are some living success stories that demonstrate the profitability for all concerned."
The mobile home industry now builds for a two-tiered market. The lower-tier, single-section trailers produced for newlyweds and retirees, flood and hurricane victims, should remain untouched by any zoning or financing changes which may occur. Rising prices, depreciation by blue book, no land, no equity and no favorable financing terms will probably continue to characterize the industry's bread-and-butter product.
To boost their sales, mobile home manufacturers are pressuring for financing changes through their trade association, the Manufactured Housing Institute. In 1978, MHI hired Walter Benning away from International Telephone and Telegraph, where he had been chief lobbyist. As executive director, Benning has redirected MHI's promotional efforts to nationally coordinated lobbying on land and finance issues, portraying the industry as a savior of America's poorly housed citizens and mobile homes as stable, lucrative lending venture. Benning and the manufacturers propose to lower interest rates and extend terms to mortgage levels, to increasingly use Federal Housing Authority and Veterans Administration insurance programs (established in the late '60s but used to back only 10 percent of all loans since then), and to replace valuation by blue book with on-site appraisals. While these "reforms" sound progressive, they would not so much benefit low-income trailer buyers as fit into a wider strategy to attract more affluent customers.
Adverse publicity has succeeded in making people believe that the trailer traveler is living at the expense of the rest of the population; that he is a tax cheater; that his children go to school without paying taxes to the state. A grocery man in Virginia looked upon my trailer and denounced all trailer people as cheats. "You ain't paying no taxes – no taxes," he screamed, "you are like gypsies.. hate gypsies!"
- Konrad Bercovici, Harpers Monthly
The industry's bid for widened markets also plays upon the same fears that enraged the Virginia grocer in 1937. Trailer manufacturers now call on states and localities to place more stringent taxes on mobile homes. Fleetwood Enterprises Vice-President Jerry Biddulph told New York's security analysts, "In many states, the sales tax paid upon the purchase of a mobile home and the personal property tax do not benefit the local cities, counties and school districts as do real estate taxes on conventional houses." Fleetwood's appeal to local governments argues that communities lose revenue by statutorily depreciating mobile homes and diminish their bonding bases by taxing trailers as personal property – only secured property can be considered for bonding purposes.
In a parallel move, many manufacturers welcomed imposition of a HUD code governing trailer construction in 1976. The code was written in large part by the industry, which was being attacked for shoddy and dangerous products. It gave trailer manufacturers new legitimacy for complying with America's only nationally applied building standards. And as HUD obliged the trailer-makers in 1976, financially squeezed local governments are responding to the siren call of a whole new class of higher taxes. Separate reports prepared for the Kentucky Governor's Appalachian Development Conference and the Piedmont Triad Council – a North Carolina multi-county planning agency – stress the need for good mobile home tracking systems in order to prevent lost tax revenues. The immediate beneficiary of higher taxes on mobile homes will of course be the industry, since a community's taxation system frequently determines zoning decisions. And the industry's pitch to "short-changed communities which need every cent they can get," seems another effort to grow by abandoning its traditional lowincome customers.
Higher prices and shrinking markets result from the industry's brand of "productivity" as well as institutional pressures. Since their inception, trailers have not been tied to a piece of subdivision land but to a truck hitch. Most of the $43 billion worth of mobile homes sold since 1955 were not produced to be permanent homes but to fulfill their Depression and wartime functions as travel trailers and temporary shelter. They were conceived and built to be replaced, not repaired. Unlike autos and appliances (and the $40 billion home repair trade), mobile homes have not fostered burgeoning service industries. They're built as inflexible, self-contained units where minor repairs require major changes and expense. Imaginative alterations and additions honor resourceful owners who overcome large odds presented by their own homes.
Trailers, more perfectly than any other product of the building industry, did anticipate and express an avalanchelike consumer economy of supposedly limitless needs and infinite resources. Assuming continued rounds of consumption after their products grew obsolete, trailer manufacturers developed a typical post-war industry that accommodated and profited by prejudice rather than challenging it. In doing so, the industry helped to create the limits that now frustrate it and keep too many people shelter-poor.
Disdained by privileged America, described by Ramparts as "Purgatories on Wheels," trailers have been the only (or the best) definition of home for millions of people. The history and present state of our only popular form of industrialized building show what we should and shouldn't demand of factory-built housing. We shouldn't allow the advantages of industrialization to be used to de-skill, underpay and demean workers, nor to produce slipshod, disposable homes, nor to help concentrate a decentralized industry. And we shouldn't let our public and private institutions turn those advantages only to products beyond the means of those who most need them. Instead we need a vision of housing equity that defines rewarding work and good, durable shelter as rights rather than privileges.
Trailers: the owners
By Pat Beaver and Mary Jane Putzel
Throughout the Southern mountains, mobile homes are lined up in parks, clustered among suburban brick ranchers, nestled to old farm houses, and perched alone on barren hillsides.
Trailers and mountain homes conjure up two very different sets of images: on the one hand, we think of plastic impermanence, cramped monotony; on the other, craftsmanship, family tradition and individualism. Why would anyone brought up in one of those picturesque mountain cabins abandon it for a prefabricated mobile home? These interviews from Watauga County, NC, reveal some answers.
Sisters Hazel and Evalee lived in the same trailer park until Evalee bought and moved into a house. Evalee and her two youngest kids now make do with minimal indoor plumbing – cold water running to the kitchen sink – and heat from a wood cook stove. Meanwhile Hazel has moved with her five children into Evalee's old trailer at the end of a park street with fields and trees nearby.
Evalee: I didn't like it much when we first moved in to a trailer park but got used to it. I was used to a lot of room from living out in the country.
It got so I was ready to leave the park. I couldn't have a garden and, you know, some of the old people wanted to garden so bad they'd stake tomatoes out up close to their trailer. The woman who owned the park was crazy. She'd get drunk and get the notion that everybody in the park was doing drugs and here she'd call the law. After a while, Johnny Miller, he's the sheriff, why he'd just not pay her any attention.
I inherited a little bit of money and I knew exactly what to do with it. I got this little house and one acre of land. Out here I'm close to my kin folks and I've got real neighbors. Why, in the park you didn't know who lived three trailers down, people came and went so much.
It seems real good to have all this room. I'd forgot how roomy a house is. Course the trailer was warm and that was what counted. Shoot, we're doing okay. If the electricity goes off, that's alright. I've got my wood stove and oil lamps. I reckon we're home for good.
Hazel: The rent's not bad and because I get help from Social Services, HUD picks up most of my rent. Me and the kids' dad are divorced and there's just not much money. I don't work because my littlest boy has been sick since he was born. He's been operated on several times and is still sickly so I'm not leaving him.
I've been here just a few months, but in Kinston, where we lived before, I'd lived in a trailer 12 years. I like living in park cause I don't drive and usually somebody is going to the store or into town and I can a get a ride or send by em. The kids like it cause they have someone close to play with.
They play outside all the time in the summer. There's a little store and cafe down at the highway where they can wait for the school bus. They go all over these hills playing and sometimes we go up to the dump. You wouldn't believe what people throw away! Sometimes there's brand-new clothes and shoes or good furniture.
I guess I'm just used to living in a trailer. really don't miss house cause the houses lived in before was old and rundown and awful cold on the kids. It's a lot easier on my kids living here in the winter than it was on us when I was little. We all had to get wood during the winter and I can tell you when it's 10 degrees and you're eight or nine years old getting in wood, you feel the cold. I can't give the kids much, but at least I can give em a warm place to stay.
The two littlest bodies don't remember ever living in a house. The older kids remember some but the houses were in bad shape so they didn't care to move. I think they feel okay about living here. There ain't a lot of restrictions and they don't mind having kids. Now think about that, some parks won't let you have kids. What are you supposed to do with em, give em away?
Conrad Freund, owner and developer of Brook Hollow Estates, overlooks his 25-acre park, one of approximately three dozen operating in Watauga County. Freund came to the Western Carolina mountains seven years ago and lives in a conventional house about one mile from Brook Hollow Estates, in a residential tract which he is also developing. Cordelia, a university librarian, lived in Brook Hollow for six years. She purchased her 70-foot by 12-foot home from Freund; many of the trailers in this photo are made by Taylor Homes (see preceding article) with whom Freund has a sales agreement.
Conrad Freund: I'm in favor of zoning 100 percent. Most of the mobile home parks in the county have no standards and I wouldn't live in one. I set up to appeal to the middleincome, professional market, especially the young professional people.
Mobile homes have greatest appeal for young families the first home market is non-existent for them. VA and FHA loans were set up for low-income families, but the low-income market has been phased out. We have selected a market and the restrictions and costs have limited that market. We offer services here which have made Brook Hollow the most expensive park in the county.
The park is divided into an adult area and a family area, although if a man comes in here with four children and wants to rent, I'll just talk him out of it. You take a rural family with four kids and two bedrooms that's just too many people no matter who they are. The smaller family can get for $8,000 a 3-bedroom, 2-full-bath, 12-foot by 70-foot trailer and this park is ideal.
Over the years we've had working-class families here. Some own their own homes and most are used. I'll be blunt. Some of these folks are basically ignorant people, but they did see the advantage of Brook Hollow over the other parks in the area. Especially parents who want good atmosphere for their children. They know the rules and if they break them and make it unpleasant for everybody they're out. One lady can't read or write and her trailer is neatly kept with flowers all around it.
I said that I was the most expensive park in the area. I used to be but now one of the other big parks charges $55 more than I do. I My God, what a dump. They're side ventures owned by businessmen with other interests. A man I know down the mountain owns 50 homes. He rents to blacks by the week and is making a killing. But they have no standards.
You hear all this stuff about fire hazards. Mobile homes are less hazardous than built housing, though. We had a fire recently but we're close to two fire departments and they saved it. It gets bad if you go back in the boondocks where these trailers are dumps and the wiring is bad. I read an article that said only two to seven percent of all home fires were mobile homes. But of that small percent, 90 percent of the mobile homes that burned were dumps that were rented. They rent these traps in the worst conditions and to the worst people you could think of.
Cordelia: I bought my trailer new in 1973 because was having landlord problems and he was raising the rent. One kid had left home, and the other kid would be leaving soon. I was just plain bored with the house and it was a chance to buy something. I thought I would use less space and besides it was new, shiny, pretty and mine. My son and I underpinned the trailer ourselves. I paid Freund to tie it down but found out later that it hadn't been done.
I enjoyed the setting in the park. I had enough yard space and, because one or both of the adjoining lots were vacant for a lot of the time, the location seemed quite open and spacious.
Having the lot vacant on the windward side proved to be a problem though, because there was nothing to block the wind from tearing at the roof. Over the years, the wind worked at the metal roof until it ripped. I put on Cold Seal and even tried sand for weight, but nothing really worked. The roof problems were one major reason why I moved.
My investment in the mobile home was step toward financial security. couldn't have afforded a house, but the mobile home allowed me to make the first step and I have now been able to make the second step and purchase a house. I had originally thought that after both the children were gone I'd need less room. But there wasn't room for all my books.
Cordelia says that Freund's park manager "told lies” when they moved in. He admitted that the park's lower section had flooded, but said that the county had replaced the too-small culvert and that there would be no more flooding. Three years ago the lower end flooded again, and several of the trailers got water in them. Still he moved people back into those trailers without telling them. He's just too greedy. He has enough lots not to have to rent the lowest one. He ought to just leave it empty.
My trailer didn't appreciate in the six years but it held its own. The seals loosened and it wasn't as tight as it was when I bought it. Things like the windows didn't work as well. But they're not made all that well so I wasn't too surprised. I actually sold it for a little less that I paid for it, without the furniture.
Little Granny: I could have lived with any of the younguns I reckon, but I just wanted to live in my own place. If I hadn't had this little old trailer to live in I just don't know where I'd a went to a after Will died. Lizzie wanted me to live with her but don't want to bother nobody and besides I'd a froze to death in her house. I couldn't afford to build a house and if I got the trailer then I could put it here close to Lizzie. I could stay in the neighborhood here where I know everybody. I'm old and don't want to leave this place till I die.
Even after the house burnt down, the flowers me and Will planted still bloomed every summer out there in the yard, so I could still have them. didn't save much of mine and Will's stuff. All the furniture here was give to me. This trailer was used when I bought it and the new furniture that come in it was long wore out. The trailer wasn't in too good a shape but without it I'd a been gone from here.
The boys built the porch for me so I could sit out here in the sun. Lizzie stayed in her house awhile after I got this trailer but she run back and forth so much she just decided to move in with me my trailer's a whole lot warmer than her house. We heat the trailer with wood. Lizzie and some of the neighbors built the flue so we could put in wood stove.
I've thought about leaving but I'd have to go away off to some town to live with one of the other younguns and I wouldn't know anybody or they might put me in a home for old people. I wouldn't like that one bit. Jakie couldn't come and see me and I'd have to leave Friskey. Me and Jakie talk about a lot of things and he tells me what everybody up here on the creek is doing cause I don't get out much.
I guess it looks crowded in here to most folks but I know where everything is. Them little old closets don't hold much. People keep giving me clothes but I don't guess I'll live long enough to wear em all. They just keep stacking up like the years reckon.
Tom Schlesinger, principal author of Our Own Worst Enemy: The Impact of Military Production on the Upper South, is the director of the Southern Finance Project, a research effort sponsored by the Institute for Southern Studies. (1986)
Tom Schlesinger is a free-lance writer living in Tennessee. The Fund for Investigative Journalism supported research for this article. (1982)
Pat Beaver is from Buncombe County, North Carolina. An anthropologist, she directs the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. (1980)
Mary Jane Putzel is a graduate student in Appalachian State's Appalachian Studies Program. Raised in Watauga County, she is a poet, fiction writer and mother of four. (1980)