As reported in the Sanpete Messenger in late October, Ephraim City is again grappling with a troubled trailer park and is threatening to shut down the park if violations, such as a trailer running on an extension cord plugged into another trailer, are not corrected.
It’s the same story we’ve covered before in Ephraim and other Sanpete County towns, and in all past instances, no city has ever carried out its threats.
The term “park” is a huge euphemism. In most cases, trailer parks are our rural slums. And many of the owners are rural slumlords.
I believe it’s past time for a statewide program to scrape and redevelop hundreds, possibly thousands, of these blighted properties, especially in rural areas.
We need a partnership involving the Utah Legislature, counties, cities, responsible mobile-home park developers, nonprofit organizations and mobile-home resident cooperatives to change the rural landscape as well as the lives of people who live in the trailer slums.
I use the term “mobile home parks” for the kind of projects I have in mind, because I’ve seen some in Salt Lake and Utah counties that are hands-down gorgeous. They have security gates, generous-size yards with grass and veggie gardens, off-street parking, paved streets, sidewalks, curb and gutter. Some have clubhouses and swimming pools.
I don’t know how many so-called trailer parks we have in Sanpete County- I would estimate 15-20. I haven’t been to all of them, but I’ve been to a lot of them. I only know of three I would rate as “decent.”
There are two related factors that help explain why we have such unsightly, unsanitary, unsafe housing.
In 1974, Congress passed the National Manufactured Housing and Construction and Safety Standards Act. Two years later, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, issues what were called “Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standards,” requiring mobile homes to be solid and pass inspections, just like regular homes.
Trailer homes in place at the time the regulations were issues were grandfathered in. They didn’t have to meet the new standards. But the nonconforming homes could no longer be moved and set up in new locations.
In many rural trailer slums, the majority of trailers have been sitting in the same place since before 1976. They’re 45 years old! They’re flimsy, and vulnerable to wind and fire. In the 20 years that I’ve owned the newspaper, we’ve covered two deaths in trailer fires. At least four other trailers have been damaged or destroyed by fire, but nobody was hurt.
Typically, these old, non-compliant trailers are owned by the people who live in them. The residents are often charged excessive sums for the tiny patch on which their trailers sit.
Most of the time, there’s one water connection, one sewer connection, and one power connection for the “park” as a whole. Pipes, hoses or wires, often not meeting plumbing and electrical codes, are channeled from the main connection to individual units. The owner of the park charges the trailer owner for utilities. The stories I’ve heard suggest some owners take a “cut” above what the city charges, for- well- administrative fees, profit, what have you.
The other factor perpetuating the parks is poverty. People live in trailers because they don’t make enough money to live in conventional housing. Frequently, the reason the residents have low incomes is because they’re undocumented and can’t work legally. Yet many of them have been in the United States for 20 or 30 years.
A typical story I heard when covering issues at the former Strate trailer park on the west side of Ephraim involved a couple where the husband had stress-induced heart disease. The wife, who was in her 60s, was trying to pay the bills, including his medical expenses, by working at the turkey plant for under $30,000. Because the couple was not legal, they did not qualify for Medicaid or any other type of assistance.
So how would a program to clean up rural trailer slums work? The basic concept is pretty simple. It’s the strategy that has been used to clean up urban slums nationwide. It just hasn’t, to my knowledge, been applied to trailer developments.
You use government funds to buy out the “parks.” If you have a holdout, such as a resident who won’t sell his pre-1976 trailer, you use the government powers of condemnation to take the unit and compensate the owner.
You bring in or find temporary housing for the displaced residents, just as a would have to do in a disaster, which, as far as I’m concerned, trailer slums are.
You scrape the slums. Then you re-sell the land at subsidized prices to responsible developers, non-profit corporations, churches, or even associations of displaced residents. Those types of organizations have been involved in housiding development for generations. To my knowledge, they just haven’t been involved in mobile home development or rural areas.
The development organizations get private funding, such as from banks, to buy the sites. They pay the government back for most of the cost of land acquisition and clearing.
Next, the city or county government where a site is located supervises the process of redeveloping the property, just as it would a new subdivision.
That includes approving a plat map with sufficient-size lots for setbacks, side yards, landscaping and off-street parking.
Just as in a subdivision, the developer is required to install water and sewer lines, with, I certainly hope, connections to every home. The power company, private or municipal, brings in power lines. The developer puts in paved streets, cul de sacs, sidewalks, curb and gutter.
Then new code-compliant mobile homes are brought in. The new homes could be paid for by the developer or a local housing authority. Residents get to move back under various arrangements, such as renting at an amount they can afford, or a subsidized purchase. I can’t imagine many residents will object.
The state and federal government already have subsidized housing programs, such as HUD section 8. It’s just that, to my knowledge, the programs haven’t been apllied to mobile homes.
The residents wouldn’t be getting freebies, because over time, the money they paid for rent or purchase would cover a substantial part of the original purchase prices of the good mobile homes.
TA lady who lived in Sanpete County for quite a few years told me a story. Earlier in her life, she had been married to a well-off farmer in the Central Valley of California who had many migrants working for him.
At a certain point, he decided he could no longer in good conscience keep his workers fin the substandard housing he hard for them. So he relocated all of the families for a time, tore down the housing, and built new homes for all his workers.
The farmer died in middle age. When word of his death got out, this lady told me, there was a procession of people carrying candles past her and her husband’s house “as far as the eye could see.”
That’s what it’s all about. Are we a state, a community, with a conscience, with a heart? Or will we continue to turn a blind eye to the festering sores all around us?