After decades on a downward trajectory, metro-area mobile home parks show signs of expanding to meet what park owners say is increased demand for the low-cost manufactured housing.
No new Twin Cities mobile home communities have sprung up since the 1990s, many have closed, and Metropolitan Council data show no mobile park expansions between 2000 and 2018.
But in the past two years, mobile parks in Rosemount, St. Francis and Ham Lake have added or plan to add 108 manufactured home sites in all.
"The need is absolutely dire at this point in time," said Al Schrader, whose park, Woodhaven in St. Francis, added 55 lots in 2018.
Industry professionals say factories are back-ordered for the low-slung homes, in part because they are drawing a new generation of residents. Young professionals and downsizing seniors are looking for smaller, less costly homes with minimal maintenance, they said.
"We have a lot of people who want to live here and we just don't have room for them," said Sherry Saxon, operations manager at Flamingo Terrace in Ham Lake, where Continental Communities is in the early stages of planning a 25-site expansion.
Housing advocates say that mobile homes — the industry prefers "manufactured housing" — can help solve the affordable housing crisis, offering low-income families lots of space for the dollar and a chance at homeownership.
"Manufactured housing is often an overlooked affordable housing asset," said Freya Thamman, a Met Council planning analyst. "The cost … is so small compared with site-built homes."
But the expansion in mobile parks has generated controversy in some cities, demonstrating that the stigma attached to the housing type still exists in some quarters.
In Rosemount, dozens of residents crowded a December planning commission meeting, urging city officials to reject Rosemount Woods' proposed addition of 39 home sites, citing fears of crime, higher traffic and lower property values.
"You're going to go with houses in that area, OK," said Todd Franz, who owns a car dealership nearby. "How many cars do I have to have stolen from the people over in the trailer court? Come on, it's just sickening."
'A far cry from a trailer'
At mobile home parks, residents typically own their home but rent the land it sits on. Houses vary in age, size and price, ranging from less than $25,000 for a used model to over $100,000 for a new double-wide. Rent in Twin Cities' mobile home parks averages between $400 to $525 per month, according to managers of several parks.
Mobile home parks tend to be concentrated in areas such as the suburban fringe or exurbs. Anoka County has 30% of the metro area's parks and Dakota County has 24%, according to the Met Council.
The number of metro-area parks had been declining since the peak between 1985 and 1990, when there were a total of 92, said Dave Anderson, executive director of All Parks Alliance for Change, a nonprofit advocacy group. That number since has fallen to 80. About 1,500 mobile home sites were lost in the metro area over 30 years, but mobile park expansions added 1,200.
Mobile parks close due to pressure to redevelop the acreage into something else, or because aging infrastructure, such as sewers, becomes too costly to fix. Road expansion projects sometimes take out mobile parks, which often border highways, Thamman said.
Mobile homes have long provided inexpensive housing for low-income people, but they're even more valuable now that affordable housing is at a premium, Anderson said.
"It's a good deal for the people already in it," he said. "It could be a really good deal for the many other people who are cost-burdened [by housing expenses]."
Other mobile home residents, including those moving to Woodhaven's expansion sites, enjoy the parks' camaraderie. Many have community spaces and group gatherings.
"People like the community atmosphere, the fact that they have neighbors who are somewhat similar," said Schrader, owner of A.L.S. Properties. "We see people making new friends."
Many senior citizens live at Woodhaven, but Schrader said that "all levels of America" also live there. He predicted that 80 to 90% of the new sites will be full by year's end.
Industry professionals pointed to another reason mobile parks may be seeing more demand: The homes themselves are higher quality these days, making it hard to differentiate them from traditional homes, said Scott Lund, chairman of the Minnesota Manufactured Housing Association board of directors and mayor of Fridley. "They're a far cry from a trailer," he said.
'A matter of time'
But the idea of more mobile homes doesn't always please neighbors. Tina Dumire, assistant manager of Valley Green in Jordan, said she doesn't know if the stigma will ever go away.
"You just talk to people and you say where you live, and they're like, 'Oh, that's a shame,' " she said.
Some of the preconceived notions specifically relate to mobile homes, while others reflect prejudice toward affordable housing or poor people, Anderson said.
At the Rosemount Woods meeting, residents living near the mobile park expressed concern about density, traffic, crime and the loss of trees they said expansion would bring.
"I didn't spend 300-some thousand dollars to look at a trailer park," said townhouse resident Jennifer Morrison. "I know that sounds rude, but it's the truth."
"We're not thrilled about this idea," said Angela Durbin, who lives in the neighboring development. "There's no prejudice in that comment. It's just that we want to make sure our home values stay high and that our community stays protected."
Kim Lindquist, Rosemount's community development director, said a traffic study done by developer Equity Lifestyle Properties found the new homes won't affect "the level of service" on nearby Hwy. 3. And crime statistics show that while Rosemount Woods ranks among the top five communities in the city for police calls, the number wasn't out of line compared with similarly sized neighborhoods, she said.
Schrader said there was neighborhood opposition to Woodhaven's expansion, including concerns about the aesthetics and impact on schools. In outer-ring suburbs, residents are especially protective of their city's semirural character, he said.
"Image is about 80 percent of the battle," he said, adding that some misconceptions come from previous eras while others stem from TV.
Nonetheless, Schrader said he sees more mobile park expansions on the horizon. "That's just a matter of time," he said.
Gwen Pesola was among the first to move to Rosemount Woods 30 years ago, she said. "There's so many nice people here," she said. "It's kind of like our own little thing."