Lawrence Harmon

Clear a path for affordable trailer parks

Thomas Menino was given a trailer-shaped Thomas Menino was given a trailer-shaped (Don Harney/City of Boston)
By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / May 28, 2011

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THIS STATE needs $50,000 homes in stable communities where retirees can sniff the breeze and kids can play in the street under the watchful eyes of neighbors. Sounds unrealistic? It’s not, provided a family is willing to live in a home of about 750 square feet and put up with the trailer park jokes about using your ironing board as a buffet table or having to go outside every time you need a beer from the fridge.

Even with median prices for single family homes falling below $300,000, buyers in Massachusetts aren’t lining up. Suddenly that “manufactured home’’ at one-sixth the price looks pretty good, especially when it sits on the banks of the Charles River in West Roxbury — the site of Boston’s only trailer park. Mobile home parks make it possible to keep a roof over one’s head without going broke. And more cities and towns in Massachusetts should consider amending their zoning laws to clear a path for the parks.

“I never lacked for anything here,’’ said Pauline McLaughlin, 78, president of the Boston Trailer Park Tenants Association. Last Saturday, McLaughlin was sitting in her 11-by-17-foot living room and basking in her most recent success — groundbreaking for $815,000 in upgrades to the trailer park’s roads, sewer lines, and electrical service. Mayor Menino had just come by to deliver the good news about the city’s investment and left with a bird feeder in the shape of a trailer — a token of appreciation from the residents of the 104-unit park. It works out pretty well for the city, too, which has been known to invest a lot more per unit to protect its permanent stock of affordable housing units.

Starter castles with 10-foot ceilings, Palladian windows, multiple chimneys, and breakfast rooms (not to be confused with dining rooms), still call to some strivers in the suburbs. But there’s plenty to be said for that 65-by-12-foot mobile home off of Route 1 in Peabody that offers homeownership without the crushing bills.

The latest state figures list 251 mobile home parks in 106 Massachusetts cities and towns, with Wareham, Peabody, Auburn, Chicopee, and Attleboro among the friendliest host communities. As a rule, residents own their units and pay “pad rent’’ to the park owner for the lot and basic services such as snow plowing. And contrary to the image of the scruffy loner heating soup over his hot plate, residents of mobile home parks can be as fastidious about the upkeep of their neighborhood as members of the Beacon Hill Civic Association.

“You know we’re really good people,’’ said Thomas O’Leary, president of the 70-unit Whispering Meadows mobile home park in Peabody. “But it’s tough to eliminate the stigma.’’

Whispering Meadows and the Boston Trailer Park are examples of a promising development in mobile home parks — ownership by resident associations. Mobile home residents sometimes find themselves in a tight spot when park owners decided to sell the property or hike the pad rents. Despite the name, mobile homes are not easy to move, and there aren’t many places to move them. Massachusetts developed good protections in recent years, including offering mobile park residents the right of first refusal during a sale. In Peabody and Boston, for example, residents have taken on the ownership and operation of mobile home parks while paying pad rents to their association of just $300 to $400 per month. But the state isn’t making it easier for more municipalities to put out the welcome mat for new parks. The anti-snob-zoning statute requires that 10 percent of the housing inventory in every community be affordable to low-income families. Yet state housing officials refuse to allow cities and towns to count some 20,000 mobile homes toward that goal because there is no income eligibility requirement to live in a trailer park. Mobile homes should count as affordable by definition. Do state officials actually think these parks are populated by eccentric millionaires?

A neat mobile home park on a couple of acres would suit the character of many towns a lot better than a bulky affordable housing complex. At the end of the day, the trailer park joke could turn out to be at the expense of people who ignore this form of inexpensive housing.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at