Durable Growth

Urbanism and senior living: The cases for and against mobile home parks

141016007 Villa Capri Mobile Home ParkFor several years, I was on the board of a local Rebuilding Together affiliate, a non-profit organization that provides free home repairs for low-income homeowners.  Like most affiliates, our biggest event of the year was an April workday when several hundred local citizens volunteered a day of labor.

One year, a project captain invited a group of volunteers to her home for post-workday beverages.  I found myself in her kitchen, sipping a beer and chatting with a city councilmember who had worked on a project.

I assume the councilmember had worked on a mobile home because the discussion quickly turned to the role of mobile homes in our city.  His view was that mobile homes were a temporary aberration and that the long-term goal of the city should be to replace them with stick-built homes.  His principal argument was the longer life of well-maintained stick-built construction, although he also noted the horizontal spread of single-story mobile homes and the opportunity for more compact living with stick-built residences.

With that memory in mind, it was interesting to read the suggestion by Lisa Margonelli in Pacific Standardthat mobile home parks might have an essential role in the housing future of all of us, particularly seniors.  She looks in depth at the Pismo Dunes mobile home park, near Pismo Beach, California.

Margonelli’s argument is that mobile home parks provide a low-cost alternative to other options, while also fostering a relationship between seniors, a supportive network that others have called a “naturally-occurring retirement community”.

I’ll use the dichotomy between the councilmember’s comments and Margonelli’s article as a starting point from which to write about the possible role of mobile home parks as senior communities and to conclude a series of posts I’ve written about urbanism and senior living.  I won’t forget urbanism and seniors and will find opportunities to add more insights on the subject, but will begin focusing elsewhere in my next post.

Margonelli makes a reasonable case for mobile homes, but I’ll add another point.  Mobile home parks encourage alternative transportation modes.  With narrow roads, frequent driveways, and a well-gridded layout, automobile drivers intuitively reduce their speed, often as low as 15 miles per hour, well below the 20 mile per hour thresholdwhere the dominance of cars begins to wane.

Margonelli notes the use of golf carts in the Pismo Dunes, which can be a fine choice for seniors no longer capable of handling an auto.

I can add another transportation option.  A North Bay reader emailed me extolling her adult tricycle, noting the improved mobility which it has given her and including a photo of a Napa senior on a tricycle touring the damage on the morning after the recent earthquake.  An adult tricycle can be another fine alternative transportation choice within a mobile home park.

Also, walking within a mobile home park is often safer than walking on city streets.

Against the positives noted by Margonelli and by me, there is a legitimate list of concerns about mobile home parks as a housing solution, including some that touch upon the councilmember’s concerns.

141016006 Sandalwood Mobile Home ParkHeading the list is construction quality.  Margonelli notes that quality of mobile homes has been improving.  She’s likely correct, but mobile homes still remain at the lower-end of the construction spectrum.  And it seems inevitable that they’ll remain at the lower-end.

During my time on the Rebuilding Together board, we often debated how much money to allocate toward mobile home repair.  Although we never went as far as another affiliate which limited mobile home repairs to one-third of their annual budget, we remained aware of the potential black hole of mobile home repairs.  Many years, we could have spent our entire budget on mobile homes and still left needs unmet.  Plus we found that repairs to stick-built construction were less likely to require return visits in future years.

Next, the density of most mobile home parks is insufficient to support urban uses such as stores or pubs.  (Margonelli notes that a grocery store is within walking distance of Pismo Dunes, but the store is beyond the boundary of the mobile home park and even then remains an anomaly.)  It’s the inherent nature of the single-story, non-shared-wall development to spread out, reducing the number of residents within walkable distance of businesses.

Furthermore, the nature of most mobile home parks is to be enclosed, with limited entry points and few opportunities for others to pass through a park enroute to other destinations.  But the nature of an effective urban community to be well-gridded, allowing efficient travel, which is essential for those on foot or bicycles.

Perhaps the only location is which mobile home parks don’t undermine an urban land-use configuration is where they back against any geographical feature that would have already precluded urban connections.  It’s not coincidental that Pismo Dunes backs up to an ocean beach or that many of the Petaluma mobile home parks adjoin a freeway.

But the biggest concern about mobile home parks, at least to me, is the social insulation.  I’ve been reading “The Filter Bubble” by Eli Pariser.  His thesis is that personalization of internet experiences, by which Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and others feed us articles consistent with what they’ve calculated to be our interest and values, undermines the free flow of objective information on which our democracy depends.

The internet personalization models against which he rails is evident in our every internet session.  In the last week, I’ve researched travel options in Ireland and senior living facilities in the North Bay.  Now, I can’t go anywhere on the internet without being bombarded by ads for Irish tour services and North Bay senior living options.  It feels both creepy and intrusive.

Similarly, I had a frequent commenter on Petaluma Patch who was continually offering links to anti-urbanism articles from obscure and credibility-challenged sources.  At first, I marveled at his misplaced diligence in finding these articles.

However, I came to realize that he had created a filter bubble in which the internet was feeding him anti-urban articles.  He had only to go on-line to have an article shoved in front of him which, with dubious fact and flawed logic, seemed to rebut something I had written.  And he then felt a need to accept the article as the truth and to share it.

It was a shame that the opportunity for the two of us to have a rational exchange of perspectives was undermined by the internet.

Urbanism combats the personalization trend on the internet.  I love the idea of a CEO and a mail clerk talking in the elevator of an apartment building where both live, each if one is in a penthouse when the other is in a micro-apartment.  Similarly, I like watching various demographic segments chatting in a downtown pub.

My personal hell would be to live among folks who are like me and who think as I do.  Even as I age, I want to live among people who offer new and thought-provoking perspectives.  We already offer too few of these opportunities and mobile home parks, by their very nature, are part of the deficiency.

Summing it up, while Margonelli makes a reasonable case for mobile home parks, I favor the position of the councilmember.  As a housing solution, particularly as we move toward a more urban world, we can and should do better than mobile home parks.

By the way, nothing here is intended to disparage the residents of mobile home parks nor to criticize the choice of people who find enjoyment in their mobile homes.  Instead, it is to castigate the rest of us for creating a world in which mobile homes, with all their deficiencies, are the only option for many folks.

In my next post, I’ll write about water conservation.  Candidates for the Petaluma City Council have been talking about a moratorium on building permits while the drought persists.  I applaud the concern, but will argue that another approach would be more appropriate.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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