This is the first story in a two-part series about mobile homes in Massachusetts. Read the second part here.
At a new apartment complex just off the VFW Parkway in West Roxbury, one-bedrooms go for $3,000 a month. But tucked right next door is one of the most affordable neighborhoods in the city. The Boston Trailer Park is Boston’s only mobile home community and a place residents call “a hidden gem.”
“I know that there is nowhere in Boston that you will be able to live for so cheap,” said Boston Trailer Park resident Athena, who wanted to be identified by her first name only.
“I don’t even see how somebody could rent that,” said Athena, pointing to the neighboring complex, “and then get their food and their gas and their — anything else they need, you know?”
Matt Gilbert works as a dispatcher for a trucking company and has lived at the Boston Trailer Park for about 14 years.
“I couldn’t stay in Boston anywhere near here otherwise,” said Gilbert.
Mobile homes are one of the most affordable forms of housing in the country. They have gained more proponents, at the local and national level, in the hunt for solutions to the housing shortage. But obstacles like zoning restrictions and a lingering image problem stand in the way of mobile homes taking a larger role in Massachusetts’ market.
Twenty-two million Americans live in mobile homes — once known as “trailers,” a vestige of the days when the homes were all on wheels. Texas and Florida have the largest concentration of mobile homes. The median annual household income of residents who own those homes is about $35,000, half of the median annual income of owners of traditional homes.
Former Boston Mayor Tom Menino recognized the affordability of the Boston Trailer Park. He helped the community take ownership of the land under their mobile homes in 2011 to protect it from developers.
The park’s affordability seems even more significant in the current landscape; since then, the median home price for single-family homes in Massachusetts has gone up over 100%, according to data from The Warren Group.
Mobile home prices have also gone up, but they are still roughly half the cost of traditional houses. In the Northeast, a basic single unit goes for about $87,000, according to U.S. Census data. Most mobile home owners own the homes themselves but pay rent for the land they live on.
Land prices are one reason that few new communities are being built, but experts cite zoning and the “not-in-my-backyard” opposition — or NIMBYism — as even larger hurdles.
“We’ve been fighting a lot of the stigma that has been part of Hollywood, and, you know, television shows for the last 50 years,” said George McCarthy, president and CEO of the Cambridge, Mass.–based Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
Athena said, when people hear she lives in a mobile home, they assume it’s primitive living.
“They ask me about running water, or how do I flush my toilet,” she said, laughing.
A tour of her two-bedroom home showed its modern kitchen and full sized washer/dryer.
When planners and others actually look at the housing, McCarthy said, “they’re stunned to see how nice it is.”
Across Massachusetts, there are only about 250 mobile home communities housing roughly 35,000 residents — less than 1% of the state’s population and a tiny fraction of the state’s housing.
While McCarthy estimated that another half-million units of housing could be added to existing mobile home parks around the country, he also wants to see cities ease zoning restrictions to allow new uses for manufactured homes, including multi-family homes and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — small, standalone houses that can be placed on the lot of an existing home. Because they are factory built, McCarthy added, they’re a boon in the current construction labor shortage.
Residents at Boston Trailer Park feel lucky to be there. John Delaney had been living in a studio apartment in Dorchester and had always wanted the affordability and space of a mobile home. He said he had no idea the Boston Trailer Park existed until seven years ago when he was on a construction job, laying pipes in the street across from the park.
“I could see it from the back of a dump truck,” said Delaney, who later went to take a look and put a down payment on a home the next day.
Gilbert called the park “a little oasis.” He recalled he’d paid about $20,000 for his home. On top of that, there’s the monthly rent that mobile home residents pay for the land under their homes, which includes services like water and road maintenance. Residents at the Boston Trailer Park said they pay $425 per month.
“Everybody’s just a regular person here,” Gilbert said. “It’s just a mixed community of older folks on retirement, disability. A larger percentage is working class.”
Given the urgent need for more affordable housing, these factory-built homes are getting a fresh look from the Biden administration.
“Manufactured housing represents perhaps the largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the country, so it’s a crucial component,” said Nate Shultz, an acting chief of staff in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
HUD wants to see more manufactured housing, Shultz said, either in more mobile home communities, or added into traditional neighborhoods. Shultz said HUD also envisions this low cost form of housing for multi-family homes.
“There’s a lot of different opportunities to leverage this construction type to address the unique needs in a particular community,” Shultz said.
Resident Monica Smith, who works as a waitress and bartender, said she couldn’t afford Boston if it weren’t for the Boston Trailer Park — where she’s lived for 22 years. But while she and other residents relish the affordability of their homes, they also treasure their unique location.
Smith’s home sits directly opposite a quiet bend in the Charles River, and she said it makes her feel “like I’m in the country a little bit.”
“I see deer grazing often, I see beaver over there foraging, and we have heron and egrets. All kinds of fun wildlife, a stone's throw from my back door,” Smith said, pointing across a narrow gravel road to a stretch of river.
She and Gilbert both joked about keeping the Boston Trailer Park an affordable housing secret.
“You can’t see it, especially since they put the new apartment buildings up. It’s like they blocked us off from the rest of the world,” Gilbert said. “Honestly, it’s like a little slice of heaven in Boston.”
You can share your Priced Out story or ask a question you’d like answered by filling out this Google form. Find more from the series at Priced Out: The fight for housing in Massachusetts.