In a segment of his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver directed his attention to an often-overlooked segment of the American housing market: mobile home communities.
“The homes of some of the poorest people in America are getting snapped up by some of the richest people in America,” he said, before adding ironically, “Luckily, there have been no problems whatsoever.”
There have been problems, of course – problems explored in the documentary A Decent Home, which screened Tuesday night as part of Deadline’s For the Love of Docs virtual event series. The film directed by Sara Terry explores how private equity firms and wealthy investors have spotted a big money-making opportunity in acquiring mobile home parks around the nation. Once they’ve got control of the parks, these entities drive up rents mobile home owners pay to house their trailers on privately-held land.
“For so many years, this was a mom and pop business, like people who [said], ‘Oh, we have some land, we can rent this space to you.’ And they were happy with a decent living and they were happy charging a decent rent to the people who were leasing that land,” Terry said during a panel discussion after the screening. “But private equity, as private equity is wont to do, realize there was a vacuum in the market back in 2015. That’s when the Carlyle Group kicked everything open with their first purchase of parks… There is now a tsunami of private equity firms buying up parks all across the United States.”
Terry filmed in parks in California, New Hampshire and Iowa. At one park, a resident told her of a dramatic increase in what she was required to pay.
“I found a letter taped to my door that said our rent would be increasing by 63 percent,” the woman said. Another resident, a disabled man, said of the cost increases he faced, “My whole world just kind of came crashing down.”
An estimated 20 million Americans live in mobile home parks, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. It is the only segment of the low-cost housing market that isn’t government-subsidized.
“This is really the last place where the American dream is alive,” producer Sara Archambault noted. “People can actually afford to buy a mobile home, in many communities where homes have become completely unaffordable. You’re seeing here how we’re bumping up against the end of that vision for what it means to own a home in America.”
In some cases, residents are banding together to buy the land at market prices. But they’re often outmaneuvered by deep-pocketed investors.
“Private equity has so much cash on hand,” Terry said. “Sometimes they just come in and slam down the money and residents just haven’t had enough time [to make their bid].”
The filmmakers consider this situation emblematic of “late stage capitalism,” an epoch characterized by the super-rich becoming even richer while people on the lower end of the economic scale can no longer afford to live in a place they can truly call their own. Terry and Archambault say something precious is being lost in the process.
“These do feel like small towns,” Archambault said of trailer parks, “almost like an echo back to the way we all used to know our neighbors better and take care of them.”
“I’m very intentionally, especially in act 1 of the film, trying to make you as the viewer fall in love with these people and these places,” Terry commented. “I don’t want you to ever use the words ‘trailer trash’ again.”
Watch the conversation in the video above.
Our virtual even series For the Love of Docs is sponsored by National Geographic.