How the Other Half Lives: Exploring Trailer Parks in the American Sun Belt

Written by on April 2, 2013 in Urban Fringe - 4 Comments

I believe that trailer parks are an important source of affordable housing for low-income households. I also believe that they serve as an important transitional step for social mobility. These conclusions are a culmination of a complex and emotional, although enriching personal journey of writing my senior thesis at UC Berkeley.

As an urban studies undergraduate, I first sought to investigate the concept of colonias because to me it represented the Third World phenomenon of informalities on First World territory. The journey began in the summer of 2012 when I received the Judith Lee Stronach Summer Travel Scholarship to explore poor migrant settlements near the U.S.-Mexico border. During my travels, I drove along the U.S.-Mexico border through the States of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to study this phenomenon of underdevelopment. But what I saw was very different from what I expected, based on the academic papers and scholarly books I had read.

Naively, I had expected to find isolated pockets of poverty that could be addressed through institutionally coordinated efforts and proactive legislation. But what I found were not isolated settlements but whole poverty-stricken neighborhoods, suburbs and, in some cases, cities, built entirely of mobile homes and trailer parks. I had never inquired into this scattered pattern of settlement clusters before, where people seemed to be camping permanently in mobile homes over the vast expanse of desert land. Initially, residences looked empty, isolated and neglected, uprooted and restless. But after spending a few weeks in the Sun Belt, I began to question my preconceived notions about life in the desert. I became conscious of very different ways of life that exist outside American metropolises. I started to wonder whether there was not one, but multiple American Dreams.

Colonias just South of the Border. Tecate, CA. June 2012.

Humble Home. Yuma, AZ. June 2012.

Camping out. Brawley, CA. June 2012.

Instead of just focusing on colonias, I decided to make trailer parks a central part of my research since they represent a lion’s share of low-income housing in California. Tracing back trailer park evolution in history allowed me to better understand how they had become such a big part of American culture. I also learned about the complex social, economic, environmental, and cultural challenges in the border region and its relationship to the trailer settlements within the state in the UC Berkeley course, “The U.S.-Mexico Borderlands,” taught by Professor Michael Dear in the Fall semester of 2012.

Following my travels, I learned that throughout the 20th century, U.S.-Mexico border issues and American planning ideology have precipitated negative attitudes towards trailer parks and low-income population residing within. Institutional, social, and economic barriers impeded the transition to conventional housing and reinforced the status quo of the informal trailer park stature. I, then, incorporated the infamous Duroville settlement as a case study in order to examine life in an informal trailer park with the most dramatic conditions. Finally, my research came full circle to cumulatively encompass first world informalities, trailer parks and colonias—all in one paper.

When Assistant U.S. Atty. Leon Weidman declared that the Duroville Trailer Park’s “leaking sewage, 800 feral dogs, piles of debris and fire hazards are a deadly threat to its roughly 5,000 tenants” and should be closed immediately, locals were not surprised. The farm belt of California is full of people living in their cars or in beat-up trailers. Some don’t even have that; they sleep outside. Duroville trailer park, located in the Imperial Valley, consists of about 200 trailers, with a population varying from 2,000 to 6,000, depending on the growing season in one of the most productive agricultural industries in the nation.

Duroville was first formed in 1999 when, according to the New York Times, the local Indian tribe leader, Mr. Duro, declared that the new trailer park on the reservation would be free of local code-enforcements. Coincidentally, Riverside county officials had just decided to clear out illegal trailer settlements in the area, which created a large demand among the low-income population. Indian reservations with their lax land use policies empowered trailer park owners to shun certain housing responsibilities and exploit the vulnerable and desperate trailer park population that had nowhere else to go. Subsequently, Duroville degenerated into a slum-like settlement with terrible living conditions.

Duronville, CA. August 2012.

Thermal, Imperial Valley, CA. June 2012.

Everything must end. Bombay Beach, CA. August 2012.

Duroville is a culmination of a long history of systemic trailer park exclusion, discrimination and abuse that have precipitated since the trailer park heyday of the World War II Era. However, Duroville is just one of many cases illustrating the affordable housing crisis in California. Thousands of people live in severely substandard housing in California where the waiting list for affordable housing contains thousands of people.

In the current context, local governments lack political and financial capacity to address the affordable housing crisis, and therefore continue institutional efforts to zone or regulate low-income trailers out of sight or existence. While redevelopment agencies are being shattered and counties are unlikely to cough up millions of dollars to relocate the residents in the near future, life in low-income trailer parks goes on as usual. As humble as home can be in the trailer park or illegal trailer community, most residents prefer self-sufficiency to dependency. Moreover, there is great deal of pride involved in achieving “homeownership” status, stability associated with real estate ownership and benefits with raising a family in a close-knit community. As the Duroville community clearly demonstrated, trailer parks can achieve an incredible unity and coherence at beating the odds of survival in the worst of conditions and represent a dynamic vernacular environment worth of the American Dream.

Many Americans, by choice or out of necessity, live in trailers permanently and at odds with the current regulations and social ideals. Society’s refusal to reevaluate the housing needs of the poor contribute to the shortage of affordable housing. In my research and this blog post, I hope to bring awareness to the little-known community life that has been burgeoning in trailer parks and elucidate the evidence that trailers remain the last resort of affordable housing for low-income populations.

Tomas Janusas is a senior in Urban Studies in the college of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley. Born and raised in Vilnius, Lithuania, he now lives in San Francisco. He is a curious fellow in everything urban, and especially fascinated by beautifully perverse American urbanism. You can find him at tomasj@berkeley.edu.