By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, July 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Oak Hill Mobile Home Park in Iowa had been in Mark Ogden's family for four decades before it ran into trouble with city authorities, who tried to have it shut it down, citing zoning violations.
That set up a legal battle between Ogden and the city of Des Moines that finally reached the Iowa supreme court, where in March, seven judges unanimously found in his favor.
Mobile homes, or trailers, have grown in popularity in the United States in recent years due to a shortage of affordable housing, but have so far received little government support.
Indeed, the industry accuses authorities of using zoning laws to try to shut down unsightly trailer parks to make room for new housing developments - a charge they deny.
"This case placed gentrification on trial for the first time," said Ogden's attorney James E. Nervig.
"The Ogden decision is the first time to my knowledge that an appellate court invalidated a governmental plan to use a sham safety purpose as a means to further gentrification by elimination of an entire neighborhood of unsightly homes."
Des Moines city attorney Jeffrey D. Lester expressed disappointment over the ruling, but rejected the charge the city took action with the aim of shutting down Oak Hill to make way for new development as "absurd and without any foundation".
Court documents show the ruling was based on the zoning legalities of the park and did not take broader planning issues in account.
Nonetheless, Ogden said it had been met with relief from other park owners who feared they could be the next target of city authorities.
He said there were 30 families living on the site when the city first ordered its closure in 2014, all on low incomes and with nowhere else to go in a city with long waiting lists for government-subsidized affordable housing.
"They (authorities) are just trying to get rid of all the old and want all the new," he said.
The culture of mobile homes in the United States began in the 1920s and played a particularly important role in housing factory workers during World War II.
With the rise of the automobile, trailers could be used for recreation, and camping grounds sprang up to accommodate them.
It was only in the 1960s when people began to park their trailers permanently that camping grounds became trailer parks, says expert Paul Bradley, founder of Resident Owned Communities USA, which helps communities buy the land they live on.
This was the evolution seen at Oak Hill, according to the lawsuit.
While such parks initially tended to be located on the outskirts of urban areas, many cities have since grown around them — and are now having to figure out how to accommodate them.
About 22 million Americans live in manufactured housing - a term that encompasses mobile and prefabricated homes - according to the industry, many of them in parks similar to Oak Hill.
Interest has surged in the past decade as a crisis of affordability has rippled across the United States.
"Manufactured housing to some degree is starting to become more attractive as a housing option, either as a last resort or as working-class workforce housing in expensive communities," said Doug Ryan of the nonprofit Prosperity Now.
While some cities are embracing that, moving to protect and even expand their stock of manufactured housing, others are targeting mobile home parks, said Ryan.
The Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI), an industry group, says there is a growing trend of municipalities trying to use zoning and other land use regulations "to restrict or eliminate manufactured housing in their jurisdictions".
The rise in interest in manufactured housing also has become a point of major new interest for private equity and other large-scale investors, including at times with the aim of closing them down.
The issue goes to the heart of the problem for all mobile home inhabitants - while they may own their homes, they often do not own the land on which those homes sit, and that makes them highly vulnerable.
"It's the conundrum of owning the home but not the land — that's why the bad actors are really awful," said Ryan.
To address this, some communities are moving to purchase their land collectively, an idea that started to spread nationally 10 years ago through Resident Owned Communities USA.
The group started out as a nonprofit and now offers technical guidance and financing assistance to a network of 220 co-ops in 15 states, with more than 14,000 homeowners.
Further such work is under way in six more states, and organizers say that a quarter of these home "preservations" have taken place in just the past two years.
"If the rights are in the land, but these homeowners are investing upwards of $200,000 in buying a home, can't we do better and figure out how to give some security over land tenure?" said founder Bradley.
Established communities can end up paying site fees that are around half of local rents, and with the stability of home ownership, he said.
The government's key mortgage suppliers have now been ordered to look at ways to expand affordable housing in the United States, with a special focus on manufactured housing.
That will include helping to finance the creation of resident-owned communities as well as the purchase of sites within them, Bradley says.
Some of this has already started in New Hampshire, while additional announcements are expected this summer.
The moves, he says, have the "potential to transform the marketplace".
(Reporting by Carey L. Biron, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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