The Salem News
Thursday, November 13, 2003
The lack of affordable housing is a big problem in Massachusetts.
It's a problem for young people who want to move out of their parents' homes, for the parents who want the kids to be independent, for newlyweds, for men and women who are getting divorced and want to live separately, for grandparents who would like to move here to be near their grandchildren, and for businesses who want to keep and attract workers.
So we can all be happy to hear that the government, which helped cause the problem with building regulations, zoning laws, rent control in some cities and high property taxes in the suburbs, may be coming to its senses about one aspect of this issue that has never made any sense: The hostility toward mobile homes.
In an effort to address communities' resistance to Chapter 40B, which allows developers to ignore local zoning if a town doesn't have enough affordable housing, some legislators are drafting a bill to count half of a community's mobile homes toward its affordable housing requirement.
Why half? I don't know. It's just another part of the mystery of why these affordable homes weren't considered "affordable housing" all along. I hope this proposed change in the law will encourage more mobile home parks, so low-income people here can enjoy the same opportunities that I had when I was young and starting out, in parts of the country that didn't do snob zoning.
My first husband, my pregnant tummy and I squeezed into an 18-foot unit in a trailer park located in a college town, where we lived until just before my son was born. We slept on a sofa bed, pulled out at night; there was a tiny refrigerator under a range top, no oven; you backed into the little bathroom with its shower, no tub. But as long as I had a shelf for books and a table for the record player, I was happy.
For a while after that, we rented apartments, and I remember walking the baby carriage around the neighborhood, dreaming about being someday able to afford one of the $15,000 houses but wondering if such a thing would ever be possible on a teacher's salary.
Jack switched careers and military pay was no improvement, but our little Navy family could afford a mobile home in Pensacola, Fla. It had three bedrooms and was parked in a Navy field near a swamp. There was a dead-end street where even the smallest children could safely play outside within easy earshot of stay-at-home mothers in metal houses.
None of us had much money. There wasn't much room or furniture in our homes. But we were rich in time to spend with our kids.
When my husband left for further training in Texas, we moved the mobile home to Pennsylvania so Lance and I could live near his four grandparents. We sold it before moving to an apartment in Long Beach, Calif.
But when the USS Kearsarge headed for the west Pacific, my son and I went back to Pennsylvania. Rather than crowd in with our families, we stayed in a little pink mobile home that my dad bought for a camp. We lived near the local airport, four miles from town.
I was thinking about that long-ago home site last month when I watched the aurora borealis flashing over Marblehead. The first and only other time I saw the northern lights was standing in front of a pink trailer in the middle of an autumn night.
You're closer to the elements in a mobile home. It takes only a few steps to be outside looking at the sky. In a thunderstorm, the lightning flashes in all the windows at the same moment.
It's nice to own your home, no matter how small. But mobile homes can be rental property, too. My partner, Chip Ford, lived in one when he worked as a sign painter in Marathon, Fla., during his very low-income youth. For some of us, at certain times in our lives, the weather, social life and proximity to beaches are more important than the size of the housing. Mobile homes are popular in Florida with retired folks.
There's a nice mobile home park near my son in Nevada, next to the town park where my grandchildren play and the local senior center. I sometimes fantasize living there myself after retirement - a return to a simple, low-maintenance life, with magnificent mountain views.
Mobile homes: cozy, cute and affordable. Massachusetts needs more of them, and all of them should count.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem
News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence
Journal and other newspapers.