Documentary “A Decent Home” Puts Affordable Housing Crisis In Focus
The following is a review of a documentary titled “A Decent Home” by Minot Daily News staff writer Charles Crane.
Twenty million Americans live in mobile homes. Which, for much of the last century, have proven to be a viable and affordable option when the price of a typical home spikes higher and out of reach. Most mobile homeowners around the country own their homes but not the land underneath them, entering into lease agreements with the individuals and entities that own the dirt.
However, through what has been described as commerce or “Capitalism at work,” the parks these mobile home owners reside in have become the object of desire of ultra-rich investors and Wall Street hedge funds, imperiling the ability of the average American to live in a mobile home park, let alone own one.
In her documentary “A Decent Home,” director Sara Terry examines the history of mobile home parks in the United States. And the lives of their residents as they find the parks where they reside falling into ownership of companies and investors with little scruples and an insatiable hunger for revenue.
The film takes viewers from a mobile home park on the doorstep of Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley and other parks in Colorado, New Hampshire, and Iowa revealing disturbing trends that are even manifesting here in Minot. Silicon Valley coders, retirees on Social Security, and blue-collar immigrants all find themselves being squeezed out of the places they’ve called home for years.
Through her film, Terry crafts an indelible portrait of a precarious moment in the nation’s affordable housing crisis, offering an intimate look at the struggles of the people caught between class, capitalism, and the American Dream.
A succession of lot rent hikes and eviction mill practices typically follow the sales of these parks, with those affected often the ones least able to do something about them and with very few places to turn to for help. In some cases, the new owner’s true intention is to rezone and sell the land underneath the mobile homes, forcing hundreds of families to find somewhere new to go. The cost to move a mobile home can vary by location but can be as high as $25,000, as was for Denver Meadows mobile home park residents shown in the documentary.
This reality of the way the system works is why one group of six mobile homeowners pursued purchasing their park together to prevent it from being grabbed by real estate investor Sam Zell. Others aren’t as fortunate, as the introduction of Wall Street money has ballooned the average price of the parks. All they can really do is chase the eyeballs of local and national media in an attempt to spread and maintain awareness of their plight.
A segment of the film shows a seminar class training would-be mobile home park owners on how to evaluate and make money off investing in them. A callous yet practical point of view, it nonetheless reveals the mentality of those behind many of these purchases. The man shown leading the seminar is Frank Rolfe, a member of the Iowa Manufactured Housing Association, who laid out the strategy in plain English:
“The customers are stuck there. They don’t have the option. They can’t afford to move the trailer. The only way they can object to your rent increase is to walk off and leave the trailer. In which case, it becomes abandoned property, so you can recycle it and put somebody else in it. You really hold all the cards.”
In another scene, Terry speaks with the owner of a park whose residents were hoping to purchase her land. Despite an offer of $18 million dollars, the owner coldly says, What they are willing to pay is their problem. What I’m willing to accept is my problem.
Her dogged pursuit to confront the owners and private equity firms displacing mobile home park residents takes her on a wild goose chase after another. While trying to track down the office location of one company called Havenpark, which also owns parks in Bismarck, the address ultimately took her to a UPS store where their mail is sent.
What “A Decent Home” explores is a sickness seeping into the heart of the American Dream. Whether the consequences of unethical and borderline illegal business practices or the result of a lack of political will to protect lower-income families and retirees, millions of Americans are being left to fall through the cracks.
“We need to hear these people, we need to see these people, we need to value them and everything they represent about the best of who we are as Americans,” Terry says. “We need to question who on earth are we becoming as Americans when housing that is on the very lowest rung of the American Dream is being bought up by the wealthiest of the wealthy seeking to make outrageous returns on their investments. When are the rich, rich enough? Whose dream are we serving?”
“A Decent Home” has been on the festival circuit for most of the year, including an appearance at the Fargo Film Festival. “A Decent Home” is now available through Video on Demand service or through cable providers.