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As Seattle grows, where do mobile homes fit in?

Mobile home communities are few and far between in our expensive housing market—but some residents are finding a way to stick around

Duvall Riverside Village is a cooperatively owned mobile home community.
Hallie Golden

Finding an affordable rental in the Seattle area these days has become nothing short of miraculous. According to Zillow’s most recent calculations, rent in the Seattle city limits is soaring above $2,500 a month. But there is one key source of low-cost housing that hasn’t disappeared (at least, not yet): mobile homes.

Today, the state of Washington has about 1,250 registered mobile home communities, with 65,000 available lots, according to the Washington State Department of Commerce. These spaces are some of the few remaining affordable, unsubsidized housing options, with some households paying less than $500 each month in rent. But in recent years, some of these communities have started closing their doors to make way for much more profitable housing and office building ventures.

Here’s what you need to know about these mobile home communities and how residents, city agencies, and nonprofit organizations have stepped in to try to preserve them.

What is it like to live in a mobile home community?

The look and feel in each community is different. While some have lots with lawns, offer community spaces, and have a very close-knit group of residents, others are a bit more bare bones. There is also a huge variety in the people who live in a mobile home park. Although some specifically cater to elderly people on fixed incomes, others have low-income families and middle-aged couples. But no matter what they look like or who lives in them, they all tend to function similarly: Residents own their mobile home and rent the land it sits on.

Is a mobile home actually mobile?

Technically yes, but for most residents transporting it is simply not possible. It can cost thousands of dollars to move them, as the process involves using a crane and a truck, and can even require escort vehicles. But there is also the question of the age of the home to consider. Sometimes homes are too old to be accepted into a new community (certain parks have maximum age limits), and other times they’re too old to even survive being transported. And then of course there’s the challenge of finding a new community for the home, which can involve a lengthy waitlist.

Sounds like a great affordable housing option. What’s the problem?

In recent years, these communities have started to disappear. More than a dozen parks have closed, or are expected to close or be converted, between 2017 and 2020, according to the Department of Commerce. Whether that’s because the owner decided to retire or the land was slated for redevelopment or any number of other reasons, once they close, chances are very good that there won’t be a new one built to take its place due to the high price of land.

Is there a way to keep these parks from disappearing?

There are a few ways. For example, local nonprofits, like the Manufactured Housing Community Preservationists, could buy the park in order to keep it open and make sure prices remain low.

But a preservation practice that has become increasingly popular involves residents coming together to buy the mobile home community themselves. The process typically involves forming a co-op, getting a loan, and then purchasing the land. In some cases they receive support and guidance from such organizations as Resident Owned Communities (ROC) USA, a national nonprofit that helps residents take ownership of manufactured home communities, or even the state’s Department of Commerce, which offers resources for making the transformation to a resident-owned community. But in the end, the residents are able to get full control over their community.

How does a resident-owned mobile home community work exactly?

Once the transition process is finished, the price to live at the community typically goes up a little, depending on the loan agreement, and residents may also be responsible for a membership fee to join the co-op. For example, Woodbrook Wagon Homeowners Cooperative in Lakewood transformed into a resident-owned mobile home community about two years ago after using a loan to purchase the three-acre parcel of land for $2.7 million. Today, each household is responsible for a $479 monthly fee and a one-time $250 membership fee to join the co-op that owns the land.

But no matter how much work or extra money goes into this transformation, it’s clear that the change can provide residents with a boost in both housing and financial stability. That’s exactly what happened at Duvall Riverside Village, a 25-home community in Duvall that became resident-owned in 2012. After years of uncertainty, the residents banded together to buy the land, giving them a sense of security many of them hadn’t felt in years.