Mobile Home Park Mastery: Episode 286

Unlocking The Roots of A Sense of Community

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A few years ago Time magazine declared that “mobile home parks are the gated communities of the less affluent” and raved about their strong sense of community. In this Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast we’re going to drill down on the origins of that sense of community and what park owners can do to foster a stronger bond between residents.

Episode 286: Unlocking The Roots of A Sense of Community Transcript

In the 1954 film, The Long, Long Trailer, starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, there's a quote that says, "What good is a trailer ride if not to help out another trailer ride." And then 50 years later, there was the T-shirt that said, "Mess with me and you messed with the whole trailer park." This is Frank Rolfe, The Mobile Home Park, Mastery Podcast. We're gonna try and unlock the history and the reasons behind the very strong sense of community that Mobile Home Park residents all share. Now, what causes them to have such a strong bond? Well, the first thing would be the high density of the mobile home park. A typical single-family lot in the US is 14,000 square feet, while the largest mobile home park lot is only 5000 square feet. So when you live shoulder to shoulder with your neighbors, when you can't really hide behind a fence or dense landscaping, where you don't have a lot of space between each other, where you don't see your neighbor potentially for long periods of time, it tends to create an environment in which people bond more, share more, talk more.

Another issue is the long tenancy of mobile home park residents. The industry claims that the average tenant lasts for 14 years. I don't know if that's really based on science or if it's just based on personal opinion, but it's very clear, if you look at the homes and the ages of the homes in most mobile home parks, many of those homes have been there for 20, 30, 40, even 50 years. And so, we have to assume that some of the residents we see coming out of those homes is may be the first or only the second owner. So it would appear that they do stay in the property for a very long period of time, and when you have that kind of lengthy tenancy, people just get to know each other better. It makes logical sense. And apartments, which are so transitory, that people come and go, I think the average apartment occupancy is only about a year. In mobile home parks, they have somewhere between 10 and 20 times that length of time to learn each other's names, to learn each other's interests and hobbies. It's kind of like living in a big small town. So that's another reason why you have very strong bonds, is everyone gets to know each other really, really well.

I think another reason is you have lots of senior residents in many mobile home parks, people who downsized from stick-build homes as they prepare for the retirement, and I feel there's kind of a sense of noblesse oblige among those older residents to watch out over the younger residents to dispense advice, to kind of see precursors to problems and try and solve those things, and I think that also aids in creating that sense of community. Another reason would be, I think that many people who live in mobile home parks are not that very aggressive type A personality, where everyone competes with each other, trying to outdo the Joneses, trying to do the best they can be, and instead, since they're not type A and they're not that competitive, they're more easy-going and laid back, and they tend to listen to each other more and spend time with each other and not really compete. You don't sense there's a whole lot of out-doing the Joneses in most mobile home parks.

Also, there's very fragile economics among many of the residents, which creates the necessity for them to create their own support network. Now, my partner, Dave, used to live in some of these early parks. He'd buy a park and he'd move into it while doing the turn around, and he noted that many of the things that we all see today is very important non-profit items, such as ride-sharing and Meals on Wheels. Those existed in mobile home parks long before anyone had those ideas. In a mobile home park, if your car breaks down and you have to get to work, you're always gonna find somebody else in the property who will give you a lift. If there's someone in the property who's having problems economically or for health reasons and they can't cook for themselves, there's always someone who's more than happy to provide a meal to them. The bottom line is that basically they have, as part of the residency in the mobile home park, this very, very strong support network that helps take care of each other, and that is a very, very big asset, maybe one of the strongest amenities mobile home parks have. So that being the case, if we all agree that sense of community is a huge asset to mobile home parks, such a huge asset.

The Time Magazine wrote an article a few years ago titled The Home of the Future, and it raved about the fact that mobile home parks said, "Gated communities for the less affluent." So how can we as park owners help foster and promote those things to create that sense of community? Well, the first thing we can do is try and get residents to know each other even better, and one way you can do that is to do a annual Spring clean-up, it's an event in which you bring in a roll-off dumpster and you let everyone know the date you're going to do it and you try and foster a sense among the residents says, "Hey, let's all pitch in together and make this property the best it can be." Now, don't let anyone do anything dangerous, only picking up litter, painting, those type of things. But it's great when you bring everyone together with one single purpose, that's to make the community the best that it can be. It also helps that if you can kind of salt the crowd with a professional, someone who could actually hammer and saw and fix things like decks and items so that we get some big issues also done.

But just working shoulder to shoulder in the mobile home park is a very positive function, and those events tend to create even further bonds where people meet each other, people that may have not met before, and really helps enhance that sense of community. Those events are typically run by the park manager, and it also helps out there because it helps bond the manager with the residents. So we find those types of annual continuity events where there's always one free shared meal as part of the event, typically a lunch. Those are very, very positive way to help build that sense of community. Another item we like to do is having blessing boxes. A blessing box is very inexpensive amenity. You can buy them for maybe $500. They come in a wood and a metal variety, and it's basically a box that's not locked, it's open to the public, and those boxes contain one of typically two items. The residents create these blessing boxes based on what interests them and what they feel is needed.

Some end up being filled with books, with the concept being if you want to read a book, you can take one out free, and if you wanna put it back, you can, or if you wanna put another book that you may have back in there that you've already read, you can do that too. That's one type of blessing box we have in many of our communities. Another is one filled with food. Basically, typically, canned goods, but you'll also see things such as pasta noodles and such in the blessing box. The idea being, if you're short on funds and you need a meal, you can always get one at the blessing box. It's always there, is people just sharing good will, sharing their own good fortune and having an abundance of food and placing it in the box. There's no limitations on it, it's always unlocked. And you'll note that only in that blessing box, whether the food does come and go, they stay completely stocked. So there's always people putting food in at the rate of speed that people are taking food out, and so it's just always there. It's a very strong support item that people know is there.

Another thing we like to do is to build amenities that bring people together. Now, mobile home park amenities have changed dramatically over the years. Back in the good old days, back in the '50s and '60s, where most parks were built, of course, the big amenities were things like swimming pools, but no one really uses those, and they didn't really use them even back then. A study showed, back in the 1990s, that the average mobile home park swimming pools was used by only 10% of the population of the park. And I think that's probably pretty accurate. I once had an office in one of our parks that looked out on the pool and I noted that it was rarely utilized and it was the same people there every time. So what kind of amenity can you do that people actually use a lot in a modern America? And we find it's really just that very, very simple item of some picnic tables and some outdoor charcoal grills. That's an amenity that everyone really enjoys, because they can sit around communally, they can talk, they can hold a birthday party there, whatever they like to do. It's in the outdoors, so it doesn't cost the park on anything to heat or cool, and it's something that gets utilized constantly.

If you go into most mobile home parks, you will find an area like that where you have picnic tables and grills are pretty much used throughout the day. Virtually almost every day. Now, if you can spare the money, you can even build up a pavilion top over it, which makes it possible to be there even in the rain. It often extends the season. When it's summer and the glaring sun, it provides shade. But the bottom line is, any amenity you can do that brings people together is a positive. In other situations, we've taken rooms and club houses that are not really utilized and made those into libraries. You'd be shocked what you can get from the library system in your city for no charge to create library spaces. They'll provide the shelves, they'll provide the books. It also helps if you can provide a computer too, for those who need to look on the internet right there in the library. And you'll find that residents will volunteer to be the unofficial librarian so that it can remain in hours even after the manager leaves each day.

The bottom line is, it's a very, very strong goal of all park owners today, as it should be, to try and foster and promote a more positive and strong sense of community, because that sense of community is where the unique hallmarks of this industry, and one that we should all support. This is Frank Rolfe, The Mobile Home Park, Mastery Podcast. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.