A Little Portion of Land
Mobile homes put the dream of affordable housing within everyone’s reach.
Making cheap, dignified housing available to poorer Americans is essential to ensuring that all Americans, as Donald Trump put it, are able to participate in “the American way of life.” The only financially feasible way to give every American family their own four walls and backyard is with manufactured housing units, often referred to as “mobile homes.” Mobile home parks have been mostly illegal to construct in the U.S. since 1990, but conservatives would do well to embrace them anyway—they encourage family formation, lower the cost of living, and put the Jeffersonian dream of “a little portion of land” within everyone’s reach.
Most of our housing policy discourse today centers around single-family homes and apartment complexes. Single-family homes are inherently unaffordable for many families. The average price of a home purchased by a first-time buyer was $215,000 in 2019, not even remotely affordable for an individual working full-time and making the federal minimum wage, or even double or triple that. Add in family obligations, and owning a single family home becomes a pipe dream for many Americans.
Apartments can be more affordable than single-family homes, but affordable apartments are generally not dignified places to live. Living in cramped quarters and sharing walls, floors, and ceilings with neighbors makes managing a crying baby or toddler difficult. Tenants have few options if their neighbors develop a penchant for loud parties or cheap cigars, a problem reinforced by the perverse incentives and eviction protections built into some low-income housing programs. And while affordable apartment complexes may not be ideal for families, they are ideal for rats and cockroaches.
Mobile homes are a happy medium. They are more affordable than single-family homes and often more dignified than apartments. Mass-production and economies of scale mean that mobile homes are around fifty percent cheaper than custom-built homes; compare having a Toyota Camry delivered from the factory to having one assembled in a customer’s driveway. The average new mobile home costs only $70,600 in 2016, not including land. Even in relatively dense mobile home parks, residents have some outdoor space to garden or let kids play; many mobile homes have attached porches as well.
Mobile homes are a good deal, which helped propel them to a brief moment of national popularity in the 1960s. The industry collapsed around 1975, however, due to lobbying from home-builders and aligned interest groups, helping to create a nationwide mobile home park shortage that persists today.
The 1950s included both a housing and baby boom. The federal government provided the most affordable mortgage financing in U.S. history, and suburban developers such as William Levitt built the most affordable homes in U.S. history. Easy access to housing encouraged World War II veterans to marry young and start families. Members of the Greatest Generation did not spend their twenties fretting about student loans and postponing major life events for financial reasons.
Mobile home developers took Levitt’s mass-production techniques even further and took control of the low-income housing market during the 1960s. Between 1960 and 1972, mobile homes surged from ten percent of total housing units produced nationwide to almost sixty percent. Traditional homebuilders lost a large swath of their low-end market share, and responded with a ferocious lobbying campaign, spearheaded by the National Association of Home Builders.
In the late 1960s, Congress passed laws excluding mobile homes from financing for traditional custom-built homes. Even today, many mobile homes are financed through more expensive “chattel loans” instead of through less expensive traditional mortgages. Congress dealt an even more severe blow to the industry in 1975, passing a strict national building code that decreased mobile home production by more than half.
Home-builders also lobbied local governments to ban mobile home parks through zoning. Pressure from construction interest groups is a major reason why the city of Chicago has virtually no mobile home parks, for instance. Since around 1990, new mobile home parks have been illegal or virtually impossible to construct in almost every American city, severely limiting the number of new mobile homes available. As of 2023, only eight percent of the American population lives in a mobile home.
Inflation is hitting American families hard. Both post-2020 economic quirks and long-term cost-of-living increases are contributing factors. Housing is the biggest line item on a typical family’s budget, making it a particularly critical driver of families’ economic hardship.
Housing pundits frequently call for improving housing affordability through either zoning reform or other land use deregulation. However, zoning is essentially land-use democracy: It gives local people control over what happens in their neighborhoods. Zoning is usually logical and broadly popular with voters, and no highly populated area of the U.S. has totally overhauled its zoning system recently, although some places have made tweaks, such as California’s recent ordinance forcing cities to approve granny flats. The loudest proponents of zoning reform tend to be progressive technocrats, who want to reform zoning so that they can force their unpopular policy preferences on individual neighborhoods.
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Land-use deregulation is better than zoning reform because it gets closer to the heart of the problem: Non-zoning land-use regulations are a major reason why housing is hard to build in California but much easier to build in Texas. But deregulation is not a motivating issue for most voters. Small business owners and libertarian interns get excited about deregulation, but your average member of the Republican base does not.
Conservatives need to go beyond broad calls for zoning reform and deregulation; they need a compelling account of the good, the true, and the beautiful when it comes to housing. The American Dream of owning a home, and the older Jeffersonian ideal of the small landholder, gets closer to this. Owning property gives families resources, a sense of dignity, and a greater measure of control over their lives. It also encourages civic participation: Homeowners vote more consistently than renters, and they presumably feel more motivated to volunteer in their communities. Having some level of material security encourages people to vote for more stable political candidates rather than for demagogues out of spite.
Maybe Jefferson never lived in a single-wide, but he would still be proud.