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Lots of potential: Despite high home prices, mobile homes see shrinking role as housing option

Colleen Langowski's mobile home is the most immaculate one on the block--if "block" is the right word. Homes like hers line the winding streets of Grand Forks' Columbia Heights, a mobile home community near the heart of the city. They're all long...

Colleen Langowski (with her cat, Hook) loves the affordability of living in a mobile home in Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Colleen Langowski (with her cat, Hook) loves the affordability of living in a mobile home in Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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Colleen Langowski's mobile home is the most immaculate one on the block-if "block" is the right word.

Homes like hers line the winding streets of Grand Forks' Columbia Heights, a mobile home community near the heart of the city. They're all long rectangles, but they're each a little different. And Langowski loves hers from porch to price tag.

"Living in this trailer park-I don't even consider it a trailer," she said, sitting in her spacious kitchen as light from a living room bay window flooded in. "And I feel very secure here, because I've got neighbors all around me. It's-I don't know. I think special people must live in trailer parks."

Faced with a slew of health issues, Langowski moved here in late 2016 to be closer to her doctors at Altru, just down Columbia Road. Her main source of income is Social Security, and she said she'd never be able to afford a three-bed, two-bath home if it came at Grand Forks home or apartment prices. For her-and others-a mobile home fills an important affordable-housing niche that the rest of the market doesn't.

But if mobile homes aren't a locally dying housing breed, they're a limited edition. Planning records show the last time one of Grand Forks' five parks were drawn into city maps was 1987, though one was expanded later. East Grand Forks' sole park dates to before the Flood of 1997.

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That means mobile homes have been drastically outpaced, especially in recent years, by an apartment-building boom and continual south-end growth in housing stock. It's a curious fact, especially given the city's concern about affordable housing, which has convened multiple discussions among city leaders in recent years on Grand Forks' expensive housing market.

"I think from the city's perspective, it's a better use of land for a higher-density apartment than it would be for a mobile home park," City Planner Brad Gengler said. "What I'm probably trying to say is, it's not that we would look down on a mobile home park. It's just that land consumption."

Challenges

Dave Anderson is executive director of All Parks Alliance for Change, a St. Paul-based community-organizing group trying to build a stronger network of mobile-home owners in the Upper Midwest. He said that mobile homes actually enjoyed a surge in the late 1990s, but that an early 2000s lending bubble burst much like other real estate loans would in 2008. They're usually not built without big tracts of undeveloped land relatively close to a city center.

As a city grows, that means they're built less and less often.

Anderson said that's a shame, because they represent a major cost-savings over home construction. And because they're high-durability and relatively low-maintenance, they can be especially appealing to retiring seniors.

But besides a social stigma associated with mobile homes, Anderson said they face other special challenges. In a number of states, laws exist to help control sudden spikes in rental fees mobile home owners pay for their plots of land. That's important not just to avoid wild rent spikes, but also to safeguard against exploitation. Since the cost to move a mobile home can range well into five figures, they're economically "captive."

In both North Dakota and Minnesota, Anderson said, there are little to no protections against such practices.

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"In Minnesota, we've heard examples of new owners coming in and deciding to increase the monthly rent $100 a month, knowing that as painful as that would be, it would be even more expensive to move the home," Anderson said.

In Grand Forks, city leaders have grappled for years with how to handle the city's high-cost housing, recently tinkering with multiple regulations to help boost development. Terry Hanson, head of the Grand Forks Housing Authority, said he'd be all for building more mobile home space-provided local parks are at capacity-because they make such a good entry point into an expensive market.

And Michael Grensteiner, a board member for the state's Manufactured Housing Association, said he's seen plenty of recent development in Bismarck, where a new park opened six years ago.

"It's been going well," he said. "There was a little drop-off the year after the oil boom, but everything's come back and we've had some pretty good demand."

Changing needs

But the city is likely headed elsewhere, City Administrator Todd Feland said. He said it's the lack of demand that has left mobile home parks unbuilt in recent years.

"The fact that we haven't built those kinds of subdivisions really in decades leads one to think-should we reconsider those? Is there still a marketplace for that kind of housing district?" he said. "Instead, we've gone to multifamily, we've gone to condos, and we've gone to single-family."

For now, the city's high-profile development concerns focus on the downtown area-where Gov. Doug Burgum is touting his "Main Street initiative"-and along the edges of the city. Feland said that's where existing infrastructure, like main roads and water resources, already exist.

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But he said the city is still keeping a close eye on the market-and how their new policies will affect prices.

"I don't care if it's Grand Forks or Anytown, USA," he said. "Workforce and housing ... that's probably a driving concern."

Related Topics: TODD FELAND
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