The abandoned trailers on Lots 166 and 167 at Stony Brook North Mobile Home Park in Raleigh sit as still as empty locust shells. Since last spring, when the homes were shed by their occupants, windows have been broken and sprayed with bullets. A child's bike peeks from beneath the torn skirting. Inside one home, vandals have splashed MS-13 gang graffiti on iridescent green walls and carpeted the floor with broken Budweiser bottles, crushed among dirty socks and feces.
These are two of the state's estimated 40,000 abandoned mobile homes, according to figures compiled by the N.C. Association of County Commissioners; as the housing stock ages, that number is expected to double by 2020. County officials, housing advocates and lawmakers are concerned about the public health, environmental and safety issues these structures present, but because of the real estate limbo in which mobile homes reside, there is no uniform law under which counties can seize them. Nor is there money: Disposal can range from $800 for a singlewide to more than $1,500 for larger homes.
Legislation introduced last session would have empowered counties to dispose of the homes, but the bill stalled in committee after the manufactured housing lobby objected to a buyers' tax that would have funded the removal. The Environmental Review Commission is studying the issue and another version of the bill is expected to be introduced at the next session, which begins in late January.
"Counties are concerned that abandoned mobile homes strewn about are a deterrent for economic development," says Paul Meyer, assistant general counsel for the county commissioners' association. "It is very difficult to attract private investment of industry to come to a community that is burdened by that type of situation."
Owners often abandon mobile homes in response to socioeconomic pressures and discriminatory real estate laws. Seventy percent of people purchasing mobile homes are first-time homebuyers, most of them low-income. During the economic downturns, foreclosure rates for all residences, including mobile homes, are higher.
Unlike a house, a mobile home's value depreciates, which makes it nearly impossible to finance. Unless the homes are purchased with the land or altered—wheels removed and skirting installed—so as to "affix" the structure to the lot, they are considered personal property, like cars or boats, disqualifying them for grants or low-interest loans for improvements.
"There isn't a reason to invest a significant amount of money in upgrading them," Meyer explains. "They end up in the back of someone's property as storage or left to rot."
With no equity in the home, it is often easier and cheaper to abandon it rather than haul it away. When a park closes or lot rents increase beyond owners' means, they are stuck trying to find somewhere to place their home; parks often will not rent lots for older structures. And transporting one can cost as much as $3,000.
"People have no control over their economic security," says Peter Skillern, executive director of the Community Reinvestment Association of N.C., headquartered in Durham. To raise awareness about the issue, the association recently published a calendar, the 2007 Parade of North Carolina's Abandoned Mobile Homes. "Everything in the lifecycle of a mobile home is different. It's less of the American Dream."
At Stony Brook, a resident who asked not to be named says he saw a man defecating outside one of the abandoned homes one morning. Several inhabited homes in the park have been tagged with gang graffiti. "I needed something quickly and my credit isn't very good," he says, adding he still feels safe because he has lived in more dangerous neighborhoods. "But some people have broken their leases just to get out of here."
Neither Stony Brook management nor Affordable Residential Communities, the park's Colorado-based owner, returned calls from the Independent.
Last session, House legislation proposed a mobile home disposal tax, a major sticking point for the manufactured housing industry. The assessment would have added $1,000 to the price of a new single-wide, which typically costs about $20,000-$30,000. New, larger homes would have been taxed at $750 per section. Double-wides run about $65,000; triple-wides can go for as much as $90,000.
Used mobile homes would have been taxed at a flat $500 per section. A Senate version of the bill called for a lower tax of $300 per section for new and used homes.
The tax would have been funneled through the Department of Revenue to the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, which would have disbursed the funds to counties as needed.
"The state should not tax the folks who can least afford it," says Brad Lovin, executive director of the N.C. Manufactured Housing Institute. The institute suggested offering tax credits to property owners who remove the homes, and penalizing those who don't by placing a lien on their property. "The state should be encouraging homeownership, not discouraging it."
Lovin disputes the Association of County Commissioners' estimates of abandoned homes; the figures were derived from counts taken by several organizations. "There are some," Lovin says, adding some homes appear abandoned, but are not. "But certainly not on that scale. I would say there are different types of housing that are dilapidated and abandoned. Let's study all of it."
Legislation is unnecessary, Lovin says, because counties can use their police powers and nuisance laws to remove the homes.
However, counties can't always find the property owners, nor do many local governments have the funds to remove the homes even if they do use their nuisance laws. Legislation, Skillern and Meyer contend, could standardize seizure laws and funding sources. For example, the Raleigh Department of Housing and Health could condemn and board up the abandoned mobile homes at Stony Brook, but there is no law to compel the park owner, ARC, to remove them, nor the money to pay for the disposal.
"You can have all the legislation in the world," Meyer says, "but it won't do any good without the money to pay for it."
A handful of counties have improvised methods to grapple with the issue. For example, Scotland County classifies abandoned mobile homes as solid waste. If the owner doesn't remove the home within 30 days of being notified, an environmental enforcement officer serves a criminal summons and the owner must either remove the home or go to court and face fines or jail time. The owner must pay to transport the home to the landfill, as well as the tipping fees. The average disposal cost is $225. The county sells the recyclable parts of the home, which helps cover costs to implement the program. Since 2004, county officials have overseen the removal or repair of more than 80 homes.
Skillern says solving the abandoned mobile home problem will require not only legislation, but also fundamental policy changes: revising property definitions, endowing tenants with comprehensive rental rights and establishing nonprofit cooperatives that can own mobile home parks. "It's not been a political priority," he says. "But these communities deserve our attention."
The 2007 Parade of North Carolina's Abandoned Mobile Homes calendar is available through Lulu Publishing at lulu.com, for $13.98. Net proceeds benefit the Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina (www.cra-nc.org).