Turning even a trailer park into a home for the wealthy

In Malibu, California, one trailer park on the coast has homes that sell for millions:

St. Brides Wentlooge: Lighthouse Park mobile homes by Chris Downer is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

Enter Paradise Cove Mobile Home Park, widely considered the most expensive trailer park in America. Home to 256 trailers and manufactured homes, it dates to the 1950s, when the then-owners allowed commercial fishermen to park campers there. Starting in the early 2000s, big names such as Stevie Nicks, Minnie Driver and Matthew McConaughey began buying up trailers, slowly turning the park into some of the hottest real estate in California

The draw is clear. The cove, as it is known by locals, sits on a bluff with panoramic views over the Pacific Ocean, with direct access to a secluded cove that is popular with local surfers. These are the same views that billionaires pay hundreds of millions to secure. Nearby, Edward H. Hamm Jr., a movie producer and heir to the Hamm’s Beer fortune, paid $91 million for a mansion; media mogul Byron Allen paid $100 million; venture capitalist Marc Andreessen and his wife, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, paid $177 million. Barbra Streisand’s enormous estate is perched on the edge of the same stretch of bluff as the park.

Today, the cove is a patchwork. Decades-old trailers that resemble banged-up tin cans that have been sitting in the California sun for close to half a century are snuggled up next to mobile homes that completely defy the traditional concept of a trailer. These multimillion-dollar beauties sport spacious gazebos and chic, designer finishes. There are exteriors designed by prominent architectural firms such as Marmol Radziner, known for revamping some of the most architecturally important homes in Los Angeles. Some of the wealthiest buyers have brought on high-end interior designers or used the design services of trendy, celebrity favorites such as One Kings Lane. The trailers are owned by celebs and other wealth-havers who use the cove as a beach-front refuge from their inland mansions. 

These buyers are driving prices in Paradise Cove way up, bolstered by low inventory and pandemic-induced demand for homes by the ocean, local agents said. Roughly 30 trailers have sold in the past three years for sums as high as around $5 million, according to listings website Zillow, though that figure doesn’t include a number that sold off market, real-estate agents said. In March, a three-bedroom mobile home came on the market for $5.85 million; if it sold for close to that amount, it would likely set a record for the cove, agents said. Agents point to the $5.3 million sale in 2016 of a mobile home owned by Ms. Nicks as the likely current record holder, but others noted that they had heard of off-market deals at up to $7 million.

The pictures of the location and the homes are stunning. This is no ordinary trailer park.

Such communities generally do not have a positive reputation in the United States. They offer cheaper housing, residents do not own the land under their homes, and wealthier residents generally do not want to live near them. This is why I titled one published paper “‘Would Prefer a Trailer Park to a Large [Religious] Structure'”: Suburban Responses to Proposals for Religious Buildings” because of the shocking claim from one suburban resident that they would rather live next to a trailer park in their wealthy suburb than near a proposed mosque.

I can only imagine some of the interactions between neighbors or within the community as homes go for multiple millions.

Want more affordable housing? Build more pre-fab homes and trailer parks

Affordable housing can be cheaply provided by building more manufactured homes:

“The manufactured home is probably the most cost-effective way to provide quality affordable housing,” said Donna M. Blaze, the CEO of the Affordable Housing Alliance, which helped provide manufactured homes for Sandy refugees. “Most of our new units are light years ahead of the apartments for rent in today’s market.”

The average sales price for a manufactured home in 2013 was $64,000, according to the Census Bureau, while the average sales price for a single-family home was $324,000. The single-family site-built home includes the land, though, while owners of manufactured homes often have to still grapple with landlords and leasing issues. But the structure itself is nevertheless significantly cheaper: New manufactured homes cost around $43 per square foot; site-built homes cost $93 per square foot…

There are currently about 18 million Americans living in manufactured homes, and the houses make up the largest stock of unsubsidized housing in the country, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute. That is becoming more important as government budgets shrink and Americans prioritize other policy areas over public spending on subsidized housing…

But there are actually fewer of these homes being built than there were two decades ago. While manufactured home builders shipped more than 200,000 units a year through the 1980s and 1990s, last year there was demand for a fraction of that amount, just 60,000, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute.

From one end of the housing market – luxury in NYC – to another. I can only imagine the response in some communities if this is the kind of affordable housing proposed. It is already difficult for many middle- or upper-class communities to promote affordable housing without also having to combat the (unreasonable) stigma of manufactured housing. So even while these homes might be quite cheap, where exactly can they be put?