In part of his show Last week tonightJohn Oliver turned his attention to an often overlooked segment of the American housing market: mobile home communities.
“The homes of some of the poorest people in America are being bought by some of the richest people in America,” he said, before adding wryly: “Luckily, there were no problems.”
Of course there were problems – problems that are explored in the documentation A decent house, which premiered Tuesday night as part of Deadline’s For the Love of Docs virtual event series. The film, directed by Sara Terry, explores how private equity firms and wealthy investors saw a great opportunity to make money by buying trailer parks across the country. Once in control of the parks, these companies increase the rent that RV owners pay to park their RVs on private property.
“For years this was a mom and pop business, as people do [said], “Oh, we have some land, we can rent this space to you.” And they were happy to have a decent income and they were happy to charge the people who rented this land a decent rent,” Terry said during a panel discussion after the show. “But private equity, as private equity usually does, recognizes that there was a vacuum in the market in 2015. Then the Carlyle Group went ahead with their first park purchase … Now there is a tsunami of private equity firms buying parks across the United States.”
Terry filmed in parks in California, New Hampshire and Iowa. In a park, a local resident told her about a dramatic increase in her taxes.
“I found a letter on my door saying our rent will go up 63 percent,” the woman said. Another resident, a disabled man, said of the rising costs he faced: “My whole world just collapsed.”
According to statistics from the US Census Bureau, an estimated 20 million Americans live in trailer parks. It is the only segment of the affordable housing market that is not subsidized by the government.
“This is truly the last place where the American dream lives,” noted producer Sara Archambault. “In many communities where housing has become completely unaffordable, people can even afford an RV. You can see here how we are reaching the end of that vision of what it means to own a home in America.”
In some cases, local residents cooperate to buy the land at market prices. But they are often outwitted by investors with big pockets.
“Private equity has so much cash on hand,” Terry said. “Sometimes they just come in and throw the money away and residents just don’t have enough time [to make their bid].”
The filmmakers see this situation as a symbol of “late capitalism”, an era in which the super-rich get even richer, while those at the bottom of the economic scale can no longer afford to live in a place where they actually live themselves . can call themselves. Terry and Archambault say something precious is lost in the process.
“It feels like small towns,” Archambault said of trailer parks, “almost like an echo back to the way we all knew and cared about our neighbors better.”
“I try very consciously, especially in the first act of the film, to make you the viewer fall in love with these people and these places,” Terry noted. “I don’t want you to ever use the words ‘trailer trash’ again.”
Watch the conversation in the video above.
Our For the Love of Docs virtual series is sponsored by National Geographic.
Writer: Matthew Carey