Affordable mobile home parks are disappearing from Charlottesville — a new law may bring them back

A man in a blue sweatshirt, jeans and a baseball cap leans against a white truck parked next to a manufactured home.

Angela Durrer moved to Albemarle County’s Ridgewood Mobile Home park in 1998 because it was the only place close to her aging parents that she could afford.

She lived there — just five minutes from her parents’ home and her job — for more than 20 years, until, in 2019, Ridgewood’s owner sold the park. She couldn’t find another park with an open lot, nor could she afford to rent or buy a place in Charlottesville or Albemarle County. So, Durrer moved to Staunton, more than 40 miles away from her lifelong home.

“One thing that has never been that great in Charlottesville or Albemarle is, there are no places for people like me,” said Durrer, who works decorating cakes in a deli bakery. “I don’t make that much money in a year, and even still, affordable housing over there, there is none.”

And each time a mobile home park disappears, there is less affordable housing. Ridgewood is just the latest mobile home park in the Charlottesville area to be sold. Though there is no official count, Charlottesville Tomorrow identified four parks that have been sold and redeveloped here in the last 15 or so years. That number is likely an undercount. 

The sales have displaced hundreds of people. What’s more, no new parks have been built locally — or anywhere else in the state — so these people struggle, as Durrer did, to find new and similarly affordable places to live here.

Crews are still moving some of the trailers left behind at Ridgewood Mobile Home Park, just off Route 29 North in Albemarle County. “Mobile home” is actually a misnomer, as these homes are not easy, or cheap, to move. A single-wide trailer can cost around $7,000 to move, and that’s only if its owner can find another place to put it.

The issue is not unique to the Charlottesville area. Mobile and manufactured homes are the largest source of non-subsidized affordable housing in the United States, according to the U.S. Office of Housing and Urban Development. But such communities are disappearing across the state and the country. 

Affordable housing advocates want to change that. They successfully lobbied last year for legislation that mandates all Virginia localities encourage and support construction and retention of new manufactured home communities as a form of affordable housing.

But with such a nascent law, it’s still unclear how localities might choose to support manufactured home communities.

Neither Charlottesville nor Albemarle County have made any moves to protect mobile home parks. 

Currently, there are two mobile home communities in Charlottesville, with about 100 lots between them. There are more — at least half a dozen — in Albemarle County. All of them face a number of what Joe Ciszek, a staff attorney for housing advocacy with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, calls “existential threats.”

One is that manufactured housing is becoming more popular and that comes with a price, literally. 

Between 2016 and 2019, the average value of site-built single family homes in Virginia rose by 17%, whereas manufactured homes rose by 36%, according to a LendingTree analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, as well as a 2021 report from the Manufactured Home Institute. 

“Our organization is concerned with the affordability of it,” said Ciszek.

Another of those existential threats is that, like Ridgewood, parks are being sold and often redeveloped into market-rate housing that park residents cannot afford, said Ciszek. 

Jean Bourbeau, intake and volunteer manager for the Alliance of Interfaith Ministries, a local nonprofit that provides emergency assistance to families and individuals, has worked with a few local folks who’ve been displaced from these communities.

“People call and say, ‘They’re selling our mobile home [park] and I don’t know where to go,’” Bourbeau told Charlottesville Tomorrow. She suggests to them a few different things, like filling out an application with Piedmont Housing Alliance, to see if they qualify for subsidized housing. She asks if they have family or friends they can stay with until they find a place, or if they have a friend in the park who might be able to go in on an apartment roommate situation.

It’s discouraging, she said, when someone can’t find a home that fits their budget and has to move out of the area (like Durrer did). She often wonders what happens to the folks who reach out for help, struggle to find a place even with assistance, and then stop reaching out before Bourbeau hears that they’re housed.

Trina McLaughlin, a former Ridgewood Mobile Home Park resident, contacted Bourbeau for help and advice. 

McLaughlin lived in the park for nearly 30 years. She owned her trailer and was proud of the colors she’d painted its rooms. The kitchen was “a pretty orange color,” she said, with a few wallpaper embellishments. She put a yellow and white striped wallpaper behind the stove, and a yellow, green and red apple print paper that her mother got for her, behind the sink. The family had lived near an apple orchard in Waynesboro, and when McLaughlin’s mother was pregnant with her, she ate a lot of apple desserts — needless to say, McLaughlin loves apples.

Children’s toys are among the many things left behind at Ridgewood Mobile Home Park in Albemarle County, which a Virginia Beach-based developer bought from longtime owner Gary Howie for $6 million in 2019.

McLaughlin didn’t have the $7,000 or so dollars to move her single-wide trailer, and, like Durrer, didn’t have a place for it to go anyway. She wasn’t able to sell her trailer, which was manufactured in 1983. She had to hand the deed over to the park’s owner and said she “didn’t get a dime” for it.

Though McLaughlin enjoyed having her own space, “I was glad to get out of there, believe me,” she said, because even though she worked hard to keep her home clean, the park’s overall condition had declined over the years — an issue with many parks throughout the state.

More about mobile homes

Through her persistence, McLaughlin was able to get on a waitlist for subsidized housing, and 17 months later, in April 2021, moved into a subsidized apartment unit in Crozet. Bourbeau and an Alliance for Interfaith Ministries volunteer helped her move some of her things.

McLaughlin likes her new apartment, which she said is nicer, more modern and more livable than her trailer. But she’s reminded of Ridgewood often. She regularly sees one of her former neighbors, who is now working on her building’s cleaning crew.

McLaughlin’s story is a rare one, said Bourbeau, because she was actually able to get on the housing voucher waitlist and, after a long wait, find an affordable home.

If Ridgewood had been sold just a few months later, McLaughlin, Durrer, and other park residents would have received some money to help with moving expenses. In 2020, just months after Gary Howie sold Ridgewood to Virginia Beach-based RST Development for $6 million, the new law went into effect that requires landlords to pay $2,500 ($3,000 in areas like Northern Virginia) for relocation expenses once a park is sold.  

That money would have been a huge help in finding a new place, said McLaughlin. 

McLaughlin, Durrer, and their Ridgewood Mobile Home Park neighbors are just some of the many local manufactured home park residents displaced in recent years. 

The Greenfield Mobile Home Park in Albemarle County, which used to be located behind CMA’s Colonial Auto Dealership, closed a few years ago. It housed many families with young children (particularly immigrant families). Now it houses the Volvo dealership’s lot.

In 2007, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville purchased the Southwood Mobile Home Park in Albemarle County, just south of the city. Habitat has stated its intentions of redeveloping the park with at least 500 units of affordable housing, with as little resident displacement as possible. Construction on the project broke ground in September 2020. 

Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville also redeveloped the 16-unit Sunrise Trailer Court, a mobile home park off of Carlton Road, into a mixed income neighborhood of stick (i.e., site-built) houses for about 60 families. Families started moving in July 2012. That project is still ongoing. A for-profit development firm purchased a portion of the property and plans to build 22 units on the site, some of which will be considered affordable.

Read more: This Charlottesville Tomorrow article from January 2020 explores how officials define what housing is “affordable” and who can actually afford to live in it.

A few years ago, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville purchased the Sunrise Mobile Home Court in Woolen Mills and turned it into a community of site-built stick houses, a portion of which are considered affordable. The Carlton Mobile Home Park is right next door.

While parks continue disappearing, they are not being replaced. Ciszek isn’t aware of any new manufactured home parks in the state. 

“A lot of this has to do with restrictive zoning,” he said. 

Those restrictions have been driven by some of the stigmas surrounding mobile home parks, he said, adding that a number of localities classify these communities as blight.

But residents of these communities often have deep ties to the area and to one another, Ciszek said. He’s experienced this through his know-your-rights advocacy work in parks throughout the state.

Randolph Coffey, a resident of the Carlton Mobile Home Park in Charlottesville, has lived in the area for many of his 78 years. As a kid, he helped his father sell chickens from their Albemarle County farm to local stores, including Inge’s Store in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood. He later worked at the Allied concrete plant that used to be where the Carlton Views apartments are now, right across the street from the mobile home park, where he’s lived for about 20 years.

Over that time, he’s gotten to know many of his neighbors, including the young family from Honduras who just brought home a new baby. Cars drive fast down Carlton Ave., Coffey said, and he worries about the children playing nearby and about the man who must ride his electric wheelchair in the road — the sidewalks are too uneven. 

The city has changed a lot over his lifetime, he said, noting that the park used to be near a field and the concrete plant, rather than a craft beer production facility and en route to a tech company’s new headquarters. 

“At least we got a little grass here,” Coffey said one recent afternoon, leaning on a truck parked near his trailer, one of his Maine coon cats at his feet. He looked across the street to the façade of a Carlton Views building and said he wouldn’t want to be “all crammed up” in an apartment. Coffey added that he feels safer in his trailer, wondering aloud what he’d do if he lived in an apartment and there was a fire in a nearby unit. He said he’d sooner live in the woods than in an apartment building. 

Randolph Coffey has lived at Carlton Mobile Home Park for about 20 years, but has lived in the Charlottesville area for much longer.

In any case, Coffey wants city and state officials to “think about us people who live in these trailer parks. We’re happy right here.”

As of July 2021, Virginia law requires local governments to do exactly that.

That law is the result of legislation pushed for by affordable housing advocates throughout the state, including Ciszek and some of his VPLC colleagues. 

It requires that “after July 1, 2021, the locality shall incorporate into its comprehensive plan strategies to promote manufactured housing as a source of affordable housing.” 

Advocates hoped that “by planting the seed in the comprehensive plan, that it could flower into better zoning arrangements,” Ciszek said. “That would allow the creation of new manufactured home communities, or manufactured home subdivisions, or possibly try and preserve the housing that currently exists.”

It could take those seeds a while to sprout in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, he said.

That’s because comprehensive plan updates are long, drawn out, and full of red tape. It can take even longer for the strategies outlined in those plans to be implemented. 

That process is just beginning in Albemarle County, which began its comprehensive plan update this year. Charlottesville, meanwhile, just completed an update, but it’s already hit a snag.

A civil suit brought against the city in December 2021 and filed by seven anonymous city landowners, alleges that the November 2021 update to the comprehensive plan is moot, because the city failed to comply with a number of the state-issued requirements for comprehensive plan updates. 

Including, the suit alleges, the aforementioned requirement that localities address manufactured housing in their comprehensive plans.

Charlottesville Planning Commissioners declined to comment on the pending litigation. They also would not say whether the plan makes provisions for manufactured housing. City Councilors did not respond to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s request for comment on the suit. 

No matter the outcome of the suit, which at time of publication had not yet moved forward, Ciszek said he has “high hopes” that municipalities throughout the state will do more to address manufactured housing as a practical form of affordable housing. 

It’s gained some traction with at least one City Councilor. Michael Payne, who promised during his campaign to prioritize affordable housing, told Charlottesville Tomorrow in an email that “manufactured homes are a powerful tool for housing affordability.” 

Some localities outright ban new manufactured homes. Charlottesville’s zoning ordinance does not, though it is restrictive when it comes to such housing. It “does create potential barriers for new manufactured home construction,” Payne said.

The Carlton Views apartments, a Piedmont Housing Alliance property finished in 2017 with funding from the Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund, are across the street from the Carlton Mobile Home Park. It’s the former site of an Allied Concrete plant, where park resident Randolph Coffey used to work.

Payne wants to examine the existing barriers to manufactured home construction and see how the zoning code could be changed to remove those barriers during the city’s massive zoning rewrite project.

It’s important to explore solutions, he said, so that people like Coffey won’t have to endure what Durrer, McLaughlin, and other displaced mobile home park residents have experienced.

Durrer never thought she’d move to Staunton. In many ways, it’s been a good move, and she’s glad she made it, she said: She’s currently buying the house she’s been renting, which has ample space for her and her son. 

“This is my first home home,” she said.

Durrer feels lucky to have found her house. Some of her Ridgewood neighbors haven’t been so fortunate, and are living in less-than-ideal situations, she said. 

But in other ways, the move has been challenging.

“Mom and Dad are buried over there,” in Albemarle County, Durrer said quietly, with a sigh that sounded like she feels every inch of the 40 miles that separates her from them.

Even though she’s mostly happy where she is, Durrer is glad state law now requires localities to encourage and support manufactured housing as a source of affordable housing. 

“It would probably be awesome for a lot of people,” she said. “It’s too bad it didn’t happen before all this happened.”