One death a sign of two big problems

Toni Covington was only 60 when she died last week, just days after being forced out of the mobile home park she had lived in for more than 30 years. As reported by the Fresno Bee, she was found dead in an employee dorm room during a wellness check by the local sheriff’s department, called in after she didn’t show up for work at a Yosemite National Park concession.

Covington first arrived in Yosemite for a summer job when she was 19 and was so smitten with the place she never left, eventually moving into a mobile home at the El Portal Trailer Park, located along the Merced River just outside Yosemite’s western entrance. In the years that followed, starting around 2000, she and the other trailer park residents kept hearing that the park was about to be closed down for one reason or another. It never was–until it was, this time on the grounds that the overhead electrical lines had degraded so badly that they had become a fire hazard. That much probably was true.

But there are other truths. One is that, as is true in mobile home parks across the country, the residents own their homes but not the underlying land–and those homes are so old that they are anything but “mobile.” Being forced to move therefore amounts to becoming homeless, which is how Covington ended up spending her last days in a dorm room too small for her possessions, with a shared bathroom and kitchen, rather than in the three-bedroom residence she had called home for three decades.

Another truth is that some states–including California– recognize the extreme vulnerability of trailer park residents, as exemplified by Covington’s story, and therefore have mandated certain protections for them. Tenants are supposed to be given a year’s notice when their trailer park is going to be closed down; they’re also supposed to be offered appropriate relocation assistance. But the El Portal Trailer Park is on federal land, and so beyond the reach of state regulations; its residents weren’t notified until shortly before Christmas (happy holidays!) that they had 90 days to move or lose their mobile homes. No compensation or assistance to do this was offered.

The plight of El Portal’s now dispersed residents inadvertently highlights two developments that will only get worse without public policy intervention. One is the growing marginalization of people living in trailer courts, some by choice but many more out of necessity, as sky-rocketing rents and real estate prices have left few affordable housing alternatives. The second is the steadfast refusal of resort and recreational facility developers and operators to ensure adequate housing for the (typically underpaid) workforce they need to serve their customers.

Although a shared dorm facility may be a nifty experience for a 19-year-old working a summer job between college semesters, it’s hardly suitable for a 60-year-old woman who has spent two-thirds of her life working in the same community. Other resort areas have it even worse, with hotel, restaurant and giftshop workers living in tents or in their vans on national forest land–and the pricier the resort, like Vail in Colorado or Jackson Lake in Wyoming, the worse the problem. Developers of new properties, including the growing roster of proposed large RV parks, rarely include an analysis of local employee housing options along with their traffic surveys and environmental impact statements.

For Toni Covington, these are no longer matters of concern. Just why she died, less than a week after her involuntary move, isn’t known, but her autopsy was scheduled for today. It may not be able to determine if a broken heart played a role.

Housing squeeze makes RVs a default

The development struggle that’s been going on in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, for much of the past year is symptomatic of a growing problem around the country, as developers rush in to capitalize on the renewed interest in RVs and RV campgrounds. As with any boom investment, the financial shock waves thrown off by big money frequently buffet little people who have no skin in the game and are simply trying to get by–and when it’s their housing that’s at stake, the end result is immiseration.

In Maggie Valley, the conflict began when a Myrtle Beach-based developer unveiled a $200 million (!) plan to revive a defunct theme park, which many locals remember fondly from the latter half of the last century. But bringing Ghost Town in the Sky back to life requires a lot more juice than it once did, the developer explained; it requires a whole lot of ancillary development, from new restaurants to a hotel to a health clinic. It also will require finding at least 200 new workers in an area that doesn’t currently have them, and new housing for all those workers, because the area doesn’t have enough of that, either. That’s why reviving the theme park also means building additional RV campgrounds, he told the town, because that’s the cheapest and most flexible housing solution–even though the town has precious little flat land and at least a dozen existing campgrounds already serving the tourist trade.

The campground “solution” raises several issues, not least among them the suitability of RVs for long-term housing. But here’s an even more fundamental question: why isn’t there enough housing in Maggie Valley for the people who work there? And the answer, as just about all resort towns already know, is that real estate prices have gone through the roof. In Maggie Valley, located in Haywood County, home prices have jumped 33.7% in just the past year and 73.3% over the past five years, to an average of $338,316. Meanwhile, the average monthly income in Haywood County was just $2,454 in 2020, putting affordable housing out of reach of the people working in the tourist industry that is supposed to inject the town with economic vitality.

Ironically, while some of that upward pressure on prices is due to inadequate new construction, a significant part of it is the result of the pandemic-fueled return to the outdoors that developers are now trying to exploit. As local observers have noted, new visitors arrive, they fall in love with the mountain scenery and they decide to stay–sort of–by buying a vacation home. Sometimes two. That’s nice for them, providing a refuge from whatever claustrophobic cities they call home, but while their surplus homes sit empty most of the time, local workers more rooted to the area can’t find an affordable place to live.

This is not a problem peculiar to Maggie Valley, of course, although it may be more pronounced in mountain communities because of their additional topographic constraints on new home construction. Local news reported last summer that many workers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, were living out of their cars in Bridger-Teton National Forest because there was no housing to be had. In the Idaho panhandle this past week, the Shoshone Board of County Commissioners heard numerous objections to a proposed RV park, including the fear that it would essentially become a magnet for “trailer trash.” As one local resident pointed out, a plummeting availability of rental properties is forcing area workers to turn to short-term rentals and RVs for their housing needs, with RV campgrounds at risk of becoming the next generation of trailer courts.

Indeed, short-term rentals are the other main driver of housing scarcity: real estate investors have concluded that the higher rates they can charge for short stays more than compensate for their higher risk compared to long-term rentals, and so have been snapping up houses and apartments that would otherwise be rented by working people. The short-term rental sector is so lucrative that newcomers like reAlpha–trolling for new investors with as little as $1,000 to buy in–dangle an irresistible set of numbers: Zillow’s estimate that long-term rentals are currently pulling in an average of $1,495 a month, vs. Airbnb estimates of $3,256 a month for short-term stays. “There’s a reason billionaires invest 20-40% of their wealth in real estate,” reAlpha croons.

Given those pressures, it’s little wonder that many RV campgrounds increasingly are headed in the direction of being dumping grounds for people with nowhere else to go. RVs are hardly designed for year-round living, and unlike regular housing they depreciate over time, so their owners never build up the equity that would allow them to escape their trap. But they are a step above living out of a car in a national forest–and they do enable developers with deep pockets and large ambitions to keep on getting bigger.

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