March 18, 2021
New Orleans I remember well when Montana Peoples’ Action, an ACORN associate organization, and Jim Fleischman, a longtime ACORN organizer, put together tenant associations in a bunch of towns not only in Missoula, but scattered around that part of the state in the late 1980s. I listened with interest more recently when Action NC organizer, Jessica Moreno, talked about trying to organize a trailer park threatened by development outside of Charlotte. Working with the ACORN Tenants Union in Atlanta at the end of 2020, we door knocked a park around the time of the runoff election and were disappointed to see eviction notices despite the CDC notice. Tenants usually owned the trailers, but they were beached whales with the park owners controlling the land. These were tough campaigns because trailer park tenants had few rights in states where tenants themselves also had almost no rights.
All of this came back to me like a ton of bricks as I read Sheelah Kolhatkar’s story in the New Yorker entitled “Trailer-Park Trades” about the struggle that trailer tenants are facing now as their parks are being bought and sold by private equity companies and REITs. As organizers know well, trailers, and the parks where they are planted, are one of the few remaining sources of affordable housing for millions, especially in rural and ex-urban areas, where they are the only available source, think North Dakota’s fracking fields, or within reasonable commutes to jobs in unaffordable cities, think everywhere USA. About twenty-million people understand this fully, because that’s where they live. Over the last fifteen years since Katrina, I’ve come to understand their value and their challenges pretty well myself. I have one in the back of a friend and comrade’s place on four acres in central Wyoming. I have another on my brother-in-law’s place outside of Little Rock where I stay every month when my route takes me there for the union and the radio station. I have another now right across the line from the Pearl River in Mississippi. I’m looking for a small one to hitch to my truck whenever I have to get up and go, especially since many places where I crash with friends are increasingly pandemic wary. Luckily for me, I’m housed, and these trailers are parked on friendly property, which is the exception, not the rule.
Unfortunately, in the way that immense wealth is seeking investments everywhere, especially where there is a semi-captive audience and a constant income stream, trailer parks have become cherries to be picked. Kolhatkar mentions Blackstone, Apollo, and Stockbridge, along with Brookfield Asset Management, a Toronto-based REIT that ACORN Canada has tangled with up north as well. The New Yorker story follows a fight by tenants who tried to organize against this exploitation in Iowa, inspiring others, and coming close to winning in the legislature there. It’s not a happy ending though. The odds were long, and Republican officeholders caved to the owners’ association despite all of them having parks in their districts.
This is a tragic case of the confluence of disempowered lower income and working families facing deep pockets and the privileged legal positions of property holders and landlords, that has left tenants without basic rights almost everywhere, opening the door for predatory schemes that transfer costs and maintenance from owners to tenants, while jacking up the land rent. It was exciting to read about the efforts to organize tenants’ unions place to place, but I fear that unless they are all able to band together, it will be almost impossible to win, no matter how righteous the cause and dire the exploitation.