Urgent as it may be, the affordable housing crisis is a term that can make one’s eyes glaze over. News coverage of how Americans who don’t belong to the 1% are being squeezed out of the housing market tends to lean on data and reports, statistics and graphs. A Decent Home, Sara Terry’s unflinchingly intimate and troubling documentary about the crisis that is roiling the nation, tells this ever-pervasive story on a refreshingly human scale.
Terry spent six years working on her film, which follows bands of residents at a quartet of mobile home parks under threat by developers looking to jack up rents – sometimes by more than 50% – or repurpose the land for more lucrative use. Moving a mobile home can cost up to $20,000, which makes it easier for landlords to get away with inflicting steep rent hikes. “I guarantee you, they’re not going to move if they can avoid it. The feeling was: they’re just going to go down to the local Walmart and get a few more hours of work,” Terry said to the Guardian. “It’s very hard to put a face on greed, but that was my aim.”
A Decent Home was inspired by a 2015 Guardian article detailing how investment firms were coming after trailer parks, one of the nation’s last remaining reliable sources of affordable housing. Mobile home owners typically purchase their homes but unlike other homeowners, they must pay rent on the land where they live. Meanwhile, they enjoy protections far less robust than those of typical apartment dwellers. This fact has become all the more evident over the last decade, when a surge of financiers have been scooping mom-and-pop properties and rewriting the rules, declaring how homes must look and issuing unmanageable rent increases. Terry’s film charts its subjects’ different ways of fighting back. Spoiler alert: There are few victories.
This shift in the mobile home market is a microcosm of what’s happening across America, where more and more private equity firms are buying single family homes and refashioning them as rental properties, putting home ownership out of reach for so many working Americans, and forcing so many communities to unravel. “I read a report by a couple of academics that 41% of the housing stock in Los Angeles is owned by corporations,” said Terry, who left an early career in print journalism to pursue photojournalism and documentary film-making. The math is mind-boggling. While inflation and wage stagnation are impeding the average American’s ability to get by, rents are heading skyward. “By the time the New York Times has a story that is headlined ‘the next affordable city,’ it’s already too expensive,” Terry said. “We’re just pushing the affordable housing crisis around, city to city, town to town.”
As the opening of Terry’s film lays out, 4.7 million Americans lost their homes in the recession of 2008. Investors spent $60bn buying up the foreclosed houses. While American households are falling in size, the typical house has moved in the opposite direction, with premiums placed on mega residences that are accessible to a tiny segment of the population. Modestly sized units that can keep their residents safe and warm, from two-bedroom apartments to spots at mobile home parks, are becoming increasingly rare. According to a 2021 report by the market research firm Real Capital Analytics, institutional investors made up 23% of housing park purchases over the previous two years, up from 13% in the two years before that. “The easiest homes to grab are the ones that are most needed by the people who have the least capacity to defend themselves,” Terry said.
Her film works to dismantle common perceptions of mobile home parks as sites of destitution and despair. Her film portrays humble and smart people doing their best – cooking and drinking coffee, taking care of family members and pets, in slice-of-life scenes drenched in sunlight and birdsong. There are grandmothers and immigrants, children and veterans, gathering for Thanksgiving dinner or a block party with a bouncy castle. “You hear people refer to them as ‘trailer trash,’” she said, “but the truth is they’re vulnerable and in so many cases, they’re wise. So many of the people I worked with know when enough is enough.”
Finding members of the mobile home communities willing to open up about their plight was easy, Terry said. The film contains interviews with people living at Santiago Villa in Mountain View, California, the pricey mobile home park that’s down the road from Google’s headquarters, and scenes from a resident-owned mobile home community in New Hampshire. The fulcrum of the film is the fight that the residents at Denver Meadows in Aurora, Colorado, waged to stay in place when the owner made a play to rezone the land.
The scenes featuring those seeking to make a profit are thrilling in their bare depiction of heartlessness. The investors’ and sympathetic politicians’ evident comfort with their position is unnerving – from Frank Rolfe, one of the founders of the get-rich-quick course Mobile Home University, to Bob Legare, who was until recently the mayor of Aurora, Colorado. A former real estate developer, Legare held behind-closed-doors meetings and lubricated the way for the owner of the Denver Meadows to put the land on the market, displacing an entire community.
“I think of that Hannah Arendt expression: the banality of evil,” said Terry. “There was a banality to the way they responded to me in terms of not having any sense of how outrageous what they were doing and saying was.” Terry’s footage from a session at Mobile Home University, where Rolfe is seen instructing aspiring mobile home park owners in such edicts as not ever becoming friends with the residents, ended up on a 2019 segment of John Oliver Tonight. After the damning episode aired, Rolfe stopped cooperating with Terry.
Which was fine. Her foremost priority was capturing the grace and tragedy behind the story. There is a scene near the end of the film, after the residents of the Aurora mobile home community have been forced to pack and move out, when a displaced resident named Petra Bennet returns to the site of her former home. The land is now bare, save for a couple of gnome figurines that were left behind in the weeds. “When are the rich rich enough?” she muses softly.
“People who live in mobile homes may have to work two or three jobs to hold it together,” said Terry. “But I think they know a lot more than some of us.” The Denver Meadows site has been cleared out, but thanks to the efforts of activists and politicians who responded to what happened there, a new law was just passed in Colorado that expands the protections of mobile home owners. While it doesn’t address rent hikes, it gives mobile park residents more time to put together an offer to an owner looking to sell the land, and it addresses the issue of tenant complaints that often go unaddressed.
“It’s important to pay attention and connect the dots,” Terry said. “Most people don’t care until it’s right in their neighborhood, but we can’t wait that long. Because if we don’t step up on this, all of our neighborhoods are going to be gone.”