“Where do you live, ma’am?” the officer asked Kathy Hoos not long ago.
“You mean Psycho Farms?”
“That made me feel terrible,” recalls Hoos, who’s lived in the manufactured-housing community on Jackson Rd. since soon after it opened in 1987. “It was a brand-new, beautiful, well-kept, safe community.”
Hoos remembers a former manager who inspected the sites monthly and who was easily available to handle problems. “But for eleven years, the last three managers didn’t do anything,” she says, “and the park shows the neglect now.” Many of its 913 homes, she says, “look like crap.”
Like Hoos, residents of manufactured housing have a lot to put up with these days: aging facilities; all-powerful, sometimes arbitrary landlords; and disdain from outsiders (with insults like “trailer trash”). But what may hurt the most is the conviction that their neighborhoods are crime-ridden.
“To have a policeman make fun of my neighborhood really bothered me,” Hoos says.
Hoos knows the myths—even in Scio Farms, she’s heard talk of meth labs and prostitution busts. Yet Nancy Hansen, captain of police services for the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, searched five years of records and found no trace of those crimes.
Deputies responded to “quite a few larcenies, malicious destruction of property, and domestic assaults,” Hansen says, “but given how large it is, that’s not surprising. The Scio Farms numbers are probably the same for any other 913 homes in the same community.”
An elderly widow who asked to remain anonymous has lived in Scio Farms “more than twenty-five years,” and says, “I love it here! I live ’way in the back, and I feel very safe. I would give ten stars to my neighbors on either side. Every now and then I see a police car when I drive in, but not often, and not in a threatening way.”
People who live in manufactured housing may be no more prone to crime than their neighbors, but they are likely to be poorer: According to Reonomy.com, the median income for a manufactured-home resident in the U.S. is $34,000, compared to $59,700 for “non-mobiles.”
“I’m a dog sitter,” Hoos says. “Many of my neighbors work for Meijer’s or in service industries.” For many of them, manufactured housing is the only way they can afford a home of their own. But “with gas and food prices higher than they’ve been in a long time,” she says, “a lot of us are beginning to suffer.”
According to census data, in the Midwest new manufactured homes sold so far in 2022 are averaging $115,500, compared to $430,500 for traditional homes. Costs could be considerably higher, though, in a proposed new park at Warrem Rd. and US-23: developer Sun Communities’ average new home now runs $150,000 to $200,000.
That would still be “vastly more affordable than stick built homes,” an attorney for the company notes, pointing to a suburban Detroit development where homes on similar-sized lots are priced at $400,000 to $600,000.
But those buyers own the land their homes are on. In manufactured-home communities, the developers own the land and collect “lot rent.” At Scio Farms, Sun Communities currently charges $770 a month. At Coachville, a smaller, older park on Carpenter Rd., Yes Communities was getting $441 in 2021. (The company didn’t provide a figure for the 2022–2023 Observer City Guide).
Thanks to the underlying land, traditional homes usually appreciate in value. Without it, manufactured homes depreciate. At Scio Farms in August, several smaller used “single-wides” were for sale for less than $50,000, with “double-wides” starting at $65,000.
Buyers in the proposed Ann Arbor Township park would be paying three or four times as much, but that hasn’t made them any more welcome. First proposed in the 1970s, the development has been delayed for generations by legal, economic, and political obstacles. An ongoing court battle will decide whether “Arbor Oaks” ends up with as many as 500 homesites—or none at all.
Jackie Stickney moved to Scio Farms during the recession of 2008 “because I was unemployed and needed an inexpensive place to live.”
She planned to stay only long enough to get back on her feet financially, but plans changed. “I’m still here, mostly because it is a lot less expensive than apartments or rental properties in this area,” she says. “Truth be told, I don’t like living here, because in my brain I’m living in a trailer park.”
Hoos and Stickney are among twenty-two million Americans who live in manufactured homes. More than half of them have been in their current home for more than ten years, and many report only good experiences.
“Like any other residential community, we have noisy neighbors, children who make unwise decisions, people with entitlement issues, and on it goes,” Stickney says. Soon after she moved into her home, neighborhood boys broke into her shed, “stealing whatever they could sell.” Her solution: adopt a large dog.
“One of the conditions of living here is that the tenants are responsible for the upkeep of their property,” she says. “For the most part, they do.” But both she and Hoos report issues with residents who do not clean up after their dogs.
“We have dog-refuse stations for disposal and a dispenser for bio-bags,” Stickney points out. “I understand that nothing can be done about residents who refuse the common courtesy of cleaning up afterward, but it still annoys me. I am guessing that those people who registered their dogs think the extra $10 a month [to have a pet] they pay is a fair price for someone on staff to pick up after them. The truth is no one does.”
Meanwhile, the cost of living in Scio Farms is rising. Recently, residents received notice that they must pay their rent with electronic bank transfers—paying by check or money order would add a $10 fee. Hoos hasn’t banked electronically since her account was hacked. Stickney routinely pays electronically, but says, “I don’t think that’s fair. Not everyone is computer savvy. We were told failure to comply could possibly lead to eviction.”
They say that residents also must pay additional charges if they don’t anticipate the month’s water bill correctly. “Water bills are different from month to month and trailer to trailer, so it’s hard to guess what we owe,” Hoos says. “But who’ll fight these charges? Most of us are hardworking people who can’t take time off from work and can’t afford to hire a lawyer.”
Asked about the fees and any plans to upgrade the community’s aesthetics, Scio Farms manager Eric Matyjasik responded “no comment.” Sun Communities representatives did not respond to emailed questions. But while residents are feeling squeezed, the company appears to be doing fine: in June, CEO Gary Shiffman made Crain’s Detroit Business’s list of “metro Detroit’s 10 highest paid CEOs,” with 2021 compensation of $13.8 million.
At Coachville in Pittsfield Township, the issue is out-of-state owners with unrealistic expectations. According to a resident who emailed the Observer earlier this year, Colorado-based Yes Communities has ambitions that far outpace its homeowners’ budgets.
The resident asked for anonymity, so we’ll call him John Smith. He was concerned that management had ordered residents to remove their window air conditioners. Their options: buy stand-alone indoor conditioners, install central air conditioning, or swelter.
“Many homes here were built in the 60s, made out of metal,” Smith writes. “I’d guess that the population is half Spanish, so all management communications must be translated. They are asking these poor people … to change how they cool their homes. When I asked why, the manager says the air conditioners are some sort of ‘blight.’”
But old metal trailers turn oven-hot in summer without air conditioning. “At Coachville,” Smith writes, “the adults that don’t have good AC, or can’t afford to run it, sit in their cars [with their air conditioners running] while the kids play in the street, because it’s unbearably hot in their houses.”
If most Ann Arborites know anything about Coachville, they recall that it was the boyhood home of Iggy Pop, the “Godfather of Punk.” James Newell Osterberg, as he was known at Pioneer High, described it in his memoir as “a little trailer park out in the boonies, by U.S. Highway 23, a two-lane blacktop. It was beautiful, surrounded by a stone quarry where you could go swimming and some deep forests where there were animals, and also bean, corn, and wheat fields. I always felt different because I lived in a trailer and other kids lived in houses.”
It wasn’t actually a trailer—even in Osterberg’s day, “mobile” homes were built in factories and trucked to their sites. But it was a direct descendant of the travel trailers that took to America’s roads after automobile sales took off in the 1920s. Entrepreneurial landowners began dividing acreage into small lots and renting them to vacationers on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. They provided outhouses and shower facilities, and later, playgrounds, utilities, and picnic areas.
Then the Depression hit, and families who had lost jobs and homes packed their lives into campers. When World War II followed, factories and military bases desperately needed housing for employees and millions of recruits. At the start of the war, the government bought 500,000 trailers—the entire industry capacity.
In peacetime, returning servicemen created a huge demand for housing while they attended colleges on the G.I. Bill. Other veterans, anxious to own a piece of the American Dream, needed reasonably priced housing for their growing families. The industry took note and began producing models to serve as permanent housing.
Coachville dates from that era; it opened in 1947. The Osterbergs’ home, a 500-square-foot single-wide, was typical. The forests, animals, and farmers’ fields Iggy recalled have disappeared, but some of those metal units still remain.
Banning window air conditioners “isn’t the only silly rule that the Manager is putting us on to in recent months,” Smith wrote. “Recently she has been harassing us about keeping Vegetable Gardens. She claims that ‘Pittsfield Township’ is against them. That we must have grass. The Rule is not in the ‘Yes! Community’ guidelines. I called Pittsfield, they have no such ordinance. In fact, they would encourage it!”
Smith followed up in July to report that though the park’s bylaws still prohibit window air conditioners, the park manager who sent out the notices has left, and “they never actually went farther than ‘threatening emails’ against the Window-AC …
“The vegetable garden thing was a bit weird,” he adds. “Now some residents are starting to plant vegetable gardens again. Testing to see if the new park-manager will try to enforce what the last manager enforced.”
At first glance, CrimeMapping.com seems to indicate that police responded to sixty-eight calls in Coachville during the first half of 2022. But “sometimes the addresses on CrimeMapping are difficult to isolate,” says Pittsfield public safety coordinator Rich Coleman. “From January 12 through July 12, police responded to calls regarding retail theft and fraud, destruction of personal property, larceny, disturbing the peace, and a third-time DUI offense—but those were along Carpenter Road. Not one call was within the Coachville community.”
Ann Arbor Township has never approved a manufactured-housing community. But Michigan law prohibits municipalities from excluding it, and in the 1970s, the owners of 139 acres on either side of US-23 at Warren Rd. sued. They won a settlement confirming their right to develop a park there.
Then a recession intervened, and nothing happened for decades. By the time the developers brought the project back, the township argued the settlement was no longer enforceable. Last fall, a local court agreed.
Sun Communities and property owner J.A. Bloch & Co. are appealing—while simultaneously moving ahead on ninety-
four acres east of the highway that are already zoned or master planned for a park. Though there’s no site plan yet, attorney Alan Greene emails, “considering the open space and amenities we intend to provide, the range is most likely to be around 350 homes.”
Township supervisor Diane O’Connell emails that on its attorneys’ recommendation, the township doesn’t comment on pending litigation. But after residents expressed concerns about everything from traffic to depleted aquifers, the township board and planning commission are taking steps to rezone the property for much less-dense development.
In a July letter to the township, Greene objected that “[m]ost of the comments displayed a complete prejudice against manufactured housing, calling this a trailer park, and reflecting false characterization of the housing itself and the residents living in these communities.”
The attorney won’t speculate on the outcome of their appeal. But if it succeeds, he emails, the developers have a site plan ready for the entire 139 acres.
This article has been edited since it was published in the September 2022 Ann Arbor Observer. The location of the proposed park in Ann Arbor Township has been corrected.
Calls & letters, October 2022: Warren Rd., not North Territorial
“Your article on manufactured housing places a proposed Sun Communities [development] in Ann Arbor Twp, specifically at US-23 and North Territorial,” Charles Letts emailed. “But that is Northfield Twp.” As Letts surmised, the proposed site is on Warren Rd.