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[whitespace] Mobile home parks cultivate an old-fashioned small-town feeling

Sunnyvale--Behind chocolate-brown stuccoed walls tucked in the shadow of Highway 237 rise the uniform peaked roofs of more than 200 mobile homes. Inside the walls at Willow Ranch Park, the double-wides are set neatly apart, enveloped in mature landscaping.

The 25-year-old park, set on 30 acres, radiates outward on hushed streets from a common clubhouse that includes a pool, Jacuzzi, library and kitchen. It is a plan common to more than a dozen mobile home parks in Sunnyvale which together provide 4,000 housing units in the city. It is a landscape at odds with long-held perceptions of mobile home parks.

In the midst of Silicon Valley boom times and the resulting cries for more affordable housing, competition for plots in mobile home parks are at a fever pitch, which leaves many owners bragging about their neighborhoods.

"It's a really wonderful lifestyle," says Ann Olsen, resident and manager of Casa De Amigos Park, off Tasmen Drive. She warns that nothing peeves residents more than their homes being referred to as trailers.

"A trailer is something you can hook to your car and pull away," she says. "And people associate trailers with 'trailer trash.' These homes are not trailers."

Her 100-acre park hosts slightly more than 900 homes, some of which have fireplaces, three bedrooms and Jacuzzi tubs. Rock-gardens fill small patches in front of the homes and kitchy elves perch in front of some of the homes, but there are also manicured rose gardens and BMWs in driveways. One of the homes under construction at Casa de Amigos carries a surprisingly hefty $170,000 price tag.

The average cost of a new 16,000-square-foot mobile home is $125,000. That's for a new three-bedroom home. The lower end is $99,000 and the highest is $180,000.

Managers from a couple of the higher-end mobile home parks say rents fall in the $500 range, depending on lot size. Ann Olsen says someone can reasonably expect to pay $1,800 a month for everything--home payments, rent, utilities--for a place that feels a lot nicer than many apartments in that price range.

"People visualize us in these little ramble-shack things that you can pull behind cars," says Betty DeTar, a resident at Casa de Amigos for 21 years. "Like the ones shown on TV. and in the movies."

DeTar and a group of elderly woman are drinking hot chocolate and coffee in the clubhouse kitchen after finishing a "Walk and Stretch" class, and pricing items such as a donated pair of red sneakers for an upcoming fundraiser.

All agree that the close community, sponsored activities, affordability and safety of the park are strong pulls for park-living.

"Something that impressed me when I was looking here were the old pictures of people at parties and mobbed and having a ball," says Irene Kruse, who moved to the park around seven years ago.

"That's the beauty of it," says DeTar. "The person next door is like family. You also feel very safe here, and you can be as active as you want in things like bingo or Bunco. You can have as much as you want or as little as you want of everything."

Kruse also says she revels in the fact that her neighbors defy stereotypes of mobile home residents.

"One of the things that was so delightful for me was when I first moved in and a couple--older than me--came over to welcome me," she says. "And they told me they were living in sin--that they weren't married. They were so full of life and active and nice, and that just struck me right that they said that to me."

The sense of community is heralded over and over throughout different parks, by residents and managers alike.

As many Sunnyvale residents in the "outer world" replace modest bungalows with bulky new homes enclosed by tall fences, mobile-home dwellers say their parks are throwbacks to a bygone era.

"It's just like in the olden days when you lived in a small town," says Ron Swegles, resident and manager at the Willow Ranch park. "That feeling just doesn't exist in neighborhoods anymore. It's hard to tell what the reason is--maybe people are more isolated because they're fenced in, but [the sense of community] is a real plus for living in a mobile-home community."

Olsen says the communal spirit often results in collective efforts to improve the overall community.

"We all want the same things and work towards getting them," she says.

This involves a fair amount of regulations, Olsen concedes. When she began managing parks 16 years ago, she said, a park's rules fit on one page. Now the document she reviews with residents fills 20 double-sided pages.

The packet for her park outlines acceptable patio material, prohibits trees and vegetable gardens and requires motorcycles and other two-wheel vehicles to drive the most direct route between the entrance of the park and the resident's home.

"Because we live very, very close together and share facilities here, it's necessary to have structured rules and regulations," Olsen says.

It is a type of living that creates its own set of specific problems, says Steve Gullage, president of Golden State Mobile Homeowners League. He says residents are captive to their particular park since rent and housing costs in the "outside world" are so prohibitive and because moving a unit is so expensive.

"Once you're there in a park, they've pretty much got you," he says. "It's a monopoly, and they've pretty much got residents captive."

The GSMOL backs several pending bills that Gullage says will stick up for tenants' rights, including a bill that would prohibit park owners from passing on upkeep costs in common areas to its residents.

But despite any problems inherent to mobile-home living, Gullage says it's attractiveness is on the rise because of the relatively low costs. And since no new parks are being built, competition is tightening for limited spaces.

Most parks report zero vacancy with waiting lists, and mobile home manufacturers report brisk sales.

An advertisement in local newspapers labels one company's homes as "the un-mobile homes," and a brochure from Advantage Homes, manufactured-housing specialists, touts features that separate their new homes from lingering misrepresentations about mobile homes.

"A quick look around a modern manufactured housing tract and you know it's not about old-fashioned boxes they used to call 'trailers,' " the brochure reads.

But less fashionable mobile-home parks still survive, parks with a few scraggly trees, broken furniture piled up on sloped porches, and dented and crooked siding on the homes.

Even Swegles--who moved into a mobile home in 1990--admits he had his own stereotypes, which he got from an uncle, a trucker who lived in a trailer park in Michigan.

"Where [my uncle] lived was the idea I had, where everything was cold and there were rock gardens and all the trailers were stacked one right next to each other," he says. "And I have to admit, I did have some of those ideas."

His conversion came when he moved to California, and now he proudly strolls through his community's tidy clubhouse and serves as president of the Western Mobile Homeowners Association. The stereotyping he still encounters is rooted in ignorance, he says.

"[The perceptions] are a very difficult thing to fight," he says. "But it's the old way of thinking, to look down on the homes. But it usually comes from people who haven't been out to a park."

He says people's ideas of mobile home living may be shifting slowly, which is further encouraged by the newer stock of homes moving into older lots.

Since a mobile-home owner owns the home but rents the land from the park's owner, residents oftentimes sell their home to a real estate agent when they move. The real estate agent then can scrap the older mobile homes and replace them with upgraded ones. Older-style homes that were originally bought for $20,000 to $30,000 can now fetch between $70,000 and $80,000.

But even with higher costs for new mobile homes, Sweles says, rent in his park hovers in the mid $500 range, which he says still offers one of the biggest "bangs for your buck."

And coupled with the sense of community, he is one member of a proud and committed web of mobile-home residents.

"We're a part of the city, and an important part of the city," he says. "And I hope that doesn't change."
Kelly Wilkinson

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Web extra to the October 28-November 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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