Canning seasonBY BECCI ROBBINS
If you took all the mobile homes in South Carolina and hooked them together to form one long train, the first car would be in Moscow before the caboose left Myrtle Beach.
How that strikes you depends on lots of things -- like whether you're on board the damned thing, zinging along in a big box the color of Cheez Whiz. Or whether you're watching it go by -- sitting in your sunroom, perhaps, or on the screened-in porch, or out by the pool.
Those of you watching the spectacle from the sidelines, don't get too comfortable. Soon you may be mobile too. At the rate we're going, before long more people in South Carolina will be on the train than off. In some counties, that's already true.
Uneven record keeping makes solid numbers impossible, but conservative estimates put the number of mobile homes in South Carolina at roughly 450,000.
"All mobile home numbers are suspect," warns Chris Caughman, who crunches numbers in the state comptroller general's office. "People have a habit of hooking up trailers and moving them before taxes are due. So there are many hidden mobile homes out there."
Statewide, 26 percent of owner-occupied homes are mobile. And more than half of homeowners in Horry, Barnwell, Clarendon, Colleton and McCor-mick counties rolled their homes on site rather than built them there.
More than half of all new homes built here in 1995 and 1996 were assembled in a factory, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute of South Carolina (MHISC). Four years ago, the state's oldest builder, Mascot Homes in Gramling, made six homes a week. Today the company has nearly tripled production, and expansion plans are in the works.
The South leads the country in canned living, but we are not alone in our habits. Industry wonks claim that some 18 million Americans, more than 7 percent of the population, live in mobile homes.
Rising building costs have forced families to downsize their dreams. For a growing number of Americans, the only chance they have of owning their own home is to buy one on wheels.
Prices range from $20,000 to $75,000, with the average running about $36,300. South Carolina competes with Georgia for third place in mobile home sales.
But while the industry may be sitting pretty, its image is not. Ask people to free-associate the words "mobile home" and they say things like "trash," "tornados" and "no teeth."
Nobody knows that better than Emily Cooper, community relations director for the MHISC, and the person in charge of changing the public's perception of mobile homes. She concedes it's no small task. "The good thing," she jokes, "is that I have job security."
Her office is on the second floor of a two-story brick building across the street from the Governor's Mansion. The inevitable question arises: why isn't the Manufactured Housing Institute operating out of a double-wide? "Zoning restrictions," she explains. "Also, by being here, we are making a statement that manufactured housing is here to stay."
The fancy digs is part of the effort to upgrade the industry's image. Other tactics include changing the language. They're no longer trailers, or even mobile homes; they're manufactured houses. They're not trailer parks, or mobile home courts; they're manufactured housing communities.
The public has been slow to embrace the change in terminology. The news media -- which chafes at euphemisms and prefers short over long -- isn't helping matters.
But Cooper insists that the move from "mobile home" to "manufactured housing" is more than a semantic shift. For one thing, mobile homes are no longer really mobile. Ninety percent of them are put on site and never moved.
Plus, the product is not what it used to be, she says. In 1976, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a code of standards which forced manufacturers to build safer, more durable mobile homes. Now, the high end of the market offers cathedral ceilings, garden tubs and fireplaces.
"More and more people are finding that, hey, these are nice houses," Cooper says. "We believe that manufactured homes offer people that piece of the American Dream."
Mike Cordoni is sales manager at Grubb's, a lot sandwiched in a row of manufactured housing outlets off Hwy. 1 in West Columbia. He's been selling mobile homes since 1978.
"These homes have really changed," he says. "We're beginning to have a real presence in South Carolina. It's a growing market."
When he first got into the business, most of his sales were single-section homes. The trend has been to build larger, better and to-order, Cordoni says.
"There is no charge for custom building," he says. "You can bring your own plans on a brown paper bag, and we can work with you to get you what you want."
He ticks off the advantages of mobile homes: they are affordable, easy to heat and cool, require little maintenance, and can be built in a few weeks.
"Many people look down on [mobile homes], consider them second-class housing," Cordoni says. "Most people think construction standards are not up to par. But when I walk people through here they are amazed. They say they didn't know they were this big, this nice. What they have in their head is the image of a narrow box from 20 years ago."
He tells a story of touring a subdivision recently with a developer who challenged him to point out which homes were site-built and which were manufactured. Half of his guesses were right.
Cordoni himself lives in a site-built home. Running his hand along the kitchen counter of an upscale, multisection home on his lot, he says, "This place has better carpets, better cabinets than what's in my own house. They're making these better all the time."
All that may be true, says Al Hatfield, who's been selling real estate in Columbia for 10 years. "[Makers of mobile homes] have made some strides; the quality is better, they look better, but the image isn't a whole lot better."
In general, Hatfield says, realtors don't like mobile homes. "There's no real estate value to them. It's like buying a car. Anything on wheels loses value. Even the nice ones, like Mascots made with sheetrock, are hard to resell."
Hatfield sold a conventional house to a man who asked him to sell his mobile home for him. It's been on the market since August, and Hatfield still hasn't found a buyer.
"When I market [mobile home] properties," he says, "I tell people about the jacuzzi, the separate shower, the master suite, but when I tell them it's a manufactured home they just aren't interested. They have concerns about safety, about depreciation."
While the MHISC claims that depreciation rates for the newer housing units are comparable to site-built homes, that is not a universal belief. Appraisers are reluctant to talk, but off the record say mobile homes just don't hold their value.
"The thing about a mobile home is that it runs down faster than a normal home," says a Columbia appraiser. "The cheaper-built mobile home has an economic life of 30 years; the high end about 50. By contrast, at 60 years your average stick-built home still has value."
There are other problems the industry doesn't volunteer, like the fact that while mobile homes cost about half as much per square foot as site-built houses, banks usually lend money at consumer rates, hiking interest rates up to 5 percent higher than rates for a typical mortgage.
What's more, more than half of all mobile home owners live on somebody else's land, making them subject to the whims of landlords who are largely unregulated.
The first generation of trailers is reaching old age. Some have already died -- ashes to ashes, rust to rust. You see them dotting the landscape, piles of rusting bones and rotting plywood.
John Wright, a Calhoun County tax assessor, describes the life cycle of mobile homes as a downward spiral. "They keep moving through the economic strata until they hit rock bottom, when they become housing for people living below the poverty level. Or used for storage."
Wright's theory on why people buy mobile homes is "instant gratification. Fifty-thousand dollars gets you a double-wide with a jacuzzi."
People in the market for a mobile home are typically single mothers, retired couples, the newly married and the freshly divorced. For some, their mobile home is transitional housing. Others are in it for the long haul.
Becky Stanley is on her third mobile home. She rents a single-wide off Olympia Avenue in Columbia that she shares with her mother, husband, 7-year-old daughter and a bear-like dog.
Stanley likes the place fine. It's sunny, freshly painted, and sits at the end of a street with little traffic. It has a fence to keep the kid and the dog from getting into trouble.
"Only thing is the quarry," Stanley says, pointing past the open field across from her home. "When they blast it shakes the trailer."
After three years there, the family is thinking about buying the home, but they worry about being able to afford property taxes. "They've gotten pretty high," Stanley says.
Hick'ry Hawkins, who was born in Charleston but didn't stay there long, grew up in a mobile home -- several, actually. "I thought it was great. Everything is simple. You can't get lost. Sometimes your neighbors are a little scary, but you just stay on their good side."
Hawkins says mobile home parks are stratified, just like the larger world. "Usually, way at the back or to the side were the ratty trailers," he says. "And usually at the entrance were the nice ones. And always -- every place I ever lived -- had a trailer park queen or king. They lived in the biggest, widest, gaudiest trailer. At Christmas their place would be like a Wonderland."
You could always tell who they were, he says; "They carried themselves like royalty." He even wrote a song about these redneck bluebloods, called "The Widest Trailer in the Lot."
Hawkins, 27, sings in a band that plays a blend of "old-time country, punk and lounge." He loves Elvis, and dreams of being a rock star himself one day. When he makes it big he's going to do it up right. "I want a Silverstream home in the desert with a satellite dish."
Hawkins, a big believer in different strokes, knows trailers are not for everyone. He just wishes people who don't live in them would stop feeling superior to people who do. Everyone is on a different path, he says, and for some people that trip doesn't include slaving to make mortgage payments.
"When you finally do get that house," he says, "usually you can't enjoy it because you're working your ass off to pay for it. It all depends on what you want out of life."
You might expect a guy named Hick'ry Hawkins to live in a trailer park, even if it isn't his real name, which it isn't. But other people don't seem to belong there. Poets, for instance.
Once upon a time Paula Goff lived in a house on several acres of land in West Columbia. That was before her husband was killed outside Jaco's bar, before she quit her job teaching English at the university, before her savings ran out, before she was forced to move out of her house and into a single-wide parked at MacGregor Downs Mobile Home Park, behind the Fat Boy's on Hwy. 1.
She got the mobile home four years ago from the man who bought her house, where she had lived for 31 years, where she had reared three children. She still misses it.
"The pool kind of went to ruin," she says, "but I loved that house. I didn't want to leave."
Goff is curled in a plaid chair, wearing a black Carolina Panthers T-shirt, her bare feet tucked underneath her. "This is okay," she says, looking about her narrow living room, stacked knee-high with books and papers.
"There's no real wood in the entire place. Dickey would always say he'd put me back in a house with real wood. He never did."
She's talking about her mentor, James Dickey, the celebrated writer who is just days dead. Yesterday Goff attended his memorial.
Photographs of him hang in every room, and copies of his books line her shelves. She says that last time the exterminator came to spray for bugs he said, "I think you're obsessed with James Dickey."
She thinks he may have a point. She did attend all of Dickey's classes for seven years, and worked alongside him for many more, typing and editing his manuscripts.
"I'd dream his poems before he would write them," she says.
The idea of disposable housing no doubt offended Dickey's aesthetic sensibilities. "He didn't like me living in a trailer -- called me trailer trash." She smiles and shrugs. "It's a place to be, a place to put all my stuff."
Her stuff includes several metal file cabinets filled with hundreds of manila folders, a catalogue of her dreams dating back to 1971. "It's my art," she explains.
"It's like a garden," she says, opening a drawer and pulling out a file. "If you cultivate it, it will grow better."
There is no place for a real garden where she lives now. She could stand on her doorstep, spit at her neighbor's home and leave a streak if she wanted to. Chances are she won't; she doesn't even know them. She doesn't know any of her neighbors; she only goes out to check the mail.