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Spanish Trails is among more than 700 Florida trailer parks owned by their residents.
Spanish Trails is among more than 700 Florida trailer parks owned by their residents. Christopher Morris—VII for TIME

The Home of the Future

For feeling good while getting around, it's pretty hard to beat the mild glide of a golf cart.

But the residents of Sleepy Hollow Mobile Estates wake each day determined to try.

"Good morning!"

"It's a great one, isn't it?"

"It's a great one."

Every soul Larry Myott encounters on a scoot around Lazy Loop, the narrow main drag of the 154-home trailer park, has a hand raised in welcome and a hello as warm and clear as the sky overhead. On the January morning I rode shotgun, the chipper well-wishers included the guy who, the night before, lost the election for the park's highest elected office ... and lost it to Myott. It is as if the entire enclave--the pool, the smooth black pathways, the clubhouse, all devoted to the exclusive use of residents at least 55 years of age--glides on a thin film of some invisible and frictionless fluid. Maybe cooking oil. Possibly BS.

"Oh, it's bullsh-t," says Myott, who at 73 has given the matter some thought. Resolute good cheer is a conscious choice, he believes, grounded in the reality that physically looms in front of the residents: a miniature lighthouse at the park entrance, its base paved with bricks bearing the names of neighbors who have died (11 last year). Forget it's there and the road outside takes you past a hospital, a nursing home ("with memory care"), a hospice and, off First Avenue, a cemetery.

Life, in other words, is to be embraced while it still hugs back. Not everything has to be absolutely perfect.

"Nobody says, 'I'm going to retire to Florida and live in a trailer park,'" says Bill Gorman, who manages business affairs for Sleepy Hollow and 10 other parks. "They say, 'I'm going to move to Florida and play golf, go to the beach, enjoy life.'" The trailer? The trailer is what makes everything else possible. Even if you've never saved for retirement, equity in a "stick house" (as trailer folk call ordinary homes) means you can sell it and pick up a mobile home for a fraction of the price. Peggy and Don Shriner paid $6,000 for a fixer-upper 16 years ago and now spend half the year in Sleepy Hollow, one of 150 trailer parks for seniors in just the eastern half of Pasco County, a formerly rural section of central Florida that lately is playing the role once performed by California: showcase for the future.

How will we live in our golden years? As well as we can, for as long as we can, which at the bare minimum means avoiding institutional care--nursing homes, assisted living, hospitals--as long as possible. The goal is what gerontologists call "aging in place," and in a world that still holds a few happy surprises, one of the happiest is that trailer-park life turns out to be a superior way to achieve it.

Neighbors are close and look after one another. Asphalt paths invite strolling. The cribbage tourneys, bingo and potluck dinners that cram page after page of the park newsletter shift loneliness from a default of old age to a conscious decision.

"And no stairs!" exults Hank Vandergeld, 70, chalking his cue stick at the Sleepy Hollow clubhouse, a modest affair in a modest park populated by retirees who insist they could not be happier to be there. "Save your money," says Vandergeld. "When you're 55-plus, you can come live in one of these places."

"That's the trouble," he adds, after sinking the eight ball, which makes him laugh. "People don't save."

They do not. The queasy-making economic reality of most U.S. households is almost too dire to face. Social Security is good for only so much. Pensions are nearly a thing of the past. And left to themselves to provide for their retirement, most Americans have proved unequal to the task. One in three has not put aside a thin dime toward retirement, according to a 2016 survey. Nearly 6 in 10 have saved less than $10,000.

But all is not lost. About 60% of U.S. households own a home. And the sale of a home opens the door to the possibility of trailer-park life. If that possibility happens not to be one a lot of people have in mind for themselves, what is aging except acceptance of the less-than-foreseen? In a series of accommodations to the inevitable, a mobile home may be just one, albeit the kind that actually keeps a roof over your head. And by the accounts of those already living, quite happily, in the parks, they may turn out to have more going on than is readily apparent to outsiders, sort of like aging.

"It's coming, one way or the other," says Dan Soliman, housing specialist at the AARP Foundation, where experts spend a great deal of time looking hard at the collective reality that individuals may be loath to face. Some 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day, a "silver tsunami" of demography that will be followed, before anyone knows it, by millennials, whose prospects are even tougher. "We can either ride this wave and have a lot of fun," says Soliman, "or crash onto the rocks."

Somehow the advantages of senior trailer parks have remained obvious almost exclusively to their residents. It is a success story without official ambassadors, all but unstudied by academics. "Honestly, I think it's because very few people in the academy, especially in business schools, are familiar with parks," says Charles M. Becker, an economics professor at Duke University whose own point of entry was some of his wife's relatives. Their story, by the numbers: sold home for $180,000, bought a used double-wide for $24,000, put $5,000 into fixing it up "and walked away with a pile of cash." Some of the windfall they wisely set aside (an annuity is wise, Becker says) for utilities, taxes and payments on the piece of land the trailer would sit on. But the bottom line shines bright and clear through the gloom.

"You can't buy $30,000 worth of house in a stick-built house without being afraid of the neighborhood you live in," Becker observes. "Trailer parks can be thought of as gated communities for people who aren't so wealthy."

It's certainly a whole new way of thinking about them. The old way everybody already knows. Trailer parks are "the last acceptable prejudice in America," says Andrea Levere, who studies issues of financial security and class as president of the Corporation for Enterprise Development. There may be some basis for the stigma in many of the nation's 44,000 parks. They tend to be operated not by the residents (like the seniors of Sleepy Hollow) but by landlords exploiting the traditional model. The park owners rent tiny patches of land to the people who own the homes perched on it and charge pretty much whatever they like. Landlords have the upper hand because mobile homes tend to be mobile in name only; moving one can cost from $5,000 to many times that. The typical mobile home arrives on wheels and stays put forever, poor people paying the rich.

"It's like owning a Waffle House where the customers are chained to the booths," in the words of Frank Rolfe, who co-owns more than 250 parks across the U.S., while also operating Mobile Home University. The "school," which conducts occasional seminars in hotel conference rooms, advises people looking to invest in parks. Rolfe boasts that mobile-home parks provide the steadiest income stream of any form of commercial real estate, and the highest rate of return. And trends are running their way.

"As America gets poorer, mobile-home parks are the only form of housing devoted to this demographic," Rolfe points out. What's more, the stigma actually works to the advantage of investors. Because local authorities seldom approve new parks, supply remains constant even as demand grows and grows. In the past half-decade, Wall Street has caught the scent. A former Goldman Sachs associate and a Harvard graduate started buying parks, riffing about methamphetamine and SWAT teams. In 2013, private-equity giant Carlyle Group "made a play." Explaining his decision to invest, billionaire Sam Zell declared, "We like the oligopoly nature of our business."

This is where the old folks come in. With a bit of ready cash--in Florida, usually between $20,000 and $40,000 per lot--park residents can throw in together and buy the park they live in. And if the cash is not ready, loans are available, either from banks or from nonprofit Resident Owned Communities USA, based in New Hampshire. The reasons to do this are excellent. In most states, a mobile home is taxed as a vehicle, and loses value the same way a car does. It becomes a "home," however, once its owner buys the land it stands on. And at that point, its value can appreciate.

The transformation is instant and almost magical, like slipping a shoe on Cinderella. Trailer parks immediately go from being nominal clusters of transients to being communities of owners deeply invested in where they live. The legal mechanics are the same as when tenants buy their apartment building, forming a co-op or condominium. Residents then hold their fate in their hands and assess themselves only what fees are necessary for upkeep. In Florida parks, the monthly fee runs $100 to $150 a month. Today more than 700 of the state's 5,000 mobile-home parks are resident-owned, almost all of them by seniors.

After the housing market crash of 2008, when the bursting bubble reduced the value of some traditional homes by half or more, mobile homes in resident-owned parks held far more of their value, dropping by only about 30%. Think about that. Manufactured homes, the "tin cans" or "wobbly boxes" of yore, proved sturdier in the marketplace than homes built with concrete blocks or pressure-treated pine. It made sense only to those who live in them. "It's not the house that held up the value," says Brian Heidman, who retired from a career in real estate to a resident-owned park. "It's the community."

Size doesn't really matter. Nor does income. I spent time at three Zephyrhills senior parks--one rich, one huge, one not very rich at all. Same story everywhere.

In Sleepy Hollow, Peggy Shriner, 75, glances out her window each morning at 8:30, by which time her neighbor, who is in her 80s, usually raises her blinds. The morning the blinds stayed down, Shriner went over. Turns out the neighbor had forgotten to raise her blinds, but her daughter, six hours away, was deeply thankful for Shriner's checking in. "We take care of each other," Shriner explains in the clubhouse, where the afternoon activity is portrait photographs. The park publishes a member guide, not that people don't know everyone already and whom to inquire after.

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"You O.K., Linda?" Shriner asks a woman stepping outside a screen door. Recently widowed, Linda pauses for a beat in the doorway, registering what she's being asked. Her answering nod communicates both affirmation--yes, I'm O.K.--and appreciation at being looked after.

Park living reminds Beth Palmer of her years in Africa; she was a missionary in a village of 300 in Sierra Leone. "You'd walk outside, and there was your neighbor," she says. "You had that comfort of someone always being there." For snowbirds, the comparison is with their summer lives in Michigan or Pennsylvania. "Dropping by? Not in Ohio!" says Barb Stein, who has been coming to Sleepy Hollow since the 1980s. "But here people are constantly dropping by."

There may be an element of social leveling at work in trailer parks--the welcome kind. Not everyone comes from the same background, but there is a unity in what they now share. Mobile homes have been built at a higher grade since a federal standard was imposed in the late 1970s, and the 8.5 million units the Census Bureau counts as mobile homes (also called "manufactured housing") run the gamut, from single-wide "park models" to $200,000 modular ranches.

But any will answer the senior urge to downsize an empty nest and to stretch a fixed income. A 2014 Harvard report found a third of the nation's "older adult" population, or nearly 20 million households, spend over 30% of their income on housing (the threshold for "overburdened"). In 9.6 million of those households, spending on housing reaches more than 50% of income.

At Sleepy Hollow residents take a certain pride in frugality--it's possible to spend less than $1,000 a month--and joke about the airs put on at other parks. You hear about Betmar Acres, with its Spanish moss, two swimming pools, new courts for pickleball (a game played at close quarters across a net) and 1,700 homes.

"It's big enough that you don't get to know everybody, so everybody doesn't know your business," says Judi Gearsbeck, on a park tour that, at every turn, puts the lie to her statement. "Here comes pretty much the man-boy of the park," she announces as a fit man in shorts strides past Memory Lane, Betmar's memorial to deceased residents. "He's not quite 60."

Calvin Hall, 59, pauses to brightly explain that he and his husband first bought a lake house in Floral City 15 years ago. But their apprehension about the isolation of living so remotely proved greater than their apprehensions about living in a mobile home ("It was the stigma") and coming out as a same-sex couple. There was acceptance all around. "I would live here year-round," Hall says.

Gearsbeck resumes the tour, pointing out the park's one and only overgrown property, her own corner lot, and the swimming pool a couple put in "for their dogs." She slows to hail a man on an adult tricycle ("Pete recognizes everyone by their voice, because he doesn't see very well") and makes her first ever visit to the park's library. Behind the counter is a familiar face. "Rita has a sister," Gearsbeck notes. "Sometimes she'll wander. I found her one day in the park."

"Yeah, we're looking into a home," Rita says, with no air of complaint, "because my husband is the same way. He doesn't wander yet. I'm the only one who's stable." Rita crosses her fingers. "Let's hope it holds." Back in the golf cart, Gearsbeck confides that Rita "just went through a whole bout of cancer. So we stopped in with the sister, as we do."

Failing health is simply a fact of life, and as with other challenges, from parenthood to combat, shared adversity tends to create a web that in moments of need can be leaned upon.

"You live in a normal community, and you don't really know anybody," says Heidman, in the clubhouse of Grand Horizons, the most upscale park in Zephyrhills. It feels like a subdivision, with homes selling for about $150,000. There's a parking area for the (smaller) motor homes that residents take on trips, but you can't live in one here. Not even single-wides are allowed. Homes must be double-wides; several are made from three pieces, most at a factory an hour away, which residents typically visit to select the features they want.

A home takes three days to make and at least six weeks to install. Heidman took the $1.4 million he got for his waterfront home in Bonita Springs and bought five lots, plus one for his own house. It has a fireplace, spa tub and walls made of Sheetrock, none of that Plasticine finish. There's no escaping the spring in the floor that tells you it's a trailer, but it's a fair trade for what comes with it: neighbors he's sure about from the background checks all residents must pass, and a full schedule of activities to fight boredom, which is what he dreads most about retirement.

"That's it: Companionship. Fellowship. Whatever you want to call it," says Heidman. "Safety," adds Jim Leitzke, who is next to him in the clubhouse, which fills up as midday approaches with the smell of tacos. There's a defibrillator on the wall. "When that ambulance pulls up," Leitzke says, "there's going to be someone around to look after my place while I'm gone."

He knows because he's done it for others. "We don't all have both oars in the water, and we're not all rowing in the same direction," says Heidman. "But we are all aging. That's the one thing we have in common. Of the five lots that I have sold in the past year, three of the buyers have been in the hospital. So we all are well aware that the grim reaper is very close to us. We're all in it together."

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