Director Sara Terry spent over six years making “A Decent Home”, her third documentary. Coming from a background in journalism, Terry told The Sopris Sun that filmmaking is “the biggest kind of conversation of any journalism I know or have participated in” with the most potential for impact. It’s now her favorite way of telling stories.
She says this story in particular is “so fundamental to the future of America and its heart and soul … whether we’re going to be consumed by greed or reclaim our best selves.”
“A Decent Home” observes “housing that’s on the lowest rung of the American Dream being devoured by the wealthiest of the wealthy,” according to the press release. The film “addresses urgent issues of class and economic (im)mobility through the lives of mobile home park residents who can’t afford housing anywhere else.”
In 2015, Terry read an article in The Guardian about Mobile Home University, a “boot camp” for private investors to earn a profit by purchasing mobile home parks and increasing the rent that park residents pay for the land beneath their homes, often in addition to a mortgage. Meanwhile, park owners are on the hook for very little maintenance, and residents are essentially trapped as many “mobile” homes would collapse if moved.
The dynamic is especially troublesome as the national housing crisis deepens; there isn’t a single state in the entire country where a person working full time for minimum wage can afford a one-bedroom apartment at the fair-market rent, reports the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Even before the pandemic, the Joint Center for Housing Studies found that one in four U.S. renters were spending more than half their pre-tax income on housing.
Mobile home parks remain the largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in America, sheltering seven million families, Terry said. “It’s a huge source of housing.” In the United States, approximately 20 million people live in mobile homes, where the average median income for park residents nationally is $30,000.
Filming for “A Decent Home” ended in 2019, just as legislation was passing in Colorado to give tenants the opportunity to purchase their park if the owner decides to sell it. They are given 90 days to organize, obtain financing and submit a binding offer. Earlier in 2022, residents of Westside Mobile Home Park in Durango successfully outbid a corporate buyer ready to pay $5.5 million.
Since 2008, the national nonprofit ROC USA — started in the 1980s — has helped residents in 290 parks to form resident-owned communities. In Colorado, Thistle ROC has helped five Colorado mobile home parks become resident-owned since 2018.
Terry credits Meadows Mobile Home Park in Aurora, featured in her documentary, for leading to that legislation passing. “For three years, low-income, mainly Spanish-speaking residents fought to protect the park that they lived in,” she said. Now, “a growing number of park residents are in a position to be able to buy their parks — it’s because of those people that lost everything.”
By Terry’s estimate, Colorado “went from zero to 60” in terms of protecting mobile home park residents and is now in the top 10 states. However, there’s more work to do. In April, Governor Jared Polis threatened to veto a bill aimed at setting a cap on annual rent increases for mobile homes.
Petra Bennet, a resident of the Meadows Mobile Home Park interviewed in the documentary, summed it up: “When are the rich rich enough?”
“I think the wealth gap is the largest problem we have as a culture,” Terry said. “Greed is the face of everything that’s wrong.”
Although the film centers on mobile home parks, Terry warns that these are “canaries in the coal mine” and private equity firms are “buying up housing all across America,” including single family homes.
Because the film is bilingual, with Spanish subtitles throughout, all are welcome to join in the dialogue. Thanks to the Colorado Health Foundation, in partnership with MANAUS, the film will be presented for free on the lawn at the Third Street Center on Friday, July 22, at 7 p.m.
The documentary is still in film festivals and will eventually be brought to streaming platforms. It is also available to screen for free at mobile home parks, along with a short documentary about Carlyle Group, one of the largest private equity groups in the world, also made by Terry.
Following the film, Terry will be present for a question-and-answer session. She is traveling to screenings throughout Colorado as part of the film’s impact campaign. These screenings are “deliberately meant as an opportunity for mobile home parks and residents to have conversation,” she said, hoping elected officials and planning commissioners attend the showing.
Ultimately, it is a film about community: “about neighbors helping neighbors,” concluded Terry.