Trailer parks could hold the answer to Canada’s national housing crisis


Coveted as winning investments, MHCs also offer buyers affordable homes that range in price from $120,000 to $350,000

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Taylor Thiessen was in her late 20s, owned a nail salon and a dog named Pepper, and had a plan, as 2019 edged to a close, to buy a condominium in downtown Salmon Arm, B.C. It was going to be her first home, and it was going to be perfect, until she did the math and found the numbers did not fit within her budget.


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A friend mentioned a place for sale in Countryside Mobile Manor. That is, a trailer park — referred to in the more refined lingo of the 21st century as a manufactured home community (MHC) — about seven minutes from downtown Salmon Arm.

Thiessen never pictured herself living in a trailer park. But she had an open mind, which is how the now 29-year-old became the proud owner of a 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom, open-concept place backing onto a golf course and bordered by mature pine trees.

Her neighbours, all a good deal older than her, turned out to be “lovely.” For $160,000, plus $460 a month for the pad rental, the trailer’s price was about half of what the new condo (plus fees) would have been.

“Moving into Countryside was the best decision I could have possibly made,” Thiessen said. “I wound up being so happy there.”


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Happiness and a blistering hot national housing market, for those looking to crack into it, are not often complementary terms. The average price of a Canadian home has rocketed past $700,000, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association, beyond the scope of many people looking for a first home.

This cost-of-living crisis has politicians of every stripe throwing around affordable housing-themed pledges during the election campaign: build a million new homes (Conservatives); build 500,000 new homes (NDP); ban foreign ownership, hamstring would-be house-flippers and “build, preserve, or repair” 1.4 million homes (Liberals).

Apparently overlooked, amid all the promises and political talk, is a potential throwback answer to the nation’s affordable housing woes: the humble trailer park.


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“We have a housing crisis with a historical solution sitting right in front of us, it is absolutely staring us in the face,” said Mark Kenney, chief executive of Canadian Apartment Real Estate Investment Trust (CAPREIT), a Toronto-based company that owns more than $16 billion in assets, including 77 manufactured home communities.

Mark Kenney, chief executive of Canadian Apartment Real Estate Investment Trust (CAPREIT).
Mark Kenney, chief executive of Canadian Apartment Real Estate Investment Trust (CAPREIT). Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

Painted in popular culture as the domain of petty criminals, drunks, dope fiends and welfare bums — with some help from Trailer Park Boys, the Canadian cult-television hit — MHCs are coveted as winning investments by pension funds, real estate investment trusts and private-equity players, as well as the traditional and still very active mom-and-pop-style family owners.

As for those trailers, well, they aren’t actually trailers anymore. Instead of axles and wheels, buyers get factory-built-to-code, energy-efficient homes set on concrete blocks, and they range in size from about 500 to 1,800 square feet, and in price from $120,000 to $350,000 (or even more) for ultra-deluxe models.


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Owners also get a yard to garden in, a driveway to park the car in and, at Countryside Mobile Manor, a golf course next door.

“People have a complete misconception of what these are,” Kenney said. “People will say, ‘Oh, but,’ and I say, you have a yard, you probably have amenities you don’t have in a subdivision — and you are into the investment market.”

We have a housing crisis with a historical solution sitting right in front of us, it is absolutely staring us in the face

Mark Kenney, chief executive, Canadian Apartment Real Estate Investment Trust

You also don’t have neighbours above, below or sharing the walls beside you. In sum, buy in a manufactured home community and you get an asset, while CAPREIT and other multi-billion-dollar giants, such as Brookfield Asset Management Inc., Blackstone Inc., Apollo Global Management Inc. and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC Pte, get a new tenant and charge them rent for the land.


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Brookfield owns 136 communities across the United States, valued at more than US$2 billion, and, according to a 2020 company report, it intends “to grow this business through additional” acquisitions.

The overall value of transactions involving manufactured home communities in the U.S. was US$4.2 billion in 2020, up from US$3.2 billion in 2019, according to JLL Capital Markets, a Chicago-based real estate services firm.

MHCs are big business indeed, but they are also places where people live, and champions of the model argue that these types of communities could ameliorate Canada’s affordable housing crisis, if only the public, politicians and media could get past the negative stereotyping, and legislators could hack away at a tangle of red tape and smile favourably upon new MHCs in zoning legislation.


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“The reality is, you’re not getting into a tree fort for less than $400,000 anywhere near Vancouver as a young person,” said Darren Hoblak, the former owner, along with his two siblings, of Countryside Mobile Manor.

You have a yard, you probably have amenities you don’t have in a subdivision — and you are into the investment market

Mark Kenney

The family recently sold the business to another mom-and-pop MHC operator for about $10 million. Hoblak’s father, John, was an independent Abbotsford, B.C., grocer, who got hooked on the idea of trailer parks in the early 1970s, the golden age of park construction in Canada.

The younger Hoblak remembers clearing brush as a kid on a 25-acre parcel of land in what is now downtown Abbotsford. That first park was called Allwood Estates. The family liked the business so much that they expanded their holdings, and eventually exited the grocery industry altogether.


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“The parks are a good return on investment,” Hoblak said. “It is good money, year to year.”

Countryside, for example, had 136 tenants paying an average monthly rent of about $460. There is very little tenant turnover, an industry norm — six or seven per cent versus 30 per cent in apartment buildings — and since residents actually own their homes, there is both pride of ownership and motivation to make rent, since bouncing cheques means putting one’s saleable asset at risk.

Manufactured homes are energy efficient and affordable and come with backyards and parking spaces.
Manufactured homes are energy efficient and affordable and come with yards and parking spaces. Photo by Kerry Tarnow

Factor in the new age of remote work, people leaving ridiculously expensive big cities to be closer to nature and further away from COVID-19 epicentres and closed-until-further-notice offices, and the idea of a young person or family moving into a trailer park doesn’t sound so wacky after all.


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At least, not after the hypothetical first-time homebuyer crunches the numbers, as Taylor Thiessen did.

“Owning a manufactured home is a very achievable set-up for a young person starting out,” Hoblak said.

The man he refers to as “the guru” — actual name, Al Kemp — agrees.

Kemp is executive director of the Manufactured Home Park Owners Alliance of British Columbia, a not-for-profit representing about half of the province’s park owners.

B.C. is home to almost 1,000 MHCs, consisting of about 60,000 households. Coast to coast, there are more than 190,000 households living in a manufactured home, and the majority of owners are 55 and over.

Kemp, a gentleman of a certain age, who requests that his age not be published, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the field and an intense dislike of the Trailer Park Boys franchise. Or, the “trailer trash boys,” in his words.


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“They are the worst thing that could have possibly happened to our industry in the past 20 years,” he said.

Kemp met with David Eby, B.C.’s Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Housing earlier this year to discuss MHCs, of which, he said, the politician knew almost “nothing about.” He hopes to meet with Eby again later this fall.

A scene from a mobile home community in Ontario.
A scene from a mobile home community in Ontario. Photo by Mike Hensen/The London Free Press/QMI Agency files

Meantime, the guru’s pitch on affordable housing is to try to convince the province to unlock some of its almost 90-million hectares of Crown land to develop new manufactured home communities.

“I am not looking for money from the government,” Kemp said. “The developers are out there, and the demand is out there, if land were made available.”

Kenney, at CAPREIT, is also a bit of an MHC evangelist, despite such communities comprising less than five per cent of his company’s real estate holdings.


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“We’ve got lots of land in Canada, that’s not the problem,” he said. “There has been a severe lack of development in this area for about 30 years.”

This isn’t just big shots in corner offices bellyaching while looking to pave over paradise. There is an actual historical precedent here, where the humble trailer, complete with wheels and axles, solved a housing crisis.

A mobile home community in Louisiana, U.S.
A mobile home community in Louisiana, U.S. Photo by Sheldon Alberts/Postmedia News files

Trailers were used to house recruits that flooded military bases in the United States during the Second World War. After the war, a good portion of veterans headed off to college — and campus housing – in trailers. The source of 21st-century scorn was, in the days of yore, the mark of an educated, affluent and upwardly mobile America.

Today, more than 22 million Americans live in manufactured homes, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute, a national trade organization headquartered in Arlington, Va.


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Of course, it is not all ponies, roses and rainbows south of the border. Horror stories abound of faceless, soulless, predatory MHC owners jacking up rental fees in the parks, whose typical 2021 resident tends to be the pensioner on a fixed income or families with few pennies to spare.

In an effort to protect them, Iowa representative Cindy Axne recently introduced a Manufactured Housing Tenants’ Bill of Rights to Congress.

“All tenants, regardless of where they live, should have the basic rights as residents that will protect them from unacceptable and predatory practices …” she said in a statement.

Back in Canada, most jurisdictions offer some form of rent protection for MHC residents. Alas, being arguably kinder and gentler as a nation hasn’t made it any easier for working folk and retirees to afford a roof over one’s head.


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Part of the trouble is that there simply aren’t enough roofs. Nasty things happen to home prices when demand outstrips supply, money is cheap to borrow, and people are stuck on the notion of homeownership as emblematic of the Canadian Dream.

“You have to increase supply,” said Remco Daal, president of Canadian real estate at QuadReal Property Group Ltd. Partnership, which is wholly owned by the British Columbia Investment Management Corp., a.k.a. the B.C. public-sector pension fund with almost 700,000 members.

An aerial view of mobile homes in Fort McMurray, Alta.
An aerial view of mobile homes in Fort McMurray, Alta. Photo by Garrett Barry/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network files

BCI got into the manufactured housing community business in 2010 when it bought Parkbridge Lifestyle Communities Inc. for $790 million. Collingwood, Ont.-based Parkbridge is among the largest MHC owners in Canada, with more than 60 properties.


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The pension fund also knows a thing or two about owning apartments, as well as trying to get new ones built.  Daal paints a tortuous portrait of what it would take, say, to get a new, entirely fictional apartment building built in Vancouver. It’s an example best summarized for the imagined would-be tenants as: take a number and be prepared to wait eight years before you actually get the key.

“It is not for lack of capital, it is not for lack of space, it is not for lack of willingness, it has just become really hard,” he said.

Getting a trailer park built is somewhat easier, he added, but only by degrees.

MHCs aren’t apartment buildings and they are not going to solve the housing crunch in Canada’s major cities. But if they can take some of the pressure off elsewhere, where land is cheaper, and the mountains, lakes, golf courses and home offices with high-speed Internet beckon, why not?


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Back in Salmon Arm, Taylor Thiessen was at her salon, reflecting upon her experiences at Countryside. Three months after moving in, the pandemic washed over the country. She had to close her business, but she did not shut herself off from her new community.

She and her neighbours would get together for driveway cocktails. She and Pepper would go for long walks. She decided to sell her home this past May, but only after she had met someone who had a manufactured home of his own on some land north of town.

The brown-with-white-trim place backing on the golf course sold for $70,000 more than Thiessen paid for it.

“I am really happy I didn’t end up in that condo,” she said. “I know there is a trailer park stigma but, whatever, the people were lovely, and I loved it. I really did.”

Financial Post

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