LOTHIAN, MD. -- Here in the middle of Anne Arundel County farmland, rows of mobile homes stretch toward the horizon like the columns of corn and tobacco that surround them. Elderly couples sit on aluminum porches and read the evening newspapers, children and dogs play on tidy green lawns while parents wash cars and chat with neighbors.
In fast-growing Anne Arundel -- home of Chesapeake Bay yachtsmen, trendy Annapolis and the U.S. Naval Academy -- the much maligned mobile home is a way of life for many. It has found a niche in Anne Arundel, which has the second highest number of mobile homes in the state, behind Baltimore County.
Mobile home living in this county of historic homes, farms and expensive new housing developments is a cheap, neat, quiet, if smaller alternative to rising housing costs that are pushing some middle income people out of the county.
"People pay $400 a month for an apartment and they don't own anything," said Greg Posten, a heavy-equipment operator who moved into a mobile home near here when he married four years ago. "Here you own it -- it's yours. It's very inexpensive. I'm surprised a lot more young people don't do it."
Posten's two-bedroom mobile home cost him $11,000, and he pays $165 a month to rent the tree-shaded land it sits on. "We had it paid off in just a year, and now we're just saving the money," he said.
The National Manufactured Housing Association estimates that about 12 million Americans -- more than 5 percent of the population -- live in mobile homes. In Maryland, an estimated 60,000 people live in mobile homes, and, according to industry officials, that number has been growing by more than 2,000 a year. In Anne Arundel about 3,330 of the county's 122,000 families live in these homes.
Mobile home industry and county officials said they were not certain why Anne Arundel has so many mobile homes. "We were developing in the '40s and '50s when this type of dwelling was available and more popular," county planning officer Thomas Osbourne speculated. "It was a time when there was a great demand for housing, and this was something that could be provided in fairly quick order. But maybe that's stretching things a little."
Mobile home dealers, owners and park operators complain that mobile homes have suffered from a poor image over the years and say it is undeserved. Several spoke of a proud tradition dating back to the covered wagons of pioneer days and said too few people realized how much mobile homes have changed since the first big rush of mobile-home building during World War II.
The industry has tried to sell itself as a source of quality, affordable housing, but local governments around the country -- including Anne Arundel -- still use zoning and other laws to restrict the number of mobile homes.
Four years ago, for example, a bill to provide affordable housing by increasing the number of mobile homes allowed in Anne Arundel was defeated by the county council, after a community outcry and a threatened veto by County Executive James Lighthizer, who said mobile homes suffered "an image problem."
At Boone's Mobile Estates off Rte. 408 here, supply cannot keep pace with demand. "We have dozens of requests every week for people to come here, but we just cannot accommodate them," said Gloria Drake, Boone's property manager.
Boone's, which has about 350 mobile homes, belies the traditional image of a mobile home park as a scruffy collection of beaten trailers. There is a swimming pool and tennis courts and a pond stocked with bass for fishing. Hanging plants and trellises line porches, and flowers bloom around the edge of carefully cut lawns.
Nor are the residents poor. "I've owned four homes," said Neal Stant, who lives in a large "double-wide" mobile home at Boone's and has a Lincoln, a Nissan and a Thunderbird parked in the driveway. "I have a boat, and I'd rather not have a house with a lot of maintenance on it."
Stant and his wife Laureen, who work at a printing company near the District, said the mobile home "Living in a mobile home park that's run right is ideal for a person just starting out or people like us who are retired."
Mobile home resident
park has all the conveniences of a conventional housing subdivision but is less expensive and better maintained. "If they find your driveway dirty, the skirting on your house coming off, or your grass not cut, you get a notice," he said. "It's really the only way to keep the place up."
Len Homa, executive director of the Maryland Manufactured Housing Association, noted that around the country, mobile home parks sprang up near military bases and at factory gates during World War II. That explains the mobile home parks around Fort Meade in northwest Anne Arundel and those around the Patuxent Naval Air Station in St. Mary's County, but it doesn't explain the mobile homes in Lothian, a rural farming area, he said.
These days, mobile homes look more like normal houses, while normal houses are being built more like mobile homes, often using prefabricated sections.
Inside, a typical mobile home looks like a medium-sized apartment, with two to three bedrooms and a bathroom with sink, bath and toilet, joined by a narrow hall to a large combined living and dining room and a kitchen. Many mobile home owners add small rooms, decks and porches to the original home, which costs about $20,000 for a simple model.
A single mobile home can usually be installed on a lot in less than one day. After it is in position, the wheels are removed and left under the home for future use.
Some mobile home park residents interviewed complained about the strict rules that govern them, such as what can be built onto a trailer, what can be planted, how and where cars can be parked and how lawns must be trimmed. Owners say the rules are needed because so many people live close together, and residents tend to agree. But the residents say it leaves them vulnerable to park managers who enforce the rules selectively, arbitrarily or not at all.
A retired Pepco worker living with his wife in a mobile home park near the Prince George's County line complained that he gets little for the $290 rent he pays besides petty rules that are selectively enforced. He also complained that any improvements or additions he makes to the property automatically belonged to the park landlord.
"Everything you see, like that tree, belongs to him, but I have to look after it," he said. "The only privilege you have around here is the privilege of keeping your property up, and he has the privilege of throwing you out whenever he wants."
But the man, who asked that his name not be used to avoid landlord trouble, said he would move into another mobile home park if he ever decided to leave.
"Basically, living in a mobile home park that's run right is ideal for a person just starting out or people like us who are retired -- for a couple who doesn't want to worry with another home," he said. "It's a cheap way of living. It has every convenience that I ever had in a house. In fact, it's got double what I need: Two bedrooms, two bathrooms. We're both in our sixties. What . . . do we want with a big house? And I'm certainly not going to move into a senior citizens' apartment."