"It's about the only thing left you can say and not be perceived as a bigot or politically incorrect," said Frank Williams, "and why that is, I don't know."
The subject was trailers, or, more specifically, "trailer trash," and Williams, as director of the Florida Manufactured Housing Institute in Tallahassee, is in the forefront of the struggle to cleanse the vocabulary of such slurs. He is the one who is often called upon to write chastising letters to the likes of political consultant James Carville, who made a derisive public remark about trailer parks and President Clinton's accuser, Paula Jones. Williams is the one who protests the use of "double-wide," the term for a home 32 feet wide instead of the box-like single at 16 feet, to signify a tacky lifestyle. He has stopped listening to Jay Leno, who recently remarked that Jones would use her lawsuit settlement to buy "new tires" for her house.
The fact is, as Williams can attest, this is becoming more and more a country of people living in factory-built homes, no longer called trailers but manufactured homes by the industry. Last year, they accounted for nearly a quarter of all new single-family dwellings in America. Now, 19 million people, or about 8 percent of the U.S. population, live in 9 million such homes, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute in Arlington.
And as sales increase, industry officials have been working hard to shake the image of a shabby, even shameful, abode -- reduced to matchsticks at the first strong wind. They boast of stringent safety standards, glamorizing improvements and advancements in technology.
Nowadays, boosters are emphasizing "aesthetics," and manufacturers are turning out houses in styles described as Cape Cod or Mediterranean, with fireplaces, cathedral ceilings and "glamour tubs." Fierce image-building also is underway.
"We've done focus groups and different studies, and people think of a trailer on `I Love Lucy' being pulled behind a car, or the mobile home they lived in in college that was falling apart," said Sherry Norris of the Alabama Manufactured Housing Institute. "They see our new manufactured homes and it's, wow, this is like a site-built home."
Still, she concedes, it is not easy. "In [John] Grisham novels, if one of the characters lives in a trailer, he's up to something," she said.
Tommy Bowen knows a lot about manufactured homes. Take the Excalibur. It has textured, vaulted ceilings, easy-clean, tilt-out, vinyl thermopane windows, media niches and alcove bays, all spread out over 1,619 square feet, covered in low-maintenance two-tone vinyl siding. It costs $79,000 and comes portable, in two parts.
People stop to look at the Excalibur or the Sonya ($78,295) or the roomier Delores ($84,500) at Hunter's Walk East, a busy manufactured-home lot in Montgomery, Ala. They are tempted by the price, about half the cost of a house built on a site instead of in a factory. And they are drawn by a goal that might seem otherwise unreachable: a home of their own. They want, as the banners say at many other sales lots throughout the South, to "Kiss Your Landlord Goodbye!"
"What we're providing is the American Dream for people," said Bowen, 30, the manager of Hunter's Walk East.
If so, it is most particularly a Southern dream. Here, and in much of the rural South, the landscape of old farmhouses and barns is turning into one of manufactured homes with brass porch lights and bay windows, in shades of taupe, gray, yellow and green. In a region where cheap land is still plentiful, and where apartment dwelling is seen as a sorry urban lifestyle, the manufactured home is offering a quick, affordable package deal, complete, in the case of the Excalibur, with Maytag kitchen appliances.
"I love my home," said Lorene Jackson, 64, a high school custodian, who recently bought an $80,000 model with her daughter, Delores Williams, 43, a nurse. "We have large bedrooms, a big den. People can say anything they want to about manufactured homes, but we live in one and it is very nice, thank you." Jackson and Williams do not exactly fit the now infamous remarks made by Carville, back in 1994 when Paula Jones's name had just surfaced. "You drag $100 bills through trailer parks; there's no telling what you'll find," he said then. "I know these people. I went to school with 'em. I necked with 'em in back seats. I spent nights with 'em."
While that stereotype is clearly off the mark nowadays, city and county governments are coping with zoning dilemmas and other sensitive issues brought on by an influx of manufactured homes. The conventional building industry also is adjusting to the shift. The National Association of Home Builders has formed a task force, a spokesman said, to study the impact on building codes, land development and even politics.
During the 1990s, manufactured-home lots have sprung up like competing car lots along town bypasses throughout the South. It is a rare trip along the interstates that does not include encounters with a "wide load," a home section on its way to a new owner.
Only one of the states in the top 10 for sales (Michigan, at No. 9) lies outside the South, and several states are selling more manufactured homes than conventionally built ones. The reasons have to do with affordability (average cost: $41,000), available land, expanded financing and a friendly history: This already was a place where such housing was plentiful and, if not always accepted, familiar.
The industry also has created more than a few jobs. In Alabama, 43 manufacturing companies churn out these structures and 450 licensed retailers sell them, Norris said. All told, an estimated 40,000 workers are employed by the industry in the state.
Safety and Taupe Walls
This type of housing had the most humble beginnings. At first, the concept was called a mobile home, because it moved. After World War II, when America was experiencing a housing shortage, it came into play as a temporary shelter, particularly for workers in the Oil Patch. Today, Texas still leads the nation in sales, with 38,000 in 1997, followed by North Carolina with 34,000.
A turning point came in 1976, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began regulating the industry. From that point, each section of every house had to undergo safety inspection and receive the HUD red seal of approval before leaving the factory. Various state and local laws govern installation and anchoring, with a recent trend afoot to tighten those requirements.
In the aftermath of tornadoes and violent storms, much has been made recently about the almost automatic destruction of manufactured homes, but Norris said those casualties are usually the older, poorly constructed and anchored models. Today's structure, she said, ranks favorably with site-built homes.
The typical owner these days, according to a 1996 survey by the Foremost Insurance Co., which insures manufactured homes, is nearly years old, with a median household income of $24,500. Eighty-three percent were high school graduates and 46 percent had attended college.
Further, the survey found, these residents enjoy going to county and state fairs; prefer professional football over other televised sports; read Family Circle magazine and Reader's Digest and rate the Discovery Channel as their favorite television viewing.
Single women are a growing share of customers. Mattie Crenshaw, of Wetumpka, Ala., is among them. Recently divorced, Crenshaw let her ex-husband keep their brick house. She wanted something different, she said, like Fleetwood's "Lucy" model from Hunter's Walk East, the taupe one with the hunter green shutters.
"I was used to the old-timey trailers. But my salesperson, he educated me," said Crenshaw, 46, who works 70 hours a week at two jobs, as a transportation manager for the local Head Start program and a caretaker at a facility for the mentally disabled.
But the homes are not popular with everyone.
The Rockingham County, N.C., commissioners, for example, recently found out how divisive the issue can be as they joined other governing bodies throughout the South that are beginning to regulate the placement and appearance of factory-built homes, even in rural areas. In hot debate at public hearings, many residents who live in conventional houses worried that their property values would plummet if the factory homes moved in nearby, while a grass-roots group that sprang up in defense cried that officials were discriminating against lower-income residents who could only afford manufactured homes -- and were equally proud of them.
In Mount Olive, N.C., a pickle-producing town of 4,800 southeast of Raleigh, officials also are facing a thorny problem. Next month, the town council will decide whether to approve a proposed zoning district for manufactured homes on the south side of town, forbidding them anywhere else within the town limits.
"This will preserve our traditional neighborhoods," said Kenneth Talton, Mount Olive's building inspector and zoning administrator. "Not that we're discriminating against the manufactured home itself or anybody who has a manufactured home. It seems like they are the new homes of the new century, but we do have a difference in property values."