When people think of caravans, many envision shoddy construction and unsanitary living conditions. But in places like Sitka where construction costs are high and land availability is low, they are an important affordable housing alternative.
For a Sitkan, renovating a trailer made home ownership debt free, and this resident isn’t the only one looking past the stigma of trailer life.
Robin Schmid’s black and white border collie, Lady, greets me at the door of his olive green trailer. The mouth of the Indian River flows into Sitka Sound outside her kitchen window.
It’s not just the landscape that invites. Inside, the nearly 900 square foot home looks like any modern apartment or house. It’s bright and tidy, with hardwood cabinets and new appliances.
“A lot of people have come, and they are absolutely amazed when they come in,” she said.
Schmid has not always lived in a trailer. She once owned a large house with land in Wasilla, and she had a big mortgage to go with it.
But a few years ago after a divorce, she decided to move on to a simpler life. She was old enough to retire part of her retirement and she began to wonder where she wanted to live and what she wanted to do next.
“And I kept coming back to the idea that being independent was the one thing that really worked for me after being a lawyer for over 25 years, and the place I really wanted to live was Sitka. I really wanted to come back to Sitka, ”Schmid said. “And I wondered how I could afford to do that.
When Schmid had lived in Sitka before, she had rented, but it was difficult to find a place that could accommodate her teenage son, dog and cats. She considered buying a house, but even places that required a lot of work were out of her price range. Then she got a call from a friend asking if she would be interested in a trailer that a local entrepreneur wanted to sell.
“And we took a tour and the place was – phew,” she said. “We are in 1984, and there was the paneling. So it was really, really ugly. And I said I only wanted this place if you gutted it with your studs. I mean a new floor, a new ceiling, new walls. I said I didn’t want to see any paneling anywhere.
Finding a bank to finance the trailer renovation was a challenge, so they drew up their own contract and payment plan. He replaced everything from windows to counters, and the completely renovated trailer only cost Schmid $ 75,000. That’s about a fifth of what she would have paid for a house that still needed a lot of work.
She has to pay a few hundred dollars a month to rent the land in the trailer yard, but she said it was nothing compared to a mortgage. Plus, she said, owning land comes with additional responsibilities such as road maintenance or managing the electricity meter, and she doesn’t mind having neighbors nearby.
And the small space isn’t a problem either, as long as it stays organized. She even runs her law firm away from home.
“It’s comfortable enough that if I want to stay here, retire here and die here, I think I could that,” she said.
But despite Schmid’s success, everyone from his plumber to his father has expressed skepticism. She believes there is a stigma against caravans that does not exist for other affordable housing alternatives like cottages.
“There has always been the belief that trailers don’t last,” Schmid said.
Although many Sitka trailers are poor quality and unsanitary, especially those built before 1976 when the Department of Housing and urban development introduced building standards, Pat Swedeen, Sitka Building Manager, said many people were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the new manufactured homes.
“They are not built like before. They are built with much thicker walls. They have insulation equivalent to that of a typical house built from sticks, ”Swedeen said. “I think that’s one avenue that doesn’t get enough attention in my mind when it comes to really trying to talk about affordable housing.”
Developer Jeremy Twaddle owns Mountain View Estates. He has slowly expanded the trailer lot since he bought it nine years ago. He breaks into prefabricated homes in the south, sets them up on a permanent foundation, and sells them ready to move into.
Even with the cost of shipping the house and renting the land, he said the price per square foot was about half of what someone would pay for a regular house in Sitka. And people noticed it. The remaining places are already promised to buyers and the trailers have not even arrived yet.
“I would say last year there was a real increase in this type of housing, I think, because of affordability. And not just in Sitka, but sort of across the country, manufactured home builders have been under construction for about nine months now, ”Twaddle said.
He said getting a loan to buy a trailer can be a challenge, but in Sitka, ALPS Federal Credit Union offers financing.
A bigger obstacle is the land. There isn’t much ripe for development in Sitka anyway, and due to zoning restrictions, space for trailer lots is even more limited. He said if the land was there he would continue to bring in manufactured homes because, as a Lifetime Sitkan, he sees the need for affordable housing and the void that trailers can fill.
“And I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all scenario,” Twaddle said. “I remember people always had manufactured homes and that’s what they lived in until they could pay for this and take this piece and put it in a stick house and work from there. . Just wanting people to stay in Sitka and be successful and not be kicked out of town because there are only rental options or the houses are just too expensive. “
For Schmid, that’s exactly what her trailer offers: a way to stay in a place she loves and the freedom to live her life the way she wants.
“I feel like I got my life back without the debt weighing on my head,” Schmid said. “It’s a question of freedom for me.”
If she ever decides to move, she thinks she could get her money out of her renovated trailer and more. But if not, she said, she brought it to life.
This story is part of KCAW’s special affordable housing series titled “Construction solutions. “