CU Denver Assistant Professor Esther Sullivan

Esther Sullivan, PhD, followed her interests in housing equality and poverty housing and lived in mobile home parks in Florida and Texas. That is, until she couldn’t anymore.

She was among the residents forced to uproot because of redevelopment of the parks – an increasingly common occurrence in the United States.

“Once I found myself in a mobile home park that then closed and I saw 200 families being evicted at once, I realized there is no academic work on this, and there’s hardly even any policy work on this,” said Sullivan, an assistant professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at CU Denver. “This is the way we’re housing the poor in this country.”

CU Denver Assistant Professor Esther Sullivan
Esther Sullivan, PhD, assistant professor of Sociology, recently received one of four Office of Research Services new faculty grants.

Seeing the devastating effects of evictions in manufactured housing communities, commonly called trailer parks, has prompted Sullivan to work on a book: Manufactured Insecurity: Mobile Home Park Evictions and Americans’ Tenuous Rights to Place.

The book will be an ethnographic examination – looking into state laws meant to manage the evictions, policies that treat mobile home residents as second-class citizens, and the longer-term consequences for evicted individuals and whole communities. “The paradigm of propertied homeownership is tied to our status as citizens,” Sullivan said. “It’s tied to our rights to community, to place. The way we treat the mobile home park and its residents in law, both before and after these evictions, speaks to the way regulations play a part in establishing security or insecurity.”

Her book will also explore the historic place of mobile homes in American life. Mobile homes have historically been, and continue to be, relegated to commercial and industrial areas as well as floodplains.

‘Unprecedented rise’

It’s surprising, she said, that the topic is unexplored in academia, given that 20 million Americans live in manufactured housing. “This project looks at the unprecedented rise of unsubsidized, affordable housing in the nation, and at the effects of this increasingly privatized development of low-income housing.”

Sullivan’s project utilizes mixed-methods. Using geospatial mapping, she found that the closure of mobile home parks in Harris County (Houston area) was not followed by the development of luxury properties, but rather construction of other forms of low-income housing. She showed that some 119 mobile home parks closed in Harris County between 2002 and 2011, but during that time the total number of parks listed with the county remained constant. She suspects that newer parks are being developed in peripheral areas where land is cheaper.

The triggers for redevelopment, she found, are generally lack of legal protection for the residents and rising land values.

Esther Sullivan, CU Denver assistant professor
Esther Sullivan, assistant professor of Sociology, right, talks with a fellow resident of a Florida mobile home park.

“In mobile home parks people have seemingly achieved the American dream of homeownership,” Sullivan said. “They own their home, but they rent the land – and that’s precisely what puts them at risk. The land is what gives you rights.”

Sullivan’s research shows that direct federal investment in low-income housing in the United States has declined, and yet the nation, as overall incomes stagnate and wealth declines, increasingly needs affordable housing.

Collaborating with CAP professors

Sullivan joined the CU Denver faculty last fall after receiving her PhD in Sociology with a special designation in Theory from The University of Texas at Austin.

She is also collaborating with Andrew Rumbach, PhD, and Carrie Makarewicz, PhD, both assistant professors in Planning and Design in the College of Architecture and Planning, on a project that would examine manufactured housing in flash floodplains. In studying the aftermath of the 2013 floods in Colorado, Rumbach and Makarewicz noticed that a disproportionate number of flood victims lived in manufactured housing.

“Again, we think social processes have a lot to do with the unequal outcomes of these natural disasters,” Sullivan said. “They determine where we put lower-income people and how we regulate their communities.” The three researchers have applied for a National Science Foundation grant to fund the floodplain study, which would have implications for states across the nation.

Sullivan recently received one of four Office of Research Services (ORS) new faculty grants. She wants to study a trend in voluntary relocation – in this case, the migration of people to Colorado in the wake of legalized marijuana. Both individuals and organized groups, such as the American Medical Refugees, are seeking market opportunities tied to the cannabis industry.

“All of these processes (being put in place in Colorado) are really interesting because now other states are at the precipice of their own legalization, and they want to know what’s going to happen to population growth in their jurisdictions,” she said.

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