From American Dream, to Nightmare, and Back Again
Scott Jackson knew it was getting desperate when first he, and later his daughter, fell through the dining room floor of their aging mobile home.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. He and his wife, Ida, had started their lives the way other couples do, with a lot of hope and promise. After he left the U.S. Coast Guard, they bought a brand new mobile home, supposedly top of the line, and moved it to a small park in Harrington, in Washington County. The 20-year mortgage was affordable on the modest income Ida earned from her job as a pharmacy technician, and Scott from his work with adults and children with varying disabilities (by day) and as an emergency medical technician (by night). They joined a church and, with their two young daughters, they were living the American Dream.
But the dream gradually turned into a nightmare. The toilets and showers started to back up, flooding the bathroom floors. The park owners diagnosed a blocked pipe, and prescribed a variety of remedies, including flushing rotten tomatoes down the toilet so the bacteria and enzymes could break up the blockage. (I googled this, Budget101.com, among others, insists this is a great maintenance strategy for a septic system, as well as a useful way to dispose of those rotten tomatoes in your fridge.) However effective it might be for removing a blockage, it’s completely useless in dealing with a broken pipe, which is what the problem turned out to be. The park owners weren’t about to admit they were at fault, however, so the problems were slowly corrected while the park owners attempted to charge the Jacksons for the full repairs. The Jacksons had no other alternative but to seek legal counsel, at considerable expense, in order to get the park to pay to replace the pipe.
Although he wasn’t diagnosed until later, around this time Scott was also struggling with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), one symptom of which was an unexplained social anxiety so acute that he was having difficulty managing basic daily tasks. His anxiety often made it difficult to communicate with people and made it very difficult to confront the park owners. Scott recalls, “We never even asked for a dime from the park owners to reimburse us for the damages caused to our home.” Eventually, the Jacksons were able to move their unit out of the park to a lot across the road.
Even though they were free of the park their trailer had been seriously damaged, and continued to deteriorate. The “top of the line” home turned out to be little more than “shingles over cardboard,” as Scott describes it. The moisture from the backed up plumbing wicked through the house, rotting the floors. There were no storm doors, so water seeped in around the doorways, causing further rot and warping.
In the midst of this misery their younger daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Suddenly, they were having to buy durable and other medical supplies that blew apart their budget. Health insurance had become a luxury they couldn’t afford, so they paid a lot out of pocket; fortunately, their local community and church family helped with a larger portion of funding for her insulin pump. Fixing the house dropped lower on the priority list, and the trailer continued to rot. They had to shut one bathroom down entirely. Cold air poured in through the gaps in the floor, and they were using a 5-gallon can of kerosene every two days just to keep it warm enough to survive the cold Maine winters. They couldn’t afford to move because they still owed money on their mortgage, along with all the medical bills for their daughter’s care, and understandably their credit wasn’t so good by this time.
Gradually, some things improved. Their daughter’s health stabilized and Scott, through extraordinary persistence, was able to get treatment for his anxiety and communication issues. He found a job supporting autistic children that used his skills well and where he could see he was making a difference.
But their trailer was literally rotting away, they still couldn’t afford to repair it, and then they started falling through the floor. Finally, some friends in their church offered to help with some maintenance, but quickly recognized the trailer was too far gone, and turned to the Maine Sea Coast Mission’s Housing Repair Program for help.
The Maine Sea Coast Mission has been helping the people of mid-coast and Downeast Maine for over 100 years. The Housing Repair Program was established in 2002, and uses volunteers to repair and weatherize homes, kind of like a Habitat for Humanity model. A newer offshoot of this is a mobile home replacement program, which gives old mobile homes a complete makeover. Volunteer crews do a lot of the work, but families receiving assistance also have to invest at least 100 hours of sweat equity into the repairs. The end result is a well-built, snug unit that they own without a mortgage.
At first the Jacksons were uncomfortable with this plan. “Despite the problems we had we weren’t depending on anyone,” says Scott. “We were making do the best we could, the best we knew how. We were the last people to call for help.” They were a year from paying off their mortgage and had hoped when they did they could afford to make some of the long overdue repairs. But they were exhausted by the long struggle with the trailer, and the offer of a replacement home was too good to turn down. The Sea Coast Mission brought in volunteer crews to renovate a mobile home it had purchased for $5,000, and found a nice lot for it in Cherryfield. Scott and Ida donated their old mobile home to the Sea Coast Mission so that it could be renovated for a new family to live in.
To say that the new unit has been life changing for the Jacksons is an understatement. “The first week of living in it there was this feeling of unbelief,” recalls Scott. “Still, to this day, we can’t believe that we actually own this place.” The unit is a little smaller than what they had before, but their daughters, now 19 and 22, are largely up and out so they can manage with less space. The smaller size makes it cheaper to operate, as well; Scott estimates that they saved close to $1,200 in heating costs last winter. And it was warm!
Having a decent, affordable place to call home makes their lives less chaotic in ways they hadn’t foreseen. The money they’ve saved from paying less for heat allowed them to put in a landline in their new home (cell coverage is very spotty in Washington County.) This is important because Scott’s mother, who lives in LaGrange, has some serious health issues and he can now call and talk with her more often. He can also afford the gas to go see her regularly, which he couldn’t do before.
I just met Scott in July, so I didn’t know him when he lived in his old place. Maybe, before the problems with his trailer and his daughter’s illness, he always looked so smiling and confident, and so happy with his life. But it’s easy to imagine that some of that comes from knowing he has a safe, decent, and affordable place to call home, where he can feel proud to invite friends over for dinner.
Sadly, Scott and Ida’s story is unique not because they had troubles, but because they got help. Maine has lots of families like the Jacksons who work hard and don’t complain, but who struggle with homes that need more work than they can afford. Programs like the Sea Coast Mission’s make a huge difference, but its trailer replacement program can only help 1-2 people a year.
The combination of high housing costs, for renting or buying, along with the high cost of health insurance and transportation, make families vulnerable to shocks like the Jacksons experienced. A life-threatening illness, losing a job, an accident, or a divorce are triggers that can send families into financial chaos that it’s hard to recover from. The Jacksons deserved help, and were fortunate to get it, but what about all those other families? In Washington County, where decent, affordable rental housing is scarce but cheap old trailers and land are not, many more people live in mobile homes than in multi-family units (2,872 compared to 1,907.) This is a pattern throughout rural Maine. A lot of families choose manufactured housing because it’s more affordable to buy, heat and maintain than larger, single-family units.
We can do better! Nationally, there are efforts such as Frontier Housing’s Manufactured Housing Done Right™ initiative, that create high quality, Energy Star-rated, fully accessible units at an affordable price. These are manufactured homes that are designed to last and appreciate, just as site-built houses do. But what about families like the Jacksons, who have already plowed a lot of money into an old home that’s falling apart, and can’t afford a new one?
We need more programs to help replace homes that have become unlivable. When you're worried about falling through the floor, and keeping the pipes from freezing, all your energy goes into just trying to survive. Now, thanks to the help they received from the Maine Sea Coast Mission and its volunteers, the Jacksons can easily take care of themselves, and provide support to their family as well as other members of the community who are in need.