Issue: Foreclosures

Profiles: Back to the mobile home

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011 

The Investigative Reporting Workshop and New America Media profiled those hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis in communities of color.

New America Media

INDIO, Calif. — Santiago Vargas sits on a wooden bench under the awning of his mobile home, looking at another bill he just picked up from his mailbox.

“I thought the American Dream meant owning your home, but for me it was just paying bills,” he said with a laugh, reflecting on an 18-month ordeal that took his family from a trailer park to a new house and back again.

Vargas, his wife and three of his four children, have lived in this two-bedroom mobile home since losing their house to foreclosure three years ago. His oldest daughter and her family live just a few blocks away in the same trailer park. But it was not too long ago that all of them lived under the same Spanish-tiled roof in a spacious new home in nearby Coachella.

Photo by Joseph Rodriguez

Santiago Vargas, unable to afford mortgage payments on his house, said moving into a mobile home was a relief.

“I never imagined I could provide such a beautiful home for my family,” he said in Spanish. “New appliances, new furniture, new everything.”

Only seven years earlier, Vargas, now 48, and his family left the border town of Mexicali for the Coachella Valley. Vargas found work with a local farmer. When his boss opened a trailer park, he asked Vargas to manage the property in exchange for free rent, while continuing to get paid for farm work.

After his eldest daughter married, she and her husband proposed that the families pool their resources and buy a home together. Vargas and his wife were overjoyed to have their entire family together again in a 3,000-square-foot home in a new development in Coachella.

“I felt so happy, but it was only for a very short time,” he said.

A year after moving into their dream home, Vargas’ son-in-law lost his construction job. Unable to pay their share of the mortgage, the young couple — by then expecting their first child — moved into a trailer park in Indio. Vargas was unable to make the payments on his own.

“It was a terrible time,” he recalled. “I was scared that I would come home from work to find my family on the street.”

Vargas stayed in the house until he saved enough money to buy a trailer.

“I felt so bad moving my family out of our home, but at the same time it was such a relief for me,” he said. “The stress of keeping the home was not worth it.”

He was not alone. Many of his neighbors lost their homes and the once desirable community was soon in disarray. He says the bank ended up selling his former home for one-third of the price he paid for it.

The support of his wife and daughters helped to make the move easier. His wife found the nicest mobile home they could afford without taking out a loan, and his daughters didn’t complain when they had to switch schools.

“I know my daughter wanted to raise her family in that house, and that makes me sad,” he said. “I know she still dreams of having her own home.”

Vargas too still dreams of moving out of the trailer park into a roomier place with his own yard and more privacy.

“I would love to be back in a home,” he said, wistfully. “But it would be a small home, a simple home. One that I can afford on my own.”

What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.


Back Story

The authors talk about What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele talk about the project, and why they decided to revisit a book they wrote two decades ago, in a series of video clips produced by the Workshop.

Nation's Story

Who pays the taxes?

Who pays the taxes?

We feature charts, maps, photos and other visualizations that reflect the state of the economy as part of our What Went Wrong project. This column chart shows the growing disparity between what individuals and corporations pay in taxes. In the 1950s, the difference was 22 percent. Recent figures show the difference is 62 percent.

Rags to rags: Economic mobility hard to come by

New Pew Center on States report confirms that moving up the American economic ladder is difficult, even though most people have more income than their parents.

Homelessness takes it toll on Florida's youngest

Florida, as a center of the housing boom, still struggles to recover from the Great Recession. Financial stresses and widespread foreclosures have placed families in precarious situations, resulting in a spike in child homelessness. Susannah Nesmith reports in the Broward Bulldog.

Older workers face challenges in Silicon Valley

An advanced degree and experience in the tech sector should be a ticket to a job in today's economy. But older workers in the heart of the new economy, Silicon Valley, are finding their resume is not the issue. Aaron Glantz reports in The Bay Citizen.

 Subscribe to the RSS Feed

Read an Excerpt

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.