The American Dream for 'A Decent Home': Filmmaker Sara Terry on Humanizing Mobile Home Communities

By Brigitte Carreiro for WORLD Channel

New Documentary Exposes a David & Goliath Fight Against Corporate Greed

When the wealthiest of the wealthy are pricing people out of their homes, where do they go next? Through the voices of residents at mobile home parks across the country, filmmaker Sara Terry explores how affordable housing is continuously contested; by telling a story of the communities fighting for their human right to “a decent home,” Terry’s film exposes the deepest levels of corporate greed intensifying the housing crisis faced by Americans every day.

Terry, whose work as a journalist and photographer has focused on stories of social injustice around the globe, sought to capture just how large the wealth gap has become through the eyes of the people living on the furthest edges of American prosperity.

“People and communities need decent homes so that people can thrive. I needed a title that spoke to humanity, that reminded us of what matters, of what's needed, of what's enough. It was decent, not over the top, not 10 homes, not a million things – a decent home,” she said.

Terry spoke with WORLD Channel about what sparked the flame of outrage that resulted in A Decent Home and the solutions we must all take to course correct.

WORLD Channel: What motivated you to make ‘A Decent Home’?

Sara Terry: Most of my work has been about uncovering things around the world, but things were changing in America. It was the end of Obama's second term as president, Trump was running and the wealth gap was happening, and I had this really deep feeling that I needed to go home. I thought, "Gosh, America...we need to look at it, critique it and do it with love. But we also need to be honest about it." The wealth gap is what brought me home, because I'm an American – I need to be telling stories about where I'm from. I need to take my critical eye home. 

The issue of equity has always driven me, and in particular, the issue of how we define our humanity. The wealth gap is an insult to our humanity. It speaks volumes about what we value in the world, what we have prized, and what we have given attention and priority to. The wealth gap is the face of all of our problems. Greed is the face of climate change and systemic racism. Those are the spaces that have concerned me.

When I read an article in 2015 about Mobile Home University, and the fact that the Carlyle Group is one of the largest private equity firms in the world – aka the richest people in the world – and were starting to buy mobile home parks, it was a slam-your-feet-on-the-ground moment: Who are we becoming as Americans when this is what's happening to the lowest-rung of that idea of the “American Dream”? I can't live in a world like that without saying something. I don't want to think that greed is what defines me or any of us as Americans. I wanted to ask the question: How much is enough? And I felt that residents in mobile home parks had the answers.

WC: How does your film represent a sense of humanity?

ST: We're struggling as Americans with what it means to be “decent.” We're seeing it play out in the ways we talk to each other. But within mobile home parks, people are working across political divides. Residents are both red and blue – there's somebody in the film who says, "I don't care if you're Republican or Democrat. This is the moral right thing to do."

I find that the landscape of home is a place that can bring everybody together, whoever you are, whatever your background, whatever your activism. It's a starting point. We’re struggling to hold onto that decency, and I take a lot of hope from what I learned from the people who are in the film.

There are many people who live in parks and who care for their neighbors…[like] Candi Evans. She became an activist [around] the age of 71 to protect her park. She was talking about the private equity firm that had come in, bought the park and announced that they were raising lot rents by 63%. If your mortgage went up 63%, how would you deal with that?

I wanted to play devil's advocate with Candi as she was talking about what the private equity firm had done. I said, "Well, Candi, some people would say that's just how capitalism works." She stops dead, looks into the camera and says, "Treating people fairly is how life works." 

There's this wisdom despite these being people that we've othered for so long; parks were built on the edges of cities because nobody wanted to see them. There’s a pejorative – “trailer trash” – that we still use without being called out in our culture. People laugh, but it's not funny to people who live in the parks. That's the first goal of the film: to break that stereotype, to make you think twice, to make you consider this type of home and the value of the people who live there.

WC: How did you find a happy medium between your voice as the narrator and centering the voices of park residents?

ST: The film is deliberately set up so that people speak directly to the camera. That's not the normal choice for filmmakers; you're usually looking off camera a little. I knew from the beginning that people would speak directly to the camera, because I wanted the viewer to feel that they were in direct conversation with the residents – the people they would not normally meet.

It's a population that's used to being neglected and overlooked or forgotten. I don't believe that we ever give anybody a voice, but that every human being comes with their own voice. It's about helping to amplify it, or creating space for it to be heard. This is the first documentary on mobile home parks – it didn't exist before, and these people have amazing stories to tell. 

I set up my voice and included questions from me to guide you. “Who are you to tell the story?” is a conversation that I challenge. I'm a concerned human being. I'm a storyteller. I care, and I think that’s enough. I didn't want it to be about me, but I had to let you know why I cared. There are lines at the end of the film that say, "What happens next isn't my story" But it is. And it's your story, too. It's about all of us.

WC: What does this say about the idea of the American Dream?

ST: We have a complicated relationship with what we call the “American Dream.” It doesn't have a long history, but it has certainly become a tool of consumerism. It's a way to market things – to get you to buy and sell. You'll find that everybody who's trying to buy a park or take advantage of park residents are totally shameless about doing it. It took me forever to realize that because our culture says, "You're making more money? Good job. You're doing exactly what you're supposed to be doing. You sold that property for twice what you paid for it? Good job."

The American Dream of the house and the picket fence was always pretty imaginary for most people. It's time to pull that dream out and reevaluate what we think matters. People with money and power try to tell us it's our dream, or story, but everybody has a voice. We have dreams, and we have ways of telling those stories and writing those narratives that nobody can take away from us. We don't have to live in a narrative of greed. 

We shouldn’t be afraid to think that the American Dream could be multi-family homes, or multi-generational homes. We have to challenge ourselves to just say, "Home is the dream." 

WC: What do you hope audiences take away from ‘A Decent Home’?

ST: There's a much bigger dialogue about this. The film is being used by legislators, and I was thrilled that it was credited with helping get a $225 million appropriations bill passed by Congress, which is to protect parks and to help residents buy the parks they live in. That's the first time that's ever happened. 

There are park activists from all around the country calling their legislators at the federal level and telling them about the film and feeling very emboldened to talk to them about their story. One of the residents said to me, "What you taught us made a huge difference and helped us get that bill passed."

There’s still a long way to go, but these activists are getting stronger and bolder, and they're not giving up. As private equity buys up more and more of the affordable housing stock, people are starting to pay attention. I hope the film empowers more people to say, "I want to be part of a new narrative."

Watch the full interview with Sara Terry, now streaming on YouTube.
A Decent Home is now streaming online, on YouTube and on the PBS app.

Hear more from Terry in a Twitter Spaces conversation with housing equity experts.

To learn more about housing equity initiatives, visit the following resources and organizations:

A Decent Home Community Organizer’s Handbook
Lincoln Institute of Land Policy | Innovations in Manufactured Homes Network: I'm HOME
Lincoln Institute of Land Policy | Underserved Mortgage Markets Coalition (UMMC)
GBH's Priced Out
Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) Coalition
Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance 

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