Analysis: Complex Problems Cloud Promise of Mobile Homes

Some advocates say mobile homes offer an affordable and practical alternative to stick-built housing. But much of the mobile home stock in America is old and substandard. And legal and financial issues complicate the market for new mobile homes. What will it take to deliver a better alternative for rural consumers?

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What does a “mobile home” mean to you? Is it a throw-back to the 1930s and a pioneering spirit? Is it an unsightly structure that should have been cleared away decades ago? Is it a critical source of unsubsidized, affordable housing, particularly in rural counties? Is it a vehicle for predatory lending practices targeted at low income families? Of course, mobile homes are all of these and more.  

Sales brochures point to the high quality and reasonable cost of modern manufactured homes, which can and should be the case, but this dream of safety and affordability is clouded by the web of financial and legal peculiarities that continue to trap buyers and renters, and the realities of housing stock. In this article, the term “mobile homes” is used generically to include all manufactured homes as that is the term used by the Census Bureau and still what most people call them.  

North Carolina, where the author is researching mobile homes, is one of the top four states for the number of mobile homes. About half of North Carolina’s mobile homes are owner-occupied, about a third are rental, and about a fifth lie unused. (Source: University of North Carolina School of Government)

There are 8.5 million mobile homes in the United States, about 6.3 percent of the total housing stock. One third are in four states – Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and California. Nationally, 5.6 percent of households live in mobile homes, but for some states the percentage is much higher – South Carolina (16.2 percent), New Mexico (15.8 percent), West Virginia (14.5 percent), and Mississippi (14.3 percent). Data for North Carolina show that even though 60 percent of mobile homes are in metro areas, mobile homes account for 26 percent of the housing stock in rural areas (non-core) compared with 10.3 percent in urban areas. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even in metro areas, mobile homes tend to be on the periphery where zoning and building regulations are less rigorous; at the same time, expanding urbanization, which brings higher land prices and stricter regulations, is forcing mobile home communities to close or relocate in more rural areas.  

But it is not the quantity of mobile homes that gives rise for concern, but their age and condition.  The first national regulations governing the quality of the manufacture and installation of mobile homes were introduced in 1976, and these were revised and strengthened in 1994. About 1.9 million mobile homes were installed before 1980 – that’s over 28 percent of the total – with California, Florida, and Texas having the largest numbers, and Alaska, California, Massachusetts, and Nebraska all with over half of their stock older than 1980. In fact, over 80 percent of all mobile homes are over 20 years old, of which most are likely to have issues of low energy efficiency (very high fuel bills) and general deterioration. 

In North Carolina, as in other parts of the United States, mobile homes are located disproportionately in rural areas. The left map shows the top 10 counties by number of mobile homes (with red, yellow, and blue markers for the first, second, and third counties on the list). The right-hand map shows the 10 counties where mobile homes make up the greatest proportion of housing stock (with red, yellow, and blue markers for the first, second, and third counties on the list)  (Edited from a UNC School of Government graphic. Data: Census)

Contributing to the generally negative view of mobile homes is the fact that 1 in 5 are vacant. Some are in the process of being sold or rented and some are used for seasonal, recreational, or occasional use, but a quarter of the vacant homes are abandoned, creating environmental and public health challenges for neighbors and local governments across rural America. Census data indicates that at a minimum, there are 42,000 abandoned mobile homes in Florida, 36,000 in Texas, and 26,000 in North Carolina.   

Issues of ownership and legal status create a host of problems for mobile home occupants and for affordable housing and financial equity advocates seeking policy change. For instance, many families who own their homes but lease the land upon which they stand are vulnerable when the landowner sells to another operator or to a developer. There is also the question as to whether a home is placed on a permanent foundation. If it is, then the owner can access mortgage or conventional bank financing for repairs and upgrades; if it is not and therefore technically “mobile,” the home is treated as a chattel, much like a vehicle, and the occupant is limited to expensive personal loans both for purchase and improvements.    

(UNC School of Government graphic)

Earlier this year, an unusual meeting was convened by the University of North Carolina’s School of Government, to bring a broad spectrum of interests together to address the mobile home crisis in rural North Carolina. Among the attendees were representatives from manufacturers, installers, and financers of manufactured housing, utility companies and cooperatives, energy efficiency experts, state and local regulators and planners, and housing and financial equity advocates. They spent the day framing six main policy and practice issues.  

  • Re-shaping the market through improved design standards, EnergyStar compliance, installation and siting standards, networking, and policy advocacy. 
  • Reviewing regulations, enforcement, and certification to ensure a proper balance between affordability and safety, leading to statewide minimum housing standards, more effective flood zone standards for mobile homes, regulation of re-sales, and mandatory installer training, licensing and bonding.  
  • Comprehensive improvements to mobile home parks through incentives for park ownership transfers to resident-owned cooperatives, nonprofit agencies, and land trusts, and funding for infrastructure connections and upgrades. 
  • Home occupant counseling and education focusing on financing options and occupant responsibilities for energy efficiency and essential maintenance.  
  • Decommissioning of abandoned homes leading to their deconstruction and removal, including tackling issues of titling and heirs’ rights, and financial incentives to counties.  

Across the country, advocacy and policy organizations, local governments, local community action agencies, and others continue to struggle with these same issues. There are some groundbreaking efforts to improve construction techniques, change market attitudes to manufactured and modular homes, produce more savvy buyers and renters, introduce smart, energy efficient upgrades, enact protective zoning, and replace abandoned hulks with new homes. These should be encouraged, expanded, and replicated, but the sheer scale of the challenge is daunting. Mobile homes continue to age and deteriorate, and poor quality new and relocated older homes still enter the housing market.  

Without strategic and large-scale injections of investment, innovation, and imagination in the manufactured housing sector, the promise of high quality, affordable, energy efficient homes across rural America will remain an elusive dream, and the growing stock of decaying, substandard mobile homes will be an all-too-real nightmare. 

Brian Dabson is a research fellow at the University of North Carolina School of Government. He previously worked with Prosperity Now (formerly CFED), the Rural Policy Research Institute, and the University of Missouri Institute of Public Policy.

 

Topics: Housing
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