Manufactured homes go mainstream

Manufactured homes lose the stigma of 'trailers' while remaining affordable housing.

In case you hadn't noticed, most mobile homes aren't going anywhere these days – except maybe up in aesthetic appeal, price, and, in some cases, public acceptance.

Fewer than 5 percent are ever moved from the owner's original site, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute. In fact, "mobile" was officially dropped and "manufactured" adopted in the early 1980s. And although there are numerous single-section older mobile homes that look their age, new double-wide, multisection, and even stacked models may be showing the way to a promising future for this affordable housing option.

Take Hillcrest Mini-Estates, a residential community for active seniors in southeastern Connecticut. It shares little with the trailer and mobile-home parks of old.

Instead of being regimental and cramped, the grounds are spacious and well landscaped, with walking trails, woods, and even an attractive man-made pond. And while the house designs aren't the sort found in Architectural Digest, they are far more stylish, varied, and houselike than their boxy ancestors.

This fact isn't lost on public officials faced with a declining supply of affordable housing. Many realize they need to offer alternativesto aging urban tenements. They're also well aware that many middle-income public servants – teachers, firefighters, police officers, etc. – don't live in the towns that employ them because of high home prices.

"With diminishing federal funds for housing, local officials are really starting to look for alternatives," says Bruce Savage, a spokesman for the Manufactured Housing Institute.

In other words, they're seeing the possibilities for making manufactured homes a more mainstream choice.

The catch, though, is that many people who are in need of affordable housing still hold onto outmoded stereotypes of roadside trailer parks. Consequently, manufactured housing is often limited by zoning and land-use restrictions.

"A lot of local housing officials are pretty up-to-speed about our product, but because the general public isn't, officials are hesitant to stick out their necks on the zoning issues," Mr. Savage says.

An innovative development in Seattle

The Urban Design Project is one way the industry has tried to dispel the stigma. Starting in 1997, manufactured homes were placed in five cities – Washington; Milwaukee; Louisville, Ky.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Wilkinsburg, Pa. – to demonstrate that modern manufactured homes can blend into traditional urban and suburban neighborhoods.

Since then, similar efforts have been made in other communities. One of the most successful is Noji Gardens in Seattle, which was named the manufactured housing "Subdivision of the Year" in 2001.

Although the city already permitted manufactured housing, few pursued this option, says Dorothy Lengyel, executive director of HomeSight, a nonprofit community developer that built a neighborhood of duplex-like structures in which single-family homes share a single foundation.

Although they are the first two-story manufactured homes in the Pacific Northwest, it's the zero-lot-line approach – an exception granted by HUD – that most excites Ms. Lengyel.

"You can play around with those modules in a lot of different ways," she says, "and that gets you scale in design, scale in production, scale in labor, and a lot of things you've got to have for affordable housing. In every way the units are structurally independent, but from a land-use perspective, we've got more density, and that's important in urban areas."

These three-bedroom homes aren't cheap, selling for about $190,000, but their cost is well below the price of comparable Seattle homes, and they are built to last. They exceed the local seismic standards, for example.

Upscale as well as affordable

Generally, affordability has been the chief allure of mobile/manufactured homes, which constitute about 20 percent of all new home purchases.

According to the latest statistics, the average cost of a manufactured home in 2000 was $46,500, compared with $162,300, excluding land, for the average traditionally built house.

But some manufactured homes may cost considerably more. The Hillcrest homes in Connecticut, for instance, sell for between $90,000 and $160,000, not including land-leasing and optional maintenance fees, which can run about $375 a month.

Even so, Bernie and Mary-Lou Shanley are converts. The retired couple had never owned a manufactured home until moving into Hillcrest in 1997.

"This is perfect for us – not too big and not too small," she says of their 1,400-square foot Hillcrest home.

Their grandchildren are also impressed. "The first time they entered, they said, 'Oh, wow,' " Mrs. Shanley recalls.

Today it has become harder and harder to distinguish factory-built from site-built homes. Both may incorporate vaulted ceilings, walk-in closets, bay windows, hardwood floors, and fireplaces. And with the addition of porches, sunrooms, and multi-car garages built on site, the transformation of a manufactured house is complete.

For retirees looking to downsize and live on one level, manufactured houses can be an attractive choice. Florida, with its large population of senior citizens, leads the nation in manufactured homes, with about 11.6 percent of the national total of approximately 10 million.

Some problems remain, however.

For one, manufactured homes are considered personal property rather than real estate, an outgrowth of their vehicular origins.

There's also the common feeling that having a manufactured home on the block isn't good for the neighborhood – although studies have shown that manufactured homes don't necessarily hurt the property values of nearby site-built homes if they are in desirable neighborhoods.

Before a manufactured home leaves the factory, it must pass a third-party HUD inspection to ensure that it meets federal regulations. Not everyone agrees that these standards are high.

Yet, since they cost an estimated 15 to 35 percent less per square foot than traditional homes, manufactured houses can look mighty good to affordable-housing advocates. But to city trade unions and local builders, the prospects of seeing manufactured houses gain a foothold are not always so attractive.

Still, given the advances made in manufactured housing, it's hard to imagine individual home buyers and municipalities not wanting them as an option.

As Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz might have said of today's manufactured housing landscape, "Toto, I don't think we're in a trailer park anymore."

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