Mobile-home decay prompts new moves to mend landscape

Problem of abandoned or storm-wrecked single-wides pushes states toward controversial 'predisposal' fee on new units.

When storms like the summer's hurricane trio stomp through the rural south, they sometimes land hardest on the structures that have become icons of vulnerability: tin-roofed, "single-wide" mobile homes. Thousands of them were overturned in the storms, and the widespread devastation may only exacerbate a growing problem for the South: the proliferation of wrecked and ragged mobile homes that will never be repaired, recycled, or removed.

Mobile homes are among the region's most popular affordable-housing options, according to census figures. In North Carolina, they account for 1 in 5 households, and in some South Carolina counties, they make up more than 40 percent of homes. Half the residents of Coal Run, Ky., live in mobile homes, and even city hall boasts a tin roof.

But as a generation of single-wides built after World War II enters its senior years, many states are finding themselves with a glut of structures that have been abandoned due to age or storm damage, resulting in a landscape that lacks the charm of old clapboard farmhouses and tobacco barns. For counties with hundreds of decrepit homes in otherwise bucolic settings, finding a way to dispose of the eyesores - and perhaps transform entire towns - is increasingly a priority.

"If you have abandoned homes strewn about ... it doesn't make a very good impression," says Paul Meyer, assistant general counsel for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, which estimates that 40,000 mobile homes are rusting and rotting in the state. "And the counties shouldn't be the ones left holding the bag to clean up these homes."

Mr. Meyer's association, along with state lawmakers, began discussing their concerns with mobile-home manufacturers last year. One proposal was a first-in-the-nation "predisposal fee" program, which would impose a $500 to $1,000 fee on all mobile home purchases - funds for county grants to dispose of abandoned mobile homes. It's a concept similar to the cleanup and disposal fees added to the cost of "white goods" such as refrigerators. But to many, the across-the-board taxation simply isn't fair.

"It seems like they're going after the wrong person," says Raymond Sprinkle, taking a break from mowing his patch of lawn. Mr. Sprinkle, who rents a two- bedroom mobile home north of Asheville and is saving to buy his own, says that owners of abandoned homes - not buyers of new ones - should pay for cleanup. To him, as to many here, it's a matter as clear-cut as taxation without representation, and a notion as unjust as taxes on tea.

The proposal has also drawn sharp opposition from the state's Manufactured Housing Institute, a trade group representing mobile-home manufacturers. The industry argues that today's mobile homes aren't like the shoddier trailers of decades past, and won't fall into the same decay.

Though a new tax could actually benefit rural communities by providing affordable housing, taxing buyers of new mobile homes is attacking the wrong guy, say industry leaders. "Today's [mobile] homes ... have the same life span [as] any other home," says F. Brad Lovin, assistant executive director of the group, which bridles at the implication that today's mobile homes are "disposable."

For now, lawmakers are holding off on the predisposal-fee legislation. Meanwhile, county commissioners and mobile-home officials last year, as an interim step, launched a pilot program to tally abandoned mobile homes in three counties - Onslow, Burke, and Harnett - and to dismantle and recycle a few.

But at least in Harnett County, in eastern North Carolina - which has an estimated 2,000 uninhabitable mobile homes - owners were reluctant to part with their cast-off domiciles. Of the 210 mobile-home owners the county contacted, offering to haul away their homes for free, only three accepted. The pilot program ended earlier this year, and county and industry officials are now reviewing the results, along with issues such as hauling costs, enforcement, and zoning codes.

Mr. Lovin says that despite his hesitation to charge buyers, his industry is willing to share disposal costs - and even sees benefits. ''If we can help clean up these older homes," he says, "it will help our image."

In addition to the predisposal-fee idea, a state program - in Scotland County - relies on beefed-up efforts to force owners of decrepit mobile homes to remove them. If owners don't comply, they're fined: The county recycles the homes and hands the owner the bill. Since 2000, more than 500 homes have been recycled at about $3,000 each, not including dumping costs, which are rising. And with the enactment of more bans against hazardous materials in ever more crowded landfills, disposal is becoming more complicated.

Many owners, then, find their mobile homes too costly to move and too expensive to fix. Western North Carolina's Buncombe County, which has 19,000 mobile homes, recently adopted a plan to offer low-interest loans to help people move their homes.

Although more than half of US mobile homes are in the South (Florida has the most, which has contributed to the havoc wreaked by hurricanes), aging and abandoned homes are becoming a more widespread issue, and North Carolina's problems may portend woes for other states.

For that reason, states such as Vermont and Connecticut are looking southward for answers to their mobile-home concerns. But there's one solution they can't duplicate. In a strange twist, the hurricanes that battered the South may actually defray costs, even as they've caused damage: The natural disasters allow many communities to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grants that will bring some financial relief.

The Census Bureau says that America's 8.8 million mobile homes accounted for nearly 8 percent of all households in 2000, up from 5 percent in 1980, and mobile and "manufactured" homes are the fastest-growing type of household in the US. Late last year, the bureau reported that over the past half century, total US housing rose 152 percent, while mobile homes have multiplied at a rate of 2,700 percent.

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