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Manufactured Housing: Solution or Problem?

unattractive sign at entrance to manufactured housing park

Manufactured housing is simply a housing unit that is built entirely in a factory. Formerly known as mobile homes, the newer term officially replaced this older one in June, 1976, when the so-called HUD Code went into effect in the U.S. And many of our relatives still talk about trailers and trailer parks, and lament their rundown appearance on rural lanes.

HUD stands for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The HUD Code is tailored specifically to manufactured homes and considers wind and other hazards and conditions in various parts of the nation. Since 1976, this national code that raised quality standards considerably.

Theoretically, the HUD Code supersedes all state and local codes, so that manufactured homes are legal anywhere that conventionally constructed stick-built single-family homes are allowed. However, zoning boards and administrators have become exceedingly clever at inserting requirements that the factory-built unit cannot meet.

For example, if the minimum width of a home is 25 feet, that will exclude the double-wide and certainly the older mobile home. Sometimes basements are required, and other requirements difficult to meet through factory-supplied homes may be imposed.

Typically both developers and citizens simply give in to local zoning authority because all of the savings that could be realized through purchasing a factory-built unit would be given up in the legal battle against local zoning.

The major advantage of manufactured housing is affordability. A 2001 study by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies found that fully a quarter of the affordable housing purchased in the last year for which data were available consisted of manufactured housing.

Affordability does not necessarily mean that the building materials are inferior, although they may be. Major factors are controlled conditions within a factory so that weather, theft, and vandalism issues that are commonplace on conventional stick-built housing sites are all negated within a factory setting.

In addition, the economies of standardization of materials apply, as well as the specialized expertise in constructing a particular rather limited set of designs.

Manufactured housing accounts for quite a large percentage of the affordable housing units produced each year. Until we have a substitute system that produces more durable and architecturally appealing results, those of us who care about low-income housing should moderate our criticism of the industry and its product.

By the way, a modular home is simply a sub-category of factory unit. Large pieces of the home are shipped separately and assembled on site.

Appearance Issues for Mobile Homes

Recently the most rapid innovations in manufactured housing have been in the area of architectural detail. Notably, ceiling heights also can now be as much as 9 feet, and hip roofs are easily accomplished. A collapsible roof technology that allows the manufactured home to pass under highway overpasses has allowed almost any pitch to be practical.

In the twenty-first century, the two-story unit also has become feasible through changes in the plants. This new feature could change manufactured homes dramatically.   Industry associations have sponsored experiments in urban and suburban settings to learn more about how their product can fit into existing neighborhoods more satisfactorily.

Then we all know there are some true mobile homes, built before 1976, sitting around in the countryside and perhaps even on older arterial roads in what now are thoroughly urban neighborhoods.The rusting ones with the dilapidated porches falling off are in our consciousness when we cringe at the notion of mobile homes.

If you are in a small town and you really want to clean up your image problem, you will have to sponsor alternative affordable housing, and then offer incentives for people to move. In rural areas, the situation is the same really. 

An alternative may be to try to round up all the old mobile homes into one park, fence it, and then landscape the perimeter thoroughly and attractively. People who have been living on acreage are going to resist fiercely though.

Even the best-looking of the older mobile homes create a negative impression in most people's minds if they are on the main road entering a town, or even in a resort community.

So for the sake of economic development, you may want to inventory the existing stock of individual units and parks, and do a feasibility study of what would be required to replace any units that are causing a negative impression of your community.

You may be able to address some problems with older mobile homes through the existing property maintenance code. Also other code violations often occur at mobile home sites that are truly an eyesore, so you might begin with insisting on the abatement (correction) of those violations.

For More Information about Manufactured Housing

The main industry trade association’s website gives additional information. States also have industry associations and may be more immediately available to answer your questions.

You'll have to wrestle with the affordability issue and also the legal questions if you decide you want to exclude all manufactured housing. So make sure that your sense of community values tells you that there's no manufactured housing that will blend satisfactorily with your neighborhoods before you allow your out-of-date stereotypes to control regulating factory-built housing units.

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