Hurricane Sandy and the Merits of Manufactured Housing

In reality, today's manufactured homes have about as much in common with RVs or "Katrina trailers" as mini-mansions have with Buckingham Palace.
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As the difficulties facing Hurricane Sandy victims continue to mount many weeks after the storm, several options have been considered for those whose homes were destroyed in the storm, including hotel rooms, apartments, boats and even shipping containers. Relatively far down on the list: manufactured homes.

FEMA administrator Craig Fugate recently acknowledged the negative connotations associated with manufactured housing, particularly their link with the notorious "Hurricane Katrina trailers": "When you say FEMA trailers, you harken back to Katrina... I think the majority of folks will be helped with rental assistance, which is faster and puts more money in the economy."

Unfortunately, Fugate's words only fuel outdated and incorrect notions about what manufactured housing is and what it has the potential to become, particularly for low-income families. While Fugate acknowledged the association, he failed to clarify that these trailers were not, in fact, manufactured homes. The temporary trailers used to house Hurricane Katrina victims, later found to contain toxic levels of formaldehyde, were actually recreational vehicles that were not built to meet federal building codes for manufactured homes.

In reality, today's manufactured homes have about as much in common with RVs or "Katrina trailers" as mini-mansions have with Buckingham Palace.

For starters, there is nothing mobile about today's manufactured homes, which range from single-room units to four-bedroom homes with covered front porches and attached garages. Unlike mobile homes, which have not been built since the enactment of the 1976 federal housing code and which could theoretically be driven off a property, today's manufactured homes are designed to be permanent and can be constructed on foundations like any other site-built home.

The term "manufactured housing" itself has less to do with quality and more to do with the production process, which is a derivative of Ford's assembly lines -- an innovative business model that helped grow the United States economy. This model allows manufactured homes to be built in a more controlled work environment, translating into predictable costs, increased efficiencies and reduced waste.

Because they are constructed in a factory in about one-fifth of the time and half the cost of site-built homes, manufactured housing is an ideal solution for low-income families -- and a compelling alternative for those seeking a quick and more permanent housing solution following a devastating storm like Sandy. Today's manufactured homes, particularly those that comply with the federal government's Energy Star standards, are also vastly more environmentally friendly than the old-school variety and offer significant energy saving costs to homeowners.

For too long, however, manufactured housing has been consigned to the back burner of public policy debate. As a result, many of the old notions about manufactured homes continue to dictate policy. Nearly two-thirds of these homes, for instance, are still titled as automobiles rather than real property, making it difficult for owners to obtain mortgage financing and reap benefits, such as building home equity, that often come from owning a home in this country.

Policymakers need to address these and a range of other issues that prevent families who own manufactured homes from benefiting in the same way as owners of traditional site-built housing. For instance, federal agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau could require that manufactured home lenders provide all their customers the same easy-to-read disclosure forms outlining the full cost of the loan (such as interest and fees) that site-built homebuyers will start receiving in 2013.

The housing challenges resulting from natural disasters like Sandy offer a perfect opportunity to change perceptions about manufactured housing and the role it can play in helping families find high quality, stable housing and build long-term assets. Thousands of Sandy's victims, for example, lived in public housing and likely had few assets of any kind. Many of these families could be put on a path toward permanent housing and a more financially secure future if they had the opportunity to purchase modern manufactured homes.

This post is co-written by Stacey Epperson, president & CEO of Next Step, which works with a nationwide network of nonprofits to increase access to affordable factory-built housing.

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