Using preservation to maintain affordable mobile homes

One architect and preservationist suggest mobile homes deserve the attention of the preservationist community:

We talk about affordable housing all the time, as we should, but we never talk about mobile homes or mobile home parks—even though they’re primarily used as affordable housing. When we talk about affordable housing and historic homes as preservationists, we really need to start including mobile home parks in those discussions. They fill a critical gap [in housing opportunities], but they’re also endangered…

[Since most mobile home parks are privately owned], they become too expensive to maintain. To keep them affordable, their original infrastructure usually remains in place while their owners [find temporary solutions for repairs] until the entire mobile home park needs to be replaced. They’re sold off because it’s just too expensive to maintain and the owner is no longer making a profit; these are private places and businesses, and that is a legitimate concern.

Sometimes, mobile home parks are zoned out of their city or municipality because they aren’t wanted. That trend began in the 1950s and ‘60s, when suburbs were growing exponentially, and it continues today. When owners don’t want to own their mobile home park anymore, they sell them to developers who would rather build condos or other forms of housing that don’t have limited profit margins…

In preservation circles, I think it’s particularly challenging because mobile home parks don’t meet any current measure of architectural integrity. They are very flexible spaces, and they could be upended at any time. It would be exceptionally difficult to put them in the National Register, the way it’s set up now, but that ultimately opens up opportunities for the future. I think we need to change the way we measure and create historic places.

I have been under the impression that preservation is typically sought for (1) older and (2) architecturally significant buildings. Mobile homes could fit both of these categories: a number of mobile home communities span decades and they are a unique American form of housing. At the same time, I cannot imagine too many neighbors or communities would be thrilled if mobile home parks were given a longer lease on life because of being tabbed for preservation. Using preservation to keep affordable housing units seems to be a delaying tactic; it may protect units in a time when many metro areas need a lot of affordable housing units yet very few places would want even more mobile home units.

This argument gets at bigger issues: (1) what buildings are worth preserving? and (2) who gets to make these decisions? According to opponents, historic preservation can stall normal processes of redevelopment. According to supporters, preservation can protect significant edifices that may be demolished in the name of “progress.”

How communities limit the construction of manufactured housing

Manufactured homes might be a viable solution to affordable housing but it is not easy to place such homes:

While courts today are unlikely to uphold outright exclusions, barriers for manufactured housing come in other forms. Some towns require manufactured homes be in a manufactured housing community. Others restrict them from residential zones.

Unequal treatment—including aesthetic rules, like a pitched-roof requirement, that exclude mobile homes by default—is common. Conditional use laws require pre-approval before a manufactured home can go up, and often approval is denied. Advocates for manufactured housing lobby for by-right use, which would allow someone to put up a manufactured home without pre-approval.

But zoning issues are a matter of state and local policy, not federal policy, so HUD has little power to influence restrictions on manufactured housing. Still, Mandelker believes HUD could play a role in destigmatizing manufactured housing.

“If they start working on a model state [zoning] law and start funding pilot projects, that would bring some attention,” he said. “I think that would be very helpful.”

Two features of manufactured homes are likely to scare off numerous communities from providing space for many units: (1) the property values of the units compared to stand alone single-family homes (since higher housing values are perceived to be signal a better quality of life) and (2) negative perceptions of residents who live in such homes (viewed as lower-class residents). So what could prompt more local governments to allow manufactured homes?

There are various ways that incentives or sanctions could be used. As an incentive, perhaps there could be some extra Federal money given to communities that provide space for such homes? Or, perhaps those constructing new developments could receive extra opportunities if they set aside land for manufactured homes or paid into a fund for purchasing land for manufactured homes. Sanctions would likely provoke resentment but they could also push multiple communities into helpful conversations.

Ultimately, providing the necessary affordable housing needed in the United States will likely require multiple approaches. Manufactured housing could be part of the solution but it will be difficult to destigmatize it.