Urban thinkers in the United States are beginning to look to mobile homes—what Canadians call manufactured housing—as a low-carbon response to a searing affordable housing.
And they’re looking to break down some unfair preconceptions along the way, Grist reports.
“For some, mobile homes conjure up an image of rusting metal units in weed-choked lots, an unfair stereotype that has real consequences,” Grist writes. “Advocates argue that mobile homes are not only a housing fix but could also help with the climate crisis.”
The problem is that the dwellings are “a good solution with a bad reputation,” said Andrew Rumbach, a senior fellow at the U.S. Urban Institute. But that’s largely because, in too many communities, manufactured housing is set up to fail.
“It’s not the home itself that often makes mobile homes vulnerable,” he told Grist. “It’s actually the fact that we sort of stuck the poor away in these places that makes them vulnerable.”
Often, the news story states, U.S. mobile home communities are “hampered by restrictive zoning laws that make it hard to upgrade maintenance and care of the structures. These zoning laws also have put communities at risk for climate-related disasters, which explains why so many mobile home parks are in floodplains.”
Those hurdles matter when an estimated 22 million Americans live in manufactured housing, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Statista data site estimates that Canada had about 190,000 mobile homes in 2018, and that total was expected to hit 200,000 this year.
Grist cites a report by the non-profit Niskanen Center that casts mobile homes as an affordable but underused option for low- and moderate-income households. “Newer models can also be a low-carbon solution as these prefabricated homes, which are built in large pieces for easy assembly, can include things like heat pumps and solar panels, in contrast to older models that relied on propane or natural gas. Older models can also be eligible for retrofits to make them more energy efficient and climate-friendly.”
In a March, 2018 summary page, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) points to manufactured housing as a “viable option for creating quality, affordable housing in communities across Canada.” It attributes a series of practical and cost advantages to a factory manufacturing process in which finished sections or whole homes are transported to building sites for installation and finishing.
The summary page cites a 24-unit, affordable housing development in Kentville, Nova. Scotia built energy-efficient, manufactured housing, as well as an affordable, 94-unit project in Saskatoon where “the u nits were shipped to the construction site as single-storey modules and then stacked into two-storey townhouses. Once siding and other exterior finishings were installed, the manufactured houses looked no different than a site-built house.”
More recently, CMHC ran a demonstration project in British Columbia with the Lytton First Nation, the Village of Lytton, Steel River Group, and NEXII to install “precision-manufactured” homes that would enable occupants to age in place, cut costs, and live more safely.
Grist inventories all the risks facing U.S. trailer parks that are often overlooked by public officials—from access to basic services, to a lack of official recognition that makes it difficult to get federal relief when a climate disaster or some other emergency strikes.
“They do have a lot more issues than regular mobile home parks,” said Jovana Morales-Tilgren, a housing policy coordinator at the non-profit Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability in California. “Many of them don’t have weatherization, insulation. Many were built more than 20, 30, 40 years ago. And so they do have a lot of issues.”
But not all manufactured housing communities fit that profile, and with the right systems in place, none of them have to. “As for those trailers, well, they aren’t actually trailers anymore,” the Financial Post wrote in September, 2021, in a post that cast trailer parks as a solution to the already-booming affordable housing crisis. “Instead of axles and wheels, buyers get factory-built-to-code, energy-efficient homes set on concrete blocks, and they range in size from about 500 to 1,800 square feet, and in price from C$120,000 to $350,000 (or even more) for ultra-deluxe models.”
Manufactured home communities are also “coveted as winning investments by pension funds, real estate investment trusts and private-equity players, as well as the traditional and still very active mom-and-pop-style family owners,” the Post wrote.
“We have a housing crisis with a historical solution sitting right in front of us, it is absolutely staring us in the face,” said Mark Kenney, CEO of Canadian Apartment Real Estate Investment Trust (CAPREIT), a Toronto-based company that in 2021 counted 77 manufactured home communities among its more than $16 billion in assets.