Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Local Newscast
Hear the latest from the WRKF/WWNO Newsroom.

Manufactured homes are affordable and safer than ever. Could they help solve the housing crisis?

Producers and federal housing officials are eager to point out that today’s manufactured homes present a variety of size and design options, and are safer than ever.
Manufactured Housing Institute
/
Provided
Producers and federal housing officials are eager to point out that today’s manufactured homes present a variety of size and design options, and are safer than ever.

Terrace Heights in Dubuque, Iowa, may fit common notions of what a manufactured home community looks like: It features rows of small, nondescript mobile homes set along quiet streets.

Some of the homes date back to the 1970s. That was before climate change kicked up the ferocity and frequency of storms.

“If a tornado would be coming into Dubuque, we would have to literally pack up the animals, get in a car and go find someplace safe,” said Lynn Murphy, who’s lived at Terrace Heights for about five years. She’s added personal touches on the outside to that match her personality. The structure was built in 1978.

At that time, few homeowners foresaw the impacts of climate change, like how an increasing number of extreme heat days would send electricity bills skyrocketing, especially for structures that lack energy-saving features.

“I live in an older trailer, so it’s not insulated,” Murphy said. “So my heat bills and my cooling bills are very high. Now, my daughter lives around the corner. She has a newer trailer, and her electricity is not as much as mine is.”

Lynn Murphy stands outside her 1978 home in the Terrace Heights community in Dubuque, Iowa.
Colson Thayer
/
Special to The Midwest Newsroom
Lynn Murphy stands outside her 1978 home in the Terrace Heights community in Dubuque, Iowa.

Some people at Terrace Heights, like Murphy, own their homes and pay what’s known as “lot rent” for the property their structures sit on. Others pay rent for their homes and their lots.

“You move into a trailer, especially a trailer park, because you want lower rent,” she said. “You want to be able to afford things. I could never live out and about in a duplex or someplace 'cause I couldn't afford that kind of rent.”

More than 800 miles from Dubuque, a group of manufactured homes in Washington presented a very different picture in early June. Model homes that would not look amiss in any new subdivision in the country lined the National Mall for the Housing and Urban Development Innovative Housing Showcase. These manufactured homes come with materials and features not often found in trailers in the past: granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and even customizable floor plans.

HUD partners with manufactured home producers to bring an annual showcase of the latest models to the National Mall in Washington.
Manufactured Housing Institute
/
Provided
HUD partners with manufactured home producers to bring an annual showcase of the latest models to the National Mall in Washington.

“I encourage everybody to see what these homes look like. They will really surprise you,” said Teresa Baker Payne, who leads HUD’s manufactured housing program.

Beyond the amenities, HUD officials – and the Biden administration – say modern manufactured housing represents a solution to the affordable housing crisis and provides the safety and energy efficiency features that make the homes climate resilient.

People often use the terms mobile homes and manufactured homes interchangeably. Mobile homes, what Murphy refers to as trailers, were generally built before 1976 and do not conform to the HUD Code, which sets standards for all manufactured housing in the country.

“Manufactured housing stock is healthy and safe for everyone who lives there,” said Marion McFadden, a deputy assistant secretary for HUD Community Planning and Development.

'People are suffering'

The 2024 State of the Nation’s Housing report from the Joint Center for Housing at Harvard University says the number of cost-burdened homeowners – people who spend more than 30% of household income on housing and utilities – grew by 3 million to 19.7 million between 2019 and 2022.

“Nearly one in four homeowner households are now stretched worryingly thin, including 27.4% of homeowners age 65 and over,” reads the report.

As the Midwest Newsroom reported in December, the cost of rent is inching up across the Midwest. Realtor.com provided the Midwest Newsroom with median monthly rental prices for two-bedroom apartments in a number of metro areas around the region:

  • Omaha, Nebr.: $1,650
  • Kansas City, MO: $1,300
  • St. Louis, MO: $1,283
  • Des Moines, IA: $1,150


“People are suffering intensely. People are in so much pain, and the rent is the critical pain point,” said Tara Raghuveer, founder of the KC Tenants Union in Kansas City, Missouri. “The rent is the biggest bill for most poor and working-class families every month.”

Today, the average price of new manufactured homes like the ones on display at the HUD showcase is about $127,250, according to data from the Manufactured Housing Institute. According to Zilllow.com, the average price of a site-built house in Dubuque, where Murphy lives, is about $230,000.

“The thing that's so important about us showcasing our houses on the National Mall is that the people who are coming through, they don't recognize that they can achieve homeownership in a brand-new house where today's needs – family needs, the design features – they actually exist within our houses,” said Lesli Gooch, CEO of the Manufactured Housing Institute, which has about 1,000 member companies.

A standard mobile home costs about $30,000 in the Midwest and as much as $150,000 in popular coastal communities. Lot rent prices also vary but can amount to between $400 and $600 a month in the Midwest. Murphy pays $500 a month in lot rent in Terrace Heights.

Prospective homebuyers can access loans to buy manufactured houses like the ones on display at the June HUD showcase. Mobile homes like Murphy’s are not eligible for financing.

According to HUD, about 22 million people live in mobile or manufactured homes across the United States, and about 7% of the homes in America are manufactured housing stock.

“And when we look at rural areas, it's about 15% of the homes. And in tribal areas, manufactured housing is about 17% of the housing stock,” McFadden said.

MHVillage.com, a resource for buying and selling manufactured housing, keeps count of the number of mobile home communities or “parks” around the country, including these states:

  • Illinois: 920 parks
  • Iowa: 470 parks
  • Kansas: 469 parks
  • Missouri: 694 parks
  • Nebraska: 394 parks


(These numbers do not include manufactured homes located outside of parks.)

The Harvard housing report points to the category of manufactured homes as a viable option for those entering the housing market, describing it as “a well-established affordable building technique with costs as low as 35% of an equivalent site-built home.”

Gooch said today’s manufactured housing means the definition of affordable is not “fixer-upper” or subsidized housing.

“If you look at what our country has traditionally told people who are on the entry-level side of things, it's that ‘we are going to make you a homeowner, but you are going to have to compromise in terms of what you, in your mind, think homeownership means,’” Gooch said. “We're changing that for people.”

The HUD Code

Manufactured housing is the nation’s only category of construction subject to uniform federal rules. These are the standards and regulations collectively known as the HUD Code. As the Midwest Newsroom has reported, all other building codes for commercial and residential construction are subject to a patchwork of state, county and even municipal rules.

Also known as the National Manufactured Housing Construction and Safety Standards Act, the HUD Code became federal law in 1976. It establishes national standards for the design and construction of manufactured homes “to assure quality, durability, safety and affordability.”

“We're the most inspected form of residential housing,” Gooch said, “Not only for construction, but also for safety and energy efficiency and other things.”

Lesli Gooch, CEO of the Manufactured Housing Institute
Manufactured Housing Institute
/
Provided
Lesli Gooch, CEO of the Manufactured Housing Institute

Manufactured homes are built in factories and transported around the country. That adds up to interstate commerce, which is regulated by the federal government.

“So, if a home is built to our standards, it receives a certification label from the manufacturer, and the manufacturer certifies that it is built to our HUD standards,” Payne said. “Once the label is attached in the factory, it can then travel over the interstate highways.”

The HUD Code is on the verge of being updated for the first time in decades, according to Payne. While incremental amendments have occurred over the years, the Biden administration’s proposed changes address what Payne called a “backlog.”

The proposed updates to the HUD Code include:

  • Climate resilient interior, exterior and roof design
  • Energy-efficient appliances 
  • Accessibility improvements
  • Current standards for energy efficiency
  • Improved moisture barriers


Payne said the updates bring the HUD Code up to electrical system requirements in accordance with the 2014 National Electric Code. Otherwise, the updates “incorporate recommendations from the Manufactured Housing Consensus Committee that have been made as recent as 2016.”

“This brings our product up to speed with the site-built industry,” she said.

As the Midwest Newsroom has reported, it is true that many states, counties and municipalities adopt dated International Code Council standards for site-built housing, which is constructed on a lot from the ground up. In some cases, codes in use were implemented before 2014, while some jurisdictions opt not to adopt any codes.

Yet others choose to adopt newer, more stringent codes. For example, Missouri has no statewide codes. Despite this, Jefferson City recently decided to adopt the 2018 codes – at a minimum – for residential construction in that municipality. In Nebraska, builders must adhere to the 2018 codes or newer. California is currently using the 2021 ICC codes statewide.

For the first time, the HUD Code will allow for duplex models of manufactured homes.

“This has never been done before,” Payne said. “So this is extremely innovative in our work to allow for more families to have affordable housing.”

Cavco Industries introduced the first nationally available, manufactured duplex approved by HUD in 2023.
Manufactured Housing Institute
/
Provided
Cavco Industries introduced the first nationally available, manufactured duplex approved by HUD in 2023.

But is it safe?

Once a manufactured home arrives at its site, it’s secured to a slab by tie-downs, which are systems of heavy-duty straps and anchors designed to stabilize the structure during high winds.

Nick Gromicko founded the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors, a national training and certification program for the profession.

In a post for InterNACHI’s website, Gromicko wrote that “manufactured homes are more easily flipped or damaged during windstorms than site-built homes.” Furthermore, “wind passing over the top of such homes can exacerbate the effect,” and “manufactured homes are relatively lightweight when compared with site-built homes.”

Gromicko said that modern manufactured homes are getting better. Yet he said that “stick-built” structures – the standard construction method for site-built houses – are stronger. “We still can't get around the fact that, when you see a major storm come through, the stick-built home will last better in the wind.”

“We have a minimum installation standard,” Gooch said. “We very much recognize that when a house is built offsite and transported to the site, it is extremely important that that house is anchored properly.”

Proper anchoring is crucial, but University of Kansas civil engineering professor Elaina Sutley said manufactured homes – no matter how modern – are at significant risk in high winds.

Elaina Sutley (at right), a civil engineering professor at the University of Kansas, studied the effects of Hurricane Michael, which hit the Florida panhandle in 2018 as a Category 5 storm.
Elaina Sutley
/
Provided
Elaina Sutley (at right), a civil engineering professor at the University of Kansas, studied the effects of Hurricane Michael, which hit the Florida panhandle in 2018 as a Category 5 storm.

“When tornadoes approach manufactured homes – regardless of what standards they're built to – from what I've seen, it's just a complete failure,” said Sutley, who studies how tornado and hurricane winds affect both site-built and manufactured housing. “You get almost like an explosion, where it's like the roof and the walls just completely lose all integrity.”

As part of her research, Sutley saw firsthand the effects of the tornado that hit Linwood, Kan., in May 2019. The twister was rated an EF4, with wind speeds of about 170 mph.

Like many rural communities, Linwood and Leavenworth County were not covered by building codes, Sutley said. During the damage assessment, she observed that manufactured homes that were built to the HUD Code fared poorly.

“I would say, proportionally, I saw more catastrophic damage on manufactured homes,” Sutley said. And, she said, even manufactured homes farther away from the storm’s ground zero sustained catastrophic damage.

The region known as Tornado Alley used to lie across the Great Plains, encompassing parts of Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado. Today, experts say, there’s a new Tornado Alley as climate change pushes twisters into Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois and a host of southern states.

Daniel Wheaton / Midwest Newsroom

A 2023 article in Scientific American cites data showing that multiple twisters spawned by a single weather system are shifting eastward and that outbreaks may be getting fiercer and more frequent.

The Harvard housing report says the nation’s housing stock is “increasingly at risk of damage from severe hazards.” It reads, “at last count, 60.5 million housing units were located in areas with at least moderate risk, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) National Risk Index.”

In May, five people died and at least 35 were hurt as powerful tornadoes ripped through Greenfield, IA. About a month earlier, at least six tornadoes swept across eastern Nebraska, leveling dozens of homes near Omaha. As of June, the National Weather Service reported over 930 tornadoes around the country. There were about 1,100 tornadoes reported in the nation in all of 2023.

Rescue crews are in Greenfield searching for people trapped in debris. Officials in Greenfield say they’re still not ready to give an exact number of people killed or injured in Tuesday’s tornado.
Grant Gerlock
/
IPR News
Rescue crews are in Greenfield searching for people trapped in debris. Officials in Greenfield say they’re still not ready to give an exact number of people killed or injured in Tuesday’s tornado.

“It looks as if we may be having fewer days in the U.S. with just one tornado and more days when there are multiple tornadoes,” said Naresh Devineni, quoted in the Scientific American article. Devineni co-led a 2021 geographical analysis of large tornado outbreaks.

Mobile homes like those in Dubuque’s Terrace Heights are often the ones seen strewn across fields in video footage taken after a strong storm has plowed through a region. Gooch said today’s manufactured homes are “as safe as any form of building.”

“You could be anywhere and tornado hits, and how safe are you, right?”

The National Weather Service advises anyone living in a manufactured home to identify a shelter and go there when tornadoes are forecast.

“We know so much about how to build better, but it’s not getting adopted into our codes and standards or getting adopted into practice,” Sutley said. “Any time we're talking about sustainability and disaster resilience, we've got to get past just thinking about initial cost and think about life cycle cost.”

As the Midwest Newsroom has reported, builders and affordable housing advocates disagree on what those initial costs are.

“There's an affordable housing crisis in our country, right? I think that that's a really important piece,” Sutley said. “We need to be working with our policymakers. We need to be working with each other.”

Dubuque seeks solutions

Gooch said the MHI and its members continue to work on making manufactured homes stand up to the threats posed by climate change.

“As an industry, we are always pushing for better,” she said. “We've actually convened meetings with our manufacturers and our engineers thinking about some of the recent storms and what additional anchoring or tie-downs we should be encouraging.”

McFadden said HUD is reviewing grant applications from communities and nonprofit organizations for the Preservation and Reinvestment Initiative for Community Enhancement.

With a pot of $235 million, PRICE will fund “preservation and revitalization of manufactured housing and eligible manufactured housing communities.”

“We are hearing a lot of interest from communities and are excited for the possibilities of upgrades that we can make,” McFadden said.

One of the communities waiting to hear about getting PRICE funding is Dubuque, specifically the residents of Terrace Heights and two other manufactured home communities in the city.

Danny Sprank, a Dubuque City Council member, said the city’s grant proposal seeks to establish a community land trust, so tenants can own and run their communities through a nonprofit board. Dubuque’s grant proposal includes $34.5 million to buy the land and $4.5 million to repair mobile homes.

The Table Mound mobile home community in Dubuque, Iowa will benefit from funding if HUD approves a grant proposal from the city.
Colson Thayer
/
Special to The Midwest Newsroom
The Table Mound mobile home community in Dubuque, Iowa will benefit from funding if HUD approves a grant proposal from the city.

“The homes are older,” Sprank said. “And as a guy who works in construction – that's actually my primary job – there's no way that you could move these things without basically the spine of them snapping.”

Sprank said the land trust model would allow Murphy and her neighbors to “control their own destiny.” There’s also money to build a tornado shelter at Terrace Heights.

“I’m thrilled to death,” Murphy said.

As of this writing, HUD officials could not provide a date for the announcement of PRICE grantees.

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPRKCUR 89.3Nebraska Public Media NewsSt. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Copyright 2024 Iowa Public Radio News

Holly Edgell
Colson Thayer