Officials Push Manufactured Home Zoning Changes to Increase Affordable Housing

The affordable housing crisis appears to be reaching critical mass, and officials are now turning their attention to zoning laws in an effort to encourage cost-effectively manufactured homeownership for working families.

The American dream has turned into something of a nightmare. The rising cost of homes has reportedly become so burdensome that upwards of 43 million households squander money renting. According to reports, that number has increased from only 36 million in 2003. That’s largely because they cannot adequately meet the financial obligations of owning their own home.

Habitat for Humanity sponsored Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies 2019 State of the Nation’s Housing report and published startling information about the affordable housing crisis.

“More than 18 million households — 1 in 6 — are paying more than half of their income on housing and are considered severely cost-burdened,” a Habitat for Humanity summary of the report states. “The largest share of these households includes 9.5 million renters earning less than $30,000 per year and 5.4 million homeowners earning less than $30,000. Severe cost burdens also affect 1.1 million homeowners earning between $30,000 and $44,999, 927,000 renters earning between $30,000 and $44,999, and 731,000 homeowners earning between $45,000 and $74,999.”

This affordable housing crisis not only impacts low-income families. College-educated Millennials, who comprise the largest single demographic in the workforce, are grossly overburdened with student loan debt. The average salary of households headed by Millennials was approximately $69,000 against a median single-family home hovering at $300,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s easy to see why more and more Americans are struggling to afford a home of their own.

By contrast, manufactured homes can be purchased new at a fraction of the cost as existing site-built ones. These off-site built structures adhere to strict federal quality construction guidelines. Pre-built single section homes run about $63,000, which is lower than the average annual salary of Millennials. The larger double section homes are an affordable $109,000 on average, which is well within many working families’ reach. The cost-effective difference has garnered the support of U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, who has been pressing federal, state, and local decision-makers to reconsider zoning prohibitions.

“We’re having a significant problem in our country right now with affordable housing and also with resiliency,” Sec. Carson reportedly said at the Innovative Housing Showcase event co-hosted by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). The HUD chief pushed the political point that “many zoning barriers are based on outdated thinking.”

“That’s one of the reasons that we’re having this display, so not only that people can see this and disabuse them of the notions that manufactured housing are trailers and trailer parks and seeing what can actually happen here,” Carson reportedly said. “I’m standing inside of a manufactured home right now — it’s a beautiful place. It has a living room area, three bedrooms, kitchen, couple of bathrooms. And yet you know the cost of this is 30 to 40 percent less than a site-built home.”

California ranks among the most challenging places to afford a traditional site-built home. But massive wildfires decimating communities and the nation’s worst homelessness crisis have areas once considered purely high-end making zoning changes. San Mateo County struggled with an average single-family home costing upwards of $1.2 million in 2017. In an effort to make the American dream a reality for residents of the Golden State, zoning regulations were updated to allow manufactured home neighborhoods. The planning and zoning board carved out a Mobile Home Zoning District that delivered economic justice, as well as affordable housing.

“The county recognizes, as the state does, that these are a unique form of housing that should be recognized and regulated for what it is,” a planning board member reportedly said. “Part of the recognition is that they’re residences and have been located in residential areas for a very long time.”

In areas destroyed by wildfires such as Paradise, California, families who lost their properties face increased materials and labor costs that sometimes exceed insurance coverage. People who rebuilt following the fire saw a 22-percent uptick in new construction costs. At nearly $200 per square foot, many previous homeowners were being priced out. The town’s planning and zoning took that and other factors into consideration. The board opened the doors for residents to restore the community with more manufactured homes, under the stipulation they are direct from the factory.

“We really struggled with those decisions that we knew could price some people out of our town,” Planning Commissioner Stephanie Neumann reportedly said about limiting mobile homes on properties. “But we just didn’t feel comfortable not knowing what shape these homes would be in, and that they wouldn't be financeable to sell in future.”

The planning and zoning board took additional steps to improve home safety regarding wildfires. More manufactured homes will be outfitted with fire-resistant materials and metal roofs.

Although California has removed manufactured home zoning barriers due to extreme necessity, the cost-effective numbers tell the story. Site-built construction costs and national affordable housing shortages diminish the quality of life of everyday people. As officials loosen zoning laws to include manufactured products, the American dream of owning your own home becomes possible for more hard-working families.

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