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Could Mobile Homes Be the New Face of Affordable Housing?
April 19, 2021

Could Mobile Homes Be the New Face of Affordable Housing?

by The CE Shop Team

Trailer Homes Could Create Mobility for Affordable Housing

As Virginia begins to look for solutions to the commonwealth’s affordable housing crisis, policy-makers and advocates for affordable housing development are trying to figure out how manufactured units could help to address this issue. While trailers and mobile homes suffer from negative stigmatization, they could address Virginia's housing issues while creating a new standard of living for affordable housing units.

Manufactured Mobile Homes for the Win

For people interested in buying a home, manufactured homes are the most affordable homeownership option available. Manufactured homes can cost half as much per square foot to build than site-built houses, most averaging around $70,000, while the average price for a home in the U.S. is $272,446.

There are 8.5 million manufactured homes in the U.S. That’s nearly 10% of the nation’s housing stock, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute. Those who live in manufactured housing have a median household income of just under $30,000 per year.

The cost to rent a manufactured home with land in a land-lease community averages between $844 and $935 per month in many parts of the country. In Virginia, the average rent is $1,254, well above the average cost for renting a mobile home.

These figures are in line with the monthly housing cost of $852 a month that a full-time worker making the average wage earned by a renter can afford, according to a 2017 National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) report. That number assumes that the worker pays 30% of their income on housing.

Possible Pressure Points

Many of Virginia’s trailer parks hide in plain sight of busy roads, popular amenities, and even suburban neighborhoods. Given their proximity to city delights like food chains, malls, and highway systems, mobile home parks are in danger of being bought out by apartment and condo complex investors interested in these properties’ prime locations.

"The biggest problem is that the land is so valuable,” Delegate Paul Krizek of Fairfax said. “These parks are a gold mine for someone who wants to come in and build a 20-story apartment complex. I understand the need for density, but it’s sad when one of these communities goes away because they have been there for 20-30 years.” 

On top of pressure from outside investors to purchase current park property, building new mobile home parks is near impossible in Virginia. Under some local zoning laws, mobile homes aren’t allowed to be built. Counties designate zoning laws, such as street circulation requirements, that create setbacks for mobile development.

"Localities don’t have to explicitly ban trailer parks; they can do that by omission. In Virginia, there aren’t any proactive zoning or land use codes to help preserve mobile home parks, let alone encourage the creation of new ones.” said Jonathan Knopf, Executive Director of the Manufactured Home Community Coalition of Virginia.

There’s another layer to consider regarding mobile homes and trailers, which is their tenant's ability to build generational wealth. While mobile homes could be a viable solution to Virginia’s affordable housing crisis, it’s worth noting that mobile homes depreciate over time, unlike their more-traditional counterparts. Also, about a third of mobile homeowners don’t own the land upon which their trailer sits, leaving them vulnerable to increased fees from the mobile park owners. For more information, check out John Oliver’s examination of mobile homes below - though be warned, there’s adult language used in this clip:

Fixing Mobile Home’s Stigma

While trailer parks may not get much love in popular culture, they offer many of suburbia’s benefits without the often-prohibitive price tag. Non-profit organizations like project:HOMES have undergone massive renovation projects for mobile home parks with the aim of combating the negative stigma associated with mobile homes. Most recently, the organization purchased a 52-unit park and has begun making improvements to each unit for their tenants. 

Could Mobile Homes Fix Affordable Housing in Virginia?

Mobile Homes Are in High Demand

Over the last decade, demand has risen for mobile homes, especially after the pandemic hit. While the volume of mobile homes has decreased, demand has increased. There is a premium placed on private living space that the whole country has felt since the onset of the pandemic, and for people looking for an affordable home, mobile homes are the answer.

"If you look at the fads of tiny homes or people living in shipping containers, they’re all evidence there is an appetite for smaller houses and smaller living,” said Nolan Gray, a city planner and affiliated scholar with George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. “There’s a ton of demand for this housing that we have effectively made illegal.”

The idea that manufactured housing could become a large-scale solution to America’s affordable housing crisis is not just a fantasy; it’s an approach Gray first advanced in an essay titled, “Reclaiming ‘Redneck’ Urbanism: What Urban Planners can Learn from Trailer Parks.”

As Virginia digs into its affordable housing crisis, mobile homes offer a ready-made solution - one which the Old Dominion State can’t afford to overlook.

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