Editorial: Upward Mobility; Rethinking a Housing Option

When Gov. Peter Shumlin promised that Vermont would emerge from Tropical Storm Irene a better and stronger state, it never occurred to us that the upgrading might include mobile homes. That the state might make mobile homes less vulnerable to flooding by rethinking where they’re sited certainly seemed advisable, but that’s different from improving the structures themselves. However, thanks to an innovative collaboration between affordable-housing and energy-efficiency advocates, such an improvement has become plausible.

Irene was devastating to many Vermont residents, but it was particularly so to mobile-home dwellers. The storm destroyed or damaged 560 mobile homes, accounting for 15 percent of all the residences in the state that suffered structurally from the storm. Mobile homes were especially vulnerable for a number of reasons, including that many parks are located in low-lying areas and that mobile homes are generally not secured to foundations. Because mobile-home residents tend to be poorer than occupants of more conventional housing, recovering from such setbacks is even more of a challenge.

But Irene also exposed a more deep-seated problem: Many of the state’s 22,000 mobile homes are older and in deteriorating condition. Residents find themselves forced to make regular stop-gap repairs on structures that were poorly built to begin with and really ought to have been replaced long ago.

Another problem predates Irene: Mobile home residents pay too much for energy. They spend significantly more per square foot and, on average, a higher percentage of their income for energy than residents of stick-built homes. Mobile homes may be less expensive to acquire, but not necessarily to live in.

After Irene, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board spearheaded a study to answer a question that had been raised by energy-efficiency advocates: With many of the state’s mobile homes in need of replacement, would it be possible to come up with a new design that consumed less energy and provided more structural integrity to withstand bad weather? More to the point, could such a home be designed and still be affordable to low-income people?

A report issued in March of this year by the Manufactured Housing Innovation Project came up with an interesting finding: Designing a mobile home to be a little more energy efficient doesn’t make nearly as much sense as designing one that is significantly more stingy with energy and therefore can deliver the savings to justify its higher cost. The study concluded that a high-performance mobile home would use about one-third the energy of one that merely met current federal efficiency standards. Its $77,000 to $90,000 pricetag would be about $32,000 higher than a comparable home that was less efficient, but if financed with a conventional mortgage, monthly payments wouldn’t be much higher because of the huge energy savings. In fact, such homes are now being custom built in White River Junction through a pilot project arising from the study. Those homes, advocates hope, will put the report’s conclusions to a test while also promoting acceptance among mobile home manufacturers and buyers of the notion that a well-built structure can strike the right balance between performance and affordability.

Of course, it’s not that simple, as the March report makes clear. For starters, there’s the challenge of coming up with the cash for a down payment — although subsidies and tax credits available through affordable-housing programs certainly could help in that regard. Less obvious challenges include the fact that conventional mortgages often aren’t available to homeowners who lease their sites and that many mobile-home owners are reluctant to take on significant debt.

On the other hand, transforming mobile homes from a housing option that’s initially cheap but expensive to inhabit and ultimately disposable into one that provides affordable and comfortable living arrangements and perhaps even a good investment is one of the worthiest endeavors we’ve come across in a while.