COLUMN ONE : How Safe Are Mobile Homes? : For millions of Americans, installation lapses and other problems raise the risk from floods, quakes and hurricanes. Safety measures exist but they often are resisted by residents and trade groups.
When natural disasters strike, the common wisdom is that somewhere, somehow, mobile homes are going to be washed out, blown apart or crumpled.
The common wisdom is true.
Largely because of shoddy installation and other lax practices, millions of Americans live in factory-built homes that may be unsafe or, at the least, far less safe than conventional single-family houses.
The result: Residents of mobile homes are victimized--occasionally even killed--in earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and other disasters. Year after year, taxpayers foot bills in the tens of millions of dollars to rebuild or replace what amounts to disposable housing.
“You keep your fingers crossed and hope they don’t get blown off,” said Robert Stubbs, a structural engineer who described himself as stunned when he recently began researching mobile home installation techniques.
With 6% of Americans, including more than 1 million Californians, residing in mobile homes--and with manufactured housing accounting for more than one-quarter of new home sales--the problem threatens to grow.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Engineers and regulators say that the dangers could be significantly reduced if residents and retailers, along with the owners of mobile home parks, would agree to known safety measures, some of them comparatively cheap.
The prospect of even small cost increases, however, has consistently provoked powerful business and homeowner lobbying groups to water down or kill one safety proposal after another.
For their part, industry officials say the quality of mobile homes has improved markedly in the last 20 years; many of those destroyed in natural disasters, they note, were old-fashioned trailers and other substandard structures that are a far cry from the comfortable--sometimes even luxurious--factory-built houses available today.
Manufacturers and retailers also point out that mobile homes tend to be located disproportionately in parts of the country with flooding, hurricane and tornado problems--forces of nature that destroy other types of housing too. And the industry says it is investigating ways to improve installation.
But officials maintain that the extra cost of many safety proposals--particularly federal initiatives--would put mobile homes out of reach of poor people and retirees who badly need affordable housing, particularly in rural areas.
At times, though, the industry arguments ring hollow. Last month, lobbyists blocked a California proposal to enhance earthquake safety that would have cost mobile home owners an estimated $5 a month.
So it remains legal here for an existing mobile home to sit on cinder blocks--with no mortar, heavy-duty bolts or anything to secure it to a foundation or otherwise keep it from tipping in a temblor.
“If you tried that with a regular house, you’d go to jail,” said Don O. Carlson, the longtime publisher and editor of the housing industry magazine Automated Builder.
Only last year, after the January, 1994, Northridge quake, did the state take the modest step of requiring new homes to be tied down to ground anchors--and only after the notion of applying similar measures to all mobile homes was swatted down by mobile-home interests.
California, nevertheless, is considered a regulatory tiger compared to most states; housing officials are in the midst of a seven-year inspection program to assess the safety of every residence in every California mobile home park.
“It is probably the most aggressive of the enforcement states--some would maybe say too aggressive,” said Tony Hadley, chief lobbyist for the Manufactured Housing Institute, the trade group representing manufacturers, retailers, park owners and lenders.
The industry acknowledges its image problem. The Manufactured Housing Institute has put out a fact sheet declaring that there is no scientific basis for “thinking that manufactured home communities attract tornadoes.”
But real-life statistics demonstrate the enormous toll that major natural disasters have taken on mobile homes, particularly those in mobile home parks.
In August, 1992, Hurricane Andrew destroyed 97% of manufactured homes in Florida’s Dade County, versus 11% of conventional, “site-built” homes, according to figures cited by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
When retiree Madeline Bailey returned to her Florida City, Fla., mobile home park the morning after the hurricane, “hardly anything was standing,” she said. “The whole back end of our home, where the bedroom was, was gone.”
And in the Northridge quake, state records show that significant damage was incurred by more than half of the mobile homes in a broad area cutting across the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys and eastern Ventura County. In all, 175 mobile homes caught fire, 4,466 were knocked off their foundations and 955 shifted.
In the hardest-hit sector, Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson’s 12th District, 86% of the nearly 2,600 mobile homes were significantly damaged, according to state records. By way of rough comparison, 38% of the 55,000 conventional single-family homes in the district have been issued building permits to repair quake-related damage.
At the 600-lot Oakridge park in Sylmar, eight fires raged, triggered by mobile homes that smashed into gas meters and supply lines. Fifty-seven homes burned, another 12 were so badly twisted that they were rendered total losses, and most of the rest were tossed off the piers they were perched on.
It could have been worse, said manager Ginny Harmon. “I thought we’d lose the whole park.”
After such disasters, taxpayers must shoulder much of the burden.
Take the cost of renovating mobile homes after the Northridge quake. Although comprehensive aid figures are not available, the Federal Emergency Management Agency says it has spent more than $100 million to repair mobile homes and equip many with quake-resistant bracing systems. The agency also has spent more than $5 million to help California mobile home residents affected by this year’s floods.
Along with siphoning off tax dollars, the safety problems undermine what a report from the congressionally appointed National Commission on Manufactured Housing last year called the industry’s “enormous potential” to provide quality housing for people with “very modest incomes.” A 1993 survey put the median income of mobile home residents at $22,300 and found that more than half of manufactured housing had a market value of less than $15,000.
But it is not only the poor or near-poor who are drawn to manufactured housing. Many people, particularly retirees, come to mobile home parks for amenities such as swimming pools, social activities and a neighborly atmosphere--an atmosphere that, statistics show, is also overwhelmingly white.
“They are looking for more of a sense of community,” said Allan Wallis, author of a 1991 book on social and economic issues shaping the mobile home industry.
Or as Bailey, 77, who in her working days operated a restaurant, put it: “Mobile home living to me is just a big family.”
Safety advocates and industry officials have plenty of disagreements, but there is consensus that the average mobile home being built today is a good product. “If properly installed, the modern manufactured home is as safe as any other dwelling,” said Hadley of the Manufactured Housing Institute.
The trouble is, as he conceded, “we have an installation problem that must be solved.”
Techniques to solve, or at least mitigate, that problem certainly exist. New, double-wide homes can be more securely installed, engineers and safety advocates say, for $400 to $1,200, depending on regional conditions. These tie-down systems, normally designed as a safeguard against high winds, use metal straps to secure a home to anchors sunk into the ground.
(The Los Angeles Unified School District, which like other school systems sets its own installation standards for mobile home-like temporary classrooms, requires tie-downs. In the Northridge earthquake, that paid off: The district says only one of its 200 “relocatable” classrooms slipped, and it sustained only minor damage.)
For the typical mobile home in California, state officials say, earthquake-resistant bracing costing around $2,600 can reduce seismic hazards. The devices, when they work properly, “catch” homes before they can move far enough to cut gas lines or tip over.
Increasingly, manufactured homes are being put on private lots. In some cases, these residences are securely bolted to poured concrete footings, much like conventional homes.
In traditional mobile home parks, though, that kind of permanent installation is almost unheard of.
That’s largely because of the relatively high cost and the availability of cheaper options, such as the tie-down and earthquake-bracing systems. But another reason is that current laws, regulations and practices were devised with trailers in mind rather than today’s mobile homes, which often are moved only once--when they are transported from the factory.
Where they are employed, the latest installation equipment and techniques are a comfort to residents. Hazel McAlister and her husband of 50 years, Jack, decided to move back to Oakridge even after their previous home was incinerated in a gas-fed fire sparked by the earthquake. She feels that her new, 2,100-square-foot home with its improved bracing system--paid for with $125,000 in insurance money--is secure.
“We know the danger that can happen without bracing, or with minimal bracing,” she said. “Prevention is always better than having a tragedy.”
Installation practices, nonetheless, vary widely because of a big regulatory gap: The federal government, through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, keeps an eye on manufacturing. But HUD does not police how homes are installed. Although state and local authorities are free to take over that responsibility, experts say they frequently lack the interest or the resources to do the job properly.
In fact, at least 19 states do not regulate installations whatsoever. Those states include Louisiana, where nearly 6,200 mobile homes were destroyed or damaged by Hurricane Andrew.
Mobile home installers “right now can put them on a couple of bricks and drive away,” said Mike Cammarosano, administrative director of the Louisiana fire marshal’s office.
When inspectors working for HUD studied the devastation in Louisiana, they found that most of the affected mobile homes either had no anchors or were anchored improperly. Homes that were properly tied down generally remained in place, Cammarosano said.
After long opposing regulatory proposals from the fire marshal’s office, the Louisiana affiliate of the Manufactured Housing Institute is working with it to develop installation standards.
Based on the evidence, “you can’t argue against [tie-downs] anymore,” Cammarosano said.
Frequently, however, the Manufactured Housing Institute and its state affiliates, along with other lobbying groups, fight regulators’ safety proposals and other consumer-related measures.
In its deliberations last year, the National Commission on Manufactured Housing failed to reach a consensus on warranty and installation issues, among other things. The panel broke into two camps, one dominated by regulators and consumer advocates, the other by business interests.
In Florida--even after Hurricane Andrew destroyed more than 9,000 mobile homes--the state’s MHI affiliate sued unsuccessfully to scuttle new federal safety standards aimed at preventing a similar disaster in the future.
Frank Williams, executive director of the Florida Manufactured Housing Assn., says the federal rules make mobile homes 15% to 20% more expensive to build.
“We wanted the [wind-safety] standards increased, but we wanted to be able to stay in business too,” he said. “Our problem was that the costs exceeded the benefits.”
In California, lobbyists representing mobile home park owners and residents teamed up last month to block a low-cost fire prevention measure favored by many engineers and regulators. It called for installing a master shut-off device to automatically stop the flow of gas into parks rocked by serious earthquakes.
State Sen. Herschel Rosenthal, the Los Angeles Democrat behind the proposal, says he was willing to delay the effective date of the bill until experts resolved technical issues and agreed on how to prevent the devices from being triggered accidentally.
Rosenthal crafted the bill to limit costs for park owners--and, in particular, homeowners. He estimated that residents normally would pay about $5 a month to buy and maintain the equipment.
That wasn’t good enough. Dave Hennessy, president of the state’s main residents group--the Golden State Mobilhome Owners League--said his members are not persuaded that the devices would work. Moreover, the added expense “may appear modest,” the league’s lobbyist wrote Rosenthal’s office, but the organization’s members “are already against the wall and cannot absorb any further increase.”
“It’s just frustrating,” said Rosenthal. “We’re really talking about insignificant individual costs.”
Absent safety measures, taxpayers “are picking up the tab for the disproportionate number of fires that are started in the parks,” he said, along with subsequent disaster relief expenses.
Unless industry groups take action, it is hard to see where the impetus for reform will come from. HUD is studying earthquake safety measures, but officials say it is unlikely to move aggressively, given traditional limits on its authority and the current anti-regulatory political climate.
Some insurers have offered lower premiums on homes with tie-downs or bracing, without succeeding in coaxing many owners to add the gear.
Industry leaders are following a proposed pilot project in San Bernardino County that would provide financing at attractive rates for mobile home owners who install a new type of earthquake safety system. That proposal, however, still has a long way to go to gain approval from the Board of Supervisors.
Along with the cost issues, what makes it so difficult for safety-minded legislators and regulators to take action is the breadth of the industry and the array of mobile home interest groups with conflicting agendas.
The interested parties range from the industry’s No. 1 manufacturer, Riverside-based Fleetwood Enterprises, which sold $1.3 billion in mobile homes in its last fiscal year, to mom-and-pop companies that may own a small dealership or manage a single mobile home park.
The lobbying battles, regulatory lapses and discriminatory zoning have plagued mobile homes residents from the nation’s coasts to its heartland.
Consider the problems associated with flooding.
FEMA officials estimate that slightly more than 10% of mobile home park residences are in flood plains, as are 7% to 10% of U.S. homes generally. Experts attribute the gap to years of zoning decisions that kept mobile homes out of more desirable neighborhoods. In addition, the federal government in many cases exempted mobile homes from requirements applied to other construction.
The need for stronger enforcement was dramatically clear in the 1970s and 1980s, when mobile homes were struck by a barrage of devastating floods. Probably the most tragic was a series of deluges in Buncombe County, N.C., that claimed the lives of seven mobile home residents, along with four other people.
In 1986, FEMA tightened its rules under the National Flood Insurance Program to bring floodsafety standards for all mobile homes in line with those for conventional homes. Among other things, the rules required mobile homes to be elevated to heights above normal flooding levels.
The next year, the agency backed off, yielding to lobbying pressure from mobile home business and consumer groups.
“We were forced into coming up with a lesser standard,” said Cecelia Rosenberg, a FEMA scientist, blaming the “sensitivity” of the industry to regulations that raise costs.
Meanwhile, taxpayers, bankers and owners of mobile homes continue to suffer losses from floods.
In the Castroville Mobilehome Park in Monterey County, which lies in a flood plain, all the roughly 30 mobile homes were either destroyed or heavily damaged in a flood triggered by heavy March rains.
Among the victims was Ricardo Calvillo, 42, a foreman on a broccoli-harvesting crew. His skin is leathery from more than 20 years of toil on California farms.
Four years ago, Calvillo scraped up a $10,000 down payment to buy a double-wide mobile home for $42,000. Since then, he has paid off another $9,000, leaving $23,000 owing on his mortgage.
But now, Calvillo’s home is uninhabitable, its frame warped by eight-foot floodwaters and the floor caked with mud.
Calvillo has received $10,000 in assistance from FEMA but says he needed much of that to replace the clothing, appliances and other personal items that he, his wife and two grown sons lost in the flood.
The remaining mortgage debt is a potential financial millstone because Calvillo has no flood insurance to help him retire the loan or to acquire a new home--a situation he attributes to a misunderstanding between himself, the bank and his insurer. A lawyer representing Calvillo from California Rural Legal Assistance Inc. is grappling with Bank of America over whether Calvillo or the bank was responsible for ensuring that his home carried flood insurance.
In the meantime, the bank is not getting its mortgage payments, and Calvillo--along with the other farm worker and blue-collar families forced to move from the mobile home park--feels as though he has lost the modicum of financial comfort he earned from years of work.
These days Calvillo, living in a $595-a-month apartment with his family, nervously waits to find out if the bank will forgive the remaining balance on his loan.
“It’s real hard for people like us who don’t make that much money to lose it all,” he said sadly. “It’s a real bad feeling when your whole life savings is lost in one blow.”
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Safety ranks among the top worries of mobile home dwellers, according to a 1993 survey. (Respondents could state more than one concern.)
No basement/attic: 60%
No garage: 54%
Quick depreciation: 48%
Too small/no storage space: 47%
Storm danger: 42%
Fire danger: 38%
Source: Foremost Insurance Group’s 1993 survey of 14,224 owners of manufactured homes.
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Roughly 6% of Americans live in mobile homes--an anachronistic term, given that the only time most are moved is when they are delivered from the factory. Rather than a vagabond lifestyle, what mobile home residents have in common are Sunbelt addresses, low incomes and cheap housing.
States With the Most Mobile Home Residents
U.S. Total: 15,379,700
Household Income of Mobile Home Residents
Less than $10,000: 15%
$40,000 +: 15%
Median Income Level: $22,300
Market Value of Mobile Homes
Less than $5,000: 18%
$40,000 +: 11%
Sources: U.S. Bureau of the Census; Foremost Insurance Group’s 1993 survey of 14,224 owners of manufactured homes.