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Mobile Home Makers Wait for FEMA

From Associated Press

Manufacturers are gearing up to produce cities of mobile homes for Hurricane Katrina victims, but 10 days after the federal government received their proposals to address the housing emergency, the companies are still waiting for a response.

“A lot of people are waiting,” said Phyllis Knight, executive vice president and chief financial officer at Champion Enterprises Inc., a mobile home manufacturer based in Auburn Hills, Mich.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency set a Sept. 9 deadline for mobile home makers to submit bids. But FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney said there had been a delay because the agency’s parent, the Department of Homeland Security, had yet to approve a housing plan.

“We want to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “I know they [manufacturers] are standing by and getting a little frustrated. We want to make sure we are spending the money the right way. It doesn’t mean people are going to go without.”

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He said the manufacturers would get responses to the bids early this week. As of Monday, bidders still waiting for a response included the largest manufacturer of mobile homes, Clayton Homes Inc., based in Maryville, Tenn., and Riverside-based Fleetwood Enterprises Inc.

Knight said there was a discussion with FEMA over the weekend, but the agency’s slow response was delaying production, although she predicted the lost time could be made up.

FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said Monday that the agency was “awarding contracts as quickly as possible.”

She did not have a specific timetable for the bid responses or details on how many were being ordered.

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Soon after the hurricane struck, FEMA officials said they ordered 125,000 mobile homes and travel trailers in a rush, and manufacturers starting shipping those they had already made.

“We’ve got plenty of housing units on the road, in the pipeline right now, but we are going to need more,” Kinerney said.

But manufacturers say they’re still waiting to hear whether they should move ahead with production of those homes.

Clayton Homes said it rounded up 1,800 from retail lots across the country and sent them to a staging area in Texarkana, Texas.

Producing enough to accommodate the Katrina victims is a daunting task for a mobile home industry currently building about 135,000 units a year.

FEMA estimates 200,000 households have been displaced by Katrina -- far more than the 15,000 households that needed shelter last year after the Florida hurricanes.

With the mobile home industry struggling for several years, mainly from customer lending problems that have seen production drop from more than 400,000 units a year, a spokesman said it was too early to predict the effect of Katrina.

“It’s an opportunity for the industry to show it can build quality houses at affordable costs,” said Thayer Long of the Manufactured Housing Institute in Arlington, Va.

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Clayton spokesman Chris Nicely said his company bid to provide 3,000 more homes. He declined to give specifics on bid pricing. He said the company expected to make a profit and did not increase costs to reflect higher fuel prices.

The company’s one-, two- and three-bedroom models typically cost about $25,000 to $35,000 each. Clayton makes 500 to 650 mobile homes a week and could immediately boost production by 300, Nicely said.

Fleetwood Enterprises had sold all its inventory to retailers before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, but the company should be able to boost manufacturing to a peak level “pretty much immediately,” company spokeswoman Joanne Foist said.

“That’s what we’re pretty much bracing for,” she said. “The big thing with them is not just price but how quick we can deliver.”


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