Fayetteville Arkansas, University of Arkansas--Old Main Overview

Fayetteville Arkansas, University of Arkansas--Old Main Overview
Overview of Fayetteville, AR

Monday, December 04, 2006

Manufactured Housing Could Help the Reduce the Shortage of Affordable Housing

Whether you call manufactured homes by their proper designation or still refer to them as mobile homes (or even trailers), there continues to be a stigma attached to them. On the other hand, with the increasing urbanization of Washington and Benton Counties, formerly rural areas are now becoming high-end subdivisions, so that the old mobiles in the area now detract from the value of the new housing being built.

It’s a “Catch 22.” We need affordable housing. Land prices have skyrocketed so that new “stick-built” homes are too expensive for many workers whose salaries have not kept pace with the cost of housing. Manufactured housing might provide a lower-cost alternative. But the current climate of development with regard to manufactured housing is “not in my backyard.” The old attitudes still apply.

New manufactured homes are built to an exacting Federal construction code implemented in 1974, known as the HUD Code. They are transported and installed under state and local laws and regulations. The HUD Code encompasses construction and performance of heating, air conditioning, ventilation, plumbing, thermal and electrical systems. Many manufacturers view the HUD Code as minimum performance standards and exceed those standards in their basic designs plus offer upgrades for increased energy efficiency and overall performance. And if such a home has a bank-approved permanent foundation, it is eligible for regular mortgages, rather than high-interest loans, and it has a decidedly increased re-sale value.

Some parts of the country (Arizona being a good example) have lovely parks, especially for retirees, where people can either rent a space for their manufactured home or buy their land in a park. Many of these parks offer swimming pools, community centers with large kitchens, pool tables and meeting spaces, etc. To assure ongoing aesthetics, regulations usually cover everything from maintenance of the exterior of the home to pets, fences, parking and clotheslines. Residents frequently become close friends with their neighbors and feel a deep sense of security because they care about and look out for each other.

I am sorry to say, this type of park does not exist in NW Arkansas. Most here are meccas for lower income dwellers, and they don’t have a lot of amenities such as those described above. But they do often develop a sense of community, according to local owners of existing mobile home parks. And they do provide a low-cost alternative for residents who cannot afford a “stick-built” home.

Let’s analyze the situation for a moment. The cause of the bad reputation of manufactured homes is not the quality of construction; it is what some people who live in manufactured homes do to their home sites. One does not have to go very far in NW Arkansas to find old trailers, mobile homes, and even newer manufactured homes surrounded by junk—the term for this is “trailer trash.” I have never been able to understand why some people prefer to decorate their yards with old washing machines, sofas, and vehicles that haven’t been usable for many years.

However, I must say that owners of manufactured homes do not have an exclusive on that type of d├ęcor. I have also observed many older homes where residents of stick-built homes do the same thing. A couple of these come immediately to mind. One has gone so far as to not only leave his junked vehicles and dead refrigerators in the front yard, he has even imported other refrigerators and freezers to keep them company. The other one is definitely a Ford man – every pickup he has owned in the past 30 years is parked in his yard where he can see them and be reminded daily of their past lives.

But there are many good things about manufactured homes that should not be overlooked. Foremost is affordability. With the escalating price of land in NW Arkansas, builders can no longer afford to construct "starter" homes for under $100K as was possible even a few years ago. So-called "moderately priced housing" now starts at about $140K because of escalating land prices.

The latest information I have from Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission defines affordable housing as a single-family home with a permit value under $75,000 (this does not include the land or lot). In NW Arkansas only 2.1 percent of housing units added in 2004 were valued below $75,000, and in the past couple of years the situation has worsened. It is easy to see a huge gap between what is being built and what is affordable for many families.

Prices are more affordable in the far western part of Washington and Benton Counties, and in the southern part of Washington County. Madison County and other more rural areas continue to be somewhat affordable but living that far out means longer commute times and increased travel expenses to the major NW Arkansas towns, where most of the jobs are.

Another problem is zoning regulations. Arkansas’ Affordable Housing Accessibility Act took effect October 1, 2003. It requires cities to allow prefabricated homes in at least one residential zoning district but implementation has been slow. The fear (and unfortunately, the reality) is that the new, often up-scale homes will be devalued by the mobile homes next door. Fayetteville and Bentonville have already changed their ordinances to conform to the new law. Fayetteville now allows them in an agricultural-residential district, and Bentonville has one residential manufactured housing district.

Since there has been no real zoning in the unincorporated areas of Washington and Benton Counties, the rural areas are where most manufactured homes are found. However in recent years, many people with land for sale place have placed deed restrictions on the land prohibiting mobiles/manufactured homes of any kind. It is increasingly difficult, even in rural areas, to find land where manufactured homes may be placed. Perhaps one answer (with the advent of zoning rules for Washington County) would be to designate some areas and/or rules for manufactured housing.

As more and more land is gobbled up for apartment buildings and stick-built homes, spaces in existing parks for manufactured homes have become ever more scarce. I can’t think of any new parks being built in NW Arkansas recently, although several have disappeared. Several existing mobile home parks have a zero occupancy rate, so the demand is there.

The challenge becomes more acute as NW Arkansas grows from being a predominantly rural area with a scattering of small towns to an urbanized metropolitan area. Now many people simply cannot afford the average stick-built home. Should they be forced to pay rent forever? Should they be forced to move somewhere else more affordable?

We need workers if we hope to sustain and grow the economy of NW Arkansas. The workers deserve a place to live – and a home they can call their own IS the “American Dream.” Our city officials must consider affordable housing alternatives in a realistic fashion and overcome traditional stereotypes. If manufactured housing is not included by planners, then what is the alternative?

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