In my junior high school civics class, I don’t recall a single time that we ever heard the term “fake news.” That phrase is a relatively new phenomenon. What we did get some insights on was the historic period that featured “yellow journalism.” Yellow journalism was agenda-driven news. It’s defined below. By the mid-20th century, journalism was increasingly taught to present a balanced view of news. That is still supposed to be the standard, reporting that holds the power to account, at least according to the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethical Conduct.
Understanding the often subtle and complicated dynamics involved in manufactured housing requires time and research. Unfortunately for journalism today, their profession has been bleeding journalists for years. Fewer writers and reporters are covering sometimes complex topics with less time to get a clear or granular understanding of the issues at play is a recipe for inaccuracies in reporting.
Additionally, there are other factors at play in journalism and big tech which won’t be the focus of this report. Suffice it to say that much of media is held in every fewer corporate hands. As the award winning video documentary, Shadows of Liberty reflected, if corporate interests clash with reporting, often accurate reporting is the loser. Note that while many of the voices in the Shadows of Liberty docu-drama are from the political left, there are similar concerns raised from voices on the political right too. The full-length version can be streamed online, and is arguably better than the shorter version posted below.
Mobile and Manufactured Homes, “Parks” and Community Living
That backdrop about reporting dynamics and various media perspectives noted or linked, it is entirely accurate to say that millions of Americans like or love their mobile or manufactured home.
Serious research as well as casual interviews of mobile and manufactured homeowners routinely reflect that point.
That noted, general satisfaction does not mean that people living in manufactured housing are without stresses or pressures. A recent caller to MHLivingNews said she loved her manufactured home, but she was frustrated with the management in her land-lease community, which she identified as Impact Communities. That is one of several such property owner/management firms that has drawn media, regulatory, and legislators attention.
Residents often are stressed, especially if they live in a land lease communities which were long-owned by ‘white hat’ ‘mom-and-pop’ type operations, but which in recent years has increasingly been the subject of corporate interests, acquisitions, and often aggressive practices that are harmful to the interests of their homeowners.
Because media reporters routinely desire to get a story right (after all, who wants to be embarrassed by publishing or videoing an inaccurate report?), some level of balance is usually sought. However, the truth be told, time and editorial constraints are legitimate factors that must be considered in writing or reporting on any given subject.
Put differently, given the complexities of the status quo in modern manufactured housing, plus the challenges in media and the time-squeeze and constraints for journalists, reporting – however well-intentioned – can often miss the mark of accuracy. Additionally, like it or not, bias and common misunderstandings can also enter into the equation.
This overview hopes to address some of those items with the aim of giving a fresh look at these intersecting issues. Affordable housing is a critical issue. Mobile and manufactured home living has been at the forefront of affordable home ownership dating back to the mobile home construction era, which ended on June 15, 1976.
The pressures that manufactured home community residents feel from corporate interests at time aggressively-hiking rents are real. To get the sense of why it occurs, it is useful to go back in time to a period when these pressures did not exist.
Tim Sheahan is a longtime manufactured home community resident. He has also been involved in advocacy on behalf of land lease community residents. Without commenting on or examining his specific proposals, let’s look at how Sheahan described the challenges in testimony to federal officials. The former president of the National Association of Manufactured Home Owners began with a useful historic snapshot.
“In 1970, my city of San Marcos had a population of less than 4,000 and was part of the dramatic manufactured housing community development boom of the 1970s, adding over 3,000 pads among 18 manufactured home communities, which led to more than a doubling of the population by the mid 1970s,” wrote Tim Sheahan, while he was president of the National Manufactured Home Owners Association (NMHOA).
“Like many areas of CA, manufactured home purchasers in San Marcos were lured away from metropolitan areas by the promise of a quiet semi-rural retirement lifestyle with low lot rents and nice amenities, which often included clubhouses/community centers, swimming pools and spas, saunas, shuffleboard courts, pool tables and card rooms, community kitchens; and, in some cases, tennis courts, golf courses and fishing ponds. Downsizing to a MH also enabled them to enhance their financial nest eggs for the retirement years.”
All of that is interesting, but then Sheahan wrote the part that media and all other objective researchers absolutely must grasp.
“Initially, stiff competition among various developers during the only time a true “free market” situation existed in these communities commonly led to very reasonable starting rents.” Here ‘rents‘ means ‘site fees‘ or “lot rent.”
In certain parts of the country in the 1980s, late 1990s, and early 2000s, there were those community owners who developed new properties or who otherwise had vacancies that were willing – due to competition – to pay for the move of a manufactured home resident from one property to their own in order to attract a new resident. But as communities fill, and competition in a market wanes, that “free market” dynamic, Sheahan noted, fades.
That matters for the reason that Sheahan next noted.
“As the communities filled with “im-mobile” homes, free market forces such as competition were lost and lot rents for captive homeowners skyrocketed in many areas of California.”
Sheahan’s phrase “im-mobile homes” is an interesting and useful catchphrase. First, it must be stressed that there have technically been no mobile homes built in the U.S. since June 15, 1976. The terminology distinction between “mobile home” and “manufactured home” is not a marketing device. Rather, it describes the laws that the federal government implemented to improve the building standards, quality, durability, and inspections. Journalists, editors, news directors and other researchers must grasp that distinction. All others should too. The words matter.
Next, when “mobile homes” were being built, they were often smaller, lighter, and easier to transport. “Mobile homes” evolved over time from the travel trailer or RV industry. The term “trailer house” would be difficult to accurately apply to either mobile homes or manufactured housing. Further, it is an insulting phrase to millions, because of the prejudicial notion of “trailer trash.” It should be avoided in most cases, but unfortunately the Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI) has not at last check engaged the Associated Press (AP) to see to it that such a correction be made in AP Stylebooks.
Notice: the terminology in the video above is not always accurate,
but some of the video footage and insights are useful. See the report linked below.
Sheahan and others have explained that the cost of uninstalling, moving, and doing all of the installation and utility connections on a single section HUD Code manufactured home might be $5,000. A multi-sectional can be $10,000 (check with local movers/installers to get a more specific quote that is accurate for a given locale). That is one reason why, tongue in cheek, Sheahan calls it “im-mobile homes.”
So unlike a towable RV that might be towed behind a pickup truck, a HUD Code manufactured home is heavy, durable, and requires specialized moving equipment and experienced professionals to accomplish it. It is but one more reason why calling a manufactured home a “mobile home” is potentially confusing to public officials, consumers, advocates and others that may not yet grasp all of these facts.
Now, let’s reframe some of Sheahan’s and other statements for clarity and to bring current issues into greater focus.
- There was once a time when the free market was producing new land lease communities.
- But for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to NIMBYITE thinking, that era has been over in most locales for some two or more decades.
- There are inadequate records kept on manufactured home communities in numerous states, so exact numbers are not easy to come by. But there are reasons to believe that there thousands of fewer land lease communities now than 20 years ago in the U.S.
- Imagine what would happen to rents at apartment buildings in a town if no new apartments or rental housing were added, but the population kept growing, and the number of apartments available began to shrink.
- In such a scenario, the law of supply and demand informs us that the pressures on prices for rentals would go up. The same happens when demand for toilet paper, or any other commodity, exceed supply. More demand than supply routinely yields higher costs.
Those points are not specified by Sheahan, but they are in line with the thrust of the logic and evidence of from other accounts akin as well as his quoted statements.
Apartments vs Manufactured Homes
A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Minnesota specifically examined the costs involved in developing a manufactured home community and developing multifamily housing. Here is what they learned. Note that those costs would vary by market, but are nevertheless a useful guide to the sizable difference in costs that favor more single-family manufactured home living over multifamily housing apartments.
Clearly, people living in apartments are renting, while millions living in manufactured homes are owners or buyers. Scholastica “Gay” Cororaton in her seminal 2018 research on the market for manufactured homes, provided this data snapshot. Note too that in a phrase, Cororaton pointed out that the notions of manufactured homes being frail structures that blow away at the first wind is bluntly stated. While in a typical year, perhaps 2 dozen mobile and manufactured homes are lost to tornadoes, per National Weather Service data, that means that millions of such structures are unharmed (for more on that, including dramatic video footage and research data, click here).
Manufactured housing is the most affordable type of permanent single family living in America. To qualify that, someone might buy an old RV, take it to an RV park, and live in that RV full-time. However, most RVs are designed for recreational use, thus the term “recreational vehicle” or RV, and were not built for full-time living. That noted, RVs might be preferred to living in a car or van. A car or van would be better than living on the street or in a tent.
Again, look at the data from Cororaton’s research, shown above, with more – including her full research document, found at this link here.
Redevelopment and Consolidation
When developers buy an old mobile home park with pre-HUD Code mobile homes and older HUD Code manufactured homes in it, they may be planning to use it for a big box store, some other commercial, industrial, or even denser multifamily housing use. Again, while precise data is lacking, there are reasons to believe that some 5,000 to 10,000 fewer land-lease communities exist today than roughly twenty years ago.
From the vantage point of a community owner, who may be aging or passing the property on to children who might have little or no attachment to the community’s residents, selling the property for redevelopment or to a “consolidator” of manufactured home properties can be tempting. The ease of selling out vs maintaining the property and dealing with all of the day-to-day issues has obviously appealed to such owners thousands of times. The fact that the outcome for the residents of affordable housing is often poor may or may not enter into the calculations. Indeed, sometimes the buyer of a community may offer some verbal assurances to the seller in order to close a deal. However, those words of consolation from corporate buyers made to woo sellers may or may not come to pass.
The above are evidence-based facts placed side-by-side. It paints a quick picture of what is occurring in manufactured home living in numbers of land-lease communities.
- Some say that the solution is to turn land-lease communities into cooperative ownership. That has worked in several cases, but those who do such conversions admit that they can only handle so many per year. So, no matter how useful, there are currently limitations on that option.
- Some argue for rent control, but as numbers of residents have discovered, time and again, rent control often works out differently than they imagined. Paul Bradley, with ROC USA who seen as an advocate for manufactured home community residents because his firm helps arrange cooperative ownership, is on record saying that rent control is not a long-term solution. Here is how the award-winning Bradley framed it.
So, what must be grasped and not overlooked or forgotten is this. It should be marked with multiple asterisks for emphasis.
- *** At the end of the day, more new communities must be developed in order to bring the marketplace into balance. Sheahan’s opening statement to those feds who were listening or reading is a historic key to understanding that point. Bradley’s observations and the lessons of economics 101 are all factors. The troubling to tragic experience of residents from coast-to-coast who have personally experienced stiff hikes in rents paints that picture.
But regrettably, there are those inside the manufactured housing industry who are quietly or openly thwarting the interests of residents and industry independents alike. They do so in a variety of ways, including by allowing local zoning boards to ignore such history and facts. If – for example – the Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI) fails to intervene when such issues come up in local zoning debates, the outcome is almost a given. Because of years of misunderstanding about the issues, manufactured home professional turned academic Lisa Tyler, Ph.D. spells it out in this brief quote
That NIMBYite dynamic is purportedly used by consolidators such as Frank Rolfe, his partner Dave Reynolds, their investors and others. But Rolfe has boldly said what others have implied by their behavior. Paraphrasing Rolfe, do not build more communities. That notion is terrible for residents and it is arguably also bad for ethical ‘white hat’ manufactured home industry independents. But for some who don’t care about how things look or how it may harm others. See the report linked below for more details.
Not all manufactured home “portfolio operators” or “consolidators” are as apparently brazen as Frank Rolfe who openly advocates for no new manufactured home communities to be built. See that report above. Be it open or masked, the realities are what they are.
That corporate owners know how to navigate the rent-control landscape was made public by Equity LifeStyle Properties (NYSE:ELS) Marguerite Nader during an quarterly call with investors, when she said the following.
What does that type of Frank Rolfe thinking lead to? What does a failure to bring on more properties cause? They lead to the very circumstances that our nation’s land-lease communities and residents find themselves in.
This introductory outline is something that many, if not most, in mainstream media have never had fully laid out for them in such a fashion. Why? Because the corporate interests that apparently dominate MHI have not made these matters an issue.
For reporters and researchers pressed for time, but who still want to do accurate reporting, see the in-depth related report on understanding manufactured housing at the link above. That report and this one provides an evidence-based understanding based upon years of research, experience, and reporting.
For those residents of land-lease communities who have been impacted by these dynamics, sharing this report and the link above with legislators and regulators may prove useful.
Summing Up and Conclusions
The bottom line could be described like this.
- The free market must be restored. Anything else is a band-aid, a temporary fix, or partial solution at best.
- To restore the free market, understanding the issues is a must starting point.
As professionals long involved in numerous aspects of manufactured housing beyond but including publishing, this is the type of information and analysis necessary to begin the process of fixing what has gone wrong in the affordable housing market in general, and manufactured homes in particular.
Returning to the example above, imagine what would happen to the rental housing market if the construction of all apartments stopped, and thousands of apartment complexes were destroyed and redeveloped into something else every year. The law of supply and demand states that rents would steadily rise at an even more rapid pace than they currently do.
What makes manufactured housing different than those apartment dwellers is this. Those manufactured homeowners cannot readily move their home. It is better to sell their home in-place than to try to move it. However, predatory corporate owners, knowing that, may make it hard for people to sell. They also make it difficult for residents to protect their home investments through a variety of tactics, including, but not limited to, those outlined herein.
The reason for the status quo is clear.
Big corporate interests and their favored association(s) have operated in a fashion that has allowed for the current status quo to develop. Those corporations and their favored trade group have done so because it is profitable to them, especially in the short-to-medium-term.
But, ironically, the case can be made that it is more beneficial to fix these problems than to ignore them.
Mainstream media and research could play a part in these dynamics first by simply reporting on the broader issues summarized herein and linked in the in-depth report linked here. Ethical investors, once they understand the facts that those bipartisan Minnesota lawmakers made and grasp the related facts, such white-hat investors can then move to implement federal laws that already exist that could make developing with manufactured homes much easier.
Put differently, the process of solving the problem begins by properly understanding the issues and reporting on them as objectively as possible. That gets to the heart of what good journalism is supposed to be. Lay out the facts in a compelling way that allows readers and viewers to learn more and which may point to solutions to often thorny, but misunderstood, issues.
Dick Moore, the person interviewed in this video above, has
lived through the various eras of trailers, mobile homes, and
manufactured homes. He is a wealth of historic and factual insights.
The opposite of agenda-driven news or the “yellow journalism” of old is authentic reporting that highlights enough facts — perhaps linking to reports like this one — to make the solutions appealing to honest lawmakers, regulators, and investors. The truth well told has the power to set people free.
Check back or keep surfing to learn more, because there is always more to know. “We Provide, You Decide.” © (Affordable housing, manufactured homes, lifestyle news, reports, fact-checks, analysis, and commentary. Third-party images or content are provided under fair use guidelines for media.)
(See Related Reports, further below. Text/image boxes often are hot-linked to other reports that can be access by clicking on them.)
By L.A. “Tony” Kovach – for MHLivingNews.com.
Tony earned a journalism scholarship and earned numerous awards in history and in manufactured housing. For example, he earned the prestigious Lottinville Award in history from the University of Oklahoma, where he studied history and business management. He’s a managing member and co-founder of LifeStyle Factory Homes, LLC, the parent company to MHProNews, and MHLivingNews.com. This article reflects the LLC’s and/or the writer’s position, and may or may not reflect the views of sponsors or supporters.
Connect on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/latonykovach
The text/image boxes below are linked to other reports, which can be accessed by clicking on them.