Monday, August 15, 2011

AFFORDABLE HOUSING: The Invisible Answer, Part Three

Believe it or not, prior to the late 1930s, people who lived in travel trailers full-time were hailed as adventurous, modern-day nomads, and were widely admired by the public. By the tail end of the Depression, however, vast numbers of impoverished families had resorted to living in broken-down homemade trailers, and the public perception of trailer dwellers completely reversed. Cities and towns passed laws barring them from entering city limits, or else imposed heavy fees to discourage them from staying overnight.  

Today, this sad legacy persists in the unkind treatment of mobile home dwellers as second-class citizens--people whom zoning laws still relegate to living beside tank farms or beneath runway approaches. Little wonder that even the most mortgage-enslaved Americans still recoil at the thought of dwelling in such places. 

Yet if and when America ever develops a true mass-produced form of housing--one that does for the cost of homes what the Model T did for the cost of cars--it will most likely be an outgrowth of the mobile home. For decades, and without the fanfare accompanying the many “affordable” housing solutions proposed by architects and visionaries, mobile homes (or, as the industry prefers to call them, “manufactured homes”) have been providing decent, mass-produced lodging for a fraction of the cost of site-built houses.  

The main reason for this difference is simple. While conventional homes use a few factory-built components such as roof trusses, doors, windows, and cabinets, the lion’s share of the structure remains entirely hand-built. By contrast, the manufactured home industry literally grew up with mass production, thanks to its prewar origins in building travel trailers.  From a modest start--few early trailers exceeded 160 square feet or so--the industry inexorably progressed to larger and more sophisticated units. By the late Sixties, huge, factory-built “doublewides” routinely enclosed areas of around a thousand square feet, which is about the size of an average bungalow home of the 1920s. Along the way, manufactured home builders quietly acquired the sort of mass production techniques that the site-built housing industry still considers revolutionary.

Why all  the fuss about mass production? What’s wrong with the way we build traditional houses? The answer is that, of America’s innumerable consumer products, homes are among the last that are predominantly handmade. This implies the same thing for houses that it does for any other handmade product: High cost. It’s one of several admittedly complex reasons that fewer and fewer middle-class Americans--let alone the poor--can achieve the dream of home ownership these days.  

Still, despite the thrashing we’ve gotten from five years of the Great Recession, many Americans still believe that a “real” house, whether affordable or otherwise, should be built onsite and not in a factory--a perception heartily supported by the building industry, whose livelihood depends upon it. Hence, it’s doubtful that manufactured homes will be accepted by mainstream home buyers until they can unflinchingly compete with site-built homes in appearance, construction quality, amenities, and safety.  

Up to now, the manufactured home industry hasn’t been up to this challenge. For the most part, it remains satisfied with often-haphazard planning and a dubious, two-dimensional aesthetic. Yet an industry that’s ridden out wildly changing fortunes, regulatory discrimination, and decades of public ridicule might still be counted on to provide a few surprises.

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