Housing USA: Affordable Housing for Appalachia

6 min read

Mobile homes have long been stigmatized in America. During my recent drive along U.S. route 460, it was easy to see why. Stretching through the heart of Appalachia—eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia—I saw along the mountain hollow highway the poorest version of this housing type. Tucked into small camps, the homes were small and run-down, often not even squarely positioned on the land. But they serve an important function, as do other mobile home styles, be they dubbed modular, prefab, manufactured or trailers. For officials interested in affordable housing, these homes should be considered useful for rural and urban areas.

Mobile homes sprang up in the 1920s as car attachments that people hauled around on vacation. They spiked in usage due to the post-World War II housing shortage, and again in the 1980s following cuts to federal housing funding. Today, they are America’s largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing, accounting for 6.7 million units, or six percent of U.S. housing stock. Average sales prices are $71,900 excluding land costs, compared to $184,647 for existing site-built homes and $293,727 for newly-constructed single-family homes.

The lower costs have caused mobile homes to proliferate in poor, rural areas, namely Appalachia, the South and the Southwest. Below are some additional facts about them, and how they might apply in America’s current affordable housing landscape.

Different Styles
While Appalachia shows how bleak mobile homes can be, there’s a variety of styles and qualities even there. During my drive, I saw many homes that seemed little different from a normal site-built home. They had elaborate finishes, built-in foundations, and infrastructure improvements added across the lot (a common example is the small car bridges that hollow dwellers build over the creeks, which separate their trailers from the main road). Modular housing has become sturdier and more energy efficient as the materials and technology developed off-site have improved. Clayton Homes is an example of ones that are basic yet reliable. In the Charleston, WV area, they sell 500 to 1,000 sq. ft. units starting in the $40,000 to $50,000 range.

In more gentrified rural areas—such as my native Central Virginia—modular housing often takes a more niche, upscale dimension. Companies, like Bluhomes and Livinghomes, sell models that look and feel like normal luxury homes, but have a more minimalist aesthetic, and are priced in the low six-figures. This shows the fundamental affordability of mobile homes, whether built for the high- or low-end of the market. They manage to be affordable because of labor efficiencies that have been instilled in the off-site manufacturing process.

A Place In Cities?
The common wisdom is that mobile homes exist in rural areas, not cities, because urban land is more expensive. That’s true – although certain urban mobile home communities can work. One style would be dense Homeowners Association settlements on the outskirts of town. These already exist in southwestern cities, like Mesa and Tucson, which have the highest share of mobile homes among the 50 largest U.S. cities.

Another urban context would be to house the homeless. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle are all cities where the homeless problem has gotten so bad, informal encampments are popping up beneath underpasses or in skid rows. Putting small trailer parks nearby would be a way to cheaply provide the homeless some basic level of security and shelter. An early example of this has broken ground in Philadelphia, where nonprofit developer Stephanie Sena is using lots from the city’s land bank to build 900 square foot prefabricated dwellings for the homeless. But generally, makeshift projects like this are hard to get approved in cities.

The Regulations
Which speaks to a larger barrier for mobile homes: zoning.

“Nearly every major American city has segregated or outright banned manufactured housing,” writes urban planner Nolan Gray in Citylab. “In most single-family zones…manufactured housing is prohibited, despite the fact that it looks and acts like single-family housing…Even in suburbs and rural areas, manufactured homes are often banned, with counties and municipalities occasionally changing the rules to kick out existing communities.”

This reflects America’s land-use paradigm at large, where zoning laws make certain areas exclusive by establishing a minimum standard of what a house must be. These include lot size minimums, unit size minimums and laws limiting the number of homes that can go on given land. Mobile home bans are of the same DNA – seemingly an effort to keep out a certain class of people.

Government Subsidies
Another implicit bias against mobile homes is that they’re not frequently considered when crafting affordable housing policy. Whether it’s Low Income Housing Tax Credit, Section 8, local trust funds or inclusionary zoning policies, affordable housing money almost always goes for site-built homes. Because these are more expensive to rent or own than mobile homes, it means affordable housing funds don’t stretch as far as they could, and fewer people are housed. This summer, U.S. Senator Todd Young (R-IN) introduced a bipartisan bill to make mobile homes eligible for federal funding. His idea, as written in the text, is to open “the door to homeownership for families who, in many housing markets, cannot afford to buy a site-built home.”

For this to become common affordable housing policy, though, America needs to overcome its stigma against mobile homes. This includes from people within state or local housing agencies who are the ones responsible for allocating funds.

Mobile homes provide a unit style that is cheaper, without necessarily having the drawbacks they once did for security and stability. But there’s one final benefit that deserves mention: they are mobile. While some owners choose to install them into permanent foundations, others don’t – and the units are easier to move in either case.

This matters, given that American life is as unpredictable as ever. People across the nation relocate due to everything from job changes, to weather catastrophes, to the tax and regulatory climates within their state. It’s good that there is a cheap format of housing that can move along with them; one that has gradually improved in quality and variety.