Uncovering JAPA

Potential of Manufactured Housing and Resident-Owned Communities

How can planners protect and transform cities in the face of the climate crisis and worsening housing insecurity? In "Why Do Planners Overlook Manufactured Housing and Resident-Owned Communities as Sources of Affordable Housing and Climate Transformation?" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol.89, No.1), authors Zachary Lamb, Linda Shi, and Jason Spicer shed light on Manufactured Housing Communities (MHCs). They suggest MHCs can be sites of "both vulnerability and potential transformation concerning two of the greatest planning and housing challenges of this time: financialization-driven housing precarity and climate change."

Manufactured Housing Faces Affordability and Stability Challenges

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), manufactured housing means homes built in the controlled environment of a manufacturing plant that is transported in one or more sections on a permanent chassis. They are a significant source of affordable housing.

According to the 2019 American Housing Survey data, some 6,750,000 households live in manufactured housing, compared with roughly 4,500,000 households in public housing or receiving federal rental vouchers. For a long time, manufactured housing has provided affordable options for residents who are more likely to have low incomes, have disabilities, be 65 years and older, and have lower educational attainment.

However, MHCs' affordability and residence stability are increasingly threatened as they are sold or redeveloped, and new communities are banned in many jurisdictions. They are also more physically vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, such as extreme heat, droughts, floods, and high winds. Part of the reason is due to the poor quality of older homes and their siting in hazard-exposed areas like floodplains and fire-prone wildland-urban interface zones. Moreover, often self-operated infrastructural systems, especially in older communities, were not built to high standards and have been increasingly stressed by deferred maintenance and extreme events.

Table 1. Comparing social vulnerability characteristics between residents of manufactured housing and all other housing types

Table 1. Comparing social vulnerability characteristics between residents of manufactured housing and all other housing types

Neglected MHCs Merit Academic Planning Attention

Although MHCs greatly suffer from housing insecurity and climate vulnerability, they have been neglected in academic planning research. The authors introduce the five most common criticisms of MHCs among planning researchers, housing practitioners, and planners that contribute to their scholarly neglect. Those criticisms include:

  • Manufactured housing communities being substandard
  • Exploitative tenure arrangements
  • Located in non-urban areas
  • Low-density
  • Disconnected from their surroundings

Some of these criticisms are simply outdated. Others reflect very real challenges facing many MHC residents. The authors make the case that addressing these common challenges through research and policy action is essential, given the prevalence of MHCs and their promise of delivering affordable housing that is appealing to many people.

Actions to protect MHCs can present innovative potentials in climate adaptation. One promising model adopted in some regions to protect MHCs is Resident Owned Communities (ROCs), where residents collectively buy the mobile home park's land and infrastructure.

ROC USA, the leading network supporting resident ownership, shows that the model of cooperative ownership and self-governance can counter displacement, reduce climate vulnerability, and facilitate decarbonization. For example, ROC USA co-ops operating in various regions are investing in collective infrastructure like storm shelters, renewable energy, and improved drainage to reduce climate vulnerability.

The article provided ample reasons why planning researchers and practitioners need to pay more attention to MHCs, not only to protect them but to learn from their leadership in safeguarding affordable housing and enabling transformative adaptation. Planners can help municipalities, nonprofit organizations, and community organizations cultivate ROCs as a way to preserve MHCs, empower residents, and enable collection action for vulnerability reduction and decarbonization.

Top Image: iStock/Getty Images Plus — eyecrave productions

About the Author
Jiwon Park is a master of urban planning candidate at Harvard University.

January 19, 2023

By Jiwon Park, AICP