Saturday, May 3, 2014

Mobile Home Impediments and Opportunities

A few days after the recent post on American and Mexican housing, the New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy article, which I was alerted to thanks to Brandon Donnelly's blog, profiling America's mobile home industry. Brandon considers the ethical issues raised by the apparently considerable profits to be made in this area of real estate, such that there are now entire courses offered by successful investors in making one's fortune, or at least living, owning and operating mobile home communities.

The article serves as a nice jumping off point from the earlier post, as it deals with what is, in much of the United States, nearly the only type of single-family detached housing that is allowed to be both very small and built on very small lots. Much of the affordability of this housing type, it seems, is attributable not only to the efficiencies of mass production or the frequent separation of the cost of land from the cost of ownership, but the common exemption of areas zoned for mobile homes (setting aside for now the curiosity of why there should even be such zones) from the standard restrictions of single family zoning, including minimum lot sizes, front and side setbacks, parking requirements and even minimum street widths.

Consider, for instance, the zoning code of Bradenton, Florida, which like many Florida cities has a large number of so-called mobile home communities (though in the majority of cases, these homes are never moved after being sited):

City of Bradenton.
In the above chart, admirably simple for an American zoning code, R-1 is single-family, R-2 is two-family, R-3 multifamily, and R-4 "Mobile Home" (UV is a special "urban village" district that covers very little of the city). Note that in the mobile home district, minimum lot sizes are less than half that required in the single-family district, even though both only permit single-family homes! The comparative minimum dwelling sizes are a strikingly divergent 1,500 sq. ft. and 400 sq. ft. The mobile home zone is allowed to be built so densely, in fact, that its maximum permitted units/acre is equivalent to the multifamily zone. Not shown here are the parking tables, which require only one space for mobile homes, yet two for single-family homes, regardless of square footage.

The resulting streetscapes in the mobile home zones are completely different from almost anything else in American suburbia, featuring extremely narrow streets without on-street parking, very modest setbacks and tiny lots either with pocket backyards or none at all (from Bradenton):

Some are so tightly packed that streets can barely accommodate a single car (again from Bradenton):

The separate standards for site-built and mobile homes probably arise from the fact that the latter homes were initially presumed to be transient, and that the sites designated to host them were therefore viewed more as parking lots than as a formal arrangement of streets and building lots. As one study puts it, many of the complex issues surrounding mobile homes "arise, in part, from the mobile home's historical classification as a travel trailer, the vestiges of which persist even though mobile homes have become a more permanent housing solution." Although city planners, such as those in Bradenton, appear to be gradually imposing more conventional siting requirements on mobile homes, this statutory inertia continues to manifest itself in more permissive square footage and lot sizing requirements as well as the separate zoning designation itself.

The existence of dueling single family zones with such disparate requirements produces some striking visual contrasts, as below, where R-4 adjoins R-1:

The relaxed requirements for mobile home zones may help explain their proliferation in Florida, particularly in permissively-zoned unincorporated areas of surrounding counties such as Manatee. The looser regulations serve as a major subsidy on top of manufactured homes' significantly cheaper construction costs. A resultant surge in construction of such neighborhoods in Florida, where trailers have probably always been subject to less zoning ostracism due to the need to accommodate RV-driving and trailer-bearing seasonal visitors, appears to have normalized the type.

It may seem strange to discuss how mobile homes occupy a privileged position in many zoning codes, given that literature on mobile home areas tends to focus on the regulatory impediments to their construction. However, these impediments tend to take the form of limited areas actually zoned for mobile homes, rather than the restrictions within these zones. The money to be made in operating mobile home communities appears to be a form of regulatory arbitrage that takes advantage of the much smaller lots, home sizes and generally cheaper infrastructure permitted within mobile homes zones as compared to those for single-family zones. This permissiveness has not escaped notice of the tiny house proponents, who have sought to use existing RV park designations to accommodate tiny house communities.

Although Bradenton actually bans site-built homes within its mobile home district, a few cities are gradually coming around toward embracing by-right smaller lots for site-built homes in existing suburban neighborhoods. Portland's (Oregon) infill regulations permit lots as little as 2500 square feet in some instances, though not without predictable hysterical reactions. Had such small lots been permitted as of right in a city like Bradenton for site-built homes, it seems plausible that trailer homes would be less common. When small lots are combined with attractive homes on narrow streets, the result doesn't have to be so terrifying after all.

Key West, Florida.