Manufactured homes were the original affordable housing in suburban and rural Minnesota.
For Beth Longfield, the purchase of one in Hilltop two years ago was a triumph after a job loss, an apartment eviction and years of homelessness.
“No one can take it from me. I love it,” Longfield, 54, said of her one-bedroom home in the small Anoka County enclave. She’s taken pleasure in repainting kitchen cabinets and working in her new garden.
Despite the loyalty of many who say manufactured homes are exactly what they need, the once-booming industry has faltered in recent years.
Deliveries of new manufactured homes in Minnesota, which peaked in 1999 at 3,377 units, have plummeted, bottoming out at 286 in 2011 and climbing to just 407 last year. That echoes a national trend: New manufactured-home deliveries nationwide were 64,000 last year, compared to a peak of 363,000 in 1996, according to census data.
In the Twin Cities, the number of occupied manufactured homes has declined by 12 percent since 2001, to 13,660, according to Metropolitan Council data. Mobile-home communities in Spring Lake Park and Anoka have closed in recent years.
While demand for affordable housing remains high, the tightened credit market has devastated the industry, said Fridley Mayor Scott Lund, who sells manufactured homes and owns a manufactured-home community.
“I used to consider Highway 65 up through Fridley and Blaine the mobile-home capital of Minnesota,” Lund said. “But the tightening of the financial market has caused less people to get loans to purchase manufactured homes. Many banks look at these at depreciating assets.”
Thus, he said, “Many dealers simply closed their doors. There are a lot of manufactured-home communities in the metro, and they are not full anymore.”
Lund said the number of banks he’s worked with that offer loans for manufactured homes has dropped from 22 to around four. Interest rates are usually more than double those of conventional mortgages.
“If they are living in a mobile-home community, they don’t own the land, and that is where the value is in a stick-built conventional house,” Lund said.
All these factors crushed the market. And the Dodd-Frank financial reform measures signed into law by President Obama in 2010 created a “huge impediment” to recovery, said Mark Brunner, president of the Manufactured and Modular Home Association of Minnesota.
There’s a movement afoot in Congress to provide some relief. “The U.S. House did pass a piece of reform legislation last month,” Brunner said. “There is clearly demand for affordable housing and workforce housing.”
A notable exception to the downward slide is North Dakota, where manufactured-home quarters for oil workers are in high demand.
Pros and cons
Last year, an aging mobile home park with only five occupied older homes in Spring Lake Park closed, with the owners opting to sell the land for redevelopment. State funding helped residents relocate.
Closing a park requires public hearings and ample notice to residents. Landowners also pay into a state relocation fund to help residents.
Spring Lake Park City Administrator Dan Buchholtz said the city had no control over the decision to shutter the park. One other manufactured-home park remains in the city.
“I don’t think we have significantly more problems in manufactured-home parks,” he said. “If they are done right and the property maintenance is held to a high level, they are wonderful, affordable communities to live in.”
In 2009, Woodlyn Court in Anoka closed after its owners determined that repairing its aging septic system would be too expensive. Nearly all of its 14 families left manufactured-home living and moved to apartments or other accommodations, said Lori Manzoline, housing services coordinator with the nonprofit Anoka County Community Action Program, who helped them relocate.
“When you are first told a park is closing, understandably, there is fear of the unknown,” she said. “They don’t know what to do. They are upset, angry. Afterward, I have had many of them say they are so glad it happened and it was a blessing.”
Linda Johnson and her husband own one of four manufactured-home communities that make up Hilltop, and live in one of its double-wides. The small incorporated city of 744, which is surrounded by Columbia Heights, is made up almost exclusively of manufactured homes.
Johnson, whose husband’s family has owned the park since 1948, said production may be down, but demand has not faltered.
“We are always full,” she said. “We have people coming to the door almost daily asking about mobile homes for sale.”
The average sale price of a new manufactured home in Minnesota is $46,800 for a single-wide and $87,900 for a double-wide.
Given the increasing popularity of the tiny-house movement, Johnson and others in the industry predict that manufactured-home sales will rise again.
As a Hilltop City Council member, Johnson helped secure state funding that assisted residents in removing deteriorating rounded-roof manufactured homes and financing newer ones with siding, peaked roofs and shingles.
Johnson said any negative “trailer reputation” can be dispelled by a walk through her neighborhood of retirees and working-class families. “You get to drive up to your door,” she said. “You get a little grass. You can plant flowers.”
Shifting values can help the industry rebound, some say.
“I would say interest is pretty high,” said Dave Czech, owner of Brookside Community in Shoreview. “I think it’s in large part due to how people look at housing. [Say] you are 58 years old and have a huge mortgage and you don’t know how you will ever retire. It usually comes down to cost.”
A shot in the arm
In Anoka County, home to nearly one-quarter of the Twin Cities’ mobile homes, federal community block grant dollars are helping to keep this type of housing safe and habitable.
This year, Anoka County has funneled $220,000 of its $729,000 in federal project money to manufactured-home replacement, said Kate Thunstrom, the county’s community development manager. It made a similar allocation last year.
It helps residents remove older homes, which usually costs about $3,000, and provides down-payment assistance for newer ones.
“Some of the units being taken out are beyond distressed,” Thunstrom said. “They are not safe or habitable. It doesn’t take a lot of grant funds to make a big impact.”
Manzoline, who oversees the efforts, said many people opt for a used, but more modern, manufactured home.
In October, the Twin Cities will host a national conversation about the role of manufactured homes in the affordable-housing movement at the “I’m Home Conference.” It’s being put on by the Washington, D.C., nonprofit the Corporation for Enterprise Development.
“Mobile-home communities are here to stay,” Manzoline said. “They are an affordable way of living.”