A steady stream of Buncombe County residents queued up April 7 to voice opposition to loosening restrictions on mobile homes. During a public comment period lasting more than an hour, more than a dozen people rose to speak out against this type of housing, which wasn’t even on the agenda for the Board of Commissioners meeting.
The concern stemmed from local media reports that the county may consider allowing manufactured housing in all residential districts. Currently they’re allowed in R-3, low-density residential, employment and open-use districts, which together account for more than 80 percent of land in the county, though much of the open-use land doesn’t readily lend itself to siting mobile homes. R-1 and R-2 districts allow only site-built or modular homes.
Sarah Faulkner pointed out that although modulars are also considered manufactured homes, they’re expressly allowed in all residential districts. “The important difference between the two,” she continued, “is that mobile homes are considered personal property, like a car; modular homes are considered real property. This is significant when it comes to loan financing.”
The topic made national headlines when, earlier this month, The Seattle Times published “The mobile-home trap,” an in-depth investigation of Clayton Homes. The nation’s largest manufactured home builder, the article charged, “relies on predatory sales practices, exorbitant fees and interest rates that can exceed 15 percent, trapping many buyers in loans they can’t afford and in homes that are almost impossible to sell or refinance.” The April 2 story is the first in a series of investigative pieces planned by the paper in cooperation with The Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. Speakers at the April 7 meeting repeatedly referenced the article.
In a subsequent interview, Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Joe Belcher, who worked for Clayton Homes of Candler for 28 years, took issue with those criticisms, however.
“I think everybody’s entitled to their own opinions,” Belcher told Xpress. “But if people will take a look at the facts — and not look at [mobile homes from] 20 years ago, to come into the present time and research new construction and what’s available — I think they would be pretty amazed” at the progress that’s been made.
“Affordable housing has been a big topic in Buncombe County for a long time,” he continued. “To leave out a housing option … that is a quality-built, energy-efficient, factory-built home — well, it’s an option that we should not leave out.”
How affordable are they?
During public comment, one of the residents’ main points was that mobile homes don’t increase in value the way stick-built homes often do. “Our goal, as a community, should be to provide smart, affordable solutions,” said Faulkner, “not open the door to potentially harmful options for families in need.”
Weaverville resident Fred Flaxman sounded a similar note, saying, “They depreciate in value, just like cars and trucks, as soon as they leave the lot. And the life span of a manufactured home is far shorter than that of a stick-built or modular home. That acts against the long-term interest of low-income people.”
And Linda Cook, also of Weaverville, noted, “Affordable housing is a complex issue: It is not only an issue of high home cost, but an issue of low-paying jobs [that] do not allow our citizens to find adequate housing.”
Because the item wasn’t on the agenda, the commissioners made no comments during the meeting. But contacted later, Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt said, “I think, at the heart of the issue, you have the question of whether it’s really affordable housing or not. If you have a home that decreases in value [over time] or cannot be fixed, that’s a huge issue.”
Belcher, on the other hand, said that lifting the restrictions on mobile homes is not about forcing them on all Buncombe County residents but about giving them another option. “What I’m advocating for is new construction — to have new [manufactured] homes available,” he explained. Residents, said Belcher, should have “the choice and the ability to build that on their own property. We should explore all the options for affordable housing and allow the people in Buncombe County to make that choice.”
Gantt, however, stressed that manufactured homes are “permitted in 80 percent — or more — of the county. It’s not like we’re an anti-mobile home county. We’re probably one of the more open counties, as far as the placement of mobile homes.
“My concern,” he continued, “has always been: Is it a good thing for the people that [purchase these homes] if they can’t sell it and get their money back? The affordability question comes into place. We don’t want anybody to get into a situation where they’re worse off than they were before. The way I would look at it is: Is it truly affordable, and is it something the public wants? From what we’ve heard so far, [people] like things the way they are.”
Belcher, however, said, “I know for sure” that if a mobile home is “placed on a person’s own property, and part of the loan requires a deed to that property, then they tie the two together. Therefore, that loan is comparable to a stick-built home.” Residents speaking at the meeting, he continued, had also voiced concern about the loans’ shorter terms. “But I think mostly what they were talking about was homes sited on rental or leased property. I think a lot of times people think of [mobile home] parks — and this is not about that. What I’m speaking about is [manufactured homes] sited on real, owned property. This is about new construction for individuals” who already own land.
But according to the Seattle Times article, “two-thirds of mobile-home buyers who own their land end up in personal-property loans, according to a federal study. These loans may close more quickly and have fewer upfront costs, but their rates are generally much higher. And if borrowers fall behind on payments, their homes can be seized with little or no warning.”
Belcher also said he’d recently heard from a man in his district who owns a sizable piece of property and wants to place a mobile home on it for his children. But because of the zoning, he’s not allowed to do so.
Meanwhile, Belcher also made a case for mobile homes being greener than stick-built housing. An 1,100-square-foot, factory-built home, he said, produces “almost zero [construction] waste. You can … put it in two 30-gallon garbage cans.” A comparable-size conventional home, he speculated, might fill “multiple dumpsters.” Thus, Belcher maintained, “It makes no sense to not allow an energy-efficient, quality home that also does not make a dramatic impact because of waste. It’s just a very efficient type of construction; It’s solid.”
Gantt, on the other hand, said: “The neighbors have the right to say what they would like to see, and if the neighborhood doesn’t care, that’s great. If they do, well, they have the right to decide how their neighborhood should look.”
“Taking a bath”
Weaverville resident Gary Kallback referenced his personal history, telling the commissioners, “I lived in a mobile home when I was young. I bought it, it decreased in value very quickly, and I wound up taking a bath on it. I would’ve been better off in an apartment.”
Brandishing the Seattle Times article, Kallback declared, “People don’t need a handout; they need a hand up.” Low-income people, he continued, “need to have ownership so they can eventually participate with everyone else, but a mobile home is not an answer. I can tell you that from experience.”
But Belcher defended mobile homes’ affordability, saying, “Affordable housing is a challenge — and this is affordable homeownership, too.” And despite the overwhelmingly negative public comment, he said there was enough interest from both the public and among the commissioners to “move the discussion forward, and that’s what we’re doing. It’s just part of the ongoing questions [surrounding] affordable housing in all forms, and I think we need to explore them all. And I’m excited about that — that we’re willing to look at affordable options of homeownership.”