Boon or bane: Buncombe residents speak out against manufactured housing

COUNTY LANDS: Following the March 17 Buncombe County Board of Commissioners retreat, word spread that the county may consider lifting restrictions on mobile homes in R-1 and R-2 districts. Graphic by Anna Whitley & Kyle Kirkpatrick

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.”

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About Hayley Benton
Current freelance journalist and artist. Former culture/entertainment reporter at the Asheville Citizen-Times and former news reporter at Mountain Xpress. Also a coffee drinker, bad photographer, teller of stupid jokes and maker-upper of words. I can be reached at hayleyebenton [at] gmail.com. Follow me @HayleyTweeet

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17 thoughts on “Boon or bane: Buncombe residents speak out against manufactured housing

  1. James

    Asheville, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t whine about the lack of affordable housing then turn your nose up at mobile/modular homes. First of all, you have to face the fact that not everyone wants to be a college grad with a high-paying job. The poor will always be with us as Jesus told us. No amount of job training, government funding or social justice community organizers are going to change that. For those people content with jobs at or below the poverty level, mobile/modular housing (often renting) is a solution to their situation. No, these type of housing units are going to depreciate rather than rise in value but that’s what makes them affordable to the poor and the working poor. Furthermore, when you build all these weird looking “green” houses all over town that are designed to appreciate, that’s hardly creating affordable housing for the low income people you design them for or for their neighbors who watch their taxes rise and rise, year after year.

    • AVL LVR

      “The poor will always be with us as Jesus told us” did not mean not helping the poor. No one helped the poor more than Jesus. The context was giving to Jesus because he was going to die for them soon. The audience was the people he was speaking to (of that day). Of course, there will always be poor people because some people choose poverty (i.e. for religious reasons like monks etc.) or suffer from illnesses which prevent them from working. Also, rich and poor are comparison terms (many poor people in America are richer than many of the rich people in Jesus’ day) . Even from a selfish perspective, I’d rather support quality affordable housing than have run-down trailer parks destroying our lovely city. It’s better for everyone.

  2. AVL LVR

    -Trailers depreciate value. I have rarely seen one more than 50 years old (that isn’t rusting into the forest), whereas homes can last hundreds of years. In the long run, it saves money from removing and replacing and a real home which can even appreciate (look at all the historic homes in Montford). What kind of future would we have if Montford were all trailer parks instead–I feel dirty and dumb just imagining it. A home built well can inspire a community for whole generations, whereas trailers parkers often breed generations into ignorance, poverty and violence.
    -Smaller green homes can be built affordably. How about we get together as a community like the Amish do and build it for those in need. Teach the unemployed life skills to build small environmentally-friendly affordable homes. Of course, cheap can be expensive. Asheville hurts every time you buy a mobile home from Clayton Homes/Warren Buffet (who doesn’t need the money) instead of local homebuilders who have families to support (Asheville Buy Local).
    -The mobile home industry is predatory and impoverishes the most vulnerable. Research the ‘mobile home trap’ from The Center for Public Integrity
    -JAG Construction has green homes which do not look weird. Mobile homes are revolting eyesores in Asheville both for tourists and locals alike.

    • john lomax

      Your a dyed in the wool class snob. Admit it. re”….I feel dirty and dumb just imagining it.” comments like that show ones true colours. why don’t you move to Miami and give real families who need affordable housing in Asheville a fighting chance. I imagine that you don’t care about such things. Let them eat cake. Right. I get it.

    • N

      ” Mobile homes are revolting eyesores in Asheville both for tourists and locals alike.”

      And until Asheville and Buncombe County start doing something, other than whine, about the lack of affordable housing, mobile homes will have to be a part of the discussion on what to do.

      • Real World

        I had to jump in and concur with James and N about the whining. I’ve lived in Asheville for 2 years and am really pretty surprised about the constant whining. “somebody needs to create high-paying jobs”, “why isn’t somebody doing something to create affordable housing?”….and on and on.

        From my newcomers perspective, what strikes me about much of it is the expectation of others being responsible for creating YOUR life. Good grief, grow up! Here’s how the real world has always worked, folks: You MOVE to where the jobs are. They don’t arrive on your doorstep. And, guess what? You get to live in housing that is commensurate to your income/ability to pay. Period. When you earn more in the future, you get to upgrade your housing, if you want.

        There are lots of citizens here creating clever products and businesses and working very hard at it every day to make them a success. So….get a clue, pay attention, take notes, learn and go make it happen for yourself.

        • Austin

          Real World — If everyone who lives in Asheville and can’t afford it MOVED to where the jobs are, the city would implode and everything that makes Asheville what it is would fall apart. You’d have no restaurants to go to, no shops to visit, no cops, no teachers, no firefighters, no social workers, and precious few nurses. Why, I doubt you’d even be able to find servants anymore.

          From my native perspective, we’ve lost thousands of industrial jobs — Enka, Gerber, Beacon, Ball, furniture, textiles, etc, etc, etc — and have gotten shopping centers and apartment complexes on the sites where they stood. Enka once employed thousands by itself, but that site will never again host that many jobs, or jobs that paid that well because industry might offend the snobs in Biltmore Lake. Meanwhile, while our jobs went to Mexico and China, we had tens of thousands of rich twits from Florida, Atlanta, Charlotte, and points farther afield stampeding in here waving their money in the air. We have watched our rents double, triple, quadruple. We have watched our land values, and thus our taxes, skyrocket. We have been dismissed and sneered at by newcomers like yourself and AVL LVR.

          So don’t you dare give me some smug lecture on “working very hard.” It was hard work to build this damn city, I assure you. It’s harder to give it up, and it’s really damned hard to send our kids away because they can’t afford to make it here — or did you not know that Asheville’s greatest export, year after year after year, is its young people? Atlanta, Charlotte, Greensboro, and Raleigh all benefit every year when a new crop of young Ashevillians is pushed out by more vapid, moneyed morons. So again, don’t you dare lecture me. We built this place, and our work is the reason you’re here. Show some respect.

          • Real World

            Austin – A few things worth mentioning. Your first paragraph makes no sense. And because of that, what is described wouldn’t happen.

            In reading the second paragraph my first thought was, ‘and the beat goes on’. Meaning the changes described can be applied to locales all over the world. And it’s always been that way! Change is the one thing you can count on. Being wistful for eras past doesn’t result in anything much except resentment which isn’t constructive.

            I understand the shocking aspect of all of this transformation. What has occurred in AVL the last decade has been astonishing. Plenty of it has been good. The moneyed morons have invested a lot in this town and neighborhoods have never looked better. So many of them were terribly run down when I visited here several times in the late 90’s/early 00’s. Boy, was that sad to see. This area has always been beautiful but it was truly dilapidated and it appears that it took the outsiders to see the potential and be willing to invest in it. I definitely don’t defend the vapid nature of some of these people and get what you mean by that.

            A worthwhile suggestion is to not take personally that which wasn’t spoken personally to you. My information was delivered generally and, as such, you should have given it consideration rather than just feel picked upon. I stand by what I said. And will continue to contend that we all have these two choices to make in our lives: 1) we can look for opportunity (and in a developing area there is lots of it!) and seek to find a worthy niche. There are resources all over this town for getting information, education and assistance for whatever avenue a person chooses. Or , 2) we can whine and complain about whatever (complainers always have a long list) while completely missing all of the opportunity in front of us. It’s a choice, pure and simple. Fortunately, a lot of people are well aware of the opportunity and are seeking it.

            Lastly, it definitely is concerning that so many new hotels are being built downtown ALL AT ONCE as well as a huge brewery just outside downtown. I can see that Asheville is about to get totally over run and that is not a happy thing. Too much, too fast, not good.

        • Jim

          Problem with all the job creation happening, it’s all the same. Low wage service jobs for the most part. On top of having to be subsidized. And while you make call it whining because your bank account can afford it, even YOU TOO one day will see it dwindle to the point of strain because whatever money is being made is not being put back in to RELIEVE THOSE THAT INITIALLY FINANCED IT. And instead is being sent back to corporate in Colorado and the like. Problem with Asheville especially is that it relies on the residents to finance the job creation but it never ends. It’s one thing to help get things rolling, but it’s totally different to continue to pay increasing taxes while the RAD and downtown rake in tens of millions. My renter neighbor asked me one day what am I getting for all the money I’m shelling out to the city/county in property taxes because even they see the outright thievery happening. You can’t because like I said, you can afford it and that of course makes you better than those “whining” until the day comes, and it will, that you fall under that label as well.

          • Real World

            Jim – your comment fell under Austin’s but it’s not clear who you were addressing with yours. If it was me, let me clear up your ASSUMPTION: I am not wealthy and can do whatever I like. I am a working person and am in solid shape financially for my age because I’ve lived within my means and because my expectation is that I am supposed to be self-reliant. So, I am.

            Seriously, what a waste of time typing your comment based on an utterly incorrect assumption. If you had posed it as a question there would be a worthy conversation.

        • Austin

          Real World — Actually, my first paragraph is a reminder that the people who do the real work in this city are the ones who increasingly cannot afford to live here. However, the fact that they remain is what allows self-righteous newcomers to keep up that sneer with which we locals are so very well-acquainted. You act as though its so easy to pack up and move to Charlotte, disregarding the fact that for one, it isn’t, and for another, nobody from a special place like Asheville lives in a mundane hole like Charlotte willingly. However, were it so easy, and if everyone wanted to go, the rich transplants would suddenly find their reason for transplanting themselves here gone because, again — the people who do the real work here would no longer be here, you’d all be fending for yourselves, and you’d find that while its easy to sneer at the locals, you’d miss us and our contributions if we all took your sage advice. That is all.

          Do you understand me now?

          • Real World

            Austin – Seriously, that’s it? What you come back with is a reiteration of an irrational point but you’ve added another 30 words, as if that makes it sensible? It’s not relevant to local commerce if they leave, Austin. Many others will gladly arrive to take their place!

            This will fall on deaf ears but, at least I tried…..you have not realized yet that you are your own worst enemy not all of the ‘horrible’ newcomers. This would still be a run-down town with ‘such possibility’ ……if only people would believe and invest in it. Well, some people did, the moneyed morons as you refer to them. Apparently, the locals couldn’t see it. They’re too busy being stuck in a mindset of 30 – 40 years ago.

            You have a victim mentality. That too, is a choice.

          • Austin

            Okay, Real World, since you appear to have trouble with abstract thought and understanding a literary style, let me dry it out and tone it down for you:

            The idle rich may run this town, but they do not make it run. That task falls to the people you are denigrating as “whiners” and “victims.” Those “whiners” and “victims” did the hard work that brought this city back to life after its industrial exodus, and the work of those “whiners” and “victims” is the reason you and others like you are here. The fact that those “whiners” and “victims”‘ hard work drew you here is the reason those “whiners” and “victims” have been priced out of owning a home in or, in many cases, anywhere near this city you now enjoy and call home. Yes, those “whiners” and “victims” may indeed move elsewhere, and yes, if they do, they will likely be replaced by others who will depart in due season. However, your view of locals and natives as disposable says quite a bit about you, and none of it is good. That does not change the fact, however, that while the idle rich may run this town, they do not make it run.

            Does that clear it up, or do I need to use smaller words?

  3. Jim

    LOL. Aww come on now. You can’t be surprised that the rich New Yorkers coming here don’t want to live with low wage dregs do you? Don’t blame them so much as the ignorant masses that live in this town and don’t keep up with THE THINGS THAT REALLY IMPACT THEM. Got a neighbor that complains about not being able to afford his mortgage and asks if they raised taxes yet is oblivious to the recent articles point to the fact that over 6 billion in tax value is going untaxed. Even though those that own that property are putting the biggest stress on the infrastructure and the system in general.

  4. Jobs

    Oh, there are jobs here. It depends on if you want to pick up a shovel and haul dirt in the summer or not. Apparently Jose’ wants to do it, but you don’t.

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