Future Tense

Mobile Homes Have a Major Climate Change Problem

A man leans on a wooden platform by the door of a mobile home.
Theodore Bryan, a member of the Navajo Nation, watches as workers prepare to install a water tank in his yard in Thoreau, New Mexico. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This article is part of a series from Future Tense and New America’s Future of Land and Housing Program on reimagining how America will adapt to climate change and sea level rise.

Recently, Hurricane Ida devastated Fort Myers and wiped out entire mobile home communities. But it’s not the only recent example of climate change–exacerbated weather causing deaths among mobile home residents. In Maricopa County, Arizona, colloquially known as the “Valley of the Sun,” heat kills. But it doesn’t kill indiscriminately: Residents of mobile homes are 6 to 8 times more likely to perish from indoor heat exposure compared with residents of other types of housing. Just 5 percent of Maricopa County residents live in mobile homes, while 31 percent of indoor heat-associated deaths annually occur in mobile homes in the county. Meanwhile, policymakers are pointing to mobile homes as a potential solution to the nationwide housing shortage.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Comprising a sizable 6.3 percent of the housing stock nationwide, mobile homes house 22 million Americans and account for 10 percent of new single-family home starts. Mobile homes are especially prevalent in the South and Southwest; in a majority of those states, mobile homes make up more than 10 percent of the housing stock. In South Carolina, it’s nearly 16 percent; in Arizona, it’s 16.7 percent. Of course, these regions are also among the historically warmest and fastest-warming in the United States, and as evidenced by Maricopa County, they are harbingers of what the rest of the country can expect as the frequency, duration, and intensity of heat waves increase. Indeed, the frequency of heat waves nationwide has tripled since the 1960s, and the duration of the heat wave season has increased by more than a month. Climate experts predict that these trends will continue to worsen, threatening human health, particularly for those living in mobile homes.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Yet presidential administrations from Nixon through today’s Biden administration have touted mobile homes as an ideal solution to the nation’s affordable housing crisis. As Nixon stated in 1970, “Nearly half of American families probably cannot afford any more than $15,000 [$115,000 in 2022] for a home, yet today, the only significant number of homes available in that price range are mobile homes. Mobile homes at present constitute a majority if not the largest single source of acceptable new housing available at prices which moderate income families can afford.”

Advertisement

Even today, the average mobile home costs $55 per square foot, compared with $114 per square foot for a traditional site-built home. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the Biden administration’s Housing Supply Action Plan, announced in May, proposes that increasing manufactured housing is one way to address the nation’s ongoing affordable housing crisis. Biden hopes to achieve this aim, in part, by creating new financing mechanisms for buyers and reducing regulatory barriers to construction.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

But these policies don’t address the fact that mobile home residents are more vulnerable to all types of natural hazards than those in other housing types. This heightened vulnerability is so well documented that mobile homes are included in numerous natural hazard vulnerability indices. Mobile homes offer comparatively poor structural integrity and residents are often socially vulnerable. Mobile home parks are often located on climatically hazardous sites, and the park owners are able to determine what climate mitigation solutions are and are not permitted; for instance, park owners have the authority to prohibit residents from using shade sails, reflective window coverings, or even window air-conditioning units. For these reasons, among other factors, residents of mobile homes are more likely to be injured or perish in disasters like floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. And even if they survive, mobile home residents risk losing their homes due to disaster-related damages, thereby also losing their primary asset. With climate change increasing the frequency, severity, and geographic scope of such hazards, mobile home residents will be on the front lines everywhere. A growing supply of mobile homes may, therefore, have the unintended consequence of increasing risks to health and well-being for some of the nation’s most economically precarious.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Even if mobile homes themselves are made more climate-resilient, mobile home residence is highly insecure. The vast majority of mobile home residents own their home but rent the land that it sits on. While this unique arrangement helps to make mobile homes so affordable, it places mobile home residents in a risky position: They can be individually evicted or involuntary displaced en masse if a park owner chooses to redevelop the mobile home park. Many displaced mobile home residents ultimately find it impossible to obtain equally affordable rental housing, since the average mobile home lot rent is only $593 per month, leaving some proportion of them unsheltered. And being unsheltered only increases the climate risks that this already vulnerable group faces: The Maricopa County Public Health Department reports that, in 2020, unsheltered individuals accounted for over half of all heat-associated deaths (whether indoor or outdoor). Access to safe, affordable, livable shelter for all is a key factor in not only reducing heat-associated deaths, but also in mitigating the disparate impacts of climate change more broadly.

Advertisement
Advertisement

But there are ways to protect people who live in mobile homes in places at risk of climate hazards. First, of course, is making the homes themselves more climate-resilient. New regulations could aim to decrease the ambient temperature in mobile home parks through mandated green infrastructure or shade structures. Such regulations could also prohibit mobile home park owners from passing rules that prevent residents from installing climate mitigation improvements on their homes. Too often, utility and weatherization assistance programs offered by utility companies and government entities explicitly exclude mobile home residents, which should be changed immediately. And mobile homes, which are functionally immobile despite their name, could be reclassified as real property instead of personal property, opening up lines of credit that would enable residents to finance ongoing maintenance and weatherization improvements.

Advertisement
Advertisement

More broadly, we must increase and ensure the stock of safe, affordable, livable housing for the most economically vulnerable populations. Doing so requires thinking beyond mobile homes as the best or only solution. Numerous case studies across diverse cities throughout North America consistently demonstrate that a “housing first” approach to aiding unsheltered individuals saves money in the long run. Nonetheless, zoning regulations remain a significant barrier to creating a robust affordable housing stock for both unsheltered and lower-income residents alike. As such, local policymakers should reform zoning regulations to allow for development, like set-asides in new developments (which means a percentage of housing units in a development that are sold or rented at affordable prices), accessory dwelling units, the conversion of abandoned retail stock to housing, and a return of single-room occupancy dwellings and pathways for homeowners to take in boarders. It is essential, however, that these housing units be both affordable and safe. To this end, industry and government leaders should develop and mandate climate-adequate construction standards.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

But focusing on growing the stock of climate-resilient housing isn’t enough. We also need broader, more innovative approaches to building community climate resilience. One way to do this is with mutual aid networks, in which neighbors help neighbors by, for instance, checking in on one another or by offering rides during very hot days. These neighborly gestures are something much more: They facilitate early intervention before a hazard develops into a life-threatening catastrophe. These networks also decrease social isolation and increase community cohesion—something that’s important no matter the weather. Another key for building sustainable community cohesion is having resilience hubs, which are community spaces that have been retooled to provide mutual aid and relief during disasters and also assist in coordinating recovery efforts.

The affordable housing crisis, a warming world, a growing economically vulnerable population with insecure or no housing, antiquated zoning regulations—these are all things that are dangerous. But if we think of them together instead of separately, we can come up with solutions that not only address the problems but create new opportunities. Mobile homes can surely be a part of the solution, but only if their multiple climate vulnerability points are addressed holistically. Otherwise, we will continue to place the most vulnerable populations in harm’s way.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Advertisement