Mobile homes are extremely dangerous in the age of climate change.


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

Recently, Hurricane Ida devastated Fort Meyers and wipes out entire mobile home communities. But it’s not the only recent example of weather exacerbated by climate change causing deaths among mobile home residents. In Maricopa County, Arizona, colloquially known as the “Valley of the Sun,” heat kills. But that does not kill indiscriminately: the residents of mobile homes are 6 to 8 times more likely to die from exposure to indoor heat compared to residents of other housing types. Only 5% of Maricopa County residents live in mobile homes, while 31% of indoor heat-related deaths occur each year in mobile homes in the county. Meanwhile, policymakers are pointing to mobile homes as a potential solution to the nationwide housing shortage.

Including an important 6.3% of the housing stock nationwide, house of mobile homes 22 million Americans and represent 10% of new single-family housing starts. Mobile homes are especially prevalent in the south and southwest; in the majority of these states, mobile homes are more than 10 percentt of housing stock. In South Carolina, it’s almost 16%; in Arizona, it’s 16.7%. Of course, these regions are also part of the regions historically the hottest and fastest warming in the United States, and as evidenced by Maricopa County, they herald what the rest of the country can expect as frequency, duration and intensity heat waves increase. Indeed, the frequency of nationwide heat waves has tripled since the 1960s, and the length of the heat wave season has increased by more than a month. Climate experts predict these trends will continue to worsen, threatening human health, especially for those living in mobile homes.

Yet presidential administrations from Nixon to today’s Biden administration have touted mobile homes as an ideal solution to the nation’s affordable housing crisis. As Nixon said in 1970, “Nearly half of American families probably can’t afford more than $15,000 [$115,000 in 2022] for a house, but today the only significant number of houses available in this price range are mobile homes. Mobile homes currently constitute the majority, if not the largest single source of acceptable new housing available at affordable prices for modest income families.

Even today, the average price of a mobile home $55 per square foot, compared to $114 per square foot for a traditional site-built home. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that the Biden Administration Housing Supply Action Plan, announced in May, proposes that increasing prefab housing is one way to solve the country’s current affordable housing crisis. Biden hopes to achieve this goal, in part, by create new financing mechanisms for buyers and reduce regulatory barriers the site.

But these policies ignore the fact that residents of mobile homes are more vulnerable to all types of natural hazards than other types of housing. This increased vulnerability is so well documented that mobile homes are included in many natural hazard vulnerability indices. Mobile homes offer relatively poor structural integrity and residents are often socially vulnerable. Mobile home parks are often located on climate-hazardous sites, and park owners are able to determine what climate mitigation solutions are and are not permitted in parks; for example, park owners have the power to prohibit residents from using shade sails, reflective window coverings, or even window air conditioners. For these reasons, among other factors, mobile home residents are more likely to be injured or perish during disasters such as floods, hurricanes and tornadoes. And even if they survive, mobile home residents risk losing their homes to disaster-related damage, thereby also losing their most important asset. With climate change increasing the frequency, severity and geographic extent of these risks, mobile home residents everywhere will be on the front line. A growing supply of mobile homes may therefore have the unintended consequence of increasing the risks to the health and well-being of some of the most economically insecure people in the country.

Even though mobile homes themselves are being made more climate resistant, mobile home residency is very precarious. The vast majority of mobile home residents own their home but rent the land it sits on. While this unique arrangement helps make mobile homes so affordable, it puts mobile home residents in a risky position: they can be evicted individually or involuntarily relocated en masse if a park owner chooses to redevelop the mobile home park. Many displaced mobile home residents end up unable to obtain such affordable rental housing, as the average rent for a mobile home lot is only $593 per month, leaving some of them homeless. And being unprotected only increases the climate risks this already vulnerable group faces: The Maricopa County Public Health Department reports that in 2020, unsheltered people accounted for more than half of all heat-related deaths (whether indoors or outdoors). Access to safe, affordable and livable housing for all is a key factor not only in reducing heat-related deaths, but also in mitigating the disparate impacts of climate change more broadly.

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

More broadly, we must increase and ensure the stock of safe, affordable and habitable housing for the most economically vulnerable populations. Doing so requires thinking beyond mobile homes as the best or only solution. Numerous case studies in various cities across North America consistently demonstrate that a housing first approach helping homeless people saves money in the long run. Nevertheless, zoning regulations remain a major obstacle create a strong affordable housing stock for unprotected and low-income residents. As such, local policymakers should reform zoning regulations to allow for development, such as set-asides in new developments (meaning a percentage of homes in a development that are sold or rented at affordable prices), secondary suites, the conversion of derelict retail stock to housing, and a return of single occupancy accommodation and pathways for owners to take boarders. However, it is essential that these units are both affordable and sure. To this end, industry and government leaders should develop and mandate climate-responsive building standards.

But focusing on growing the climate-resilient housing stock is not enough. We also need broader and more innovative approaches to build community climate resilience. One way to do this is through peer-to-peer networks, in which neighbors help each other, for example by checking on each other or offering rides on very hot days. These good neighborly gestures are much more than that: they facilitate early intervention before a danger turns into a life-threatening disaster. These networks also decrease social isolation and increase community cohesion, which is important regardless of the weather. Resilience centers, which are community spaces that have been repurposed to provide mutual aid and relief during disasters and also to help coordinate recovery efforts, are another key to building lasting community cohesion.

The affordable housing crisis, a warming world, a growing economically vulnerable population with precarious or non-existent housing, outdated zoning regulations, these are all dangerous. But if we think about it together rather than separately, we can come up with solutions that not only solve problems, but create new opportunities. Mobile homes can certainly be part of the solution, but only if their multiple points of climate vulnerability are holistically addressed. Otherwise, we will continue to put the most vulnerable populations at risk way.

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Arizona State University
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