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Here is a multi-part riddle about the islands: What’s worse than housing prices so high that most of the middle class can’t afford to buy a home?
What’s more troubling than hard-working renters who mortgage their retirement or who cram into crowded apartments and homes because the rent is too damn high?
What’s more problematic than people living in cars, and more disturbing than the colonies of desperate people sleeping on sidewalks next to parks and beaches?
The answer, apparently, is mobile homes.
In 2013, 60,210 new manufactured homes were sold across the country, according to the 2014 manufactured home industry report. In California and Florida, people bought thousands of them. Texas took in 12,048.
Hawaii was dead last in the nation; it purchased four. Yes, four.
Mobile homes would be yet another vulgar intrusion of flyover-state America… A whole park would amount to an aesthetic apocalypse for our tropical Hawaiian paradise, right?
And, Hawaii doesn’t do mobile home parks. This is a little odd since there are plenty of little old plantation cottages about the size of traditional mobile homes. Many of those charming, if dilapidated, little homes were slapped together with the cheap building materials of their era — a lot like the cheapest mobile homes. Some little plantation-era pads are close together, just as mobile homes are in compact areas on the mainland.
But mobile home parks in the islands — hell no!
Some people, including in comments on Civil Beat, warn of “eyesores.” Others gin up stereotypes, warning of “white-trash” or “ethnic-trash” communities. Mobile homes would be yet another vulgar intrusion of flyover-state America. A cluster of them would degenerate into a den of sloth, infested by crime and addiction. A whole park would amount to an aesthetic apocalypse for our tropical Hawaiian paradise, right?
Back on the real Oahu, where there is already plenty of unfortunate architecture, scruffy neighborhoods and hard drugs, we would do well to keep our housing crisis firmly in mind and consider a time-tested option. And we might think twice before citing outdated stereotypes about mobile home parks and their residents.
Some modern mobile homes and the parks where they are planted on the ground have evolved in notable ways in recent years. For one, they are generally built from the same materials as many “normal” homes.
Even the name has changed. “Mobile homes” built since 1976 — when construction standards were sharply upgraded — are now known as “manufactured homes,” according to the Manufactured Housing Institute, an industry trade group.
Today’s manufactured homes often fit pretty seamlessly into urban and suburban settings whereas walking around some early-generation “mobile homes” could feel a little like being on a cheap Hollywood film set. Today some mobile home parks are virtually indistinguishable from tract housing complexes built on site.
Aesthetically, mobile homes don’t look worse than much of the architecture that already surrounds us in the islands. (Here are some of the many pretty cool mobile home parks among the 50,000 such communities on the mainland.)
Mobile homes would be yet another vulgar intrusion of flyover-state America. A cluster of them would degenerate into a den of sloth, infested by crime and addiction…right?
From Hawaii’s perspective, manufactured home communities could offer some big financial advantages to people in need of more affordable housing. High-quality modular homes tend to cost 10 percent to 20 percent less per square foot than conventional homes on the mainland. The homes are built in factories — not on-site at the mercy of wind, rain, sleet and snow — and benefit from bulk purchasing of supplies, not to mention assembly-line building techniques.
More significantly, given who is most squeezed by Hawaii’s housing crunch, 96 percent of these manufactured homes’ household incomes are $75,000 or less, according to the trade organization’s 2014 report.
And yet, amid a worsening crisis, the islands have thoroughly rejected one of the free market’s most effective solutions for creating affordable housing for middle-class and lower-middle class residents.
Since real estate in Hawaii, and especially on Oahu, is so precious, the keys to creating more accessibly priced housing involve using less land per house and producing residential units more cheaply. Mobile home parks could do both.
So why haven’t such manufactured home communities sprung up on patches of land to house the houseless from Waianae to Waimanalo and from Hilo to Kailua-Kona?
I asked that question to numerous housing experts in sectors ranging from government and nonprofits to land development and private business. None had a ready answer. After some probing, they offered varied explanations.
Kevin Andrews, who attempted — and failed — to set up several variations of what might be considered mobile home-like communities under Gov. Linda Lingle, summed it all up well: “I don’t know that there is one big obstacle; more like a lot of little ones.”
There is no blatant prohibition on mobile or manufactured home parks. But there are numerous obstacles that have helped to assure they haven’t been created.
“This is a union state. I am not anti-union, but let’s be honest, it adds to the cost of everything.” — Kali Watson, president of Hawaii Community Development
The high value of land that is permitted for residential development creates a great temptation for developers to cash in when they get a prized opportunity to build. “If you are a developer, it can make way more sense to put one house on five acres so you can sell it for $5 million,” Andrews explained. “If you put 20 houses on five acres and sell them for $250,000 each, it adds up to $5 million. But it is a lot more work.”
Many people cited painfully slow and labyrinthine permitting processes that discourage developers and others from engaging in innovative low-end housing projects in general, and logistically complicated ones in particular. Being first in setting up a manufactured home community would require either shipping in a large number of homes from across the ocean or setting up the infrastructure to build them here.
That would likely require either a lot of capital, whether in the form of buy-in from bankers or other investors. It would also necessitate the support — or at least acquiescence of — key unions involved in construction and shipping. Local unions naturally prefer on-site production since replacing their labor with imported work generally means less employment for their members.
“This is a union state,” noted Kali Watson, who is president of the Hawaii Community Development housing nonprofit. As the former director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, Watson gained extensive experience coordinating the development of thousands of lots of land. “I am not anti-union, but let’s be honest, it adds to the cost of everything.”
Another complicating issue for mobile home communities has to do with building regulations. Manufactured homes in Hawaii are essentially treated like traditional ones, but mobile home parks often have far less infrastructure than standard urban or suburban neighborhoods. In some parts of the country, they are located on semi-paved or even dirt roads, and they often have no curbs, sewers, sidewalks or streetlights. On Oahu, that would not be permitted.
For the development of communities of affordable homes to make economic sense, county and state officials should offer leeway on codes that don’t impact safety, argued Craig Chapman, the owner of Small Homes Hawaii on the Big Island. “Once you get into the streetlights and everything, the (return on investment) for building affordably goes out the window,” he said.
Then there is the question of political will, which has been a problem for many innovative proposals to create affordable housing in recent years. That said, there are nascent signs of greater openness to innovative housing projects of late, including micro-housing projects.
But for anything remotely resembling a mobile home park, the key to movement, according to both affordable housing advocates and developers, is to make land available for a short-term test project. That way neighbors could see an actual project, and judge whether or not it will ruin their neighborhood.
Chapman, for one, is confident that things would work out fine, explaining that communities created largely as prototypes for affordability would naturally focus on creating a safe, secure place “where we can have a low-paying job and have our kids go to school and see light at the end of the tunnel… These are not people shooting up.”
Hawaii’s fear of trailer trash and obstacles to innovative affordable construction are undermining a well-established way to create less expensive housing.
The average sale price for a manufactured home in the U.S. in 2013 was $64,000, according to the U.S. Census data. Single-wide homes went for an average of $42,000, while double-wide homes averaged $78,600.
For those buying the land beneath the homes across the country, the total average payout was $324,500.
“Everybody comes up with the same idea; nobody does it.” — Chuck Wathen, executive director of Hawaii Affordable Housing
Given Hawaii’s high costs for permitted property and shipping, it would cost substantially more. But $400,000 for a home would, in many parts of the state, be a steal.
And it could be much cheaper.
Jean Lilley, the executive director of Hawaii Habitat for Humanity Association, said that low-income housing builders and developers would gladly look at ways to build faster with pre-manufactured construction, if affordable land were set aside to put it on and if the development of infrastructure was subsidized by authorities.
As things stand, developer Chuck Wathen, who is executive director of the nonprofit Hawaii Affordable Housing, said he could set up a mobile home park that would offer locals rents they could afford, if authorities took a page from Hawaii Home Lands to respond to the housing crisis.
“I could set up a mobile home park,” Wathen said, “if the land was free.”
A mobile home park is “so obvious” as a solution to the housing crisis, he said, noting, “Everybody comes up with the same idea; nobody does it.”
Here are five troubling infographics that detail Honolulu’s housing crisis.
Join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to continue the conversation and discuss practical and political solutions.