Yes to Mobile Homes: Manufactured Housing’s Role in Solving the Housing Crisis

Housing security is foundational to individual well-being and is critical to financial security and good health. The past year and a half has shown us that a house is more than a home—it can be an office, a caregiving site, a school and a refuge from the outside world. The pandemic also clearly demonstrated how badly our formal healthcare infrastructure is overburdened, and how rapidly infections can be transmitted in congregate settings. At the same time, AARP surveys continue to show that the vast majority of older adults would prefer to age-in-place.

Yet there is simply not enough housing stock—and certainly insufficient affordable housing—in cities and rural areas around the world. Also, the pandemic has disrupted supply chains for all types of new housing and caused erratic increases in labor and material costs. Additionally, an extremely limited amount of housing—affordable or not—is designed to enable people with physical limitations to function at their highest level, whether those limitations are permanent or temporary.

In the U.S., less than 2 percent of all housing has Universal Design features—such as zero-step entries, doors and spaces wide enough for assistive mobility devices and door handles instead of knobs. In the UK, housing stock that is accessible rises only modestly to 7 percent. Therefore, it is imperative that we increase housing options that bring safety and stability to people across the lifespan.

These pervasive housing issues unquestionably demand multiple solutions. Among them may be one that is often overlooked, in part due to a negative stigma. That solution: manufactured housing, which may increasingly provide solutions to both affordability and accessibility challenges.

Overcoming Dated Stereotypes

When many people hear “manufactured housing,” they think of dilapidated mobile homes. But manufactured homes have come a long way over the last several decades and many are now virtually indistinguishable from site-built homes. Manufactured homes are prefabricated factory-built homes that are shipped to a permanent plot, which is typically owned or leased. In an era when people are priced out of living in many communities and homelessness is rampant, 21st century housing innovations cause people to re-imagine their usefulness. In Sweden, more than 80 percent of single-family residences have factory-built components, making it the world’s leader in producing and inhabiting manufactured housing.

In the U.S., manufactured homes made up nearly 10 percent of all new single-family homes owned in 2018, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute. An important factor to consider in the U.S. is land ownership. Purchasing a manufactured home on leased land can be costly in the long run. Aside from purchasing the land, one way to address that is through resident-owned cooperatives for manufactured housing communities, which can enable homeowners to gain from the appreciating value of their land, in addition to their home.

‘In Sweden, more than 80 percent of single-family residences have factory-built components.’

There’s no question that manufactured housing holds genuine benefits over traditional brick and mortar homes. Manufactured homes offer viable accessibility options as well as modular styles that can be designed to homebuyer specifications; pieces are manufactured in a factory and can be assembled at the factory or on-site. In a factory environment where production is controlled, precision manufacturing can ensure a level of quality that is difficult to attain in site-built homes. Construction time can be halved, with advantages such as avoiding the winter delays that often accompany traditional building methods and lead to higher costs.

Manufactured housing also can provide environmental benefits. From the various parts of the supply chain through final product, the off-site–built home process requires far less transportation than on-site construction, reducing the carbon footprint. And environmental benefits continue after occupants move in. Manufactured homes can be designed for far higher energy efficiency than site-built homes—a particularly notable attribute given that typical houses generate around 20 percent of greenhouse gases.

Additionally, materials cost less because they are purchased in bulk. They also are cut to specific dimensions, resulting in far less waste than traditional stick building, in which approximately 50 percent of materials wind up in landfills. A new company, iLand Solaire in Quebec, Canada, is even creating a solar-powered factory-built house that brings substantial energy savings for homeowners.

Advancing an Ecosystem

Driven by such benefits that range from affordable to environmentally sound, several companies and other organizations are working to advance manufactured housing as an alternative to traditional site-built homes, both in the U.S. and globally. The Next Step Network, Inc., is a national nonprofit intermediary in the U.S. that mobilizes housing nonprofits, manufactured housing industry leaders and lending institutions to expand the use of factory-built housing as a viable solution to address housing affordability.

Next Step believes these homes help younger people with limited means to buy a “starter home,” as homes are available for less than $250,000, with land (in most markets), and the company stressed that traditional lenders are now making financing available for this type of housing.

These are important attributes in today’s housing market. A 2019 Freddie Mac survey of renters reported that 67 percent of renters intend to continue renting because of financial reasons, up from 59 percent two years prior, and a figure likely to remain high throughout pandemic recovery. Furthermore, research shows manufactured housing to be a sound investment for homebuyers. According to the Urban Institute, off-site built homes can appreciate at nearly the same rate as on site-built homes.

Manufactured housing results in far less waste than traditional stick building, in which approximately 50 percent of materials wind up in landfills.

While the Network’s focus is primarily on affordability, its leaders understand the opportunities presented by manufactured housing’s other benefits. Next Step works with home manufacturers to ensure that every home is ENERGY STAR–certified. The Network also provided early leadership in designing housing that can facilitate aging in place.

“When we started partnering with manufacturers to build Next Step homes 15 years ago, we were intentional about including Universal Design features in our homes,” said Stacey Epperson, president and founder of Next Step Network.

Built to Be a ‘CareBnB’

Another U.S.-based company, Minka, is pushing the concept of home even further, incorporating essential health infrastructure to strengthen its residents’ resilience and foster independence, particularly as they age. Minka homes feature Universal Design standards and are designed to serve as a “CareBnB” when needed. Homes allow for easy, even temporary, medical equipment installation, enabling support following acute care episodes and minimizing the need to spend extended periods in medical settings such as rehabilitation centers.

Founder Bill Thomas, a gerontologist-turned-senior-housing entrepreneur, likes to put it this way: “What if, instead of taking care of our homes, our homes took care of us?”

A Minka home comprises modular, precision-cut components that arrive flat-packed for on-site assembly (think: IKEA box), ready for a semi-skilled crew to transform into a finished dwelling in fewer than three days. The modular building system, meanwhile, creates layout flexibility and room sizes are adjustable as needs and preferences change. The company plans to create a fully distributed manufacturing process by selling a Minka Printer that communities can purchase—bringing design, production and assembly to the local level.

Stackable Units

Interesting housing models have emerged in recent years from around the world. Debansu Das of Zed Pods Ltd., ( an award-winning modular developer building energy-efficient homes in the UK, estimates that in London alone, roughly 130,000 homes can be built on brownfield sites, such as old garages, between older homes, and in airspace above existing car parking or on top of buildings. Though currently the build cost is on par with traditional construction, Das points out that the rapidly built modular homes bring in early revenue stream, which, when added to the project bottom line, make them less expensive than traditionally built homes.

In addition, Das said, “our product has superior environmental performance as they have been designed with a ‘fabric first’ approach with addition of the latest renewable technologies, thereby achieving net-zero operational carbon. Our fully affordable, modular housing project ‘Hope Rise’ in Bristol is the only residential project from the UK which has been showcased at a virtual pavilion of the UN Climate Summit COP26.”

Manufactured housing including modular building is already being used in sectors beyond housing, from hotels to health clinics. Affordability, accessibility, adaptability and shortened time to move-in all make this a promising area of innovation. Manufactured housing can make a significant contribution to improving both financial and health security for older and younger residents alike.

Stephanie K. Firestone, Master of Urban Planning (MUP), is senior strategic policy advisor for International—Global Thought Leadership at AARP, and a Health and Aging Policy Fellow. Melissa Grober-Morrow, MPA, is director of Thought Leadership–Financial Resilience at AARP, both in Washington, DC.

Photo: The Zed Pods Hope Rise housing unit in Bristol.

Photo courtesy of Zed Pods, Ltd.