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Mobile homes get second look as housing option

December 04, 2005|By DAVID DISHNEAU

FREDERICK, MD. - Before buying their mobile home 2 1/2 years ago, Onawa Cutshall and Shaun Rock shopped for conventional houses in towns more affordable than Frederick - Hagerstown, Waynesboro, Pa., Charles Town, W.Va.

But at prices approaching $100,000, even those homes were too high for the young couple. So they moved from their downtown studio apartment into a 12-year-old single-wide in a Frederick mobile home park between a Lowe's store and Francis Scott Key Mall.

At $7,000, the mobile home made sense, said Cutshall, 29, a freelance horse photographer. She said it makes more sense now that prices for conventional homes in the area have soared to $200,000 or more.

"This isn't someplace I'd like to live forever, but as a starter home, it's definitely better in my opinion than renting an apartment," Cutshall said.

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The unit has three bedrooms, a washer and dryer, and, despite some wear and tear, it's theirs.

Cutshall and Rock, 24, a book salesman, eventually hope to buy some land where they and their 15-month-old daughter can live in their mobile home while striving for conventional homeownership.

It's a step that local governments, after decades of discouraging mobile homes, are starting to recognize as reasonable. Frederick County is among a number of jurisdictions that have relaxed or are considering relaxing zoning restrictions on manufactured homes - the industry's preferred term - partly as a way of boosting the supply of affordable housing.

"They are not as expensive as building a traditional home," Frederick County Commissioner John R. Lovell Jr. said. He and his four fellow commissioners voted unanimously in November to reverse a 30-year-old prohibition on replacing mobile homes that had been removed from parks in the county.

Lovell said 1970s law was aimed at zoning mobile homes out of existence. As a former mobile-home dweller - he lived in one for five years - Lovell objects to the stereotype that both manufactured homes and their occupants are trash.

"The quality of people is not dependent on the housing they live in," Lovell said. "We have good people that live everywhere."

The commissioners in Washington County, where the median home price has nearly doubled to $240,000 since 2001, are considering allowing manufactured homes in urban residential areas, where they currently are prohibited. The recommendation came from a local task force, which concluded in an October report that the average home buyer working in Washington County no longer can afford the median-priced home.

The report cited a California law that allows manufactured housing in residential zones, but enables local governments to adopt architectural standards to ensure that it blends in. Pitched roofs, facades and landscaping dramatically can change the look of a mobile home, said Michael Thompson, director of the Washington County Planning Department.

"The perception that a lot of people have is that it's a metal box," Thompson said. "That's the stigma that a lot of people have attached to them, rightly or wrongly, and that's something that has to be overcome."

The Manufactured Housing Institute, an industry trade group based in Arlington, Va., said modern manufactured homes come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, including two-story models. Those made since mid-1976 must conform to federal construction and safety standards for strength, durability, fire-resistance and other factors.

"We think we offer a real viable solution to that need for affordable housing," spokesman Bruce Savage said.

The Interfaith Housing Alliance, an affordable-housing developer based in Frederick, has changed its view of mobile homes. President James Upchurch said although manufactured housing doesn't appreciate like a conventional home, it's one of a dwindling number of options as government housing subsidies shrink.

"Mobile homes still have these significant disadvantages, but the affordable-housing problem is now so serious that we need to do whatever we have to do," Upchurch said. "If your home is completely wiped out by Hurricane Katrina, then you're grateful to have a tent and you move up from there - and I guess that's the philosophy you have to accept with mobile homes."

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