In early March, more than two feet of rain fell on Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in a 24-hour period, a once-in-a-thousand-years event that flooded neighborhoods and left the airport and city hall underwater. Among the neighborhoods hardest hit was Lauder Lakes, a mobile home park near several freeway exchanges and just north of the airport’s runways.
Understanding mobile home parks excess exposure to hazards
Mobile homes have been an important part of the US housing stock since the 1950s, with thousands of mobile home parks like Lauder Lakes established between the end of World War II and the 1980s. This boom in mobile home park construction happened before the establishment of rules and regulations meant to protect housing from natural hazards and disasters, so parks were often built on less-expensive land prone to hazards like floods and wildfire.
Today, many of these same parks remain in the zoning code as “legally nonconforming uses”— meaning they’re allowed to exist only because they were there when other rules were established. Floods, wildfires, hurricanes, and other natural hazards are becoming more frequent and severe because of climate change, increasing the likelihood that mobile home parks developed in high-risk locations will be affected. Our research suggests four characteristics of mobile home parks make them uniquely vulnerable to disasters compared with other housing.
Mobile homes aren’t really mobile, at least not anymore. Fewer than 20 percent of modern-day mobile homes are moved after their original installation, partially because doing so is expensive and affects the home’s value and insurance coverage. Many older mobile homes actually cannot be moved or aren’t worth the expense. If an owner does move their mobile home, new barriers arise, such as finding a park willing to accept it, an especially daunting challenge for owners of older units that few parks will accept.
Bottom line: mobile home park residents own an asset permanently attached to property they do not themselves own. If a park closes or a disaster seriously affects the property, like in Lauder Lakes, the entire value of the mobile home may be lost, as mobile home owners can’t stay, can’t take their house elsewhere, and often can’t sell it. The only alternatives are disposal and abandonment, costly choices for families with much of their wealth tied up in their home.
- Concentrated vulnerability
By virtue of their affordability, mobile home parks often attract socially vulnerable groups. Durst and Sullivan found that households living in manufactured housing (whether in a park or on land they own) generally have about half the income of households who occupy traditional, site-built homes. Mobile home parks are also disproportionately home to seniors, households with small children, Latino households, Native American households, and households where English isn’t primarily spoken. These households typically have fewer resources to prepare for, or recover from, hazards and disasters.
- Divided tenure
The divided tenure in mobile home parks—where residents own their homes but rent the land underneath—hinders mobile home owners’ disaster preparedness and recovery. Without land ownership by residents, mobile homes in parks are typically considered personal property rather than real estate, which changes how they can be insured or used as collateral for postdisaster loans. Mobile home owners in parks tend not to be eligible for postdisaster recovery programs aimed at homeowners, such as federally funded buyout programs. Divided tenure also means mobile home park owners make the decisions about hazard mitigation and disaster recovery, rather than residents.
- Exclusionary land-use regulations
After the mobile home park building boom of the mid-to-late 20th century, many communities changed local laws and regulations to exclude or limit manufactured housing. As a result, new mobile home parks are prohibited, and existing parks cannot significantly change or develop without adhering to contemporary building standards. Disasters can unexpectedly trigger these regulations, resulting in park closure or residents’ inability to move their home to another park within the community.
What can local leaders and policymakers do?
Mobile home parks offer an affordable source of housing but are uniquely vulnerable to climate-fueled hazards and disasters. To best protect residents and park owners, local leaders can take the following steps:
Collect better data: When planning for disasters and extreme events, invisibility creates vulnerability. Most local and state governments lack a firm grasp on where their mobile home parks are located, what potential hazards they could be exposed to, and what risks the residents face. Collecting routine information on mobile home parks and their residents can help account for them in emergency management and protect them.
Make common sense investments: For many climate hazards, there are straightforward actions mobile home park residents and owners can take to improve resilience. Elevating infrastructure like air conditioning units and electrical boxes off the ground can protect against flood damage. Roof repairs, insulation upgrades, and better anchoring are other low-hanging options to better prepare mobile homes for severe weather. These investments have everyday benefits too, like reducing energy costs.
Recognize mobile home parks as neighborhoods: Planning for disasters can put us in a deficit mindset, thinking about places like mobile home parks simply as sites of risk. Yet parks are often multigenerational family businesses with tight-knit communities. Recognizing their value as neighborhoods will inform more equitable policies. When primarily site-built neighborhoods are destroyed or damaged in disasters, the local government often steps in, but policymakers are less likely to intervene for privately owned mobile home parks, despite their neighborhood characteristics.
Share power with residents: Some states and localities have changed laws and regulations to give mobile home park residents more rights. In Colorado, for instance, a 2019 policy change guaranteed mobile home park residents longer notice before eviction, an important consideration when parks are closed after disasters. Other states have moved (PDF) to give residents rights of first refusal to purchase mobile home parks and turn them into collectives, which is an important resilience-building strategy. Ultimately, greater power in the hands of residents to determine their own fates before, and after, disasters can lead to better outcomes.
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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.