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Climate change is impacting so much around us: heat, flooding, health, wildlife, housing, and more. WUSF, in collaboration with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, is bringing you stories on how climate change is affecting you.

In the crosshairs of the climate and housing crises

Manufactured homes are a crucial part of the solution to Florida’s housing woes. But can they survive the state’s worsening storms?

Sue Hammel huddled with her four cats as Hurricane Idalia thrashed at the thin plywood and sheet metal walls of her mobile home. The roaring wind, thunder and rain competed for dominance, so loud she couldn’t hear the nearby cracks of plummeting pine trees.

Others sought refuge in a nearby laundromat, the only concrete structure at Hammel’s small mobile home and RV park in Perry, a city about 50 miles south of Tallahassee.

Before dawn, the hulking trunks of pine and oak came crashing down on eight neighboring homes, splitting them one by one.

“I was sitting there holding my cane, shaking like a leaf, thinking, ‘This is it, I’m going to die right here,’” Hammel said. “I’d never been through anything like this. It made me say right there, ‘I can’t live here anymore.’”

Hammel, 67, was directly in Hurricane Idalia’s path when it slammed into Florida’s Gulf Coast last fall as a Category 3 storm with 115-mph winds and seawater surge as high as 12 feet.

Residents of the park were without power and water for two weeks. Months later, neat piles of bricks, branches and twisted metal still studded the land. Where homes once stood before the storm, concrete slabs lay like gravestones.

Idalia’s worst fell upon the rural communities of Florida’s Big Bend region, and manufactured homes were particularly hard hit, making up 30% of total FEMA relief applications. As scientists predict an “extremely active” hurricane season this year, Florida’s high percentage of mobile homes begs the question: Are they safe?

Experts say the rising vulnerability and cost of living for these residents can hinder preparation and recovery efforts as storms like Idalia become more common. Yet if Florida also wants to meet demands for more affordable housing, it needs these homes. For tens of thousands of Floridians like Hammel, manufactured housing is their only option.

Technically, manufactured homes are anything built after 1976. Before then, they were called mobile homes because they still rolled on wheels. It wasn’t until 1994 when building codes even considered wind resistance.

“They aren’t mobile homes,” said Pamela Lindeback with the Florida Housing Coalition. “They’re permanent homes, and they can be built quickly and to a high quality.”

Florida has about 822,000 manufactured and mobile homes, around 10% of the total housing supply – higher than the national average, which is 6% – according to Census data. Of those, more than 300,000 pre-1976 mobile homes remain registered with the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles.

As older mobile homes deteriorate, insurers continue to flee and Florida’s population grows, many lower-income families are left with fewer affordable housing options.

“The low-wealth communities are the voiceless communities in our society,” said David Prevatt, a structural engineering researcher at the University of Florida. “Mobile and manufactured homes are the physical manifestation of discarding safety for those that cannot afford.”

For Prevatt, modern manufactured homes built to code are not the problem. The real challenge is the older units that can’t hold up against hurricane-strength winds.

The dilemma lies in the fact that most older homes are at higher risk of destruction and less likely to receive federal emergency relief – placing more strain on impacted residents.

“After Idalia, our rent went up $200,” Hammel said. Her roof leaked, yet she did not qualify for a FEMA trailer. “People don’t realize what we’re going through.”

Watch above: Reporter Jack Lemnus speaks with survivors of Hurricane Idalia whose mobile homes were damaged. (Video by Sophia Abolfathi/WUFT News)

Emergency relief for manufactured homes

In the wake of Idalia, the Federal Emergency Management Agency received nearly 20,000 relief applications from mobile home residents – close to one-third of total applicants. Most came from Suwannee, Columbia, Taylor, Hamilton and Dixie counties, with the majority of units having less than $8,000 of verified damage.

But applications don’t always guarantee assistance.

When Idalia struck, John Warren of Crystal River watched nearly two feet of storm surge consume the stairs to his mobile home and lap at his door, coming within inches of flooding the trailer.

“If it would have come inside, I would have lost everything,” Warren, 77, said. “The water was so high my floors all rotted. The rest of the neighborhood was so flooded the sheriff’s office evacuated people with airboats.”

Warren owns a pre-1976 trailer and rents the land under it at $505 per month at Hunter Springs Manufactured Housing Community. After Idalia, the park owners offered no assistance other than a fresh coat of paint for his trailer and ruined shed. Warren is disabled and suffers from tremors, so home repairs can pose a challenge, he said. Because of the age of his home, he also didn't qualify for FEMA relief.

“FEMA won’t do anything. It seems like only the middle class and rich get help, because I can see houses getting rebuilt across the street,” he said.

Just a mile away from Warren’s park, the higher-elevated and newer manufactured homes of Crystal River Village were largely unscathed. Some residents even reported sleeping through the hurricane.

Home age is not a factor FEMA considers when assessing relief eligibility, said FEMA spokesperson Alberto Pilot.

“The grants are distributed off the verified loss, and every situation is different,” Pilot said.

FEMA determines eligibility based on total losses, access to life-sustaining services and the cost-effectiveness of relief. For homeowners who live in flood-prone areas, there are more constraints; once they receive aid, homeowners must then purchase and maintain flood insurance or else they can’t get assistance in future flooding events.

According to FEMA, fewer than 1% of manufactured housing residents have flood insurance, and on top of that, they’re also more likely to be situated in flood-prone areas.

About 83% of Florida’s manufactured and mobile home parks are located within a mile of a floodplain or coastal flood-prone area, and around 15% lie directly in high-risk floodplains, according to data from FEMA and the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

This is likely an underestimate, as these data exclude individual manufactured home lots and parcels.

“FEMA won’t do anything. It seems like only the middle class and rich get help, because I can see houses getting rebuilt across the street.”
John Warren

To help homeowners like Warren who can’t afford to fix their unit and don’t qualify for emergency relief, housing experts propose extending public funds that typically cut out mobile homes.

One example is the State Housing Initiatives Partnership program (SHIP), which provides funds to build and preserve affordable and multifamily housing. These funds haven’t always applied to manufactured homes, and even now they don’t cover some older mobile homes. But after Idalia, some counties have vowed to apply those funds toward manufactured homes.

“There’s no reason why these programs should be limited,” said Jim Ayotte, executive director at Florida Manufactured Housing Association. “Housing is housing.”

Even if Warren did receive relief, however, he still plans to move, he said. It wasn’t the numerous natural disasters over the years that forced the decision, but rising rents. After a new owner took over the park and began raising costs, Warren said he would have no choice but to move.

Protection from displacement

Mobile homeowners like Warren usually rent the land they live on, and they’d likely have no claim to the property value when disaster crashes through. Even if they wanted to remain in their homes, they might not have the right to return if the property owners chose to sell. And for lower-income residents, they are often beholden to the whims of the park’s owners.

For example, in the wake of Hurricane Ian – a Category 5 storm that decimated Florida’s southwest coast in fall 2022 – mobile home and RV residents of the Gulf Coast Camping Resort in Bonita Springs were pressured to leave their homes after a new owner purchased the land to turn it into a 5-star RV resort.

“We need to not only protect residents from storm damage, but from displacement,” said Anne Ray with the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at UF. “When the land increases in value or becomes too costly for landowners, there’s pressure for other types of housing developments that displaces mobile home residents.”

One solution is cooperatives, where mobile home residents pool money together to buy their park and share ownership. This way, they’re not subject to rent increases or displacement when the park land changes hands. However, this is an underused option, as only about 2% of manufactured housing parks were community owned in 2019, according to a Freddie Mac report.

“If it’s too expensive to rebuild after a disaster, the next best thing is the land value,” said CJ Reynolds with the Florida Housing Coalition. “Owning the land underneath keeps families in their homes.”

One obvious solution is retrofitting older mobile homes, as research suggests they are inadequate to withstand heavywinds and floods as storms like Idalia become more frequent. This may also involve rebuilding older homes up to standard after they’re damaged.

“We’re super optimistic about how to make these homes more resilient,” Reynolds said. “But there’s a lot of examples of people getting FEMA assistance who repair their homes below the safety standard. We can’t just put it back the way it was.”

What in part hinders building more resilient homes are misconceptions that skew the public’s perception, experts said.

There’s a misbelief that all manufactured homes are low quality or cheap, Reynolds said. Modern models use many of the same building materials and typical housing, however. And with a housing deficit, a unit that can take half as long to build at half the cost per square foot is a viable option.

Another fallacy is that they’re no match for severe weather. Today’s building codes require strong, wind-resistant roofing and higher elevation to avoid flood damage. However, the codes may need to be adjusted as modern storms fueled by warming seas become more intense.

Experts say a combination of land ownership, and retrofitting and rebuilding up to code will ensure people can stay in their homes when faced with financial or natural disaster. But one problem continues to loom large: insurance.

Insuring manufactured homes

Obtaining quality, affordable property insurance is a battle for many Floridians. But for manufactured home residents, that battle can be insurmountable. About a third of FEMA applicants who reside in mobile homes don’t have insurance, and when tragedy strikes in the form of torrential floods and 100-mile-per-hour winds, many are left with nothing.

Florida doesn't mandate homeowners to carry flood, fire or storm insurance, but most mortgage lenders won’t provide a loan without proof of insurance. Many manufactured and mobile home residents can go without insurance because their homes don’t qualify for mortgages, as the older units are considered “chattel property,” like a vehicle.

Robert Davis, 77, lives in an uninsured trailer at Dan’s Mobile Home Park in Inglis, a town roughly 10 miles north of Crystal River. Davis is a retired veteran and EMT, and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He likes the quiet life at the park, and his trailer doubles as an art studio. The quiet live-work space relieves his PTSD. He’s lived there for 23 years.

“This is the only park that rents under $500 a month,” Davis said. “If I had to pay for insurance, I couldn’t afford it.”

Because older mobile homes like his are considered unsuitable for insurers, the premiums can be beyond reach. And with options waning, many customers have migrated to the state-backed Citizens Insurance Company.

“If you have an older home, you likely won’t find anything in the private market,” Ayotte with the Florida Manufactured Homes Association said. “$2k for a $15k mobile home doesn’t make sense.”

It won’t be until the older homes are retrofitted or rebuilt that they might have a chance to qualify for better insurance, Ayotte said. But for now, manufactured home residents are left scrambling for options.

Meeting the crisis

Though it’s a circuitous road to insuring these residents, many of Florida’s housing experts are nonetheless optimistic about the future of manufactured housing. Manufactured housing is affordable housing, and they largely agree it’s worth saving.

“Instead of spending emergency funds on something that gets thrown away, let’s spend it on permanent housing, which then becomes equity.”
Stephen Bender

The first step is informing residents about available assistance and relief programs such as FEMA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rental assistance and housing loans and grants to help rural residents buy, build and repair their homes are available on the USDA Rural Development Disaster Assistance website.

The Florida Legislature also passed a mobile home relief bill this year that allows homeowners to dispute rental lot increases through mediation, among other measures. The bill awaits Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature.

But above all, housing advocates say, protecting residents means ensuring their homes are built to withstand the magnitude of modern storms. It won’t help if displaced residents move out of their FEMA trailers back into unsound units – or don’t move out at all – said Stephen Bender, director of CityLab-Orlando and a UF associate professor.

“Instead of spending emergency funds on something that gets thrown away, let’s spend it on permanent housing, which then becomes equity,” Bender said.

FEMA trailers are meant to have a six-month lifespan, but it’s not uncommon for residents to get comfortable and move in full time. To alleviate this problem, Bender along with UF researchers and HUD designed CORE+, a housing model that provides a 160-square-foot unit and later attaches two more units that all compose a 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath home.

Despite the growing interest in saving manufactured housing, many residents still must live with leaking roofs and some with no roofs at all.

Florida’s manufactured home and RV parks lie in the crosshairs of the housing crisis and climate change, and preserving this housing poses unique challenges. Residents like Hammel, Warren and Davis don’t want to move – and experts agree they shouldn’t have to. As storms mirroring the fury of Hurricane Idalia become more frequent, residents and experts alike say it’s in Florida’s best interest to keep people from being priced out and to rebuild stronger.

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