The lobbying battles, regulatory lapses and discriminatory zoning have plagued mobile homes residents from the nation's coasts to its heartland.
Consider the problems associated with flooding.
FEMA officials estimate that slightly more than 10% of mobile home park residences are in flood plains, as are 7% to 10% of U.S. homes generally. Experts attribute the gap to years of zoning decisions that kept mobile homes out of more desirable neighborhoods. In addition, the federal government in many cases exempted mobile homes from requirements applied to other construction.
The need for stronger enforcement was dramatically clear in the 1970s and 1980s, when mobile homes were struck by a barrage of devastating floods. Probably the most tragic was a series of deluges in Buncombe County, N.C., that claimed the lives of seven mobile home residents, along with four other people.
In 1986, FEMA tightened its rules under the National Flood Insurance Program to bring floodsafety standards for all mobile homes in line with those for conventional homes. Among other things, the rules required mobile homes to be elevated to heights above normal flooding levels.
The next year, the agency backed off, yielding to lobbying pressure from mobile home business and consumer groups.
"We were forced into coming up with a lesser standard," said Cecelia Rosenberg, a FEMA scientist, blaming the "sensitivity" of the industry to regulations that raise costs.
Meanwhile, taxpayers, bankers and owners of mobile homes continue to suffer losses from floods.
In the Castroville Mobilehome Park in Monterey County, which lies in a flood plain, all the roughly 30 mobile homes were either destroyed or heavily damaged in a flood triggered by heavy March rains.
Among the victims was Ricardo Calvillo, 42, a foreman on a broccoli-harvesting crew. His skin is leathery from more than 20 years of toil on California farms.
Four years ago, Calvillo scraped up a $10,000 down payment to buy a double-wide mobile home for $42,000. Since then, he has paid off another $9,000, leaving $23,000 owing on his mortgage.
But now, Calvillo's home is uninhabitable, its frame warped by eight-foot floodwaters and the floor caked with mud.
Calvillo has received $10,000 in assistance from FEMA but says he needed much of that to replace the clothing, appliances and other personal items that he, his wife and two grown sons lost in the flood.
The remaining mortgage debt is a potential financial millstone because Calvillo has no flood insurance to help him retire the loan or to acquire a new home--a situation he attributes to a misunderstanding between himself, the bank and his insurer. A lawyer representing Calvillo from California Rural Legal Assistance Inc. is grappling with Bank of America over whether Calvillo or the bank was responsible for ensuring that his home carried flood insurance.
In the meantime, the bank is not getting its mortgage payments, and Calvillo--along with the other farm worker and blue-collar families forced to move from the mobile home park--feels as though he has lost the modicum of financial comfort he earned from years of work.
These days Calvillo, living in a $595-a-month apartment with his family, nervously waits to find out if the bank will forgive the remaining balance on his loan.
"It's real hard for people like us who don't make that much money to lose it all," he said sadly. "It's a real bad feeling when your whole life savings is lost in one blow."
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Safety ranks among the top worries of mobile home dwellers, according to a 1993 survey. (Respondents could state more than one concern.)
No basement/attic: 60%
No garage: 54%
Quick depreciation: 48%
Too small/no storage space: 47%
Storm danger: 42%
Fire danger: 38%
\o7 Source: Foremost Insurance Group's 1993 survey of 14,224 owners of manufactured homes.\f7
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Roughly 6% of Americans live in mobile homes--an anachronistic term, given that the only time most are moved is when they are delivered from the factory. Rather than a vagabond lifestyle, what mobile home residents have in common are Sunbelt addresses, low incomes and cheap housing.
States With the Most Mobile Home Residents
U.S. Total: 15,379,700
Household Income of Mobile Home Residents
Less than $10,000: 15%
$40,000 +: 15%
Median Income Level: $22,300
Market Value of Mobile Homes
Less than $5,000: 18%
$40,000 +: 11%
\o7 Sources: U.S. Bureau of the Census; Foremost Insurance Group's 1993 survey of 14,224 owners of manufactured homes.\f7