Since the early 1900s, millions of Americans have relied on trailers as a source of no-frills, affordable housing. In fact, roughly 22 million Americans live in trailer parks today, but the industry is hardly the stable source of affordable housing that it used to be…a lesson that 73-year-old Judy Goff of Naples, Florida recently discovered the hard way after Hurricane Irma ripped through her park and destroyed her home, along with roughly 1.8 million others.
As Bloomberg points out, when Goff went to a local LeeCorp dealer lot to replace her $46,000, 1,200 square foot trailer with something of similar size and value, what she found instead was “manufactured homes” stuffed with high-end upgrades like granite counter-tops and vaulted ceilings that rendered them too expensive for her $23,000 per year of income.
Last month, Judy Goff, a 73-year-old hardware store clerk whose double-wide in Naples, Fla., was blown to bits, pulled into a LeeCorp Homes Inc. sales lot and wandered through models with kitchen islands and vaulted ceilings. In the salesman’s office, she got the total price, including a carport, taxes, and removal of her destroyed trailer: $140,000. “I don’t have that kind of money,” said Goff as she stood amid the wreckage of her old home, whose walls and ceiling were stripped away, leaving her leather furniture and a lifetime of possessions to bake in the sun. “That was all I had.”
Goff—who just wants to replace the wrecked 1,200-square-foot trailer that she bought 17 years ago for $46,000, including the cost of land—says she feels boxed in. Her mobile-home community won’t allow single-wide homes or older used models as replacements. And every home must have a carport. She’s willing to give up such upgrades as the higher-end countertops, but that probably won’t be enough. Between her Social Security check and income from her job at Ace Hardware Corp., she earns only about $23,000 a year. “I just want a home that’s equal to what I had,” she says. “My home was a beauty.”
“I get that higher-end countertops and kitchen islands are where the better margins are, but that’s also going to put homes out of reach for a lot of buyers,” says Doug Ryan, director of affordable homeownership at the Washington nonprofit Prosperity Now. “The storm is revealing a whole lot of problems in the low-cost housing market.”
Meanwhile, as we note frequently, while the cost of manufactured homes has surged, the pay for the bottom fifth of American wage earners has been somewhat stagnant for nearly two decades now. Even after a modest uptick recently, the bottom 20% of households have seen their income fall 9% since 2000, in real terms.
But, as low-income households have found it increasingly difficult to rebuild after devastating hurricanes, the surge in manufacturing home pricing has been a boon for billionaire Warren Buffett who made a big financial bet on the largest manufactured housing builder, Clayton Homes, back in 2003.
The industry, led by Warren Buffett’s Clayton Homes Inc., is peddling such pricey interior-designer touches as breakfast bars and his-and-her bathroom sinks. These extras, plus manufacturers’ increased costs for labor and materials, have pushed average prices for new double-wides up more than 20 percent in five years, putting them out of reach for many of the newly homeless.
Phil Lee, the 74-year-old founder of LeeCorp, has been riding a wave of retiring baby boomers who want affordable luxury. Driving a reporter in his black BMW SUV through Bayside Estates in Fort Myers Beach, where many of the fanciest homes he sells are installed, Lee points out units with pitched roofs that look almost indistinguishable from conventional homes, facing canals with boats tied outside. Their owners, former dentists, doctors, executives, and others, spent upwards of $150,000 to buy aging units just to clear the way for something more luxurious. On a palm-lined street flanked by ranks of 1970s-era trailers, Lee sees profit. “There’s no end to replacing these homes,” he says. “You get a hurricane in there and it really accelerates things.”
Terms such as “mobile home” or “trailer” are now verboten in an industry striving to break free of its downscale origins. Buffett’s Clayton Homes, which produces almost half of all new manufactured housing in the U.S. and competes with such companies as Cavco Industries Inc. and Champion Home Builders Inc., still builds lower-priced units, but there’s barely a sign of them on its website, which is mostly devoted to high-price models. The 2,000-square-foot Bordeaux features a separate tub and shower, a computer station, and a mud room, with prices starting at $121,000 and ranging as high as $238,000, not including delivery and installation costs. Clayton declined to comment.
Of course, while mobile homes are becoming increasingly cost-prohibitive for low-income families in Florida and Texas, Silicon Valley’s future tech billionaires can’t seem to get enough of them.