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Did You Say Mobile Homes as Chic Affordable Housing?

Ur-New Urbanist Andres Duany bucks some dogma and orthodoxy on the housing crisis.

The following is a lightly-edited extract from a podcast conversation I had with Andres Duany, a principal founder of the New Urbanist movement. In it, Duany proposes the mobile home as an intelligent response to the affordable housing crisis—bucking the dogma and the orthodoxies of our horrified New Urbanist colleagues. The full interview can be heard here (no paywall).

Kunstler: I know for a couple of years now you’ve been studying the mobile home industry, mainly as a way of figuring out how to deliver affordable dwellings to people. This has raised a lot of ire among our fellow New Urbanists, who can’t process the idea. What did you learn from all this?

Duany: It’s not ire. They think I’ve lost my mind. It’s like pity. Okay, first of all where does it come from? (And it took me a long time to arrive at this.) Most people don’t understand how much subsidized affordable housing Liz [Plater-Zyberk] and I have built, because we never show it. We’ve done so much affordable housing for agricultural laborers, for black communities. It’s nice-looking—actually we’ve gotten some prizes. Why don’t we show it? I never show it because you might ask me how much it costs. And it actually costs twice as much as regular market housing. With government subsidies everything blows up in expense. Now, I know very well that there will not be money for subsidies any longer, but there are ways to deliver housing that costs much less to build without a subsidy. And the mobile home industry delivers at the most $50 a square foot. Regular market housing is never less than $130 a foot, and when the government gets involved it’s $300 a foot. I heard today that the affordable housing built in San Francisco is $900,000 a unit. And that cost doesn’t include the real estate. So, it’s absurd. 

So, I backed into the mobile home industry and I realized that they had solved the problem technically. They know how to build it. And, by the way, it’s not like the 1960s mobile homes, the ones that are collapsing. These are much, much better. The codes have improved tremendously. But they still look horrible.

So, what we have is a cultural problem, not a technical problem. Whenever you see new mobile homes, they’re not new parks, they’re old ones being refurbished, switching out the units. You can’t get new ones permitted. But what happens is nobody wants them [anywhere near them] because they’re so distinctly for “losers.” Now, parenthetically, they’re not “losers.” They’re actually people who don’t make enough money to get any other kind of house, and very often they have jobs and everything else. Many are down on their luck, but they’re not dysfunctional people on the whole. They’re paying every month for the charges and for the unit and maintaining them. Don’t think they’re “losers.” They’re just people on a low burn-rate.

But the mobile home industry has cultural problem. The reason is that the mobile home tries desperately to look like conventional housing, with the little pitched roofs, the clapboards, the little shutters. When you compare them to conventional houses, they’re always less good. If you compare them to the 1950s houses by Philip Johnson in Connecticut, the great houses by the chic architects of the ‘50s for the Houston oil people, which are flat-roofed boxes with sliding glass doors—they’re ultra-chic, particularly these days when everybody loves mid-century modern. So, instead of making my mobile homes look like “shotgun” houses, we redesign them to look like mid-century modern.

Suddenly they’re so much better! You know how the [shipping] container houses are so popular? Well, those are actually miserable inside. They’re only eight feet wide and so forth. So, you pick up the aesthetic of the container house in mid-century modern, and suddenly you have a winner—and it’s $90 a square foot! It’s not $50 anymore, but that’s still $100, $200, $300 less than stick-built housing. We’re hacking the industry’s technical abilities, and over-laying on it a very advanced aesthetic. It’s no longer the dwellings of losers but the dwellings of winners.

Kunstler: Part of your idea was a way to provide housing in the big corporate parking lots of companies like Google and Apple, that don’t pay their tech workers enough to live otherwise in these high-priced places, right?

Duany: The kids at Google are earning, minimum, 150,000, okay? God knows maybe more than that. And they’re still commuting an hour and sharing a ranch house somewhere. The traffic jams are unbelievable. So, we said, “why not use the parking lots?” The tiny houses that we design meet the standards of the Department of Motor Vehicles. We followed that code, so they’re legal to park in parking lots. You put them there instead of the car, and the kids don’t have to commute. And they’re very, very chic. They’ve got leather chairs, they’re finished with Japanese interiors, full baths, queen-sized beds. They’re definitely not for losers. They’re cool. They’re not…a ranch house somewhere! We tried so hard and spent a lot of extra money so that they would not be associated with losers. They’d be associated with people who have a choice. This housing is for people with master’s degrees, okay? I say that not to be cruel to everybody else but just to get the damn things permitted, approved by the neighborhood.

James Howard Kunstler is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow. He is the author of numerous books on urban geography and economics, including his recent work, Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.



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