They are home to families, seniors, working people and retirees of all ethnicities. They are found all over the Portland metropolitan region. If their inhabitants were their own city, they'd rank fifth among the 24 cities inside the regional urban growth boundary.
And they are increasingly vulnerable, as the same real estate pressures increase the value of land under them and threaten to displace their residents.
Tuesday at Metro Regional Center, a panel of experts discussed the precarious position of manufactured homes, Oregon's largest source of unregulated affordable housing. They also shared some hopeful signs for preserving and possibly even expanding access in the future.
Here are four key takeaways from the discussion.
1. Much of what you think you know about manufactured homes is probably wrong.
Decades of cultural baggage have fueled a common perception of manufactured homes.
And much of that perception is wrong.
Manufactured home residents make up a broader cross-section of Portland-area residents than many realize. According to the Washington, DC-based nonprofit Corporation for Enterprise Development, more than 64,000 people live in 29,100 manufactured homes across the Portland metro area. Nearly two-thirds of these homes are in the region's 290 manufactured home communities. Three-quarters of manufactured home residents own their homes.
Manufactured homeowners tend to have lower incomes than other homeowners, but earn about the same and have the same education as renters in the region. More than half are families with kids.
And manufactured homes represent an increasingly rare affordable homeownership opportunity for people with lower incomes. Fully three-fifths of manufactured housing is affordable – with mortgages costing less than 30 percent of monthly household income for poorer families, compared to just one-fifth of other housing types.
2. That hot real estate market? It's affecting manufactured homes too.
In most of the region's manufactured home communities, residents own their home but not the land underneath it. And like a lot of land in a growing region, that land is worth a lot more than it used to be. This puts pressure on owners to sell, said panelist Chelsea Catto, who directs a program to protect manufactured housing for nonprofit CASA of Oregon.
Catto said there tend to be two kinds of owners of manufactured home communities: Mom-and-pop operations who might own just one park and might even live on it, and large corporate owners, many of them out-of-state, who tend to own larger communities.
Those corporate owners tend to be interested in expanding their portfolios, Catto said, but they will sell to investors or developers if they get a good offer. Mom-and-pop owners, meanwhile, can be understandably swayed by a generous offer from either a corporate owner or developer.
In both cases that can end poorly for communities' residents: Either the rent goes up so the new owner can reap more profit, or the eviction notices are posted so the site can be redeveloped entirely.
Displacement is a rising concern for residents – who, although they own their home and might be able to move it, often can't find a place to relocate. That could force them to sell their homes, sometimes at a significant loss.
Oregon and some of its local governments have policies that can help keep residents in their communities.
A state law strengthened by the Legislature in 2014, requires landlords to give the community's residents an opportunity to collectively buy the land under their homes, said panelist Edward Brown with Oregon Housing and Community Services. Oregon also offers a tax credit to lenders who provide reduced interest rates for loan to allow residents, nonprofits or housing authorities to purchase parks. The state also offers a tax credit for owners of communities who sell to such groups.
Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties all have additional policies to provide sites for manufactured homes and ensure they are high-quality. Clackamas County has the strongest protections for residents of these communities, requiring an approved plan for relocating existing tenants before redevelopment of a park.
Residents might like the idea of buying the land they live on, but it's daunting. So organizations like CASA of Oregon are stepping in to try to help, Catto said. Her organization's Manufactured Housing Cooperative Development Center, Catto has helped nine manufactured home communities across the state to organize residents into a cooperative ownership of their community. CASA provides technical assistance, helps secure financing and assists with long-term governance of the cooperative.
Creating a manufactured home community cooperative is tough work, Catto said. It requires flexible and patient lenders, building trust with residents and, often, significant investments to improve basic infrastructure like streets and sewers in the community. And it can be a race against time, as many landowners want to sell quickly and the competition is sometimes ready to pay with cash.
Panelist Pat Kuhn lives in the 76-home Clackamas River Community Cooperative near Happy Valley, which entered cooperative ownership in 2012 with help from CASA. Kuhn, 75, moved to Portland with his wife three years ago from Texas, seeking to downsize in retirement. They moved a new home into the community, which has a variety of families, seniors and adult residents.
Catto said it cost $5 million for the residents to buy the community, plus another $117,000 in infrastructure improvements, adding up to roughly $67,000 per home. CASA worked to provide financing to the cooperative, which must raise the money to eventually pay off the loan.
Since the residents entered cooperative ownership, rent has stabilized. Moreover, Kuhn said, resident ownership pays other dividends to the community.
"There's a lot of pride in ownership," Kuhn said.
The community's website also notes another benefit: "We are secure," the website reads. "There's no commercial owner who can decide to close the community."
4. New manufactured homes could be part of future affordable housing options.
"There hasn't been a new manufactured home community in the Portland region in a really long time," said Carolyn O'Doherty, an affordable housing developer with nonprofit Innovative Housing, Inc.
Most manufactured homes are older. The vast majority in the Portland region were built before 1999, with roughly 40 percent built before 1980.
But could manufactured homes have a role in the region's future affordable housing portfolio?
Possibly. With support from Meyer Memorial Trust, Innovative Housing is exploring the potential of building two new manufactured housing communities in the region, one in Portland and one in another community.
Today's manufactured homes don't look like the older ones many people think of, O'Doherty said. They tend to be as energy-efficient and high-quality as many traditional houses.
While they've come close to securing a site in Portland, O'Doherty said, it's been hard to find suitable locations. One problem is just finding a big enough piece of land to develop. Another: zoning codes. Most communities only allow manufactured homes in specific areas without special permission, and that can add a lot of delay, cost and uncertainty.
Site development costs are higher than a multifamily site, as well, O'Doherty said, because streets and pipes must be part of the project. But because of some of the unique benefits of a manufactured home community – such as the possibility of ownership – O'Doherty noted that it's not an "apples to apples" comparison.
But there does seem to be demand. Pat Kuhn said vacancies are rare in his community. When someone moves away, someone else moves in quickly.
"We haven't had a single loss of a month's rent in two years," Kuhn said, noting that many of the residents are upgrading their homes, a sign that they expect to stay. "I see nothing but growth for this kind of home."
"People who can't afford a three, four, five-thousand dollar home can come live here," Kuhn added. "They can still afford to do that."
More manufactured home resources
This event was the second of an occasional lunchtime learning series hosted by Metro's Equitable Housing Initiative and the Oregon Opportunity Network, exploring ways to expand diverse, quality, affordable and accessible housing options in the Portland region. See video from the first event, exploring "missing middle" housing like cottage clusters and duplexes.