Urban Lawyer

Zoning Barriers to Manufactured Housing

by Daniel R. Mandelker


Stamper Professor of Law, Washington University in Saint Louis. He would like to thank Rummin (Ivy) Gao for her extensive and excellent research, and Dorie Bertram, Director of Public Services and Lecturer in Law, and Kathie Molyneaux, Interlibrary Loan Assistant, Access Services, for their help in finding resources. Rummin (Ivy) Gao, Robert Kuehn, Lois Starkey and Ed Sullivan read and offered suggestions for this article. He would also like to thank Dean Nancy Staudt and the law school for their financial support. Statutes cited in this article were current as of the date of publication.

Manufactured housing is a major affordable housing resource for millions of people. Today's models of manufactured housing can resemble tradtional housing and must satisfy national construction and safety standards. Despite these similiarities and safeguards, zoning barriers are all too common. This article discusses case and statutory law that considers the problem of zoning barriers to manufactured housing. It finds the case law largely hostile and that national and state legislation provide only limited protection. Legislative changes are required.

Part I describes the manufactured housing segment of the housing stock and its characteristics. It finds no basis for zoning barriers in objections that manufactured housing requires different treatment from traditional housing. Part II discusses the federal law that authorizes construction and safety standards for manufactured housing, the national code that contains these standards, and the extent to which the statute preempts local regulation. It does not preempt restrictive local zoning, except possibly when it is applied unequally. Part III discusses case and statutory law that deals with unequal zoning restrictions on manufactured housing; exclusions from residential zones; aesthetic standards; and requirements for approving manufactured housing as a conditional use. Case law is practically unanimous in upholding restrictive zoning and decisions denying the approval of manufactured housing as a conditional use. Statutory protections are avail- able in a number of states, but they are limited and may authorize aesthetic standards without recognizing their potential for exclusion. Recommendations for legislative change suggested by this article would open up the zoning system for manufactured housing and restrict its rejection as a conditional use. Part IV recommends revisions in the federal law to require procedural protections in decision making under local ordinances and to preempt zoning barriers to manufactured housing. Part V concludes.

Recent reports show a growing affordable housing crisis.1 These reports show a growing increase in excessive rental costs and housing prices that make housing unaffordable for a significant number of households in many areas.2 Low income individuals cannot find housing at prices and rents they can afford. The housing affordability crisis makes favorable zoning treatment of manufactured housing even more critical, as it has significant affordability advantages over site-built traditional housing.

I.  The Manufactured Housing Segment of the Housing Stock and the Zoning Barrier Problem

There are now 8.6 million manufactured homes3 in this country,4 which is about 6.5% of the national housing stock.5 About half of all manufactured homes are in rural areas, and their percentage of the housing stock varies by region.6 Southern states have more than the national average.7 How a manufactured home is built has an important influence on the zoning barriers it attracts. Either it is built as a single, single-wide unit, or double-wide unit, which are two units manufactured in tandem at the factory and attached at the site.8 Fifty-three percent of homes recently shipped are double-wide.9 There is a significant cost advantage to manufactured homes. When structure, transport, installation, land, and site development costs are included, one study found the total purchase price of a manufactured home might be as much as 75% less than the cost of a traditional home of comparable size and quality.10

Zoning barriers persist despite the cost advantage of manufactured housing as a source of affordable housing.11 One study found that burdensome zoning codes, such as the lack of by-right zoning, architectural design standards, and a lack of buildable land all had a negative effect on sales of manufactured homes.12 Burdensome architectural design standards had the greatest negative effect.13 Zoning burdens take several forms, such as a total exclusion, an exclusion from residential zones, and requirements that manufactured housing be limited to manufactured housing parks.14 A lack of by-right zoning means a manufactured home must seek approval through a conditional use or other procedure, which municipalities can use to keep them out of the community.

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