Some cities have started restricting the age of homes that you can bring in to fill vacant lots. But can they legally do that? And what do you do if they decide to give it a try? In this Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast we’re going to explore how to correctly address this issue.
Episode 305: All About Home Age Restrictions Transcript
The federal agency, HUD, says that all mobile homes built since 1976 were created equal, but some cities don't agree with that. This is Frank Rolfe, The Mobile Home Park Mastery Podcast. We're gonna talk about when cities put age restrictions on homes that can be brought into vacant lots in mobile home parks.
Now, let's go back first to where the HUD stands on this topic, because prior to 1976 mobile homes were built by anyone who wanted to build one. It could be a hobbyist, it could be a manufacturing company. And then in 1976 HUD took over the industry of manufacturing of mobile homes, and they said that any mobile home created from that point forward had to have it fixed, on each section of the home, a HUD seal, and that HUD seal basically proclaimed that that home was built in compliance with HUD, that HUD reviewed the plans and that HUD was reviewing the factories. And it's been the law in the United States since '76.
And HUD doesn't see any difference between something that rolled off the assembly line the very first day of enactment, all the way to something that came off the assembly line yesterday. But some cities have started to take the position that somehow there's an age restriction on homes that they can put into effect. So a city might say, "Well, if you wanna fill a vacant lot in your mobile home park, the home has to be a certain age, or newer." Might be five years, it might be 10 years. It might be from a certain date forward, let's say 2020. So the first question is, can they actually legally do that? Well, the answer is probably no, they can't, because mobile home parks are built in three categories; legal-conforming, which means you can build it again today, legal nonconforming, which means it was built legally at that point in history, and therefore, you can continue on with that use in perpetuity, unless you abandoned it typically for 180 days, or illegal.
Now, if your park is illegal, there's no question the age restriction doesn't matter, because your park's gonna be shut down. But if your park is legal, whether it's legal-conforming or legal non-conforming, there's nothing in any of those state laws regarding the ability to restrict the age of homes. And we all know the only thing you can do that surpasses the powers of grandfathering is health and safety. So for example, if you had a mobile home park built in 1950 and the mobile home park allowed people to park on the streets on either side and an ambulance can't get down those streets, the city could demand that one side of the street would become a fire lane so it can pass. Or if the fire marshal says that these two mobile homes are too close together, they're only 5 feet apart, so if one caught on fire, the fire might jump to the next, they could require you to remove one of those homes. But the age of homes has nothing to do with health and safety, because HUD itself has proclaimed that every home since 1976 is completely safe. So those arguments don't work.
So why do cities even do this? Well, they do this because they're hoping by raising the bar of the cost of the home, it will basically keep out lesser affluent customers out of the city. So their thought is if they required that no mobile home to be brought in can be older than 10 years old, that that would guarantee a home that's built since the 2000s, a home that they hope will cost $50,000-$60,000, and that will keep out the hoi polloi, the people they don't want in their city boundaries. It's just flat out discrimination and nothing more. There's no other way you can really spin it. There's no other reason why they would declare that a home that's 5 years or 10-years -old is superior to one that's 11 years or 15 or 20-years-old. So what do you do if a city tries to take one of these positions as a park owner? Well, the first thing is how many vacant lots do you have? And if the answer is only one or two, it's probably not worth the effort to fight it. Just follow it. Go ahead and get a home that's within the age range the city is mandating and be done with it. So sometimes a better part of valor is just to not get engaged in that fight at all, it's not worth it, it's not worth the hassle, it's not worth burning the bridge with the city, it's not worth the legal fees.
But let's assume you have a larger number of lots. Maybe you have 10 lots, or 20 vacant lots, then what do you do? Well, the first thing you do is you go to fact-finding tour. You call your state mobile home association. Every state has one, except Hawaii. And say, "Hey, what is the case law in the state? What has your experience been? What do you know about the idea of age restriction on the homes?" And see if there is, in fact, any case law. If the answer is, "Oh yeah, well, this city over here tried it and they got sued and they lost in court," well, that's valuable information, because you might be able to take that case to the city and say, "Look, City, you know, you have no ground to stand on. You're gonna lose." But you wanna first get all the information you can as far as whether such a rule passes muster or not. And then what you wanna do is you want to think, "How can I get what I want, which is to have all age of homes included, without having to go to war over it?" And there may be a plan to do that. That plan typically would go, revolve around, going to the city, going through the zoning department or the council, whichever would be the correct party, and try and get a variance for your mobile home park to not have to meet the age restriction of the homes.
And if you're gonna do that, the correct way to do that is you go to all of the council members or zoning officials in advance and meet with them one-on-one, or give them a presentation at least, to try and sway their vote before you ever go to the hearing, because you're gonna find that most people who go to a council meeting or a zoning hearing, they've already made their decision before they show up at the meeting. So if you think you're gonna convince them in person on that night, you're wrong. You've already either won or lost, even though you don't know it before you go in the room. And if you're in the mobile home park business, well, you probably lost, because they don't really love mobile home park owners. But the key pitch you would have to the officials is, "Look, I understand you wanna have nice-looking homes, I understand you wanna have a better class of customer, but here's what a modern mobile home looks like, here's a nice 8 x 10 color photo, and here's what a 1990s home looks like," with a color photo, and show them that they're identical, because they are. There's not any difference between a vinyl-sided shingled roofed home from the '90s and one that's new. While the interiors of mobile homes have changed over time, the exteriors haven't changed much at all. And see if you can still amiably get what you want without having to fight City Hall.
It doesn't cost much to do that. All you have to do is file whatever fee you have to do to be on the docket for the variance. And who knows? You just might win. But let's say you don't win. They turn you down. They say, "No, no, we're holding firm, it's gotta be five years or newer, or 10 years or newer," whatever they're claiming, well, then what do you do? Well, the first thing you would do is you would go to all the other park owners, 'cause I assume they're all suffering under the same mandate, particularly the parkers who have lots of vacant lots, and join forces, because this is an issue that affects everyone. There's no reason to go it alone. So just team up together. It'll share legal cost. It'll also make you look more dangerous to the city, because now if you're going to sue for damages, your damages will be a whole lot higher.
Next, I would go to the state mobile home association and say, "Who in the association, as an attorney, is best-suited for this issue? Who do you know who'd be the most successful municipal lawyer in suing the city on this? Do you have any recommendations?" And start going through various members of the association who are attorneys who practice municipal law, see if you can find someone who is a good fit for the case. If you do, then everyone as a group can pay the legal fee, divided equally, and have them go to the city and initially demand that they retract this age issue, that it's not actually legal. Sometimes cities will bail just upon receiving the letter. They'll say, "Oh, well, I don't wanna pick a fight with this." And the city attorney may say, "You know, these guys are right. You're gonna lose if we go forward with us." So that's one way it's often starts. In other cases, you may actually have to file a suit to get it changed. Often when the city gets served that suit, their attitude changes abruptly, because now they realize they have skin in the game. Big legal fees, and if they lose, big judgements.
Another thing you can do is you can go to HUD and file a discrimination claim. It's 100%, discrimination, there's no question, 'cause you can't come up with any other reason to try and claim that a home that is more than five years or 10 years, or whatever the regulation may be, is in any way less of a home, because HUD has already declared that they're the same. So your position with HUD would be that they're simply trying to weed out people who are less affluent. Or you can make the argument based on your location that they're actually trying to weed out, by definition, less affluent people who they feel fall in any certain restrictive category. But go to HUD, and get HUD in there and see what happens. And then it also doesn't hurt to go ahead and go to the media and tell them exactly what is going on and see if you can get grass-root support from the media. The media would probably find such an idea very interesting. The city would be trying to enact age restrictions on mobile homes, when the government has no age restriction, when the government stands behind the product and says, "No, they're all created equal," and suddenly the city is trying to discriminate for no good reason.
Now, I had this happen once back in the 1990s. I had a city that went rogue down in Dallas-Fort Worth. It's one of the small suburban city. And what they did was they decided one day they would charge all the park owners a per lot annual permit fee that was extremely excessive. It was like $100 per lot per year. So if you had a 100 space park, they wanted an annual permit fee of $10,000. So what did I do? Well, I got all the other community owners together, because we were all gonna be impacted. We all agreed to share the legal fees. We went to the Texas Mobile Home Association. They gave us a really good municipal lawyer name. We called all of them up. We found the person who was the perfect match. We had them go to the city, and they said, "Look, you can't do this, this is against state law." Now, low and behold, after little nudging, they bailed and retracted it all. You can beat City Hall if you fight in force. And you can out-smart City Hall if you use good strategy. The key item though is that you have to do something. Do not let the city tell you or enact these kinds of restrictions which are completely unfair.
This is Frank Rolfe, The Mobile Home Park Mastery Podcast. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.