Mobile Home Park Mastery: Episode 118

Throwing Down the Gauntlet on Affordable Housing

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The U.S. is in an epic affordable housing shortage. Some people cannot afford even to live in a mobile home park, despite its low cost. So where can they go? Politicians say that building truly affordable housing is an impossible task. That’s nonsense. In this edition of the Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast series, we’re going to explore the exact ways that insanely affordable housing could be created in the U.S. for those who cannot fit into traditional housing metrics. Sure, it would take some outside-the-box thinking and some variances from building codes, but there’s no way that a country that put a man on the moon cannot provide housing for all Americans regardless of income.

Episode 118: Throwing Down the Gauntlet on Affordable Housing Transcript

In 1969, America put man on the moon. However, today, a half-century later, we simply can't seem to figure out portable housing. Well, I say that's nonsense. This is Frank Rolfe, the Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast series. We're going to be talking about why we can provide affordable housing in the US. And we're going to solve the entire affordable housing crisis right here on the podcast. So in roughly 10 minutes, we're going to go over the complete master plan that would allow cities across America to provide affordable housing, if only they would do it.

The first thing you have to know about affordable housing is the most inappropriate place to put it is actually in the big city. If you look at our friends, our neighbors in Canada, where do they put their affordable house? Well, they don't put it in the city. They put it about an hour out of the city, using the basic rationale that people who don't have gainful employment don't need to be in the city where the jobs are, but they can live much more inexpensively if they're outside of the city. I think that's something we should probably all look into. Why in the world would you have homeless shelters in the middle of an urban area when, clearly, you can buy a land and you can build and provide a much higher quality of life outside of the greater metro?

So the first part of building affordable housing for millions of people who need it, to eradicate all of our complexes of tents and things on the streets, or as I saw the other day in Chicago, a family of four sleeping on a concrete sidewalk with a thin little blanket over them, first step, let's think outside the box on location. You cannot build cheap housing in expensive areas. And let me point out that I was at a speech by someone who was giving a lecture on why we can't build affordable housing anymore in America. And their whole point was that a residential lot today costs roughly $80,000 in most metropolitan areas. Well, that's probably true. But I know where I can find land that might only be $1,000 or $2,000 an acre, right? Not inside the city. Let's push farther out.

Number two, let's give up the nonsense of building these same old stick-built structures that we build right now with custom homes and things like that, as part of the solution to affordable housing. Let's, instead, look a different direction. Let's look over to Russia. Russia and many other countries in that area use 3D-printed homes. They're really cool looking. Have you seen them? They're made out of plastic or some form of resin. This giant machine basically runs back and forth and back and forth, and prints these homes impeccably based on the design the programmers put into the computer. Or, if we can't get into 3D-printed homes, let's at least look at building modular or something less expensive. It drives me nuts when people talk about affordable housing and then try and fall back into old-fashioned building methods.

Look, for example, at Hawaii, which tried to build its own mobile home park a couple of years ago. By the time they got done building the park, and then these little stick-built structures on it, they were in it to the tune of about $300,000 per dwelling. Seriously? That's the best you can do with taxpayer money to address affordable housing? Unlikely, they'll build anymore in Hawaii. Why would they? You could buy a stick-built home in most US cities for less than that.

Number three, let's look at building super high-density housing communities, not in the style that we all traditionally think of with the living room and the dining room, but instead, let's model them after Airstream Village in Los Vegas, this Tony Hsieh's mobile home park that he built right there in urban Las Vegas, kind of an experiment in housing, because I guess he was really unhappy and bored living in a condominium in a high-rise building in Las Vegas. If you visit Airstream Village, which I have done, it's very interesting because of the angle that he took, the whole approach he took to providing affordable housing with kind of a cutting edge.

So here's what it is. You go in the entrance and you have a giant stage. Then you have two metal buildings. One metal building is a laundry, the other metal building is a business center where you have faxes and computers. And then everyone who lives in Airstream Village lives in just that, an Airstream trailer or a tiny home, very small, under 400 square feet. There's really not much in them except a bed and a dresser and possibly a chair and maybe a TV, and that's about it. Because you're not supposed to be in your Airstream trailer. You're not supposed to be in your tiny home at any time except to sleep. They want you outdoors with everybody else, enjoying the outdoors. They have communal theater on the stage. They have music festivals. They outdoor cook every meal there.

And so, maybe when we think of affordable housing, we need to think of a whole different lifestyle component. Maybe true affordable housing in the modern world isn't about building little miniature homes that have all the normal features of a regular home. Maybe it's an entirely different product. And you look at Airstream Village and how successful it has been, and it's quite obvious maybe that's the way you would want to do it. In fact, what they do in Airstream Village is, you don't just pay in money for rent. Everyone there has to donate a skill. And based on your skill, you either pay with your skill or money, or just your skill. And of course, if we were to build new affordable housing complexes on a whole new fresh sheet of paper, maybe that's something people should explore, having everyone that lives there donate their skill. Yes, I know it sounds a little bit like a commune, but maybe, if we're going to radically change affordable housing, we have to get a little radical.

The skills at Airstream Village range from people who are really good at cooking, they cook the communal meals, to entertainment, they're the ones up on the stage. There's one woman there that all she does is paint. So she'll paint your trailer, either inside or outside, with any design you like. And they're always looking for new ideas of ways to entertain, of ways to have a better life. In fact, they have a note board there and people are allowed to put up pictures or thoughts on the bulletin board for everyone to discuss openly, kind of a communal way of looking at how they can have a shared higher quality of life. I think it's probably a pretty good idea.

Next, you're going to have to put some serious teeth into the rules. When you look at most traditional affordable housing in the US, you see that, clearly, people don't pay much attention often to pride of ownership, condition of homes and yards. And of course, if we were talking about a higher density concept with people who may be a little more needy of help in meeting the rules, maybe you have to put a little more teeth into it. You can't just use and go by the general rules of the city. Maybe that's what's happened in a lot of urban markets that have tried to do affordable housing and abandoned it is, they felt it was out of control. Well, get it under control. The government can do these things. They can enact rules and they can enforce them. And as we all know, people need to live in a structured environment. So maybe we need to think outside the box, in fact, and what the rules of affordable housing would be, and how those would be enacted and enforced.

Next, you have to look at each of the components to affordable housing and say, "How do we do each of these cheaply?" Land, you're going to have to go outside the boundaries of the city to find cheap land. You're never going to find that in any urban market. To say you're going to build affordable housing inside of Chicago's metro is absurd. How would you ever do that? Mobile home park lot rents in that part of the world are often almost $1,000 a month. Give it up. You're not going to find land cheaply enough. If you push them about an hour out of the city, and possibly farther, then you can start finding land at low, low prices.

Next, you've got to build homes cheap. How do you do that? You think outside the box? Give up on stick-built designs. Look at new designs like 3D print, modular, whatever it takes to get the cost way down. And also, think about the size, in fact, that you should build. Perhaps we should not be building homes nearly as large as some people think, to provide truly affordable housing. Maybe the affordable housing component is nothing more than a bedroom. And maybe everything else falls into a communal shared area for entertainment. Finally, you have to have the upkeep cheap. There's no point in building an inexpensive home on inexpensive land, and then drown in upkeep costs. So it has to be very well-built. It has to be very well-thought out.

Now, are these three things possible? Is this something we could actually do? Well, of course we can do that. It can't be that hard. So then the question is, why don't we do it? Well, the first option would be, as a nation, we just don't care. We talk all the time about affordable housing, but it seems that the only people around who actually get involved in it are mobile home park owners. Everybody else just gives it lip service but doesn't do a darn thing. So maybe we just don't care. Is that true? Do we not care about affordable housing? Well, I hope the answer to that is that we do, as a nation, care about it. If you could've seen that family sleeping on the sidewalk in Chicago, I'm pretty sure you would've said, "Gosh, that's not a very good idea. We need to help those people." So hopefully, as a nation, we do care about affordable housing.

Number two, perhaps we don't provide it or think outside the box to make it happen because we're just all to stuck in some kind of form of graft and corruption in the Section 8 apartment industry. Is it true? I've always been very suspect of this whole situation between the government and Section 8 apartments. It seems that there always are new tax credits and issues that benefit apartment builders to build the supposed affordable housing, yet with absolutely no skin in the game on their part to ever actually create affordable housing because they get all the money they want on the rent paid by the US taxpayer under the Section 8 program.

Under that program, the resident only pays a certain portion of their income, which if they have no income is, in fact, zero. And we, the taxpayers, pay the full boat, full market rent on the apartment just as though it was rented to anybody else as Class A space. Why are we always following in that rut? I don't know. Perhaps we should ask our politicians why that is, because they seem perfectly fine with it. But hopefully, we can overcome that. I think most Americans are sick and tired of the ordinary at this point and want to look for something completely different.

Finally, perhaps the reason we can't do it is that bureaucrats are just lousy business people. Let's look at what happened in Hawaii. Was that a success story? Clearly not. No one would say that building affordable housing at the price of over 300,000 per unit was a success story. So I know that's wrong. And look at many of the other initiatives that the government tries to start and manage. They don't often work very well. Look at what happened in some major cities with their transit designs, cost overruns into the billions of dollars, leaving people scratching their heads with no idea how that could have occurred. But yet, it does. But the bottom line is affordable housing is in fact very achievable in Americ. If we basically would just think outside the box, stop wasting our time going down the same old-fashioned paths, say to ourselves, "This is something we want to do, and let's do it," the exact same way that we, ultimately, got the Apollo mission to land on the moon.

This is Frank Rolfe for Mobile Home Park Mastery Podcast Series, throwing down the gauntlet on affordable housing. I know we can do it. And I'll be back again next week.