Fight is on for mobile homes
Published: Tuesday, February 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 1, 2005 at 1:05 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Florida's mobile home industry was prepared for a fight with lawmakers this year.
Industry lobbyists feared the photos of thousands of mobile homes crushed like cheap tin by last year's hurricanes would start a legislative push to toughen mobile home standards and maybe even ban them from coastal communities.
The Florida Manufactured Housing Association began laying a defense late last year. They prepared a Web site - www.builtstronger.com - and information for news media and lawmakers, complete with testimonials of happy mobile home owners who rode the storm out in Charlotte County.
They touted state studies that showed newer homes survived the storms intact. And they maintained a stream of campaign spending, giving nearly $100,000 to lawmakers in 2004.
But as it turns out, the hurricanes may end up creating a boom for mobile home builders rather than a PR disaster. Instead of pushing for tougher standards on mobile homes, lawmakers are praising the resilience of the newer homes and crafting plans to entice owners of older mobile homes to buy newer, safer ones.
''We kind of expected after all the negative press that there might be some (efforts to toughen building standards),'' FMHA Executive Director Frank Williams said. ''But we felt we were in good shape.''
Most of the state's mobile homes don't meet the new standards. Williams estimated that nearly two-thirds of the state's 1.2 million mobile homes were built before 1994.
That's motivating lawmakers to consider ways to help owners of older mobile homes to buy newer models that, by almost all accounts, weathered last year's hurricanes incredibly well.
The state agency that regulates mobile homes, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, found that not one mobile home built after tougher standards were mandated in 1994 was ''seriously damaged'' in a survey of seven Florida counties, including Polk and Charlotte.
Rep. John Stargel, R-Lakeland, represents parts of Polk County, which has more mobile homes than any other county. He was shocked by the way mobile home communities weathered the hurricanes.
''The newer models were standing and they were in great shape and the mobile homes next to them were scattered,'' Stargel said. ''That tells me that we don't need to go and toughen standards more than what we have.''
Authorities agreed, saying the better-built homes and new state requirements for ''tie-downs'' to secure them to the ground make them nearly as good as traditional ''site-built'' homes.
Charlotte County emergency director Wayne Sallade rode out Charley at the airport where he measured winds of up to 165 mph. He expected the worst when he visited the mobile home community of Ventura Lakes, about one mile from the airport.
''We did not lose one (mobile home) there," Sallade said. All of the homes there were built after 1994 when the state mandated tougher standards following Hurricane Andrew. Sallade added that in other parks in the county with older mobile homes, more than half of the homes were destroyed. Not all lawmakers, however, are content with current standards.
Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said he's not convinced that the state shouldn't tighten rules on the durability of mobile homes and where they can be located.
''They're trying to convince us that post-'94 mobile homes did as well (during the hurricanes) as site-built homes. I'm not convinced they're quite as good,'' Alexander said. ''They clearly did better than before, I'll grant them that.''
Alexander would not specify any firm ideas to make mobile homes safer.
"I would hope we would take a look at it,'' he said, adding that the reluctance of insurers to take on older mobile home policies means higher rates for the entire state. ''All of us pay for it.''
The state says there are nearly 1.2 million mobile homes in Florida. Polk County has more than any other county - nearly 90,000. Marion County is fifth, with nearly 47,000. But most of the counties with the densest per capita measure of mobile homes lie in rural North Florida, such as Suwannee, Gilchrist and Levy counties. In those counties, there is one mobile home for every three residents. Williams said the average cost of a manufactured house is $50,000.
Stargel said mobile homes are the only affordable option for many Floridians. He hopes to phase out the older homes by offering incentives to buy newer models. He successfully changed a bill passed in December to allow a $1,500 sales tax rebate to anyone buying a new mobile home to replace one damaged by a hurricane.
Stargel said he will try to change the application deadline for that rebate from May 1 to later this year, saying there is up to a six-month wait to get a mobile home now due to increased demand. It will take a long time, he said, to eliminate the estimated 800,000 mobile homes that don't meet current standards.
''This is not going to happen overnight,'' he said. ''We know (the older mobile homes) are unsafe. But the people living in them are the ones that generally can least afford to move forward.''
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