Habitat Turning to Modular Homes

Habitat Turning to Modular Homes BALTIMORE, MD - Cherise Jones is so excited to be buying a home - a new home - that she drops by the site two or three times a week just to look. This morning, it's only a foundation, one of nine on a vacant East Baltimore block. Next month, Jones' home will be complete.

Tonight, Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake is trucking in modular houses to set on the foundations, a first for the nonprofit and an emerging trend in affordable-housing efforts. Factory-built houses aren't just quick to put up, they're cheaper than homes constructed on-site. Advocates for lower-income residents are realizing that, done right, there's nothing of the much-maligned trailer park about houses coming off today's assembly lines.

Habitat's incoming modular units, which will be set over basements, are two-story rowhouses with brick facades. They're also designed to be energy-efficient and have cleaner indoor air than many homeowners breathe.

"I think it's really innovative," said Mike Mitchell, chief executive of the nonprofit, an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International.

Matt Metzger, the local group's director of construction, sees in modular housing the potential for "a model that makes a lot of sense for Baltimore."

"The city has vacant lots all around, this size or larger," Metzger said.

Most factory-built housing is placed in rural settings, but the Manufactured Housing Institute is seeing more urban examples. "They can go in tight spaces; they can be designed for narrow lots," said Thayer Long, executive vice president of the trade group, which also represents the modular-housing industry.

Modular housing is engineered to meet local building codes. Manufactured housing, its bigger cousin, follows federal building codes and accounts for about 1.7 million of the homes added to the U.S. landscape in the past decade.

"Manufactured housing is the major source of unsubsidized affordable housing in America," said Andrea Levere, president of CFED, a Washington nonprofit that works to increase economic opportunities for low- and moderate-income Americans.

But until recently, affordable-housing groups have not worked to get people into factory-built homes; if anything, they have done the reverse. That's because many owners of manufactured homes lease the land, which means they can end up with nowhere to put the house if the landowner decides to redevelop. Homebuyers using rented land also do not have the same mortgage options available to someone getting a traditional "stick-built" house.

CFED is working nationally to change that, developing new methods of financing and helping homeowners convert manufactured-housing communities into co-operatives.

"This is not the answer to all affordable-housing problems, but this is a very important answer," Levere said.

Habitat's modular-home buyers are getting the whole package, land and all, with no-interest loans from the organization. Including pricey site work but not the cost to buy the land, each house cost Habitat $120,000. When the group built homes from scratch last year in Southwest Baltimore, the construction and site work totaled nearly $160,000 per house.

And that's despite the fact that Habitat keeps its construction costs low with an army of volunteers.

"The materials are exactly the same," said Long, with the Manufactured Housing Institute. "They're just building it more efficiently in the factory."

Habitat hopes its modular units will be better for the homeowners, too. They're tightly sealed to cut down on expensive leaks of heated or air-conditioned air. They were also designed to keep moisture and chemicals from building up inside and damaging air quality. The cabinets are low-formaldehyde models. The paint and adhesives were chosen for their low levels of volatile organic compounds. Each home's bathroom and kitchen vent to the outdoors, and the flooring is laminate - no carpets to trap allergens.

"You just change that at the factory level," said Rebecca Morley, executive director of the Columbia-based National Center for Healthy Housing, who worked with Habitat on the project. "I didn't realize how much customization was possible. ... I thought, 'Wow, they really can accomplish a lot from a health and safety standpoint under these controlled conditions.' "

Jones, 44, who is buying one of the three-bedroom homes, is delighted that they're new. The townhouse she rents in Middle River leaks. She's so keyed up to move herself and her 16-year-old daughter that it's all she can think about.

"I can't even sleep at night," said Jones, a mechanical maintenance technician for the city. "Can't wait."

She plans to be in the 2400 block of Fayette St. tonight when trucks bring in the first of the modular homes. Each will be transported in two pieces - first story and second story - and will be set on its foundation with a crane.

Habitat expects that all nine houses will be in place by Saturday morning. The painting, landscaping and other finishing work will be done by volunteers over nine days, the last scheduled in October. Compared to the rowhouse renovations that Habitat typically does in Baltimore, that's light speed.
Source: BaltimoreSun.com

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