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Can Idaho’s modular-home builders help with affordable housing?

Troy Langford stands on stilts while drywall mudding the interior of a modular apartment unit in 2012 at Guerdon Enterprises in Boise.
Troy Langford stands on stilts while drywall mudding the interior of a modular apartment unit in 2012 at Guerdon Enterprises in Boise. doswald@idahostatesman.com

In earlier columns, we explored how Idaho can meet its massive need for affordable housing. We examined pocket neighborhoods. We considered an opportunity village and Boise’s need to use tax credits to help house the homeless.

This time, let’s consider two ideas: modular construction and new means of financing.

Modular or manufactured homes cost roughly half as much as conventional homes and can be built quickly. I’ve snobbishly dismissed this form of shelter as flimsy or unworthy. It serves 18 million Americans having an average income of $30,000.

I can’t do that any longer. If you dream as I do of home ownership for Idahoans, many of whom spend as much as half their income on shelter, we must consider building many units in one place at a low cost.

By one estimate, south and south-central Idaho need an additional 10,000 units of affordable housing. They will not be built on the course we are on now. Maybe, however, a longstanding regional industry can expand to meet this challenge.

There were once 14 manufactured-home builders in south and south-central Idaho. Now there are five or six, with at least three building successfully in the oil patch. With oil prices low, they might be looking closer to home, perhaps with a sharper pencil.

The most celebrated new homeless house project in the United States this year has been the Star Apartments in Los Angeles. And who built and shipped its main building components to LA? Guerdon Modular Buildings of Boise. Nashua, Champion and Fleetwood are in the same business and have Idaho factories.

Garden City has hundreds of manufactured homes from a previous era, many in bad shape, which are slowly being pushed out. But residents pay about $400 a month to rent their lots and often nearly that much for the dwelling itself. Many could afford to buy and own.

That brings us to financing. In neighboring states, mobile park dwellers have formed cooperatives to buy their developments. There are seven in Montana alone. Nationwide, 10,000 owners have become owners in this fashion. According to the Urban Land Institute, 16 private national housing funds are “delivering significant financial returns” in the affordable-housing space.

These efforts show what might be possible in Idaho. Stay tuned.

Jerry Brady is a member of Compassionate Boise, a new organization encouraging compassion in all aspects of life. jbrady2389@gmail.com. This column is part of the Aug. 17-Septe. 20, 2016 edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine.

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