FEMA “Small Footprint” HUD Code Temporary Emergency Housing Idea Begins on Wrong Track


MHARR logoThe Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) held an “industry day” conference on June 7, 2011, to explain its concept of a “small footprint” HUD Code “temporary housing unit” (THU) for post-disaster relief and to obtain input and feedback regarding this concept from manufacturers. The all-day public conference in Washington, D.C. was attended by MHARR staff and representatives of a substantial number of MHARR and other HUD Code manufacturers, as well as third-party Primary Inspection Agencies (PIAs), retailers, suppliers and others.

From the extensive and detailed discussion at the meeting, as explained in greater detail below, it is apparent that the FEMA THU concept, while well-intended, is heading down the wrong track from the start and needs to be re-calibrated if it is ultimately to prove beneficial for those in need of post-disaster relief housing, the taxpayers who will be footing the bill for this initiative, and the industry.

FEMA envisions the “small footprint” THU as a HUD Code compliant home between 350 and 550 square feet in size, with two bedrooms and an average living space of approximately 400 square feet. The size is driven by FEMA’s interest in having the flexibility to place THU units on existing (size-limited) lots of displaced homeowners awaiting repairs to – or replacement of – disaster-damaged permanent homes. FEMA emphasized, however, that any possible future procurement of these smaller THU units would be in addition to – and not in lieu of – larger 3-bedroom HUD Code homes that have been purchased under existing FEMA emergency housing contracts. While this concept could result in greater FEMA use of HUD Code manufactured homes for post-disaster relief, significant potential pitfalls for occupants, the taxpaying public and the industry became quickly apparent during the course of the presentation and exchanges on various issues – thus the need for a course correction.


First, the FEMA THU concept potentially blurs the lines between temporary emergency (relief) housing and permanent replacement housing in a way that could – and would – ultimately prove costly to users, taxpayers and the industry. As part of its explanation of the THU concept, FEMA addressed the “marketability” of “small footprint” units after their use as emergency relief housing. FEMA pointed to – and asked about – possible configurations of small footprint units that could have potential appeal for sale or use as permanent post-disaster housing.

But, the attempted or actual use of extremely small THU units – that could and would be characterized as “trailers” – as permanent housing, could be damaging to the market image of the industry and could undermine the acceptance of both HUD Code temporary relief housing and permanent replacement housing by localities and communities. The industry has worked for decades to distance itself and its product from the “trailers” of yesteryear. It worked for years to pass the Manufactured Housing Improvement Act of 2000 to secure the status of manufactured homes as “housing” and equal to all other types of housing. The attempted introduction of small THU units, as permanent replacement housing, would be a major setback to those efforts, which are always ongoing. Just as importantly, it could seriously harm the inclusion of HUD Code housing as permanent replacement units in areas that have been completely devastated by natural disasters, such as Joplin, Missouri and Cordova, Alabama.

Instead of trying to shoe-horn the THU concept into both emergency relief and permanent replacement applications, FEMA, if it uses THU units, should designate, design, purchase and offer those units strictly as temporary relief housing, to be used for a limited duration – such as 18-24 months (and no more), based on FEMA experience, a figure with which MHARR concurs. Limiting such units to temporary use, combined with the performance-based HUD Code, supplemented, as necessary, with performance-based contract specifications, will produce the most effective unit at the lowest cost and provide the shortest delivery time – a significant factor for FEMA, which properly observed that its post-disaster function is to “get heads in beds.”

After the home has been completed and delivered to the site for first-time temporary use, has been used for 18-24 months, and after the relocation of its occupants to permanent replacement housing, the temporary home should be de-activated, fully re-furbished, stored in a manner consistent with the manufacturer’s instructions for proper storage, temporary installation and ventilation, and then deployed again for temporary use after the next natural disaster – i.e., rehabilitated. This would provide the greatest value to the government and users at the lowest cost through the useful life of the home, based on the conditions to which it is subject.

At the end of the THUs useful life, it should either be scrapped, or safely discarded. Alternatively, if there is interest in the purchase of used – rehabilitated THU for use on small-space lots in existing manufactured housing communities and developments, such use can – and should be – considered. But such limited replacement use within communities to fill existing restricted-size vacancies needs to be carefully distinguished from the general re-sale of THUs as replacement housing, as was raised by FEMA at the meeting.

For permanent replacement housing, FEMA and other federal and state government agencies, can, should and must use today’s modern, properly installed manufactured housing as part of the solution, particularly in communities, as noted above, that have been completely devastated and need to substantially rebuild their permanent housing stock. To advance this point and guard against potential discrimination against manufactured housing, MHARR has proposed language to Congress that would amend a $1 billion FEMA emergency relief bill already passed by the relevant appropriations committee, that would require FEMA or any other agency using such federal disaster relief funds, to include HUD Code manufactured housing as part of the housing mix (including site-built, multi-family and other types of housing) that would be used for both temporary and permanent replacement housing.


Second, it is evident that FEMA is under pressure to satisfy a substantial number of conflicting interests and competing constituencies. As a result, it is trying to develop a single product that it believes will meet the demands of the largest number of these competing interests. This points toward a product that would be impractical and unattractive for many users, unnecessarily expensive, and subject to needless supply, product and component delays that would impair FEMA’s principal mission of providing rapid relief.

For example, FEMA raised the possibility of a “universal design” and “dual coding.” As explained by FEMA, “universal design” refers to housing units “designed to be used by – and appeal to – persons with and without access and functional needs” under the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS). Effectively, “universal design,” is a code for mandatory compliance of FEMA-purchased THU units with the accessibility requirements of the UFAS code, even though UFAS – which is applicable to structures built or purchased by the federal government – by its own terms, would only require a minimum of 5% of THU purchased and used by FEMA to be UFAS compliant. The rationale for this potential requirement, as explained by representatives of the U.S. Access Board present at the meeting, is that an average of 20-30% of disaster victims, as shown by historical data, need accessible units. Further, according to these officials, a larger number of persons with access needs visit such homes.

“Universal design,” though, could have significant drawbacks for users, the taxpaying public and the industry. First, as many manufacturers noted, full UFAS compliance has a major impact on design and cost, particularly in a home as small as that being addressed by FEMA. Second, and even more important, though, and as MHARR noted when the Access Board’s Advisory Committee on Temporary Emergency Housing was active several years ago, the cost impacts of UFAS compliance, while not a decisive issue under a federal contract where a government entity is the purchaser, is a major issue in the private marketplace, where affordability is a key asset of manufactured housing. Thus, MHARR has made it clear that UFAS accessibility features – while available in private-sector homes on an optional basis – should never be mandated for private-sector homes. A drive, however, to mandate UFAS compliance for all FEMA THUs, could pave the way – and serve as a precedent for – a broader effort to impose UFAS accessibility requirement on all manufactured homes. And, in fact, there have been moves in this direction at the MHCC.

Similarly, “dual coding” if mandated by a future FEMA THU solicitation, would require the THU home to meet both the HUD Code and the International Residential Code (IRC). FEMA expressed the belief that dual coding, if used, would help limit state and local resistance to the placement of manufactured homes in certain communities. But, as MHARR and many manufacturers noted, the HUD Code, as a performance based code, offers the greatest value to the user, the taxpayers and FEMA for temporary emergency housing. Unlike the prescriptive IRC, it allows manufacturers to meet design criteria using different approaches at different cost levels. It allows for the use of standard components and supplies, reducing response and delivery time. Thus, as MHARR has consistently maintained, the HUD Code, as supplemented, if necessary, with performance-based contract specifications, allows FEMA the greatest flexibility at the lowest cost.

The IRC, by contrast, with its prescriptive requirements, would substantially increase the cost of any such home. In addition, dual coding with the IRC could restrict participation by many manufacturers that are not IRC certified – as shown by restrictions on the development of post-Katrina housing in Mississippi. Moreover, dual coding would set a potentially damaging precedent for regulation of private sector homes, as it could lead to increased efforts to superimpose prescriptive and costly IRC requirements on the HUD Code which, unlike the IRC, requires a balancing of cost and protection.

On a related matter, there was also some discussion of formaldehyde and indoor air quality. Recent FEMA contracts for manufactured housing have imposed a formaldehyde limit of 16 parts per billion (ppb), the minimum detectable trace level, which is significantly lower than the relevant – and successful – HUD Code standards and have placed significant limitations on the design and available amenities for such homes. This 16 ppb level also entails significant additional costs for taxpayers. In response to questions from industry participants, FEMA representatives offered two different statements. During the morning session, one stated that indoor air quality requirements may or may not be included in any future THU solicitation, but that FEMA is “looking at” the HUD Code formaldehyde standard in effect at the time of any such solicitation. Later, though, another representative noted the “current” 16 ppb contract specification and did not specifically address a possible change for a future THU contract. Thus, while FEMA’s thinking on this issue is clearly not settled at this point, there are indications, including FEMA’s statement that it is focused on “traditional HUD Code housing,” that it might simply use the existing HUD Code air quality standards that have lowered manufactured home air quality complaints to a minimal level since their adoption.

In addition to these issues, MHARR stressed, both during the meeting and in personal discussions with FEMA officials, that any solicitation for HUD Code THU units must ensure full and fair competition, including an opportunity for full participation by all manufacturers. This is particularly important in view of an apparent effort by at least one large manufacturer to offer FEMA designs in advance of the issuance of contract specifications, a move that was properly and laudably rejected by the FEMA personnel at the meeting. MHARR urged FEMA to ensure that any contract solicitation is open to the broadest possible competition, with the fewest possible limitations on full competition, and also stressed that FEMA needs to include all producers and their representatives in all further discussions and activities relevant to the development of such a solicitation.

Based on all the above, FEMA should make major changes to its THU concept to ensure that the HUD Code-based temporary housing it provides is fully functional and practical for all occupants and is cost-effective for American taxpayers, without impractical and unnecessary requirements. FEMA should remain engaged with all manufacturers and their representatives to improve and advance this concept.

MHARR is a Washington D.C.-based national trade association representing the views and interests of producers of federally-regulated manufactured housing.

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