The acclaimed thinker and best-selling author G. K. Chesterton famously quipped that “Sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good.” That notion, for example, has sometimes applied by those working to reform whatever, when parties agree to a compromise that represents progress but is still less than ideal. Manufactured homes are not perfect, they do not need to be perfect to be good. Pre-HUD Code mobile homes and post-HUD Code manufactured housing are a good value and a proven affordable housing solution for some 22 million Americans. The updates enacted by Congress with the Manufactured Housing Improvement Act of 2000 (MHIA or 2000 Reform law) established consumer safeguards not found in far more expensive conventional housing. Federally supported lending programs exist to make affordable home ownership available to millions. Given the ever-growing affordable housing crisis, one might have thought that all those good steps to make affordable manufactured housing more available would have caused the manufactured home industry to soar.
However, that last thought is obviously not the case.
Manufactured housing is performing at a lower level as measured by nationwide production in 2021 than in it did in 2002. Is it politically incorrect or impolite to question the industry’s leadership? Or should that questioning be self-evidently necessary and obvious after some 2 decades of sub-par performance?
2002 and 2003 are the years that the well-heeled Berkshire Hathaway entry into manufactured housing began. During a well-documented affordable housing crisis, with such good supportive laws available to make manufactured homes more available, and with deep pocket players like Buffett-led Berkshire in the mix, what has gone wrong?
- A simple but unsatisfying answer is that the system has been rigged by the few for their own benefit.
- Additionally, those who make such claims have often include the notion that industry insiders, regulators, and politicos are part of the problem.
- Is there evidence to support such claims? Sadly, yes.
- Then why has that evidence not been properly acted upon?
Once more, a rigged system is part of the unsatisfying answer. But there is case to be made that a more subtle human element in the mix should be understood.
That is where the historic lessons of the late multibillion-dollar scammer Bernard “Bernie” Madoff should be considered before looking back into – and better understanding – manufactured housing’s woes.
It has long been recognized that people may trust others, some of whom did not merit such trust.
The multibillion-dollar con-man Bernie Madoff just died in prison; that was announced today (4.14.2021). For years, Madoff was seen as an exemplar on Wall Street. He was welcomed and praised. Madoff’s machine-made campaign donations. He gave away some money.
Madoff was trusted. Madoff was never in it alone. Others were paid or willingly lent their support to singing his praise. Madoff did the things that made people think well of him, that made him appear to be trustworthy. Perhaps some of those who worked for or freely defended Madoff did so sincerely believing what they said.
But sincere people can be mistaken. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
There were voices that warned against the treachery of Madoff, who were for some time brushed off or ignored. But finally, with persistence and as a variety of items finally coming together, the mountain of evidence that was previously ignored or brushed off against Madoff finally proved to be accurate.
As the teaser to the 2010 movie Chasing Madoff says, “Securities analyst Harry Markopolos and his team of investigators spend 10 years trying to blow the lid off Bernie Madoff’s devastating…scheme.”
MHProNews is not anywhere close to 10 years of working to expose what has quite obviously been going wrong in manufactured housing. In about half that time, MHProNews may well have made significant progress toward a parallel goal in our profession. But hold that thought for now.
Every con is predicated in part on misplaced trust. Never forget the lessons of massive, multibillion dollar schemes that Bernie Madoff, WorldCom, and Enron pulled off for years. While different than what is occurring in our profession, each of those other massive con games finally collapse.
Think about those plots pondering what has gone wrong in manufactured housing. Why?
Because the case can be made that just as Madoff and his allies, because he had them, made their smiling faced pitches. No doubt, in fairness, many if not most of those who praised Madoff where sincere. But they were nevertheless sincerely wrong. The same holds true for WorldCom and Enron, or other lesser scams.
What does sorry multi-billion-dollar schemer have to do with manufactured housing, COVID, or exposing claims of corruption?
By analogy, perhaps plenty.
Once someone new to our profession understands the facts vs. the myths about manufactured homes, there is often an aha! light that goes off.
But then, shortly thereafter such an epiphany, the awakened may ask – because this writer has been asked this time and again –
- why is it that manufactured housing is so misunderstood?
- Where is the performance by the industry’s post-production, umbrella, or retail-oriented trade associations? Aren’t those post-production or umbrella groups supposed to be making the case for manufactured homes to the public?
Such epic underperformance does not occur in a vacuum. It begs a series of questions that should include, but not be limited to:
- Manufactured home industry professionals who have not yet seriously considered the specifics that explain why the industry is underperforming given favorable laws and an affordable housing crisis.
- Manufactured housing investors. They may be impressed by the surge in a stock – say for instance, Skyline Champion (SKY), in the past year. But are serious investors asking the deeper questions? During an affordable housing crisis, why is it that financially well positioned firm, or others who happen to be Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI) members, not doing far better?
- Where is the robust organic growth, for instance, that Skyline-Champion and Cavco Industries (CVCO) state in writing that they are pursing? They have made that claim for years via their investor pitch decks. So, where is that organic growth vs. the M&A growth?
- Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) is the 800-pound gorilla in the HUD Code manufactured home industry’s room. Berkshire-owned dominate production, retail, and lending. They also have a significant presence in real estate and conventional building. Given that Berkshire for years owned dozens of newspapers, still has extensive media connections, and certainly has the capital to fund whatever robust educational marketing campaign is necessary to make manufactured housing soar, why hasn’t BRK used those tools as they could have been utilized?
Each of those questions point towards vexing answers.
COVID and Manufactured Housing
This is where deadly COVID’s silver lining may come into play.
A voice with long ties to MHI from MHEC told MHProNews some weeks ago that COVID could prove to be a weakness for MHI and their loyal state affiliates. That person said that not having those face-to-face meetings during the COVID19 outbreak may weaken the social glue between independents, associations, and their corporate overlords.
There is potentially an inflection point where innocent members who have been led like lambs to the slaughter of consolidators exists.
But objectively, it is not easy for people to accept that they have been conned. When someone is trusted, it is not always easy to question that trust.
An example will serve to illustrate.
The argument could be made that Tim Williams, Executive Director of the Ohio Manufactured Home Association (OMHA) may have been lulled into trusting the Berkshire brands, other ‘big boy’ MHI members, and MHI’s leadership. Innocent mistakes can happen.
By way of analogy in Williams’ defense, this writer has admitted several times to our readers that for a time the MHI spiel seemed to make sense. There were still questions this writer asked at meetings and via email or phone to MHI leaders. Some of those were not being properly answered. That occurred while I too was a multi-year MHI member. So, in fairness to Williams or others, the notion of a con by smiling and seemingly affable faces never dawned on me.
Until it began to hit me one day. That hit was from a tip.
That tipster was from another current and prominent MHI member. Running that tip down some years ago began the slow and deliberate process that has led us to where we are today. Along the way there have been documents from other tipsters, our own discoveries, and the reporting by third-parties.
Additionally, yet another MHI member made an off-handed remark at a meeting that went off in my head like a rocket. That well known corporate leader questioned the value of going to those MHI meetings.
- What was actually being accomplished by MHI, he wondered out loud in front of colleagues?
- Where was the progress on key issues for the industry?
- They were not actual criticisms as much as the sincere musing in front of those listening. That leader’s comments were made in front of myself, but other colleagues too.
Back to Williams, and more recently, OMHA’s General Counsel, Elizabeth Birch, J.D.
In fairness to Williams and Birch – or others like them? – once more, it is one thing to perhaps get lulled into a slick trick. Madoff, WorldCom, and Enron are all examples of that occurring. Literally millions of often savvy people have been conned.
That noted, it is an entirely different matter to continue to give cover to a group that is being credibly accused of problematic practices by numerous voices inside and outside of manufactured housing.
Indeed, it could logically be a dereliction in duty, if not a conflict of interest, to give cover to Berkshire brands and other MHI ‘insiders’ if they are credibly accused of wrongdoing.
That is why state trade associations – OMHA and others – and MHI members ought to be asking for internal audits, conducted by objective, third-party examinations that offer complete transparency of all that they uncover.
Keep in mind that two manufactured home state associations broke away from MHI, precisely because there was a failure to perform.
Additionally, the production-focused Manufactured Housing Association for Regulatory Reform – as opposed to post-production or umbrella style trade groups – long called for a new post-production trade group to be formed. Those voices internal to the industry must be considered. Indeed, it was after the MHARR study published at the link below that Haney and his colleagues broke from MHI.
Furthermore, there were serious voices that raised concerns about MHI’s objectivity when it came to matters relating to Berkshire Hathaway owned brands in lending, production, and retail.
A long-praised and actively engaged MHI insider as well as an MHI award-winner, Marty Lavin politely but publicly has made periodic comments to MHProNews which questioned MHI and their leaders. In this context, those quotes come to life.
MHI members, and MHI’s own leaders, have made public comments that undermined their own credibility. Given that reality, how could OMHA’s Williams and Birch defend their so-called performance?
All of which begs others questions.
- Given that Williams and Birch, previously as well as recently, are readers of MHProNews, how could they not know what is being alleged? Not knowing or musing as that MHI member did, would reflect a dereliction of duty to their own independently owned state-members.
- Then, as icing on the cake of proverbial corrupt practices, there are third-party research studies that MHProNews and our MHLivingNews sister-site has published and repeatedly referenced. These reports have been occurring periodically for a series of years. Are they ignorant of them? Or are they just turning a blind eye to practices that have purported harmed numbers of their own smaller, independent members?
- While corporate board members might be willing to do a wink and a nod, others should realize that there are routinely legal requirements for not taking action when conflicts of interest or worse are discovered. In the case of an attorney who ignores such items and has a role at a trade group, have they considered that their turning a blind eye might lead to liability or perhaps even to disbarment?
- Here is a partial list of reports that cast doubts on MHI’s effectiveness and/or possible corruption. These ought to be calls at every state association for internal investigations relative to MHI.
If those were not enough, then years of mainstream media reports have made perhaps less granular, but nevertheless specific claims that point their finger directly at Warren Buffett, Berkshire brands, and other MHI connected insiders.
Kori Hale from CultureBanx writing in Forbes called out Buffett, Clayton Homes, and their lenders in April 2019 for racial bias and other problematic business practices.
The Atlantic, without specifying how the monopolization was being accomplished, noted that the independent retailers in manufactured housing were being rapidly eliminated/consolidated, that report is linked here. That clearly impacts state associations, as well as MHI. Why did they not act in a robust manner to defend their independents?
The Nation called it “The Dirty Secret Behind Warren Buffett’s Billions…” and specifies Clayton Homes among those using the strategic moat in ‘dirty’ ways.
The Jacksonville Florida Times Union summarized the connection between the John Oliver viral hit video dubbed “Mobile Homes,” MHI, Clayton Homes, and their related lenders. That op-ed was first fact-checked by an editor, before it was published not only in the one newspaper it was submitted, but at least in 5 Florida newspapers.
Seattle Times | The Mobile Home Trap – This includes items referenced by Ellison, Feir, and others.
Robin Harding, “How Warren Buffett Broke American Capitalism.” Financial Times
Note that the partial list of mainstream news reports above spans the left-right media divide. It cannot be said that they just wild-eyed radicals on either end of the political spectrum. Rather, they too often cited their sources and evidence. Additionally, they routinely support the evidence-based allegations raised by others quoted or linked above. How can objective thinkers believe that this is somehow OK for post-production trade groups to ignore?
Last but not least, are the politicos that have raised serious concerns.
Sadly, hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens have died during the COVID19 outbreak. Untold hundreds of thousands of businesses have failed. Millions of jobs have been lost. It may seem grim to say that in the light of those tragedies, there may be a silver lining for COVID. But God works in mysterious ways…
…because Warren Buffett is right about the problem of the chain of habit being hard to break.
The reasons to question vexing 20-year status quo of otherwise inexplicable manufactured housing underperformance has never been satisfactorily been answered by Williams, Birch, Gooch, Kevin Clayton, Tom Hodges, or anyone else in MHI or Berkshire leadership.
The case has been made in those various linked reports that sabotage monopoly tactics, to borrow the phrase used by Schmitz and his colleagues, explains the dramatic underperformance of manufactured housing.
Additionally, the Berkshire moat method of foiling competition is often mentioned too. Indeed, it is Buffett and Kevin Clayton, among others, who have said as much themselves. See the various quotes and linked reports.
Call For Total Transparency, Investigations, and Accountability to Independents, Consumers, Taxpayers, Investors, Others
If association leaders won’t do their own investigations and transparency, then public officials and victims’ attorneys should step into the breach and act to unravel the mess. It isn’t as if there has been no smoke. Ponder that Cavco is still under the cloud of an SEC subpoena. Oddly, Cavco’s Joe Stegmayer stepped down from his company’s leadership, without stepping down from MHI’s leadership. What? Stunning, but true.
Just as Harry Markopolos ultimately proved to be correct, as this 30-year manufactured housing industry veteran who has studied these issues perhaps more than almost anyone in our profession, there is no other thesis that I’ve seen that makes sense other than corruption and related problematic behaviors that may well include felony irregularities. Who says? Samuel Strommen at Knudson Law. Given an opportunity to respond or rebut the claims, none of those Berkshire or MHI connected attorneys or others cited in the report linked below made the attempt.
What about ordinary incompetence, ignorance, or misplaced trust by trade leaders? If those were the case, they would have long ago been remedied. Just as teams that don’t perform replace their coaches, so too associations that do not perform replace their staff leaders. The fact that there have not been numbers of new faces in several states and MHI is itself a red flag.
Indeed, the fact that MHI insiders and corporate leaders praise those who praise them back speaks volumes.
It is time to call for transparency and accountability. If they are innocent, then there is nothing to hide. Board members and others have an obligation, per several legal sources, to investigate and properly deal with such problems.
That responsibility must begin with transparency that includes a multiple year review of internal correspondence, spending, bylaws, changes in bylaws, trendlines, etc. Those documents should be made public as they are being developed. Why? Because it may well be other industry members who spot the irregularities that are otherwise more difficult for even motivated outside investigators to grasp. MHI’s own leaders have said what the industry’s potential is. When it is not being met, when will there be sufficient outrage that will spark serious, transparent investigations?
Total transparency. Thorough investigations. Full accountability. Do not be surprised if there will be those who say, ‘oh no! We can’t do that!’ Isn’t that what Birch did for Williams?
When that happens, it is time to take names as to who are arguing against such transparency, investigations, and accountability.
If I were Williams and Birch, and I’m not, I would offer and request total transparency. Let email and tech experts make sure that messages are not deleted.
This is not about friendships or perhaps misplaced trust. Billions of dollars are involved. Thousands of previously successful professionals that had successful businesses for 10, 20 years or longer failed since Berkshire entered manufactured housing. Coincidence?
The lesson of Madoff, WorldCom, and Enron speak loudly. Never forget them.
Nor forget that Warren Buffett and his vice chair Berkshire Charlie Munger at have publicly referred to each other, perhaps cunningly, as “partners in crime.” Their purported crimes may be different than the other great cons, but that does not mean that they are not every bit as real and harmful.
Our MHProNews approach to revealing these concerns inside manufactured housing frankly may never have been close to perfect. But “Sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good.”
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By L.A. “Tony” Kovach – for MHProNews.com.
Tony earned a journalism scholarship and earned numerous awards in history and in manufactured housing.
For example, he earned the prestigious Lottinville Award in history from the University of Oklahoma, where he studied history and business management. He’s a managing member and co-founder of LifeStyle Factory Homes, LLC, the parent company to MHProNews, and MHLivingNews.com.
This article reflects the LLC’s and/or the writer’s position, and may or may not reflect the views of sponsors or supporters.
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