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It's not your mother's mobile home

When the hurricanes blew through in 2004, the toll on manufactured housing was far less than it would have been before the visit of an earlier storm: Hurricane Andrew.

By KRIS HUNDLEY
Published April 17, 2005


photo
[Times photos: Jim Damaske 2004]
A triple-wide manufactured home made by Jacobsen Homes in Safety Harbor offers a tray ceiling, contemporary lighting and a tile backsplash in the kitchen.

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Manufactured homes under construction at Jacobsen Homes in Safety Harbor. The company’s goal is 10 units a day.

SAFETY HARBOR - Dennis Schrader, president of Jacobsen Homes here, is shuffling through a stack of pink message slips. They are all from reporters wanting to know how his manufactured homes withstood the winds of Hurricane Charley.

One message from a local TV station wants to know how the newer homes held up compared to the older ones. Schrader's secretary has attached her own sarcastic comment: "Hell-oooo!"

Schrader, whose top-of-the line model, a triplewide with cathedral ceiling, French doors and marble-sided tub, sells for $150,000, has a few words for the media.

The U.S. Census might still call them mobile homes but the industry ditched that term in 1976, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development imposed building standards on what had been a largely unregulated industry.

"June 21, 1976," said Schrader, 57, who has worked in the industry since he was 12. "It's a day that will live in infamy. I fought it like everybody else, but I was short-sighted. Kind of like the media when it comes to manufactured homes and storms."

Sure, the homes Schrader and about a half-dozen other companies manufacture in Florida fit the Census Bureau's definition of "mobile." They're built at a factory and are towed to the site on their own chassis and wheels, though the wheels are usually removed.

At Jacobsen's factory in Safety Harbor the pieces move even during the construction process: from a warehouse where the base and walls are built, across the railroad tracks to another plant in which roof and interiors are added.

"So yes, you could move them," Schrader said. "But most people don't."

According to 2000 U.S. Census data, there are nearly 850,000 mobile homes in Florida, accounting for about 12 percent of the state's single-family housing stock. Schrader, who's also president of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association, thinks that number is low and said 19 percent is probably more accurate. He said manufactured homes have accounted for more than one-third of all new single-family home sales for the past several years.

What's undisputed is that most of the state's stock of mobile homes predates major construction improvements mandated in 1994 in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. Analysis by the St. Petersburg Times of 2000 Census data on occupied mobile homes shows that only 16 percent were built after 1994.

Though the number of newer homes has undoubtedly increased each year - Jacobsen's plant churns out 1,200 a year with almost all remaining in Florida - the percentage built before 1994 is still high. A special state fund helps retrofit about 2,000 older homes each year, strengthening the anchoring system. But retrofitting can't do much to improve other structural shortcomings.

When Andrew hit South Florida in 1992, it destroyed 11,000 mobile homes with winds of up to 145 mph. Two years later, HUD enacted tougher building standards, requiring new manufactured homes to be built to withstand winds of 100 to 130 mph. Previously, the standard had been 70 to 90 mph.

To increase the structure's wind capacity, the industry changed the way it built homes, adding more galvanized steel hurricane straps, which are anchored to the ground; increasing the number and size of exterior wall studs; and improving the way the roof is attached to exterior walls.

"Pre-Andrew, we would have had five (tie-down) straps on a side," Schrader said. "Now we have no fewer than 13. A 1,200-square-foot house that would have had a maximum of 10 hurricane ties before Andrew now has about 65."

Bill Tierney, assistant executive director of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association, said the industry initially thought the changes would make its homes unaffordable.

"The original estimates were that it would add $8,000 to $10,000 (per unit) because it meant a whole gamut of items that helped strengthen the house," he said. "But that was just the initial shock. Once the changes went into production, the price came down. Now it's about $3,000 to $4,000 for each home."

Though the manufactured housing industry unsuccessfully challenged the new standards in court, Schrader said he never saw a dent in sales as a result of higher costs.

"What we saw after Andrew is that people bought new manufactured homes and moved them up here," he said. "They used the storm as an excuse to get out of Dade County."

His industry got another boost after Sept. 11. "It seems like every fireman and policeman in a big city decided to retire at 55 to Florida," Schrader said. "They figure there's nothing here terrorists would want to destroy."

"I had a 750-unit backorder before (Hurricane Charley) and these people down south are going to need new housing now," said Schrader, who said not a single order has been canceled. "We'll do just fine without hurricanes to line our pockets."

Reports from Charlotte County, which had more than 11,000 mobile homes according to the 2000 Census, suggest the more stringent building codes worked. Don Hazelton, president of Federation of Manufactured Home Owners of Florida, spent two days in Punta Gorda after Hurricane Charley, visiting some of the 31 mobile home parks that reported damage.

"At one park, the older section suffered severe damage," Hazelton said. "But all the brand-new homes, and there were a vast number of them, had no damage. It might have been because there were no carports or sheds attached yet, so the wind didn't have anything to grab onto. But I was flabbergasted."

One day just after Charley, a couple from Largo was outside Jacobsen's plant, watching their completed home being readied for delivery. The factory, which employs 160 of the company's 224 workers, had been operating since 6:30 a.m. to meet the company's goal of producing 10 units a day. One unit is a singlewide, which retails for about $35,000. Doublewide homes, made of two units, start at about $60,000.

Jacobsen's has been in operation since 1959, and Schrader has been there for 17 years. In eighth grade he got a job after school making rafters for what were then called trailers. Since then the Largo High graduate has done just about every job in the plant. He could give a tour of the noisy factory - where a unit moves from one station to the next every 32 minutes - with his eyes closed.

"Federal inspectors come through about every other day," Schrader said, standing next to a home's wooden base, with 2- by 8-inch floor joists both nailed and stapled to the frame. "Sometimes they actually count the staples."

At each step, Schrader points out structural improvements implemented since Andrew. Exterior walls fastened to the floor and each roof rafter with 26-gauge steel straps. Drywall ceiling attached to the rafters with super-strong foam. Roof trusses that are 16 inches apart, with double rafters within 3 feet of front and rear.

From start to finish, a Jacobsen home takes about 17 hours to build. Once it's on the site, interior finish work takes another four days. Complete installation, which must by done by licensed contractors, can take up to a month.

Next to Jacobsen's plant are several model homes, which customers visit after placing their orders through the company's dealers. Schrader shows off the crown jewel, a three-bedroom, two-bath model with tile floors in the kitchen and bath and 5-inch cove molding in the living area.

"Where would you find 2,000 square feet of this quality at this price?" he asks of the $150,000 home.

About 75 percent of his buyers rent the land under their homes through long-term leases. In such cases, the homeowner must buy a tag each year from the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

A minority of buyers put the homes on their own land, in which case they're responsible for property taxes and are eligible for a homestead exemption.

Schrader has been in the business long enough to know how to hook buyers, three-quarters of whom are retirees. He puts in extrawide hallways, a bit of marble in the bathroom and the option of stainless steel appliances in the kitchen.

"The women don't really like stainless because it shows fingerprints," he said. "But they love to go down to the clubhouse and tell the other women they got a new Jacobsen with a stainless kitchen."

Despite Schrader's conviction that Jacobsen's manufactured homes are every bit as good as site-built homes, he doesn't live in one. His home in Odessa has a 10-car garage for his car collection, and few manufactured home communities could accommodate such a hobby, he said.

Nor did Schrader let professional pride get in the way on Aug. 13, as Charley was threatening the area. Though the factory was closed so workers could be home with their families, Schrader arrived as usual at 7 a.m. He found himself answering calls from Jacobsen owners in the path of the storm, asking him what to do.

"I told them to please get out and go to a shelter," he said.

-- Times staff writer Matthew Waite and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or 727 892-2996.

[Last modified April 14, 2005, 10:55:17]


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