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Standards for mobile homes under review

Between Hurricane Andrew in South Florida and last Saturday's tornadoes in Pinellas County, mobile homes have taken an unprecedented physical beating.

Now it may be Washington's turn to shake up mobile home builders with a call for higher construction standards.

A federal inquiry has spurred the mobile home industry to start its own version of damage control. And federal lawmakers are investigating whether mobile homes should be built tougher following Hurricane Andrew's near-leveling of 9,000 of the factory-built houses in South Florida.

Last weekend's tornadoes that devastated hundreds of houses in three Pinellas County mobile home parks and nearby areas have only served as icing on the investigators' cake.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sets the codes that state how mobile homes must be built, said it has begun to review its safety standards and may issue new rules.

And last week, a congressional subcommittee heard building experts say lax construction and installation standards contributed to Florida mobile home dwellers' losses during Hurricane Andrew.

"It's dangerous to predict, but I would expect some changes in the standards," said Frank Williams, executive director in Tallahassee of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association, which represents the makers of mobile homes.

The mobile home industry has referred to itself as the manufactured home industry since 1976 when HUD established its first building codes. Now the industry, anxious to minimize any revisions to standards HUD may consider, argues that many of the mobile homes destroyed by Andrew were pre-HUD models and many were even in place before 1973 _ when state law required mobile homes to be anchored to the ground.

The debate over standards has a special meaning for the Tampa Bay area, which has a greater concentration of mobile homes than any other part of Florida.

Pinellas County has more mobile homes than any other county in the state with 57,149, according to the 1990 census.

Polk County is second with 53,472, Hillsborough is third with 45,459, and Pasco follows with 41,445. Less populated Citrus and Hernando counties have 15,864 and 12,519 mobile homes, respectively.

Based on the 1990 census, there are 762,855 mobile homes in Florida, with about 1.3-million people, or 10 percent of the state's population, living in them.

Under current HUD rules, mobile homes must be able to withstand a wind pressure of 25 pounds per square foot. But experts differ on whether that translates to a wind of 120 mph or only 80 mph.

In Pinellas County, mobile homes are considered manufactured homes if they meet standard code, including the ability to withstand winds of up to 110 mph. Hurricane Andrew's wind speeds have been estimated at 160 mph or more.

"With a tornado, it did not seem to make a whole lot of difference what construction was involved," said Bob Pensa, Pinellas County building director. "If a house took a direct hit, the wind tore it up."

Meanwhile, the Homestead City Council voted late Monday for a six-month moratorium on permanent mobile home permits so city officials can study new safety standards.

Mobile homes remain an important source of low-cost shelter for people with modest incomes and the elderly.

Charity Cicardo, executive director of the Federation of Mobile Home Owners of Florida in Largo, wonders if improvements would result in mobile home manufacturers pricing themselves out of a market. "We may find that site-built homes may be just as cheap as many of the upgraded manufactured homes," she said.