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Many still prefer mobile homes

Mobile homes may be lying crushed all over South Florida and mid-Pinellas County, but people who live in mobile homes here say they feel as safe as they would in their mothers' arms.

How do I know?

They told me. And told me.

It has been some time since one of my columns elicited the kind of response that last Monday's did. That column, which was written before the deadly tornadoes that raked Pinellas on Oct. 3, recalled the massive destruction to mobile homes in South Florida from Hurricane Andrew.

It suggested that people in Pinellas County ought to be thinking about that. There are more than 50,000 mobile homes here. In Largo, where one of Saturday's tornadoes hit, they make up a third of the housing stock.

The column also took a shot at the mobile home industry for claiming that mobile homes are safe in high winds and are comparable to site-built houses. I pointed out that site-built homes fared much better than mobile homes during Hurricane Andrew.

Since that column was written, we have seen more proof of their susceptibility to destructive winds. The tornadoes here on Oct. 3 destroyed 263 mobile homes at last count, but only 59 site-built homes. Three of the four people killed lived in mobile homes.

But two days afterward, Pinellas mobile home residents were on the phone to me, furious because I had written that mobile homes are unsafe "metal boxes."

"There was a day they were put together with toothpicks, in a sense," said one man who refused to give me his name. "But many now are being built to stand up like a house will."

The man began listing for me what he considered to be the important components of his mobile home: a fiberglass shingle roof, aluminum siding, plastered walls, popcorn ceilings, a fireplace and awnings he said are "hurricane proof."

I asked him, "Does it have concrete blocks and steel reinforcing bars?" No, he said, but it has tie-down straps embedded in concrete.

Perhaps he hasn't heard that Velcro might have done a better job of keeping mobile homes anchored than those tie-down straps did during Andrew and the tornadoes. The straps snapped like old rubber bands and the mobile homes became airborne, tumbling over and over, or they simply blew apart.

One caller said she could afford to live in a house, but her feet would swell because of the concrete slab foundation. One said houses are too damp to suit her. Both acknowledged that mobile homes may not be as safe in a storm, but they prefer them anyway.

Another caller said her mobile home is safer than my site-built house because hers has a double roof. "I think we're just as safe in a hurricane," she said.

A double roof will help prevent leaks. But I can't figure out how two layers of metal with some insulation in between will do anything to make a mobile home safer in high winds. Maybe I'm missing something.

I asked the callers, "Do you feel safe in your mobile home?" Without exception, they said they do.

But most of the mobile home residents who called or wrote to me weren't angry about safety issues. They were incensed at my reference to mobile homes as "affordable housing." They didn't like that I had written that governments and charitable groups _ two groups often instrumental in the construction of affordable housing _ should erect more houses so people now living in mobile homes can get into safer housing.

I didn't know that there are so many millionaires in Pinellas. Almost every mobile home resident I talked to said there were millionaires living in their park. All the callers claimed to be financially capable of buying a site-built house, even "a mansion," as one woman put it. In Pinellas County, they argued, people live in mobile homes for the lifestyle, not because mobile homes cost less.

After hearing from so many callers saying the same thing, I checked some numbers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Housing Survey for 1989, the median household income of mobile home dwellers in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area is $16,318 a year. In comparison, for all types of housing the median household income is $24,951.

I never meant to suggest that every person who lives in a mobile home is poor. I'm sorry that some people took it that way. There are some beautiful mobile home parks in Pinellas County and some beautiful homes in them. And some of the people who live in those homes no doubt have quite healthy bank accounts. But that is not true in every case, and mobile homes generally are regarded as affordable housing in this country.

I did learn from the callers that mobile home residents love the lifestyle offered by mobile home parks. They like the planned activities. They like knowing that someone will check on them if they don't bring in their newspaper one morning.

"You couldn't sell me a house," said one man. "I guarantee you, you could live in some of those (single-family neighborhoods) for years and people won't even know who you are."

And I learned that for some, mobile home living is an escape from things about the larger society that they don't like.

"I don't want to live on a city street where my neighbors have children who go to high school and somebody has a motorcycle in their front yard," said Vicky Cyphers, who lives in a Dunedin mobile home park.

And Mary Gervan of Largo wrote, "In our search for a conventional house, we came to the conclusion that we would have been in Yuppie-land, where all residents don't really want to mingle with seniors."

Some callers said they don't want to be bothered by children, but prefer the privacy of a mobile home to an adult condominium or apartment complex. Mrs. Cyphers even mentioned, with tongue in cheek, that it is an advantage to live in a place where your grown children can't move back in.

"Our mobile home park has residents that include retired doctors, college professors, teachers, and many from all professional backgrounds," Mrs. Gervan wrote. "Our activities include a 75-voice chorus, a little theatre group and a 16-piece dance band. This is why, after 12 years, we are still in a mobile home park."

It's great that these people are enjoying their lifestyles in mobile homes. But I worry about them, even if they don't worry about themselves.

Home sweet home. We all want to think of home as a shelter from the storm. But that homily just doesn't apply to mobile homes. How much more proof do we need?

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