Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Modular Houses Quick, Affordable in City Renewal

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Modular Houses Quick, Affordable in City Renewal

Article excerpt

attempt to fill a need for affordable urban housing, community groups and local officials around the country are turning to factory-built housing in the hope of creating instant neighborhoods on vacant city land.

The houses are built on assembly lines, with plumbing, carpeting and all, and are then shipped in two or three parts to be assembled at the building site.

Until recently, these modular houses have been found mostly in suburban and rural areas, where open expanses of land and shortages of skilled labor have made them financially attractive to private developers.

Now, in the face of declining federal support for housing programs, a growing number of groups are banking that housing costs in urban areas can be cut by the innovative use of houses that can go straight from the assembly line to vacant lots, often tax-delinquent land that has been taken over by the city.

Such houses can be manufactured for as little as $50,000, and, with public subsidies and low-interest loans, can be bought for even less.

One experiment is under way in Baltimore, where, as in many other cities, the demand for affordable housing far outstrips the supply. There is an inventory of some 5,200 boarded-up houses unfit for habitation and a waiting list of some 37,000 applicants for public housing.

Ten low-income families are living in a row of new townhouses, each built out of two modular units, stacked one atop the other, on what only four months ago was a weed-strewn field in a blighted area on the city's West Side not far from downtown.

The three-bedroom, two-bath townhouses are the first of 171 being constructed as a pilot project by the Enterprise Foundation of Columbia, Md., a nonprofit organization involved in housing issues.

``Is modular housing the magic solution?'' asked Lee Rosenberg, a local builder working with the Enterprise Foundation. ``No, but when combined with subsidies and help on the financing, it does offer a way for groups without the expertise to put up housing quickly.''

Less than a mile away, Willard Hackerman, a private contractor, is renovating nine abandoned 19th-century rowhouses by installing complete, factory-built floors of rooms into the gutted shells of the buildings, which the city provided free.

Workers began to prepare the buildings for renovation in September, and a crane dropped the first factory-built units into place on Nov. 10. Two weeks later, the first family moved in.

Hackerman admits that the project is an experiment, to see if the economics make sense. If it works, he says, he hopes to do up to 1,000 houses a year, taking advantages of existing state tax breaks, low-interest mortgages and land the city donated in an effort to solve its housing problems.

In New York City, which began introducing modular housing in 1981, more than 1,500 houses have been assembled over the last five years.

Public and private coalitions involved in the construction of moderate-priced housing hope to add 800 to 1,000 modular units annually, a rate that would account for one out of every five new low-rise residential units in the city.

Low-income demonstration projects involving factory-built housing are also under way in Boston, Newark, and Philadelphia.

In addition, public officials in New York and Chicago are exploring the possibility of locating modular housing factories in their cities, projects that would provide a steady supply of housing and jobs for inner city workers. Virtually all such factories are now in rural areas, close to their primary markets.

The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs also wants to find a manufacturer who will build and operate a plant to produce modular units for subsidized and low-income and moderate-income housing.

Nationally, more than 93,000 modular houses were built in 1987, accounting for about 6 percent of the new housing starts, said James Birdsong, of the National Association of Home Builders. …

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