October 2, 2023 4:26 am

Local News

‘You’re Living in a Tin Can.’

Cristina Apan and her husband, Juan Diego Rodríguez, at home in Tucson, Arizona, in August. Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

Arizona’s mobile-home residents are far more likely to die from excessive heat.

‘You’re living in a tin can’ was originally published September 28, 2022 at High Country News. This story was produced in collaboration with Arizona Luminaria. Este artículo también está disponible en Español aquí.

By Caroline Tracey, High Country News

After immigrating to Tucson, Arizona, from Culiacán, Sinaloa, in 2012, Cristina Apan struggled to find stable housing. In 2016, after the woman she was staying with kicked her out, she slept in her car. “I thought I was going to die,” she said. “In Mexico, you’d get killed for sleeping out in the open in your car. I couldn’t stop thinking like that.”

Finally, she asked a friend, a quiet landscaper named Juan Diego Rodríguez, if she could stay in his manufactured home. The two eventually married. “2016 and 2017, we were friends, but in 2018 we said, ‘You know what, we keep getting closer to one another; let’s get married.’ That’s what fate had in store for us.”

But the home was in terrible condition, Apan said — so bad, it couldn’t be repaired. 

Fortunately, an acquaintance offered to help, co-signing a loan for a better-kept manufactured home in Carefree Village Estates, a 55-plus community in Tucson. The couple moved into the white-and-green home in September 2020. The porch is decorated with plants and small metal butterflies. Inside, Apan recently painted the living room’s dark wood paneling white to brighten the space.

“I feel rich living here,” she said. Where their former park was “falling apart,” Carefree Village Estates has a swimming pool and a clubhouse with a library, billiards and coffee hours on Saturday morning. “The neighbors look out for one another,” Apan said. “It’s tranquil.”

But during the summer, the temperature inside ranges from 90 to 96 degrees. They have a window AC unit, but it takes so much electricity to cool the poorly insulated 1982 home that it’s too expensive to run. They used to have an evaporative cooler, but its motor broke last summer, and they lacked the money to replace it. Now they keep the blinds drawn and spend their days in air-conditioned spaces like the public library or the mall. “Not to buy anything, just to walk around,” she said.

Their problem isn’t unique. Excessive heat is an increasing problem in the West, and manufactured home residents are among the most affected. In Arizona, rates of heat-related deaths in manufactured homes are eight times those of housing built on a permanent foundation, due to a combination of deteriorating structures, low incomes, and poor access to utility assistance and credit. Tenants and experts agree that finding ways to protect manufactured home residents from excessive heat is essential, given the West’s simultaneous climate and housing crises. The issue has been overlooked for too long.

Researchers at Arizona State University noticed the disproportionate mortality in manufactured homes in 2018, when the Public Health Department of Maricopa County, Arizona, asked the university’s Knowledge Exchange for Resilience center for help reducing heat-related deaths. They began by mapping deaths alongside data about homes receiving utility assistance.

In Mesa, Arizona, they noted a concentration of deaths, but low rates of utility assistance. On Google Street View, the researchers saw that the area consisted primarily of manufactured homes. “It was like, what is happening here?” said Lora Phillips, a postdoctoral researcher at ASU. Research teams from both ASU and the University of Arizona, collaborating with the Arizona Association of Mobile Home and RV Owners (AAMHO), are in the process of surveying over 1,000 residents to better understand what causes the striking statistics.

One of the first factors they observed was the quality of the homes. Older manufactured homes are poorly weatherized, with thin metal walls, 2-inch-by-3-inch framing and metal roofs. “You’re living in a tin can,” said Kati Gilson, another resident of Carefree Village Estates. Gilson manages to keep her poorly insulated 1990s home cool because she has air conditioning. But AC is expensive, she said, and “a lot of people here can’t afford their electric bill.” The monthly cost of running AC in drafty manufactured homes during the summer months can run as high as $350.   

“You’re living in a tin can.” 

But it’s more than just thin walls and drafty windows: The cost of weatherization is often greater than the value of the home. On average, residents of manufactured housing have lower incomes than either homeowners or renters in ordinary housing, and they are often further marginalized by factors including immigration status, low credit scores and histories of eviction or incarceration. Others, especially elderly residents of 55-plus parks, live on small fixed incomes like Social Security or disability, making the rise in utility bills during the summer a serious challenge. And because manufactured homes are considered “personal property” — more like vehicles than traditional houses — owners generally cannot take out a loan against the house for upgrades and repairs. 

They end up using homespun strategies to cope: covering windows with blankets on the inside or reflective foil on the outside, and building awnings and enclosing porch areas so that less sunlight can get in. Esmeralda Pelayo, who lives in Tucson’s Weststar Park, said her family spent the summer staying in the one room of their home that has an AC window unit, misting each other with a spray bottle to stay cool.

The programs that exist nationwide for manufactured home repairs generally require that the homeowner also own the land the home sits on — which means that most mobile home park residents, who typically rent the space beneath their home, get disqualified. And to make matters worse, park tenants are often shut out of utility assistance programs: Park homesites are sub-metered by management, so residents are not direct customers of the utility companies. “The way these programs work, the neediest manufactured housing residents don’t qualify,” said Mark Kear, an economic geographer at the University of Arizona. 

Even those who seek to help needy residents struggle to address these challenges. Neil Saunders, an engineer at Tucson Electric Power, encountered them firsthand when he began trying to develop a program to install solar-powered air conditioning in manufactured homes at no cost to residents. He began conducting site visits, checking the possibility of installing either solar panels on the roof or a solar awning attached to the wall. He visited a variety of homes, including Apan and Rodríguez’s. But he found that the housing of the people who most needed the help wasn’t sturdy enough to support solar panels. The installation could damage the home, making the situation worse. 

With solar off the table, however, his project no longer had access to the federal funds for renewable energy he had planned to use. Now, he says, he is simply trying to support the University of Arizona researchers. “If they make a robust data set, then it becomes a political thing,” he said. “You just have to put it in front of the right people.”

“Most of us cope by going inside.”

Arizona’s mobile home park tenants’ organization, AAMHO, has already started to use the researchers’ data for political purposes. In one case, the city of Apache Junction, Arizona, tried to pass a law requiring residents who replaced their AC systems to pay a fee similar to a fee for a permit for home improvements. The organization’s president, Pat Schoneck, argued that some residents would not be able to afford the extra fee on top of the AC repair, meaning that deaths would be a likely outcome. The measure didn’t pass. 

These types of fights — over homeowners’ and tenants’ ability to mitigate heat in their living spaces — are likely to increase in coming years, as the West’s summers rapidly become hotter. Though we tend to think of climate change as something that happens outside, livable indoor spaces are crucial for adapting to hotter temperatures. “Most of us cope by going inside,” said Kear. “We experience climate change inside. And it’s changing indoor environments in a really uneven way.”

Local Resources for Manufactured Home Residents:

In Tucson, the utility and/or repair assistance programs operated through the City of Tucson, Tucson Electric Power, Habitat for Humanity, the Arizona Department of Housing and Interfaith Community Services require homeowners to either own the land beneath their manufactured home or be direct customers of Tucson Electric Power. Here are some resources that are available to submetered park residents:  

  • Join the Arizona Association of Mobile Home and RV Owners (AAMHO): www.aamho.org or 1-800-221-6955
  • Receive home repair help from Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona (chrpaz.org or 520-745-2055) or, for elderly residents, the Pima Council on Aging (pcoa.org or 520-790-7262)
  • Seek emergency utility or rental assistance from Chicanos por la Causa (submetered bills accepted): 520-882-0018
  • Seek emergency rental assistance from Interfaith Community Services (icstucson.org or 520-297-6049) or the Primavera Foundation (primavera.org or 520-395-6420)
  • Find Maricopa County and Pima County Cooling Centers

Caroline Tracey is the Climate Justice Fellow at High Country News. Email her at caroline.tracey@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy. 

High Country News is an independent magazine dedicated to coverage of the Western U.S. Subscribe, get the enewsletter, and follow HCN onFacebook and Twitter.