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New federal standards aim to make manufactured homes more efficient

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

One of the upsides of manufactured homes is affordability. But a downside has often been poor energy efficiency, thanks to drafty walls and poor insulation. New federal standards aim to make some manufactured homes more efficient. And as Colorado Public Radio's Sam Brasch reports, not everyone is happy about that.

ANGELA MARIA ORTIZ ROA: She just wants to say hi to you.

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: Visit Angela Maria Ortiz Roa's home in Boulder, Colo. - you're met with unbridled enthusiasm from her dog, Poma.

ORTIZ ROA: (Laughter) This is ridiculous.

BRASCH: It's OK.

Ortiz Roa is a climate justice advocate who works in communications for the city of Boulder. She moved to this single-wide manufactured home months before the pandemic. After living in a much smaller apartment, she says a pet is just one benefit. There's space for keyboards and drums to play music with her son.

ORTIZ ROA: You know, I'm from Colombia, so I like dancing and music. And so I get to do it all here.

BRASCH: There's room for dozens of houseplants and an extra corner to make compost for them.

ORTIZ ROA: I have composting worms. You're not going to believe it, but I have worms that are composting right there, right now.

BRASCH: Really?

ORTIZ ROA: Yeah.

BRASCH: Her biggest frustration with the home - the energy bills. In the winter, she pays more than a hundred dollars a month, which she thinks has to do with some leaky patches in the floor.

ORTIZ ROA: When you walk bare feet in the winter, you can feel maybe some gaps in the lining at the bottom where it gets - like, the floor is extremely cold.

BRASCH: And Ortiz Roa isn't alone. Federal data shows mobile homes use about 35% more energy per square foot than detached single-family homes. Part of the reason is how these homes are regulated. In most cases, states or local governments set standards for site-built homes. Manufactured homes are different. Since they often cross state lines, the federal government sets the standards. And due to a long list of political and bureaucratic hang-ups, it's recently issued new energy efficiency rules for the first time in almost 30 years. U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm says that will help people handle rising energy costs.

JENNIFER GRANHOLM: And so we want to make sure that the newer manufactured homes are efficient so that they don't waste money.

BRASCH: But here's the thing. The final policy announced last month creates two levels of standards - one for larger manufactured homes requiring thick insulation and air sealing, and a looser standard for smaller, single-wide manufactured homes. Granholm says that's so the cheapest homes remain affordable.

GRANHOLM: We are recognizing that the upfront purchase price is important, as well. And so we wanted to strike the balance.

BRASCH: The final standards disappointed energy efficiency advocates. Lowell Ungar directs federal policy efforts for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

LOWELL UNGAR: Unfortunately, they've barely changed the standards for smaller homes. And we fear that the residents of those homes are going to be paying high energy bills for decades to come.

BRASCH: The White House has new policies to boost home factories amid a nationwide housing crunch. Lesli Gooch, head of the Manufactured Housing Institute, says the new efficiency rules will cut against those efforts.

LESLI GOOCH: A number of unintended consequences have been created at the worst time possible when the country is facing such housing affordability shortage. This is the worst time to put something like this into place.

BRASCH: And Gooch doesn't think the standards are a done deal. Her group is now pushing the White House and Congress to let the Department of Housing and Urban Development revise the efficiency rules and set regulations that she says won't also push up prices.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Brasch in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TINS SONG, "THE GREEN ROOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.