Rick Rand’s excellent proposal for an all-industry conclave at a neutral location is gathering momentum. Such a venue should certainly not screen out the smaller operators who have always been a prime source of innovation, and it is vitally important that the “big guys” also be at the table. Make room for the various associations charged with the thankless task of placating the placating the industry’s many voices.
As a long-retired veteran of manufactured housing, I’m appalled at the conflicts, back-biting and lack of leadership that has always hamstrung our young industry. It was understandable in the early days when the largest manufacturers controlled less than ten percent of shipments and no other industry constituent was in a position make things happen beyond his own company (in those days, the leading players were all men).
Today, though manufactured housing is a shadow of its former self, the product itself is far better, the need for affordable housing is far greater, the leading manufacturers remain profitable, the market for manufactured housing communities is heating up and the stick competition is in disarray. So why are our sales volumes in the dumper?
It is true of course that we, as an industry, have made many mistakes. And we’ll make more.
In a free enterprise system, we learn from our mistakes and keep moving forward. That’s exactly what needs to happen at the kind of meeting Rick has proposed. Pull the tribe together with an agenda focused on the problems we’ve created, the opportunities ahead and agree upon a broad based strategy to deal with today’s challenges. Ideas and innovations are often sparked over a cup of coffee or glass of beer, and contacts have always been the lifeblood of the industry.
But far more is needed than griping about Dodd-Frank and what names we should use for our products. Consider some fundamentals.
Housing is one of America’s least efficient industries. That includes stick builders and us too. Why is that? Well, there’s no serious foreign or domestic competition, no real industry leadership, way too much regulation and negligible innovation. That’s been the case for a hundred years.
Academics and all sorts of advanced thinkers have, for at least that long, looked to industrializing the building process to break out of housing’s quagmire. It has finally happened. The industry we now call manufactured housing has demonstrated the ability to build good housing at roughly half the cost of traditional methods, and we have the black eyes to prove it.
As one result, America’s largest home builder is one of us, and one of the world’s richest men bankrolls MH financing. Something like 20 million Americans live in homes we’ve built and the vast majority of them appreciate the comfort and value those homes provide. There’s ever so much more that could and should be done, but we’ve made a better start than any other tilter at housing’s windmills. Many have tried.
One thing the MH industry agreed upon some 40 years ago was to unite under the HUD banner. That turned out to be a painful process with about as many negative as positive outcomes. We banded together again to reform that process with the Manufactured Housing Improvement Act of 2000 (MHIA 2000), but guess what? Big Brother has its own ideas about “Improvement” which do not include a lot of use for industry committee input.
We’ve got a lot going for us, and yet the squabbles continue. If there’s an industry strategy, it did not emerge from my recent research. What is happening is a plethora of tactics, put forward under various banners, mostly going nowhere.
As an industry professional, you can put forward some ideas for how to deal with these challenges. So can I, and I’ve done so in my recent book, Dueling Curves. It’s not enough.
Maybe at Rick’s gathering of the tribes, some sort of consensus can be reached, on a whole bunch of nifty ideas.
But that’s not enough either.
The single most important objective of such a congress—or whatever it’s to be called—should be to the emergence of industry leadership. Not a task force, committee or agency, but a person of vision who commands the respect of the industry.
A tribal chief who can weave the disparate strengths of the manufacturers, suppliers, financiers, retailers, MH owners and community operators into a strategy we can all salute. Oh well, yes, there will always be a few curmudgeons. No one will be entirely happy with any strategic vision adequate to unite us; not even the leader who ultimately propounds it.
But let me suggest this. Should we fail to unite behind competent leadership, I can suggest who will become take charge of the industry. Well, maybe I shouldn’t name names, but the initials are H.U.D. ##