Manufactured homes
A community of manufactured homes. Credit: CERTs / Courtesy

Manufactured homes are among the few affordable housing options for many low-income Minnesotans, but they can be notoriously drafty and expensive to heat and cool, placing significant energy burdens on many residents.

A public-private partnership is reporting progress with initiative to lower that burden by connecting manufactured home communities with local utility programs and weatherization contractors paid by federal dollars.

The Clean Energy Resource Teams has a goal of reducing the energy burden of all Minnesotans to less than 5% of their income. For the past four years, it’s made a special effort to target manufactured home communities, where around half of residents earn less than $35,000 per year.

“There’s a real opportunity to reduce their energy burden,” said Joel Haskard, co-director of Clean Energy Resources Teams, a collaboration involving the University of Minnesota’s Extension Service, Great Plains Institute, Southwest Regional Development Commission, and Minnesota Department of Commerce.

More than 180,000 Minnesotans live in manufactured homes, some of which were designed for southern climates and have little insulation to protect against the rigors of the state’s harsh winters.

A Minnesota Commerce Department report published in 2016 said half of the residents in the communities are eligible for low-income weatherization. More than 40% use electric heaters in winter for heating. Faced with a challenging energy burden, two-thirds of residents are open to energy-efficient measures, but a third said financial constraints could hold them back.

Clean Energy Resource Teams received three grants of $25,000 each to focus on manufactured home communities over the last four years. Although small, the grants allowed the organization to conduct pilot projects in the communities to determine what outreach works. The most recent program reached 22 communities.

Despite the outreach, obstacles remain. The staff prints energy information in several languages, but not all residents understand the benefits of a more efficient home. Nor do all residents want to take government or nonprofit assistance to improve their homes, Haskard said.

Utility programs exist to help pay for efficiency improvements. However, the residents often still must pay a portion of the cost and they do not have the financial assets needed available, Haskard said.

Yet the Clean Energy Resource Teams developed a strategy that appears to be working. First, they find a plant manager or community leader to help create an event known as a “blitz.” Then, instead of relying on their goodwill, the nonprofit gives community leaders a $300 gift card to account for their time.

The leaders select a day for the blitz, typically when rent is due or a community event is being held. At the event, leaders sign residents up for federal energy assistance if they qualify, offer a conservation kit, and sometimes direct them to local utility representatives who can help them.

Haskard said utilities sometimes offer to swap out appliances for new ones and give out conservation kits that include LEDs, faucet aerators, low-flow shower heads, window cling and heat tape that keeps pipes warm during colder seasons. 

“We’re trying to give them some pointers,” Haskard said. “If they’re recent immigrants, this housing may still be a relatively new concept with many different systems, like heaters and boilers. We try to help them better understand how to keep their home safe, comfortable, and as cost-efficient as possible.”

Northfield Healthy Communities Initiative delivering energy efficiency kits to manufactured homes.
Northfield Healthy Communities Initiative delivering energy efficiency kits to manufactured homes. Credit: CERTs / Courtesy

Residents also hear about weatherization programs in their area from local providers and Home Energy Squad, an efficiency program offered by Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy through the Center for Energy and Environment. Home Energy Squad staff did onsite work on the manufactured homes, such as weather stripping and other quick repairs.

Manufactured homes have little insulation compared to typical homes, he said, and it tends to reside beneath the floors. Weatherization can replace insulation composed of better materials that will reduce the bite of heating costs in winter, he said.

Clean Energy Resource Teams and their collaborators often knocked on doors of residents who had not attended the event and delivered conservation kits while answering any questions. The effort reached slightly more than half of all residents of the parks. “We try to cover the entire park as much as we can,” he said.

Many residents acted on the advice and signed up for weatherization or used the kit to make their own changes to reduce energy. Haskard estimates the 22 parks served by the program will collectively save more than $53,000 annually on energy bills.

The most responsive, not surprisingly, were parks owned by the tenants and not by real estate companies. “They own the land below it, they own their units, they own the office,” Haskard said. “They are great to work with because they understand that saving energy saves money for residents.”

The Northfield nonprofit Growing Up Healthy distributed conservation kits at community gatherings and received positive feedback at the parks, said Jennyffer Barrientos, executive director. The kits included expanding foam for insulation, window cling and other items to improve their homes, she said, adding that some residents had received prior training in using the materials.

Barrientos said the pandemic limited the outreach to dropping off the kits but she heard of families adding programmable thermostats and replacing old bulbs with LEDs. Now Growing Up Healthy is working with Northfield and Faribault to encourage mobile home residents to sign up for free Home Energy Squad visits.  

Healthy Community Initiative supports Growing Up Healthy. Its senior director, Sandy Malecha, said the organization created a mobile home rehabilitation coordinator position to work with residents after seeing the need that emerged from the manufactured home energy program. The coordinator will help residents make repairs, add insulation, install weather stripping and replace furnace filters.

Organizations that participated said the events offered an opportunity to reach residents that may not know about different programs. For example, Willmar Municipal Utilities attended an event at Regency Mobile Home Park last year and conducted outreach to many immigrant families who live in one of the city’s manufactured home communities, said Christopher Radel, safety and energy outreach coordinator.

When children returned from school on buses, Radel and others spoke to their parents, working closely with two translators who spoke Spanish and Karen. More than 75 people attended. The utility gave out LED bulbs, rebate information and water conservation. Nonprofits at the event addressed people with issues paying utility bills, considering Headstart, or looking for English-as-a-second language educational opportunities. “It was very successful,” Radel said.

The Carolyn Foundation gave Clean Energy Resource Teams another $25,000 grant recently and Haskard hopes to use it to introduce solar in four to eight communities. One way to reduce energy burdens would be to install solar panels on community centers or park offices, which residents financially support. Another approach would build community solar gardens with subscriptions targeting residents.

The organization will also work with manufactured home communities on energy programs sponsored by the Commerce Department or foundations. “We got some great projects coming up,” he said.

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.