Mobile home group takes on Kasich plan, safety claims

Police tape surrounds the scene of a fatal fire in German Twp., Clark County, in which 70-year-old Dorris Rehs died in July, 2016. JEFF GUERINI/STAFF
Caption
Police tape surrounds the scene of a fatal fire in German Twp., Clark County, in which 70-year-old Dorris Rehs died in July, 2016. JEFF GUERINI/STAFF

Ohio fire and environmental officials say the industry-controlled state board that regulates manufactured homes does too little to prevent deadly home fires and ensure mobile home park residents are provided clean drinking water.

The claims come as Ohio Gov. John Kasich calls for the Ohio Manufactured Homes Commission to be disbanded and its responsibilities delegated to the Ohio Department of Commerce. The measure is part of the governor’s budget proposal pending before the Ohio General Assembly.

Manufactured homes trade association president Tim Williams says the administration is spreading “false information and misleading information” because the commission is pushing back against Kasich’s proposal.

The Ohio Manufactured Homes Commission licenses inspectors across Ohio who oversee the installation of about 3,000 homes a year. It also regulates the state’s 1,600 mobile home parks. About 900,000 Ohioans live in manufactured homes, according to the commission.

The commission is overseen by a nine-member board appointed by the governor and Ohio General Assembly. By law, six of these people must be chosen from a list provided by the industry trade group, the Ohio Manufactured Homes Association.

“Ohio law actually allows the mobile home industry to essentially regulate itself,” said the Ohio Department of Commerce’s Division of State Fire Marshal Office in a statement.

Manufactured Home Commission board vice chairman Evan Atkinson said the trade association handled more than 500 complaints every year from consumers about mobile home installation before the commission was created in response to federal rules in 2003.

After establishing new licensing and inspection rules, the commission has heard one complaint in the past three years, he said.

“I think the Manufactured Homes Commission has proven they do the right thing by consumers in Ohio, and that’s very much proven by the number of dispute resolution cases there used to be and the number of dispute resolution cases today,” Atkinson said.

Mobile homes fire hazards

The fire marshal’s statement says 58 people died in mobile home fires in Ohio from 2012 through 2016, more than any neighboring state. It says mobile home residents are 4.4 times more likely to die in a fire than Ohioans in a conventional house.

In July, a 70-year-old woman died in a fire in her mobile home in Clark County. Neighbors said they tried to help her, but the fire grew too quickly.

But officials with the besieged agency say the majority of deadly mobile home fires are in homes built prior to federal guidelines passed in 1976. If these homes were installed more than a decade ago, before the commission existed, then no government agency had oversight of their construction or installation — and they still won’t under Kasich’s proposal.

“Local or state fire officials have no authority to inspect or educate or require different fire codes for manufactured homes,” Williams said.

He provided a study saying mobile homes built to modern standards are no more of a fire risk than site-built homes.

Frank Pojman, president of the Association of Manufactured Home Residents in Ohio, said in many cases manufactured homes are safer.

“When these houses are built, they are inspected at the factory,” he said. “When they leave the factory, it has a tag that says it meets federal safety standards. You don’t get that in a stick built home.”

Little oversight of water issues

Meanwhile, the Ohio EPA says efforts to force Ohio mobile home parks to provide their residents safe drinking water have been slowed by inaction on the part of the commission.

The Ohio EPA and Ohio Manufactured Homes Commission share oversight over the state’s 250 parks that operate their own water system.

This includes Pineview Estates in Miamisburg, where about 400 residents routinely lost running water; and Catalpa Grove Mobile Home Park in Dayton, where the owner failed to test the system for contaminants such as lead, copper and bacteria.

In both cases, the Manufactured Homes Commission “denied any appreciable assistance” to the Ohio EPA in taking action on the park’s license, instead forcing the EPA to pursue the issue through lengthy court battles, according to a statement produced by the EPA in response to questions from this newspaper.

“(The manufactured homes commission) rarely – if ever – bothers to use its full regulatory authority to enforce safe water rules,” the statement says.

Agency director Janet Williams said they have never had clear authority to take action against a mobile home park owner’s license for water quality issues since they began licensing mobile home parks in December 2012.

“We want to work with them in the process of whatever legal avenue we have to help them enforce the water rules they have in manufactured home parks,” she said.

Tim Williams said the EPA showed little interest in increasing oversight of mobile home parks in the past.

Jim Demitrus, who sat on the commission from 2006 through 2015, said pulling a mobile home park’s license over water issues has serious consequences for the people living there.

“If they pull the license, everybody in that community has to move out,” he said. “I would like to see somebody in state government do that. Pull the license, and you have to move 100 families.”

Board composition

Pojman said he understands Kasich’s interest in efficiency. But he is concerned that folding the work into another agency will diminish the attention paid by an agency focused solely on manufactured homes.

“I don’t think he has a clue as to what this commission does for the residents that live in manufactured homes,” he said.

Pojman said he has asked for, but never received, an explanation as to why Kasich hasn’t appointed a resident’s representative to the board. Two of the governor’s appointments to the board have long sat empty.

Of the remaining seven board appointments, six were appointed by the General Assembly from a list provided by the trade association. One is a resident of Tennessee, in possible conflict with the state constitution, the department of commerce’s statement says.

The trade association has seven registered state lobbyists, according to state records, and will strongly oppose the governor’s plan.

Atkinson said people in the industry know the most, and care the most, about manufactured homes.

“I believe wholeheartedly, whether I sit on the commission or not, it’s one of the best things that’s happened to the manufactured home community in Ohio,” said Atkinson, who is also general manager of Clayton Homes in Frazeyburg.

“What’s proposed now is to fragment it and stick it back out into deep bureaucracy.”

Mobile home fatalities 2012-2016

Indiana: 39

Kentucky: 45

Michigan: 40

Ohio: 58

Pennsylvania: 30

West Virginia: 27

Source: Ohio Fire Marshal’s Office analysis of FEMA data