Raising The Roof: North Country Nonprofit Breaks Into The Manufactured-Modular Housing Business

Oct 22, 2014

Better Homes Ahead is selling modular homes - shown here - as well as manufactured homes.
Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

For almost 25 years a nonprofit called Affordable Housing, Education and Development has been helping low-income families in the North Country to find housing, sometimes in rental units it owns.

But now it is trying something far different and it admits it is a gamble. It is selling its own design of energy-efficient modular and manufactured homes…

The idea is to help people like Tammy Zubik of Bethlehem.

For years Zubik has had a dream about living in a home of her own, not renting.

She’s imagined how a garden would look. She’d make notes.

“I want to plant this in my yard.”

How her grandchildren – when they come along – would visit.

“And I would have a yard for my grandchildren to play in.”

But after a while she pretty much gave up on that. She’s 54 and lives on disability payments due to  diabetes and seizures that require her to have a service dog.

Then earlier this year she was going past the offices of Affordable Housing, Education and Development in Littleton. It’s a non-profit better known as AHEAD.

And there was a sign about AHEAD becoming a dealer of modular and manufactured homes.

And Kubik’s dream came rushing back.

AHEAD has formed an off-shoot called Better Homes Ahead. It is selling modular and manufactured homes in versions it has designed called “Northlanders.” They’re not available anywhere else, says Larry Berg, the business manager of Better Homes Ahead.

“It is built to our Northlander spec which makes it much more energy efficient than a typical stick-built home. It is built to the Energy Star Version Three standard.”

The energy efficient part is really important.

That’s because a lot of the state's cheapest housing it also its least energy efficient.

Michael Claflin, AHEAD’s executive director says people who struggle to pay the rent too often find themselves buried by the high cost of staying warm in a home with little insulation.  

“They are paying four to five thousand dollars a year to heat the trailer.”

Claflin says helping people get better and more energy-efficient homes should save them enough money to help pay a mortgage.

Better Homes Ahead will sell both modular homes and less expensive manufactured homes.

In each case the house’s components are built elsewhere and trucked to the housing site.

Claflin sees more affluent buyers being interested in the modular models, where prices will start around $93,000 plus site work.

“The modular homes we believe will have a market for families that make much more money than we intend to target our resources for.”

The plan is to take the profit on those modular models and use it to lower the cost of the manufactured homes for buyers who are struggling to make ends meet.

Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

Under the current plan the least-expensive manufactured home would start around $41,000.

Prices exclude land, foundation and site work including utility connections.

Claflin and Berg know that, indeed, some consumers have had problems with modular or manufactured homes.

So, Berg said they were careful in picking manufacturers as well as specifying components and construction.

Some buyers of manufactured have also been caught in a finger-pointing situation.

The people who assemble the home blame problems on the manufacturer.

The manufacturer blames the installer.

Better Homes Ahead plans to avoid that by handling the assembly and installation, Claflin said.

“It’s AHEAD’s reputation. It is why we have taken a year and one-half working with the manufacturers. We are going to stand behind all the homes that we sell and install.”

That puts Better Homes Ahead in competition with existing dealers in the state.

But that’s not a problem, says Jodi Grimbilas, the executive director of the New Hampshire Manufactured and Modular Housing Association.

“The association, we welcome others in the industry whose goal is to promote the value and affordability of manufactured housing. Manufactured housing is an excellent choice for many consumers in New Hampshire and we’re pleased to see more people finding value.”

Claflin’s hope is that there will be a profit from the housing business – which will also sell homes in Vermont and Maine. And that money will help finance AHEAD’s traditional work.

AHEAD appears to be the only non-profit in New Hampshire moving into the modular and manufactured home business.

But in a tight economy non-profits everywhere are increasingly starting to become more entrepreneurial, says Mary Ellen Jackson who directs the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits.

“So, nonprofits for decades have dabbled a bit. Some have had gift shops or sold products but in recent years there has been a heightened awareness of mobilizing resources to also have entrepreneurial strategies.”

Mike Claflin of AHEAD hopes the housing business will help local families struggling to get along. But he also knows it is a gamble for his agency.

“No question about it. But it is a strategic decision that the board has made and one we feel is imperative if AHEAD is going to continue in their mission.”

Tammy Zubik is thrilled AHEAD is taking the chance. She’s got her eye on a small, manufactured home and is working out the details, like finding an affordable piece of land.

But Zubik says she’s confident.

“My dream is coming true. Even though I am 54 years old, my dream is coming true.”

Better Homes Ahead hopes to sell its first home by the end of the year.