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Non-profit assists mobile home owners improve habitability

Matt Martin/WSKG

Mobile homes are often the only affordable housing options for low and moderate-income people in rural communities. But they aren’t built to last and often fall into disrepair. For years, government housing programs haven’t provided much for this segment of the housing stock. A program is underway in Otsego County to improve housing conditions for people living in mobile homes.

If you’ve driven down the back roads of Upstate New York, you’ve probably noticed that, mixed in with the old barns and farmhouses, one of the most common kinds of homes are mobile homes. And many of them look like they’re falling apart.

Tony Scalessi was a young construction worker in Otsego County back in the late 70s. Working in towns along some of upstate’s back roads, he met many low-income families struggling to find suitable housing.

“And it just struck me how much they were being left behind by the economics of the time,” says Scalessi.

So Scalessi went off to get a master’s degree in community planning. Then, with a degree-in-hand to go along with his knowledge of construction, he started Otsego Rural Housing Assistance.

Scalessi’s non-profit uses federal grant money to help low and moderate-income households make improvements to substandard living conditions.

He’s been running ORHA for 30 years, fixing up old farmhouses or single-family homes.  But there’s one type of home that federal and state agencies have neglected the entire time: mobile homes.

He says mobile homes aren’t built to last and quickly slip into being uninhabitable.

“2 inch walls, and cheap windows, and plastic doors, etc,” says Saclessi.

Scalessi has failed for years to secure funding to fix up the decaying mobile homes in the region, which make up 15% of the housing stock in Otsego County.

Government officials are skeptical of projects like these because mobile homes don’t hold value, so repairs are a bad investment.

“But the purpose of state and federal rehabilitation dollars is by law to meet the needs of low and moderate-income people to correct substandard housing conditions," says Saclessi. "And these are substandard housing conditions and just because they’re mobile homes doesn’t mean they should be out of the loop.”

Dale Berberick struggled for years to keep up with the repairs at his mobile home in Burlington. Berberick owns a lawn care business and he grooms the grass around his small home with exactness.

But his property wasn’t always so sharp.

“It was a work in progress for about 3 or 4 or 5 years,” says Berberick.

Berberick found the place while driving down the road 20 years ago. He passed a man putting out a “For Sale” sign and stopped to inquire. Since it was in pretty bad shape, he got it for next to nothing. 

“I don’t think there was a window in the house,” says Berberick.

The roof leaks and the furnace can no longer heat the home. Berberick’s lawn care business hasn’t been bringing in a lot of money and the list of needed repairs keeps growing. 

Tony Scalessi says mobile homes like Berberick’s just aren’t built to last for 20 plus years.

“The fact is that the people living in them, that’s the affordable housing to them.  And they’re not going anywhere," says Scalessi.

This is exactly the type of case Scalessi is hoping to fix. ORHA teamed up with the Otsego County Planning Department three years ago and began lobbying for a dedicated funding source just for mobile homes.

And this year they got it. Otsego County received a Community Development Block Grant from the federal government for the sole purpose of repairing mobile homes. The grant was just over 300,000 dollars.

Erik Scrievener is with the planning department. He says most of the mobile homes in Otsego County were built in the 60’s or 70’s. 

“There are mobile homes everywhere. We’re looking to do 20 to 30 mobile homes out of, just look at the number of 3,000. I mean, it’s overwhelming at times but you have to start somewhere,” says Scrievener.

The county and ORHA have started work on the first five homes, including Berberick’s.

Standing on his freshly cut grass, Berberick says he feels backed up against a wall. He can’t afford to fix his roof or replace his furnace. So ORHA and the county have agreed to replace both.

He says he’s never looked for a handout but he does appreciate having a hand up.

“It really makes you feel like you’re worth something now. You can continue on even though you don’t make a lot of money instead of just giving it all up,” says Berberick.

ORHA and Otsego County are working a new grant application, in hopes of winning another round of funding to work on more houses next year.

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