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ASU team's research leads to new law protecting mobile-home dwellers

Knowledge Exchange for Resilience works with community to lower risk in extreme heat

Sunset and red sky behind the skyline of Phoenix

The summer of 2023 was the hottest ever recorded in the Phoenix area. Photo by Christopher Goulet/ASU News

April 11, 2024

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs signed a law earlier this month that guarantees mobile-home owners’ right to install cooling measures, thanks in large part to the work of an Arizona State University team.

The Knowledge Exchange for Resilience at ASU, an interdisciplinary center that works with communities to research and solve problems, worked for more than five years on the problem of extreme heat and mobile homes in the Valley.

Patricia Solis, executive director of the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience, said that the team worked closely with mobile-home owners to pinpoint why so many people who live in mobile homes are vulnerable to extreme heat.

The data they collected led to the new law, which prevents landlords from denying tenants the right to install an air conditioner or other cooling measures. Hobbs signed it as an emergency action, so it went into effect immediately, on April 2.

“This is an inspiring example of what can happen when you work on the issues that come from the community,” said Solis, who testified about ASU’s research on the topic at the Arizona Legislature in January.

“This is the reason I came to ASU — to do this kind of work.

“This is what the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience was established for. This is what the ASU Charter was established for.”

The problem is critical because while mobile homes account for 5% of the housing in Maricopa County, about 30% to 40% of indoor heat deaths in any given year are people who live in mobile homes, according to the research by the center, which is in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

The Knowledge Exchange for Resilience found that in Maricopa County, mobile-home dwellers who died from the heat were twice as likely to not have had air conditioning as victims who died in other kinds of homes. And for mobile-home residents who did have air conditioning but died anyway, they were three times more likely to have had their electricity turned off compared with victims from other home types.

The project started when the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience (KER) was formed in 2018, funded by a grant from the Virginia G. Piper Trust. The team began working on the issue of extreme heat with a consortium of groups that provide assistance with utility bills.

The ASU team cross-referenced location data of where people received utility assistance with location data from Maricopa County of heat-associated deaths. There were many places that overlapped, but some spots showed a lot of deaths and little utility assistance.

Those turned out to be mobile-home communities.

“We did the math and, sure enough, there are many reasons that people who live in mobile-home parks are more vulnerable to extreme heat,” Solis said.

The research found that mobile-home dwellers were more likely to be older, live alone and have lower incomes. Many mobile homes are densely packed together on top of asphalt, increasing the heat.

Also, because while residents might own the home, they lease the land (often from the park owner), so they are not direct customers of utilities — the landlord is — and they cannot apply for utility assistance.

To drill down further on the risk factors, the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience began working with the Arizona Association of Manufactured Home, RV & Park Model Owners, a residents’ advocacy group.

Solis reached out to several ASU students who were residents at a mobile-home park, and they were instrumental in getting their neighbors to participate in surveys about heat issues.

“We started out not knowing what the questions were, but in the process of discovery, we uncovered them step by step,” said Solis, who sat in sweltering homes while interviewing residents.

“We measured how hot it was and, in some homes, it was 105 degrees indoors during the summer.

“I had people say things to me like, ‘I might not be here if you come back next year. I might not survive another summer.’ It was very motivating.”

The center put together a guide on how to mitigate heat in mobile-home communities by using methods such as shade sails and roof insulation. The Arizona Association of Manufactured Home, RV & Park Model Owners distributed the guide.

Then that uncovered a deeper problem.

“We were hearing back, ‘I’d love to put a shade sail over my home but my landlord won’t let me.’

“People were saying that their landlords were stopping them from putting in window air-conditioning units in the front of their houses because they could be seen from the street,” Solis said.

“It doesn’t make any sense to say, in Arizona, that you can’t put this in your home.”

So the research needed to be transformed into policy that would allow residents the right to mitigate heat in their homes. The Knowledge Exchange for Resilience at ASU shared its data with Wildfire AZ, a Phoenix-based anti-poverty organization that started the first warm-weather fuel fund in the country, in 2005.

“The lightbulb moment came out of ASU discovering the disproportionate number of heat-related deaths in mobile homes,” said Maxine Becker, attorney advocate for Wildfire AZ.

“At Wildfire, the leg of the race we ran was how can we take this important and wonderful information and tell this story to the Legislature?”

Wildfire shaped the language that became bill HB2146 and found a sponsor in Rep. David Cook.

“We found that no matter the party affiliation, every member we talked to was compassionate and wanted to make a difference,” Becker said.

“They saw that this was something where the Legislature could intervene on behalf of people who are struggling in these mobile-home parks.”

In January, Solis testified about the research when the Commerce Committee of the House heard the bill.

“It was very important to have that expertise there so legislators could understand that this was grounded in science, data and real peoples’ experiences, and that element made it persuasive,” Becker said.

The committee voted unanimously to move the bill forward and it was approved unanimously by both the full House and the Senate.

“I was blown away that there was that level of consensus,” Solis said.

While the new law is a victory, the issue of vulnerability to extreme heat is ongoing.

“A third of indoor heat-associated deaths in the county are people who do have air conditioning and electricity and choose not to use it because they presume they can’t pay for it,” Solis said.

“There are still a lot of problems to solve.”

The ASU Knowledge Exchange for Resilience has several resources on its website about extreme heat. One of them is a resource guide for mobile-home residents and mobile-home park owners in the event of a power outage during hot weather.

ASU student Britnie Britton is a research aide for the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience and was one of the authors of the guide. She learned about a power outage at a park in Mesa last summer from one of the board members of the Arizona Association of Manufactured Home, RV & Park Model Owners.

“We got insight and used that information for the guide on how a mobile-home community could be more prepared for a power outage,” she said.

Among the recommendations for mobile-home park owners are:

  • Keep a list of nearby cooling centers.
  • Arrange for wellness checks if an outage happens.
  • Provide access to refrigerators and freezers powered by generators.

Recommendations for residents are:

  • Prepare a package with flashlights, bottled water and medical records.
  • Prepare an emergency plan for pets.
  • Check on neighbors if an outage happens.

Britton, who will receive dual master’s degrees in public policy and sustainability solutions in May, also worked on research for the governor’s Extreme Heat Preparedness Plan, released in March.

Hobbs filed an executive order calling for the plan last year, after the hottest summer ever in Arizona, and tapped the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience to lead the research.  

“It was a highlight of the past year to see how different state agencies all have their own goals and all came together for a common goal to help support the executive order and how we can save lives in the summer to come,” Britton said.

Britton, who wants a career in emergency preparedness or hazard mitigation, traveled with the team to Washington, D.C., on April 9 to present at the Extreme Heat Policy Innovation Summit.

“The presentation focuses on how, yes, we have these solutions, but there’s more to be done on a federal level, and here are the things that Arizona is doing to combat extreme heat,” she said.

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