Is prefab an ab-fab solution to housing in Bakersfield?

Between undulating yellow hills along the valley floor, workers inside a 270,000-square-foot warehouse are pre-building homes for the future. Their destinations: Santa Monica, Lake Tahoe, Mountain Village, Colo.

Since opening its $40 million facility last fall, Plant Prefab has commenced large-scale work on modular housing, where each section of a home is built and assembled in its factory in the Tejon Ranch Commerce Center before being conveyed by truck to a destined lot.

Whereas modern prefabs have historically been geared toward the custom-built dreams of the wealthy, founder, CEO and Chairman Steve Glenn said Plant Prefab’s operation is entirely focused on affordable housing. All of its projects are multifamily units, most of which are being sent to the Los Angeles or San Francisco Bay areas — “places where land is expensive, labor is expensive and labor is scarce,” he said.

Amid California’s housing shortage and staggering costs to construct, manufactured housing is increasingly sought out as a lucrative option — by developers and elected officials alike — to build homes as cheaply and efficiently as possible.

“I think, for a time, there was a perception that prefab housing was substandard,” said Bakersfield Councilman Andrae Gonzales, who in February toured the facility along with fellow Councilman Bob Smith and City Manager Christian Clegg. “We wanted to go out and see the facility for ourselves.”

According to the city’s regional housing needs assessment, Bakersfield needs more than 37,000 units built by the end of 2031. That breaks down to 4,600 homes annually, including 2,277 low-income units.

City officials have in recent years ramped up several options for increasing housing production locally. With $5 million allocated to its affordable housing trust fund each year, the city pays for the construction of public housing projects in tandem with a patchwork of state and federal grants.

At a committee meeting in November, officials found that 10 of the 16 affordable housing projects in Bakersfield, plagued by delays, won’t be completed until 2025 or 2026. Delays were blamed on rising costs of construction, pandemic-era gaps in supply chains and a lack of private investment that leaves public housing at the mercy of outside grants, which can take months to approve and administer.

The average affordable housing unit in Bakersfield costs about $300,000, Gonzales said.

“Sometimes even more,” he added.

But “solution is too strong a word” to describe modular housing, Glenn said. “Are they an incredible part of the solution? One hundred percent.”

Modular housing can be built much faster than standard construction — 20% to 50% faster, according to a Plant Prefab news release. The factory is capable of building 5 million square feet per year, Glenn said, or about 2,500 single-family homes averaging 2,000 square feet each.

A tour of the facility shows it operates like an assembly line, inheriting automotive-type techniques and applying them to the construction of buildings.

But improvements have come since the era of Henry Ford and the $5 workday. The solar-powered facility is largely automated, meaning panels and components are cut with surgical precision. This takes less of a bite out of the planet and that of a developer’s pocketbook, resulting in less than 2% waste compared with 30% to 40% seen on some on-site builds.

Of all the projects underway, however, zero are in Kern County. “But ironically, they’re the greatest in need of a solution because of the disparity between their costs and scarcity of labor in urban infill versus what we can do here,” Glenn said.

Modular construction has its limitations. For one, it’s not always cheaper to build in a factory as opposed to on-site, considering the cost to transport materials across several states. Site labor can sometimes be cheaper, also depending on the location.

Modular construction has not been able to avoid high interest rates that stall the scale and speed of projects slated for construction. “That’s impacted us,” he said. “We’re busy but not nearly as busy as we had hoped to be.”

The factory is running a single eight-hour shift. It employs 52 workers at a facility Glenn said could take on up to 200 people.

“It takes time to implement it well,” he said.

The only prefab affordable housing project currently in Bakersfield is the CityServe Elevate project along F Street just south of Golden State Avenue. Originally slated for a February opening, the 126-unit development has been delayed by earlier inclement weather and other delays.

Government officials and developers agree prefab is one of many tools cities should take advantage of. There’s also the prospect of building conversion; Bakersfield officials recently pledged to purchase the Ramkabir Motel for $1.4 million, with plans to convert the 37-unit site into affordable housing under the city’s community land trust program.

The city is also looking at updating its zoning laws to allow for more multifamily units in areas that don’t require parking. And Bakersfield’s financial department is halfway through an overhaul of its online permitting system, which a city spokesperson said should be done within the next two months.

“Right now, our permitting process is too unpredictable. It’s too complex, and it takes too long,” Gonzales said.

With a 37% rise noted in this year’s survey of Kern County’s homeless population — half of which lives within Bakersfield city limits — officials are desperately seeking prospective venues for more affordable housing.

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