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Climate

What Two Record-Breaking Floods Taught Vermont

The state has made itself into a model of relief policy for manufactured homeowners.

Mobile homes.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

There’s a brook that runs along the Mountain Home Park in Brattleboro, Vermont, providing the sort of pleasant babbling sound people play at night to help them fall asleep. On a typical morning, the water moves quickly and is shallow enough that you can see the rocks under the surface.

But when a storm comes through, long-time resident Angela Johnson warns, this steady stream can turn treacherous.

“We watch it every day when it’s raining — it doesn’t matter if it’s a heavy storm, the brook rises quite quickly,” Johnson told me. “It has and it will continue to break out of its space and cause flooding.”

That’s what happened four years ago, when an ice jam caused the brook to burst, flooding into the houses in the low-lying surrounding area. Or during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, which destroyed 29 homes in the greater Tri-Park Housing Cooperative, of which Mountain Home is a member. The rushing water lifted some structures right off their foundations, damaged roadways, and left a trail of debris, photos, and furniture among the wreckage in its wake.

Manufactured homes (which the state of Vermont uses interchangeably with mobile homes, though that term that refers only to models made before 1976) were disproportionately impacted during Irene, making up 7% of the state’s housing stock but 15% of housing damaged during the storm. Across the U.S., one of seven manufactured homes is in a neighborhood with high flood risk, according to a Headwaters Economics analysis, a figure that is only expected to rise due to climate change.

Vermont has recognized this risk, making changes at the state, local, and community levels that have earned it national recognition as a model for mitigating flood risk in these particularly vulnerable neighborhoods. To better understand what some of these strategies looked like, I went to Vermont earlier this year and met with residents, officials, and researchers who shared their experiences working or living — or both — in manufactured home parks.

Or rather, I tried to. On my first attempt to visit, I made it about 45 minutes into my four-hour drive before I had to turn around due to flooding, an irony that was certainly not lost on me. When I finally made it up to Tri-Park the next day, there was still water pooled in front of homes and alongside the road, hinting at the areas that might be particularly vulnerable to the next storm.

Mountain Home Brook.Mountain Home Brook.Colleen Hagerty

Weeks later, Vermont was in the headlines for flooding once again. An unnamed storm drenched the state in July, causing “catastrophic” impacts and earning quick comparisons to Tropical Storm Irene. More than 2,900 homes were damaged across the state, hundreds of them significantly, including dozens of manufactured homes. “Flooding had outsized impact on 4 Vermont mobile home communities,” announced the headline from one local news organization, which placed the loss at more than 60 manufactured homes.

So, did any of the changes implemented after Irene make a difference? It’s a tricky question, said Kelly Hamshaw, a researcher with the University of Vermont. She’s been visiting and interviewing residents in manufactured housing communities since 2011 and is currently working to identify needs in areas impacted by this summer’s storm.

For starters, the flooding footprints of the two storms were different, meaning those hardest-hit by one were not necessarily as impacted by the other. The flooded areas are still in the early stages of recovery, so it’s difficult to step back and make clear comparisons. Other less visible interventions, though, have certainly paid off, she told me.

Take accessing aid — researchers say the specific needs of manufactured homeowners are often overlooked in laws dealing with flood damage. Typically, owners of manufactured homes buy the structure they live in but not the land beneath it, which they rent from a distinct owner or corporation. Since most government assistance is aimed at either single-family homeowners or renters, Headwaters Economics research found that manufactured homeowners are “more likely to face barriers in accessing federal and state assistance, more likely to experience long-term recovery problems, and more likely to be permanently displaced.”

In the aftermath of Irene, for instance, most damaged manufactured homes had to be condemned to receive a full payout from the Federal Emergency Management Agency; those payouts often amounted to less than the value of the homes and left their owners without anywhere to live. Other types of homes did not require condemnation for their owners to receive that full payout.

This was a discrepancy the state recognized more readily this time, though it still has required additional interventions to address. In response to this summer’s storm, Vermont has rolled out new programs specifically aimed at damaged manufactured home removal and funding for those who received insufficient payouts from FEMA. A state legislative task force is also working to better understand the economics and issues related to manufactured housing in hopes of addressing policy gaps.

Because it’s not just a challenge accessing aid. Other types of homeowners also have more options when they’re ready to start moving on.

Stephanie Smith, hazard mitigation officer for Vermont Emergency Management, said buyouts were a key tool when it came to single-family homes after Irene. In those cases, the typical model was to pay 75% of the value of a property, an amount that was often significantly higher than the maximum FEMA payout, and gave the homeowner funds towards purchasing a new property. But this approach wasn’t feasible for manufactured homeowners, Smith told me. While many single-family homes appreciate in value over time, Smith said the value of a manufactured home often diminishes over time due to age and wear. And unlike single-family homes, in which the entire property goes into the valuation, manufactured home owners typically own just the structure they live in, paying rent on the actual land beneath it to a landlord.

So, based on just the value of that building, the payout these homeowners would receive would not be “anywhere near enough” to cover purchasing a new structure and paying lot rent, according to Smith.

Aging infrastructure is an issue in Tri-Park, from older homes to public offerings like the bridges and sewage systems, all of which can make the community more vulnerable to flooding. To address these compounding challenges, Tri-Park, where Johnson lives, developed a multimillion-dollar master plan with the input of government officials, residents, board members, and developers. It calls for funding infrastructure upgrades, including fixing up sewers and bridges over the brook, and proposes a new approach to buyouts. Instead of paying the 25 residents living in floodplains a percentage for their homes, Tri-Park will offer them new, eco-friendly manufactured homes located at a higher elevation within the same community.

The plan has multiple public and private supporters, including Smith’s department, which is providing the park with $2 million to purchase those new homes through the state’s Flood Resilient Communities Fund. At this point, both the plans and the funds to make this idea a reality are largely in place.

What’s still missing: Fewer than half of the minimum 25 households necessary to move forward have agreed to move. Residents have been hearing about the plan as a hypothetical for years while the board worked with partners and looked for capital. But board members and residents alike acknowledge there is a lot of skepticism around the plan’s promises. One challenge is that the new lots are expected to be smaller, and residents might not be able to have the same sort of layouts or amenities they currently enjoy.

To address these concerns, the Tri-Park board — which is open for residents to join — has hosted resident meetings and is offering a chance to tour models of the new types of homes they will be building. Which brings up another resiliency strategy more than a dozen parks have adopted since Irene: becoming resident-owned. Vermont law requires landowners of manufactured home parks to give notice to all lessees if they intend to sell the property, giving residents first dibs on purchasing the land. To do so, homeowners often opt to work with a nonprofit or establish a resident-owned cooperative, in which the residents become shareholders. Tri-Park is the largest of the 67 nonprofit or resident-owned manufactured home parks in the state, giving its residents an opportunity to have a voice in these larger park decisions.

Help from Cooperative Development Institute and Resident-Owned Communities has been a key part of this movement, local officials said. Julia Curry, who works for CDI in Vermont, says the biggest benefit in switching to a resident-owned model is security, as things like lot rent cannot be changed without resident input.

“Now the residents themselves — the members of the co-op — are setting their annual budgets,” Curry explained.

Aside from ensuring prices remain reasonable, that can also allow for prioritizing and accounting for risks like flooding. Last Christmas, a winter storm sent Sandy Jarvis’s Christmas into chaos. A mixture of high winds, rain, and snow over Northwestern Vermont caused the St. George Community Cooperative, where Jarvis has lived for nearly a decade, to lose power. Like Mountain Home, even an average storm causes large puddles to form in the low-lying neighborhood. But the Christmas flood sprang from another source — frozen pipes that cracked and leaked, draining the community’s well system.

For Jarvis, this was a warning sign. Since then, she’s been working to establish an emergency plan in the community and budget for a generator that could keep the water supply running during power outages. When the heavy rains came through this summer, she said, they were mostly spared, though they did lose power again and dealt with some flooding.

“Most mobile home communities in the state are old, and there's a lot of aging infrastructure,” Jarvis told me. Reflecting on their luck compared to other communities in the state, she later added, “We came out of it fairly well.”

Bill Dunton, another resident of the St. George development, has lived there nearly 25 years, through the transition to a cooperative; he’s witnessed flooding and the aftermath. Making changes can be difficult, he acknowledges, particularly in a neighborhood that has “118 families — and 118 different attitudes.” Still, Dunton believes the co-op model is ultimately supportive for residents, as it eliminates the fear of losing their homes or getting priced out with no notice, something Hamshaw from the University of Vermont said is not unusual in the state’s “bonkers” housing market, even after disasters.

Concerns over lot rent, which manufactured housing residents can still be charged after being displaced, and accessing aid are among the issues Hamshaw has heard since the summer storm. With the ground now frosting over at night as winter weather settles in, Hamshaw worries about the residents still in the thick of post-disaster bureaucracy. She’s currently interviewing displaced residents, many of whom are couch surfing or living in campers as they await aid. Even once they receive funds, she stressed that the housing market is significantly different now than it was after Irene, with everything from rent to repairs costing more, let alone new housing units.

That’s why Dunton, sitting inside his warm home as a light drizzle fell outside, said he hopes the state can come to see communities like St. George the way he does: as one of the last vestiges of actually affordable housing. And that, he believes, is well worth investing in for the long haul.

Support for this story was provided by The Neal Peirce Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting journalism on ways to make cities and their larger regions work better for all people.

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Colleen Hagerty profile image

Colleen Hagerty

Colleen Hagerty covers disasters for outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Popular Science, among others. She also writes My World’s on Fire, a weekly newsletter on the subject.

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