BRATTLEBORO—Sylvia Renfrew hasn’t slept under her own roof in eight months thanks to the one-two punch of Tropical Storm Irene and the regulations around mobile homes.
But new legislation aimed at protecting some of Vermont’s most affordable housing should help Renfrew and her Glen Park neighbors move back home.
“I was surprised at how many friends I did have,” said Renfrew of the support she has received over the last eight months.
Renfrew, 79, who moved to Glen Park in 1979, stays in an apartment on Greenleaf Street because Irene’s floodwaters soaked the floor of her mobile home. Green mold is the building’s primary inhabitant now.
Since Irene, mobile home residents like Renfrew have lived in a no-man’s land. Their mobile homes are treated differently from traditional houses under current housing regulations, creating more challenges for those who have less money to help them rebound.
The passage of a new law, S.99, will help smooth this uneven terrain, housing advocates say.
The legislation, in addition to providing protections to mobile home owners, includes provisions to encourage the development of more parks; improves residents’ negotiation rights before a park’s sale; allocates $1.5 million in funds and tax credits to assist in purchasing and building mobile home parks; and codifies the state’s intent that a Vermont public agency administer Section 8 housing subsidies, unlike other states that allow private companies to manage the federal subsidies.
The law, signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin May 14, also makes it illegal to discriminate in land use and permitting decisions against a park based on the residents’ income.
Despite numerous anti-discrimination laws designed to protect renters and homeowners, the state had overlooked mobile home owners, said Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, one of the bill’s proponents, at a May 16 press conference at Glen Park.
“We never passed a law that allowed communities not to discriminate against mobile home parks,” he said.
Illuzzi added that the legislation cleared FEMA’s claims that state law did not designate a specific official to order a mobile home condemned. This glitch kept mobile home owners like Renfrew from collecting the $30,200 flat rate that FEMA offers for condemned buildings after a disaster.
State officials worked on this issue until “FEMA threw in the towel” and agreed the governor could retroactively issue the letters of condemnation necessary for owners looking to leave their severely flood-damaged homes, said Illuzzi.
The legislation also provides some temporary relief for Tri-Park in the form of deferred loan payments.
Last year, the park completed upgrades to its water and sewer system financed through Brattleboro’s pot of State Revolving Loan Funds. Irene’s damage wiped away nearly all the park’s $250,000 reserves.
With loan payments looming, Tri-Park approached the town about deferring payments. S.99 carries a provision to defer $496,000 of payments for two years.
“We did listen. We acted on it,” said Illuzzi. “You deserve all the thanks,” he told the audience.
Fellow legislators joined Illuzzi at Glen Park to announce the bill’s passage: Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, and Rep. John Moran. D-Wardsboro.
Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, and Rep. Sarah Edwards, P/D-Brattleboro, were both out of town.
In a separate interview, Galbraith, who led the charge for the legislation with Illuzzi, said he was “very pleased” with the law’s passage. Ensuring that mobile home owners received the same benefits and rights as owners of built homes was paramount for him and Illuzzi.
The old stereotypes of trashy trailer parks are wrong, he said, adding that mobile homes provide affordable housing, while parks like those in the Tri-Park cooperative build community.
S.99 has tried to address how funding like disaster relief has disproportionally favored conventional homes over mobile homes, which most banks consider depreciating assets, he said.
Illuzzi and Galbraith previously met with Tri-Park residents during a visit to Windham County on March 30. The Tri-Park cooperative consists of three mobile home parks — Black Mountain, Mountain Home, and Glen Park — with about 320 units in total.
Glen Park saw the worst of Irene’s flooding from the Whetstone Brook. Ten severely damaged units have been removed.
The message Illuzzi received March 30 was that residents felt their recovery sat in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hands, not their own.
“Although we’re a small state,” he said, “we decided we would make a difference.”
Illuzzi serves on the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs with Galbraith, as well as on the Senate Committee on Appropriations. According to Illuzzi, these assignments helped him support the bill by “carrying the ball to the appropriations committee.”
Mary Durland, known as “The Mayor of Glen Park,” described S.99 as “successful for mobile home owners and their parks beyond their wildest dreams.”
She said the legislation will help Renfrew replace her mobile home.
“That $10,000 to $15,000 that made it impossible has been taken care of,” Durland said.
Bigger problems linger
But S.99 won’t solve all of the residents’ problems.
The fact remains that Glen Park sits in the Whetstone Brook’s floodplain. Resident Judy Malloy wants the Whetstone “addressed ASAP,” taking issue with environmentalists worrying more about trees than houses.
Resident Carol Perry said that, even before Irene, she looked into senior housing after her husband needed nursing home care.
This change cut her income in half, but not her bills. This past winter, Perry said, heating fuel was one bill she couldn’t pay.
She considers affordable housing an important issue for Vermonters and wants lowered rents that include heating fuel. The state also needs to define what qualifies as an “affordable housing” figure.
“When we say we don’t have any money, we mean we don’t have any money,” said Perry, who also works with the grassroots organization, the Vermont Workers Center.
Perry had federal flood insurance. But, she said, only two homes at Glen Park could meet FEMA’s insurance qualifications.
“That’s a mistake,” she said.
Still, Perry sees a silver lining to Irene’s floods.
“Our park came together as neighbors,” she said. “[Glen Park] was a trailer park. Now it is a mobile home park, and we’re owners.”