Project funds will be used to replace bridges at Mountain Home Park in West Brattleboro.
Ellen Pratt/The Commons
Project funds will be used to replace bridges at Mountain Home Park in West Brattleboro.

Funding in place to move families living in danger of flooding

$6 million from federal and state sources will fund flood resiliency projects in 2020 Tri-Park master plan

BRATTLEBORO — With the final piece of financing approved on Sept. 11 by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, Tri-Park Cooperative Housing Corporation, which owns three Brattleboro mobile home parks - Mountain Home Park, Glen Park, and Black Mountain Park - is set to implement flood resiliency projects outlined in its 2020 Master Plan.

The majority of the $6 million in federal and state grant funds assembled for the project will be used for a voluntary buyback program to relocate 26 Mountain Home Park households out of the flood plain of the Halladay and Whetstone brooks, which run through the park.

Twenty-two of the homes are located in the FEMA-designated floodway, the flood hazard area where the risk is greatest. The new homes will be sited in the Mountain Home Park and the previously occupied flood plain lots will be put into a conservation easement.

A smaller portion of project funding will be used to repair and/or replace two bridges in the Mountain Home Park, and to upgrade the wastewater treatment systems at Glen Park and Black Mountain Park.

As highlighted by the record flooding throughout much of the state in July, Vermont's severe housing shortage has been exacerbated by the loss of housing due to such climate catastrophes. While estimates are still being revised, July's flooding may have rendered 700 homes uninhabitable, according to the state's 211 data, which is self-reported by residents.

Mobile homes account for about 7% of the state's housing stock but are disproportionately affected by flooding. In Vermont, nearly 12% of mobile homes in parks are in flood plains, according to a 2014 study conducted by UVM researchers Daniel Baker and Scott Hamshaw.

Statewide, in the four mobile home parks that saw major flooding in July, 52 homes have been condemned by the state's Division of Fire Safety. According to the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development, of the housing that was damaged or destroyed in Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, 15% were mobile homes.

Though largely spared in the heavy rains in July, many Tri-Park residents remember the destruction caused by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011: 16 homes were destroyed in Mountain Home Park, and 10 homes in Glen Park suffered substantial damage.

'Everybody knows somebody who lives at Tri-Park'

Founded in the 1950s and incorporated as a mobile home cooperative in 1989, Tri-Park is one of the largest privately owned, unsubsidized providers of affordable housing in the state. With 300 mobile home sites and nearly 1,000 residents, Tri-Park represents about 9% of the total population of Brattleboro.

"Everybody knows somebody who lives in one of TriPark's three locations, whether you realize it or not," said Dan Ridlehoover, who is leading the flood resiliency project at Tri-Park.

Ridlehoover, a senior project manager with M&S Development of Brattleboro, spoke highly of the Tri-Park co-op.

"They are a huge supply of affordable housing in Brattleboro. Because they're co-operatively owned and managed, they often get held up statewide as an example of the ways that mobile home parks should be organized to allow them to keep the rents down," he said.

"They've had some bad luck, certainly, with where they were originally built," Ridlehoover continued, noting that Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 "hit them pretty hard."

"But what they're trying to do is prevent their finances from getting worse in the future when the next flood comes - which it will," he said.

The Tri-Park flood resiliency project is funded by the state's Community Recovery and Revitalization Program, the federal Community Development Block Grant Program, the Flood Resilient Communities Fund, the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, state homeowner tax credits, and a congressionally directed spending appropriation by U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch.

"This is one of the most complex development projects that I've ever been involved in, and I'm not doing the work," said Mary Houghton, a non-resident board member of the co-op for 17 years who has worked in the affordable housing field for 30 years with the Burlington Community Land Trust and Brattleboro Housing Partnerships.

"It's like doing one of those interlocking Chinese puzzles where you have to get all the pieces in place so that it holds together, but until then, you need three hands," she said.

"All the funders have to understand what each other is doing, what their requirements are, and how it's all going to work for it all to happen," Houghton noted, while also noting "how much effort the funders are putting into it to make it work and to coordinate with each other."

"If you're going to do any kind of housing development, you have to be optimistic," she added.

"These projects take years, and people who aren't familiar with them say, 'Well, why can't we just do this?'" Houghton said. "And people are shocked by how much it costs. But, you know, we build roads and bridges that cost gazillions of dollars, and nobody says anything."

A different kind of buyout program

Ridlehoover is working on converting conceptual designs into a final design so that the co-op can get the permits needed to begin the project. He hopes that residents will be in their new homes by the fall of 2024.

He explained that in a typical FEMA buyout program, homeowners receive only a percentage of the appraised value of the home.

"But that doesn't cover the cost of a new home," he said. "And so they're out of luck."

The Flood Resilient Communities Fund (FRCF) will close that gap, and that is one of the project's biggest successes, according to Ridlehoover.

"Without FRCF's willingness to engage Tri-Park with project-level funding - how much will it take versus how much does it appraise for? - the residents would not be able to move, and there would be no conservation easement on the floodplain," he said.

"The cost difference between appraisal and 'what it takes' is a five-figure number, but when new multifamily units are going up at $350,000 per unit, pitching in a little extra to be able to also buy an easement seems like a no-brainer to me," Ridlehoover said.

He acknowledged that some state programs that cap buyout offers to the property's appraised value do so in the spirit of fiduciary responsibility of a publicly funded budget.

"But I think that neglects the reality that taxpayers also end up being on the hook for disaster cleanup and the other flood-related issues we're seeing this summer," Ridlehoover added.

Homeowners who don't take advantage of the buyout program will continue to face flood risk - and, potentially, the loss of their homes in a future catastrophe.

Future homes cannot be sited in the floodway.

Losing housing would put a big financial squeeze on the cooperative because fewer households would be paying rent to cover the operating expenses and debt. By stabilizing co-op finances, the project will also stabilize housing for all Tri-Park households.

With a "pressing need for more than 500 housing units of which nearly 60% are needed for those with incomes under $50,000," according to the action place, the town can ill afford to lose existing housing.

A mixed response to moving

Will homeowners take advantage of the program?

"I'm gonna take it," said Mountain Home Park resident Richard Ewings, when asked about the buyout offer. "You might as well go up, right? Don't stay at the bottom of the hill."

In July's heavy rains, water from the brook behind his house rose to his front steps.

"My neighbor had a pond in his yard," Ewings said. "I've been here almost four years and we really never had it like that.

Richard Matteson and his wife, Sandy, have lived at Mountain Home Park for 35 years, in a neat mobile home beside the Whetstone Brook. In that time, they've had to evacuate at least four times, once in a bucket loader, when the brook overflowed its banks.

Asked whether he will take advantage of the buyout program, Matteson hesitated.

"We've been thinking about it," he said. "But it depends on how much our taxes are going to go up with the new place. We're on a fixed income and will be till the day we go into the ground."

Matteson has lived in Vermont his whole life and has seen the impact of climate change.

"I think in another two years half of the state of Vermont is going to be damaged because of climate change. It's gonna get a lot worse before it gets better."

He began seeing that coming a decade ago, he said.

"I see the difference in the way the animals acted," he said. "I hunt and fish and see all kinds of different things. My whole family, we're all outdoors people and we can see the change."

Ridlehoover is sympathetic to residents' concerns. "We've gotten a good number of enthusiastic yeses, but we've also got a good number of skeptics," he said.

"I think they're rightfully skeptical that this will happen because they're not living the project day to day," he continued. "They have questions about property tax increases and the transference of tax credits that will help to fund the new homes."

"It's perfectly reasonable for someone to not be sure," he said. "But I think we'll get 26."

Ridlehoover cited the efficiencies in heating and cooling that the new mobile homes will provide as one way to offset any potential property tax increases. Additionally, many Tri-Park residents would be eligible for property tax credits offered by the state.

"I was surprised to find out that some of the residents didn't know about the tax credit program," he said.

"Some residents are saying, 'You're gonna take me out of here feet first,'" said Houghton. "And some people are saying, 'Well, I might want to move if I can have a porch, or if I don't have to live next to so and so.' There are all these contingencies that add a layer of complexity."

"I don't want anyone to get flooded," added Houghton, "but I was sort of hoping that these last floods would wake a few people up, and I don't know that they did. What you know intellectually and what you act on are not always the same thing. People say, 'Well, I've lived here for x number of years, and I've never gotten flooded.'"

Ridlehoover pointed to the recently completed floodplain restoration at Melrose Terrace as something that could be done at Mountain Home Park, once the homes have been removed.

"During the heavy rains in July, the flood plain at Melrose Terrace held back water that would have historically inundated Glen Park, directly across the brook from Melrose Terrace," Ridlehoover said.

"It's proof of concept of these floodplain restoration efforts," he said. "They work."

This News item by Ellen Pratt was written for The Commons.

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