The flood waters disproportionately hit Vermont’s affordable housing stock — at the worst time
Krystal Marshall loves the Montpelier townhouse she’s rented for the last two years, which abuts the North Branch of the Winooski River in the back. It’s the first place that’s felt like “an actual home,” she said, in part because she and her two kids each have had a room of their own.
The townhouse is part of the North Branch Apartments, a 39-unit complex owned by the nonprofit affordable housing developer Downstreet. The complex consists of two sets of buildings lining the river — located at 87 and 89 Elm Street — separated by a small pocket park, where Marshall and her mother recently dug up the weeds and planted flowers.
“I love the space. I loved the community here,” Marshall said. “It feels like everybody that are in these two Downstreet buildings seem to really look out for one another.”
The catastrophic flooding that hit Vermont earlier this month tore up those flowers — and caused major damage to 87 Elm, displacing all of its residents. On the door of Marshall’s townhouse, fire safety inspectors have posted a “DO NOT ENTER” sign. Alongside it was a handwritten flier advertising free legal help.
A full accounting of the destruction wrought to Vermont’s housing stock is not yet available. Only top line numbers are beginning to trickle in, and they are preliminary. But a pattern appears to be emerging: Whether it’s rental buildings in north Barre City or a manufactured home park in Berlin, some of the hardest-hit housing was also Vermont’s most affordable.
From a first look at Federal Emergency Manage Agency data, Vermont Housing Commissioner Josh Hanford said reports thus far indicate that floodwaters disproportionately impacted low-income areas.
“There (are) lots of homes on back roads — single-family homes, middle-income and higher that also (were) damaged,” he said. “But not at this scale.”
There are many reasons why that might be. Vermont’s villages have historically been built in river valleys, and denser development has been concentrated there, patterns which modern zoning codes have largely reinforced. But money has also allowed the affluent to spread out on larger lots uphill, while those with less have remained in floodplains — even as the risks have grown.
“Market pressures … are constantly pushing lower income people further and further toward options that reduce their quality of life — older, more degraded housing stock, or housing stock that churns through natural disasters more quickly,” said state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D/P-Chittenden Southeast, who chairs the Senate’s Economic Development, Housing & General Affairs Committee.
“Just the lack of available affordable housing in high, dry places, is a major factor in all of this,” Ram Hinsdale said.
Not ‘going to put it on the most expensive land’
Those development patterns are particularly striking when it comes to Vermont’s manufactured home communities. About 10% of the state’s manufactured home lots are in floodplains, according to preliminary research from the University of Vermont. And as with Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, it appears that these parks were once again hit hard.
Kelly Hamshaw, a senior lecturer in the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics at UVM, and a Ph.D. student focused on resilience and manufactured home communities, said there are a few reasons why that is. For one, these manufactured home communities largely pre-date regulations that might have prevented them from being located there. And second, the land was cheap.
“You have all of these late ’60s communities that popped up in places where, if it was going to be affordable housing, they weren’t necessarily going to put it on the most expensive land,” she said.
Even affordable housing developers, who are subsidized by public funds and private philanthropy (and aren’t trying to turn a profit), struggle to acquire property at reasonable prices. Marshall’s home at 87 Elm, for example, only came into Downstreet’s possession because of a prior flood. The nonprofit had been pursuing the North Branch apartments for years, but couldn’t get the owner to sell for a price it could afford until 1992, when a late winter flood devastated the capital’s downtown.
“We were concerned about gentrification of Montpelier — which actually was right on the money,” said Rick DeAngelis, who spearheaded the North Branch project as the then-head of the Central Vermont Community Land Trust, which later rebranded as Downstreet. The land trust was “so relieved” to finally acquire the housing, he said, that it “maybe didn’t focus enough” on future risks.
“We didn’t really think a lot about that — that we were going to be into this coming global warming crisis and it would flood every, you know, 10 years,” he said.
While Downstreet may have underestimated the risk at that time, it did not exactly ignore them. The buildings at 89 Elm — on the other side of the pocket park from Marshall — were so badly damaged from the 1992 flood that they were torn down afterward and rebuilt above the floodplain, according to DeAngelis. But because 87 Elm was merely rehabbed, flood resiliency work was more limited.
Elevating 89 Elm largely worked. Only the basement flooded, and most tenants were not displaced, although an inspection this week found that three units would need to be vacated temporarily because of high moisture levels.
But at 87 Elm, flooding tipped over an oil tank, damaged four first-floor units and affected building systems located in the basement. The entire building has been emptied, and Marshall said she’s been told it could be weeks, if not months, before she can return.
Angie Harbin, Downstreet’s executive director, noted that the vast majority of the nonprofit’s housing stock was spared. Of more than 500 units, only 26 were evacuated, displacing 52 residents.
Hanford, Vermont’s housing commissioner, said he’s actually far more worried about privately owned rental properties, which aren’t subject to the flood-resilient building standards that publicly funded affordable housing projects must follow.
He pointed, for example, to a much newer Downstreet development, the Taylor Street apartments. It sits atop of Montpelier’s new transit center, and was completely unscathed by the flood — despite being sited just a block away from where the Winooski River meets its North Branch tributary. Floodwaters completely inundated the area, but because the housing units themselves were elevated, they weren’t impacted at all.
But the vast majority of renters don’t live in developments managed by nonprofits like Downstreet, he noted. Instead, they’re in privately owned properties rented out for profit. Those landlords will now have to take out a loan from the federal government to get their units back online.
“I’m fearful that some of these will not be quickly repaired, and make addressing our housing situation even harder,” he said.
‘Where are they going to find the units?’
Vermont is in the midst of a well-documented and acute housing crisis. The state’s rental vacancy rates are among the lowest in the nation — and its rates of homelessness the highest.
Hanford said Tuesday FEMA has already verified damage to about 850 residential structures. Even if most of those buildings are repairable, he said, the people who were living there need somewhere to stay in the interim. (Separately, some 4,000 Vermonters have already reported to 211 that their residences were damaged, with 750 saying their homes are uninhabitable.)
FEMA will provide impacted residents temporary rental assistance, but the federal agency has been scouring for units and coming up empty. The agency even expanded its search to look for rentals at 150% of the fair market rents set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — and still could only find 149 units, according to Hanford.
“So if we’ve just displaced over 800 households or more, where are they going to find the units, when we have that sort of supply?” Hanford said. “How are those vouchers going to even work?” (At a town hall on Wednesday, one official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture offered this potential solution: Accept a publicly subsidized unit — out of state.)
At a special flood recovery hearing held by state lawmakers on Thursday, Sue Minter, the executive director of the anti-poverty nonprofit Capstone Community Action, noted that 300 to 400 renters have been impacted by flooding in Barre City, where more than half of all households are renters.
“We know that (there) is going to be a significant increase of people with nowhere to go,” she said. “And it isn’t going to be a quick fix because there (is) no housing to rent short term.”
The state should advocate for short-term non-congregate housing from FEMA, she said, emphasizing that the problem would likely continue to reveal itself to be even more acute than initially estimated as more properties are inspected and deemed uninhabitable.
Emotional testimony a few hours later from Jake Hemmerick, the Granite City’s newly elected mayor, underlined the point. He emphasized that these were “fuzzy” and early projections, but as much as 10% of Barre City’s housing stock might have been impacted, he said. Even worse: The people who were flooded will have the hardest time bouncing back.
“My sense is the neighborhoods that were the hardest hit were the least resourced,” he said.
At Downstreet, Harbin said the plan is to get every single unit back online — including the ones that flooded. The nonprofit will look for ways to mitigate future damage, she said, but it “simply cannot lose the housing stock.”
Marshall, at 87 Elm, said she plans to move back in. She acknowledged feeling nervous about it, but said she sees no other options.
“If I left here, I would be at the B.O.R. with everybody else,” she said, referring to Barre City’s municipal auditorium, where the Red Cross has staged an emergency shelter to serve area residents impacted by the flood.
Marshall is temporarily staying in a smaller apartment also owned by Downstreet, which happened to be vacant. She noted that, relative to many of her former neighbors who have also been displaced, she’s one of the lucky ones. Some are renting Airbnbs, couch surfing or staying in shelters. (One household has found a permanent alternative, according to Harbin.)
Indeed, DeAngelis, who is now co-director of the Central Vermont shelter network Good Samaritan Haven, told VTDigger that last week he ran into a woman he recognized at the Red Cross shelter. She had once stayed at Good Sam’s Berlin shelter, and after months of searching, finally found an apartment — at 87 Elm.
“What are you doing here?” DeAngelis recalled asking her. “And she said, ‘I got flooded out.’”
She is now back where she started: a room at Good Sam.
Read the story on VTDigger here: The flood waters disproportionately hit Vermont’s affordable housing stock — at the worst time.