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Manufactured homes condemned at flood-battered Berlin park. What now?

 A woman wearing boots takes a photo of mattresses and other discarded belongings on the side of a road in a manufactured home park
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public and VTDigger
State Rep. Anne Donahue surveys damage at the Berlin Mobile Home Park on July 25, 2023.

This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.

For the last two weeks, residents of the Berlin Mobile Home Park have scattered across Vermont, crashing with friends and family after finding their homes devastated by record flooding. On Friday, many learned that their houses have been officially condemned.

The condemnation notices, issued by the state’s Division of Fire Safety after inspections earlier this week, could serve as an important tool in helping park residents recoup their losses from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. After Tropical Storm Irene, manufactured homeowners with condemnation letters often received maximum payouts from FEMA.

“In a way, I feel a sense of relief,” said Corinne Cooper, one of the homeowners at the Berlin park, after receiving her condemnation letter.

But she and her former neighbors still face more questions than answers. What will they do with their homes, sagging with water, caked in mud, and quickly growing mold? Are they still on the hook for lot rent come the first of the month? And where will they be able to move next?

“Everybody is just very anxious to get answers and move this process along — and feel like it’s going somewhere,” Cooper said.

‘One of the most important lessons of Tropical Storm Irene’

In the last major flooding disaster, disposing of manufactured homes — and assuring their owners received adequate aid from FEMA — was a particularly confusing ordeal that took months to resolve.

After Tropical Storm Irene flooded hundreds of manufactured home communities across Vermont in 2011, many homeowners turned to FEMA for financial assistance. In “the vast majority of cases,” the agency’s inspectors deemed these homes repairable, according to a 2013 report from the Vermont Department of Housing, and Community Development.

That meant that most manufactured homeowners were initially awarded approximately $5,000 from FEMA, according to the report.

In reality, though, “their homes were beyond repair,” said Kelly Hamshaw, a senior lecturer in the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics at the University of Vermont, and a PhD student focused on resilience and manufactured home communities. Once water crept inside a manufactured home and mold developed, “the likelihood it could be repaired was in fact very low,” the 2013 report says.

A man bends down while wearing yellow cleaning gloves outside a manufactured home
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public and VTDigger
Greg Quetel works on cleaning his belongings outside his house at the Berlin Mobile Home Park on July 25, 2023. The water line from the flood is visible beside the door behind him.

FEMA’s current internal guidance lays out a list of criteria the agency considers when deciding whether a home is repairable versus “destroyed” — and thus eligible for a higher payout. If two or more major structural components need to be replaced because of damage from the disaster (like load-bearing walls or the foundation), or if flood waters have reached the roof, inundating most of the living area, then the home is considered destroyed. For mobile homes specifically, the home is deemed destroyed “when the frame is visibly bent or twisted and releveling is not possible.”

After Irene, manufactured homeowners and their advocates, along with state officials, realized there was a way to seek more assistance: If a governing body officially condemned a home, then the homeowner could use the condemnation to appeal FEMA’s initial decision — essentially providing evidence to the agency that the home was indeed beyond repair.

But it wasn’t immediately obvious who had the authority to condemn the homes: FEMA wouldn’t accept a determination by a local health officer. Eventually, it became clear that then-Gov. Peter Shumlin could use his emergency powers to issue condemnations that met FEMA’s standards.

Signs next to a road leading to a mobile home park say "slow children," "speed limit 5" and "dead end"
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public and VTDigger
The entrance to the Berlin Mobile Home Park on July 25, 2023, two weeks after flooding devastated the community.

In a circuitous, months-long process, the state tracked down dozens of manufactured homeowners and sent out condemnation letters that helped secure over a million dollars in additional FEMA awards. Many manufactured homeowners were able to secure the maximum housing assistance award from FEMA, which, at the time, was $30,200. (The maximum housing award is now $41,000.)

The 2013 report ends with a strongly-worded recommendation for the next disaster. “The need for a viable process for the condemnation of mobile homes is one of the most important lessons of Tropical Storm Irene,” it says.

Open questions

This time around, manufactured home advocates and local officials have worked to get the condemnation process started more quickly, so residents can use the letters to seek more aid from FEMA after the flooding earlier this month.

Twenty-eight homes at the Berlin Mobile Home Park received condemnation notices this week, Berlin interim town administrator Ture Nelson confirmed on Friday morning. According to a state report last year, 29 lots were leased at the park.

But for the displaced park residents, many questions remain.

 A wooden structure outside of a mobile home has been wrenched away from the building at an angle
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public and VTDigger
Flooding caused major damage at the Berlin Mobile Home Park, including ripping stairs and decks from outside the homes.

Residents said they’re still awaiting word back from FEMA about their initial determination, or navigating flood insurance claims if they had coverage. In the meantime, they’re trying to figure out what to do with the trash piling up around their houses — and with their increasingly mold-infested homes.

“What are the options for actually getting rid of the mobile home? Actually, it’s not like there are a lot of options,” Cooper said.

A host of people have rallied around the residents — including Hamshaw, state Rep. Anne Donahue, and JoEllen Calderara, a volunteer disaster case manager and founding member of the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund — and all have urged them not to sell and remove their homes too soon. After Irene, some manufactured homeowners sold their homes before getting a final determination from FEMA, which meant they forfeited their ability to appeal for more money.

But it’s unclear what other options residents will have to get the uninhabitable homes off their hands. After Irene, then-Lt. Gov. Phil Scott helped coordinate a program that harnessed private donations to cover the cost of removing destroyed manufactured homes.

In an email Friday, Gov. Scott’s press secretary, Jason Maulucci, said that officials “are actively working to identify funding” to launch a similar effort.

As the FEMA appeals process plays out — and as residents wait for answers on how to dispose of their totaled homes — the owner of the Berlin Mobile Home Park expects residents to pay the $490 rent on their lots, as long as their homes remain in place, according to an email sent to residents on July 16.

Randy Rouleau, owner of the park, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

According to Vermont Legal Aid, if a manufactured home park owner isn’t providing basic services like electricity and potable water, residents could have a legal right to withhold lot rent. Electricity is currently shut off at the Berlin Mobile Home Park, according to residents.

Laura Gans, a staff attorney there, strongly encouraged residents to speak to a lawyer before making that decision.

Where will they go?

Looming behind all of the immediate questions is an even bigger one: Where will all the people living at the Berlin Mobile Home Park go?

According to a state report out last year, the vacancy rate for lots at manufactured home parks statewide has dropped steadily over the last several years, from 5.2% in 2019 to 4.6% in 2022. While the Berlin area is home to a few other parks, some also saw flooding in July. River Run Mobile Home Park, also owned by Rouleau, had five homes condemned this week, according to Nelson, the interim town administrator.

The former residents will also face a tight housing market, further squeezed by the flooding. Preliminary reports estimate that over 4,000 residences were damaged statewide. In nearby Barre City, the mayor told lawmakers this week that early estimates suggest the city may have lost 10% of its housing stock.

And even if residents of the Berlin Mobile Home Park are able to secure the maximum housing award from FEMA, they’ll still likely fall short of replacing the homes they lost. According to the 2022 state report, the average price for a new manufactured home was $107,800 last year; used homes sold for an average of $44,687.

“This was a great trailer park,” said Anne Giroux, who’s staying with her boyfriend in Bristol after losing her home to the flood. She echoed a sentiment many shared: More than an assembly of flooded-out homes, this was a community that people cherished.

“We need more trailer parks that are nice, well-run, and provide affordable housing for us — and aren’t by the river,” she said.

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