Vermont was already experiencing a housing crunch. Then came the summer floods.
This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.
Even before this summer, Beth Foy knew families who spent months — even close to a year — searching for a place to rent in Johnson.
“We certainly were in a situation where there is much more demand than stock,” said Foy, who chairs the town’s selectboard.
Then came July’s historic flooding, which battered the Lamoille County town of roughly 3,500. Two recent assessments of the flood’s impact there – one by the local floodplain administrator and state Division of Fire Safety mapping damage, another by a volunteer group knocking on doors – found about 90 properties that faced damage, much of it in the town’s rental-heavy center, Foy said. She suspects the tally is likely an undercount.
“It’s going to be months — and potentially even years — before we see a full inventory of units available for rent,” she said.
Vermont was already strapped by a severe housing shortage when record-breaking rainfall began pouring down in July, inundating homes throughout the state. In a state with some of the lowest rental vacancy rates in the nation — and highest rates of homelessness — it’s clear that the floods will have a ripple effect on the state’s housing crunch.
On all levels, government officials are still trying to grasp just how many houses were damaged or destroyed by flooding, which has continued into August.
So far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has verified close to 2,800 residential properties “with loss” from last month’s flooding, Vermont Housing Commissioner Josh Hanford said on Monday. Of those, over 300 sustained major damage or were destroyed, he said.
Those counts continue to shift as the agency wraps up its inspection process. FEMA’s tally doesn’t give a perfect picture of overall damage, though, because it only encompasses households that have applied for aid. The state’s 211 data — which counts over 4,000 residences damaged and over 700 uninhabitable, as of July 25 — relies on self-reports submitted by residents, which aren’t verified by another source.
But even if Vermonters can’t yet put an exact number on homes lost to the floods, it’s clear that the flooding will exacerbate the state’s housing shortage, likely placing even greater pressure on an already tight rental market.
It’s a dynamic that Noah Patton, a senior policy analyst focused on disaster recovery with the National Low Income Housing Coalition, has seen time after time when a disaster hits a community already experiencing a housing crisis. Rental units get taken offline by a wildfire, or hurricane, or flood. Renters are displaced, but so are homeowners, whose houses are — even temporarily — rendered uninhabitable by the disaster. Those homeowners then enter an already competitive rental market looking for a short-term place to stay as they rebuild.
“So automatically, you have less supply — and then more demand,” Patton said. “All that does is create significant pressures on rent to increase.”
It’s too early to track an increase in rents post-flood, but officials have pointed out that flooding swept through areas with high concentrations of relatively affordable rental housing.
‘Shock to the supply chain’
The flooding didn’t just decimate valuable housing units. It also hit the homebuilding industry. In a local construction sector already constrained by a workforce shortage and supply chain challenges, this could hamper the state’s efforts to restore damaged housing — and build new units.
In the early weeks following the flood, the focus has been on cleanup: mucking and gutting homes, clearing debris, and mitigating mold. But all of those buildings will dry up at the same time, said Matt Musgrave, the deputy executive vice president and government affairs director at the Associated General Contractors of Vermont. Crews will come in to pull out the carpets and the drywall — and then everyone will start making massive orders at the suppliers.
“My crystal ball, so to speak, says that we haven’t maybe anticipated the shock to the supply chain that will happen,” Musgrave said.
And in some cases, the suppliers got flooded out, too. The building materials supplier rk Miles, with locations across Vermont and western Massachusetts, saw major damage at its lumber yard in Barre, along with some flooding at its locations in Montpelier and Morrisville. The company’s owner, Joe Miles, estimates they sustained $250,000 in property damage and lost $1 million worth of inventory.
“It was lumber, it was Sheetrock, finished boards, shingles, plywood, tools. You name it, it got wet,” he said.
Miles said the Barre location, which is a major shipping point for the company, will be closed until the end of August. In the meantime, they’ve had to shift their operations around — which has led to “some hiccups with product availability,” along with lead time on deliveries.
The already tight construction workforce will need to add rebuilding projects to their job lists, too, said Josh Reap, president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors of New Hampshire and Vermont.
“Now you have the perfect storm that came through, and now we need to do cleanup and restoration work — on top of just meeting demands for existing construction work,” he said.
And even before the rebuilding work can begin, many people will need contractor estimates to secure disaster recovery grants and loans from the state and federal government — which has already proven challenging with workers in short supply.
“We’re hearing people are struggling to get repair estimates that they need in order to submit applications, and to submit insurance claims,” said Hanford, the Vermont Housing Commissioner.
Officials also worry that these labor constraints — and potential supply chain issues down the road — could stall the construction of new housing.
The state Legislature has allocated over $200 million for affordable housing production since 2020, said Pollaidh Major, director of policy and special projects at the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, a quasi-state entity that invests public funds in the production of permanently affordable housing. Those investments have resulted in affordable housing developers building over 1,600 new rental units across the state — many of which are under construction now, or will be soon, she said.
“We’ve seen through COVID the already really tight construction market drive up costs,” Major said. “Knowing the demand for construction right now as we seek to rebuild our basic infrastructure — that could very well have an impact on the timeline for bringing new units online, and the cost for bringing new units online.”
It’s too early to know what that shortfall might look like, she said. But “we could see the need for supplemental funding, additional funding to make sure we finish projects that are already underway,” she said.
‘A quiet crisis’
In the near term, displaced Vermonters face the challenge of finding somewhere to stay — particularly before winter comes. For now, many are bunking up with friends and family.
“It’s a quiet crisis right now,” said state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D/P-Chittenden Southeast, who chairs the Senate’s Economic Development, Housing & General Affairs Committee. If people aren’t “seeing the crunch they thought they would, we all need to wait a little bit, and recognize that people are piecing personal solutions together — and that those are going to fray in the coming months, especially as winter approaches.”
Hinsdale’s committee is planning to convene a hearing in Barre on Aug. 15 to discuss the status of housing and flood recovery.
Hanford, the housing commissioner, said the state is making its case to FEMA to support direct housing assistance as an emergency solution. It’s a type of aid the federal agency deploys when people receiving rental assistance can’t find anywhere to rent nearby.
Perhaps the most recognized form is the “FEMA trailer,” or a readily fabricated unit — such as an RV or a manufactured home — that the agency can place outside a person’s damaged home, or in an existing park.
Travel trailers wouldn’t be a long-term solution because of winter weather, Hanford said, but the state has an inventory of manufactured home park lots available outside of floodplains where FEMA could place temporary homes.
Housing aid from FEMA can also go toward fixing up apartment buildings that are offline and using them to house people who are displaced. Hanford said the state is trying to persuade FEMA that there are properties in some of the most impacted areas that could be a good fit.
That flow of money could be one way to get more rental units back up and running. Hanford also noted that landlords can apply for grants from the state’s new Business Emergency Gap Assistance Program to make repairs to apartments damaged by the flooding.
In Barre City, upwards of 110 properties were significantly damaged or destroyed by the floods, primarily in the North End neighborhood, according to City Manager Nicolas Storellicastro. Some of those buildings contain multiple housing units, although the city doesn’t yet have a breakdown of the impact to rental versus owner-occupied homes.
Available apartments were already in short supply, said Barre City Mayor Jake Hemmerick, who described the market as “fiercely competitive.”
Getting units back online as quickly as possible is a priority, he said.
“We just can’t go into this winter with fewer housing units than we started and not expect the homelessness crisis to be even worse than it was last winter.”
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.