FEMA offers to rehab apartments to house Vermonters displaced by flooding
This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is looking for apartment buildings it can rehab to help house Vermonters who lost their homes to the floods.
Available rental housing was already in short supply before flooding swept through Vermont this summer, and the lack of units has forced the federal agency to pursue additional methods to house displaced residents.
FEMA has activated its multi-family lease and repair program in Vermont, which provides support to rental property owners to fix up apartments and make them available to people displaced by flooding. It’s one of the agency’s “direct housing” initiatives: a type of aid it deploys when people receiving rental assistance can’t find anywhere to rent nearby.
Properties don’t have to be impacted by flooding directly in order to be eligible — they could be multi-family buildings that are otherwise out of commission.
“If there’s a multi-family location that is in disrepair, we can take a look at it and make the repairs,” said FEMA coordinating officer William Roy at a press conference on Wednesday.
According to a Request for Information FEMA released earlier this month, properties “should be complexes that are able to accommodate a considerable number of people in a single location,” must be repairable within a four-month period, and can’t be in a floodway.
FEMA helps fund repairs to make the units habitable, either through a contract with the owner or a third-party contractor, according to FEMA’s internal guidance. The cost of repairs will be deducted from the value of the lease.
Once the units are fixed up, FEMA then leases the units to eligible disaster survivors at no cost for up to 18 months after the disaster declaration. So far, FEMA is seeking properties in Washington, Lamoille and Windsor counties, along with others “within a reasonable commuting distance,” said FEMA spokesperson Briana Summer Fenton in an email.
Interested property owners can get in touch with FEMA via email at FEMAfirstname.lastname@example.org.
Vermont Housing Commissioner Josh Hanford said the program is appealing, in part, because it can bring housing back on the market in the long term.
“These units are brought back into production, and they’re available going forward, adding to the affordable housing supply,” he said.
FEMA’s program is similar to a program the state already operates, which provides grants to landlords to bring apartments in disrepair back online.
But Roy said finding properties to fix up through the program has been slowgoing thus far. Locating units for other types of FEMA direct housing has been challenging, too, he said, including finding vacant apartments for its “direct lease” program.
“We recognize coming into this storm that housing was very, very difficult in Vermont as it was, so there’s not a lot of facilities out there,” Roy said.
Finding suitable properties to place temporary housing units, better known as “FEMA trailers,” has also been a challenge, according to Fenton. Many existing manufactured home parks and private lots are in flood-prone areas, and FEMA tries to avoid placing its temporary housing units in federally-designated high risk flood zones unless there are no other alternatives.
FEMA has identified around 250 households eligible for direct housing assistance, Roy said. Washington County has the highest concentration of applicants, according to Fenton. Based on initial calls to these households, FEMA estimates that approximately 50 households are interested in some form of direct housing aid, though that number could shift, Fenton said.
In addition to these direct forms of housing aid, FEMA has also increased the amount it’s providing for financial rental assistance. For applicants approved for “continued rental assistance” — which provides additional money beyond an initial cash payment for rent after the July floods — awards can now go up to 150% of a community’s Fair Market Rent, as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s a 50% increase from what was initially offered, though it won’t apply retroactively, Fenton said.
The deadline to apply for FEMA aid is currently Sept. 12, though state officials said they are requesting a one-month extension from FEMA.
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