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FEMA abandons plans for Montpelier temporary housing site for July flood victims

Sign in snowy field.
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public
FEMA finalized a lease in November with the city of Montpelier to create a temporary housing site for flood victims on a former golf course. In December, FEMA walked back its plans. The former golf course as seen on Dec. 15, 2023.

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 will not follow through on plans to develop a temporary housing site for July flood victims on a tract of city-owned land in Montpelier, the agency confirmed in an email to VTDigger/Vermont Public on Monday morning.

Instead of advancing plans to place roughly 20 temporary housing units – better known as “FEMA trailers” – on a former golf course in the capital city, FEMA will prioritize placing trailers in existing manufactured home parks and on individuals’ land, and leasing available apartments for flood victims.

These alternative housing options “provide more timely solutions than building the infrastructure needed to support” the Montpelier site, so “this site will not move forward,” said FEMA spokesperson Angelique N. Smythe.

The news came as a surprise to Montpelier city officials on Monday. Last month, the city inked a lease agreement with the agency for use of the site, and Gov. Phil Scott waived state regulations to expedite development there.

“We had not heard anything, as far as I know,” said Montpelier Mayor Jack McCullough of FEMA’s change in plans. “We’ve got a lease. I don’t understand this.”

Beyond providing a short-term housing option for flood survivors who have few other places to turn, Montpelier city officials had pinned longer-term hopes on FEMA’s commitment.

The city is developing plans for a mixed-income housing project at the Country Club Road site, and city officials had suggested that FEMA’s work to prepare the site for temporary housing – including bolstering water and sewer capacity – would help the city effectively subsidize the cost of infrastructure improvements needed for its permanent housing plan.

“I’m very displeased. This is not good for us,” McCullough said.

Montpelier City Manager William Fraser said the city is working with the state and FEMA to finalize details related to this change of plan, and that, at this time, “we fully expect the lease terms to be executed as agreed upon.” He added that the city “is happy that people in need have found housing faster than expected.”

As recently as last Wednesday, Scott assured the public that the temporary housing site would move forward, despite delays.

“I’m confident they’re going to break ground on the project,” Scott said at a press conference last week.

FEMA uses its “direct housing” program when few other local housing options are available after a disaster, according to its internal guidance. Under the direct housing umbrella, the agency can rehab apartments and make them available to people who are displaced, rent out existing units, or bring in temporary manufactured homes.

These options are rent-free, and are typically available for displaced households for up to 18 months after a disaster declaration. Following July’s floods, that means the units would be available until January 2025, unless FEMA grants the state an extension.

Building a temporary manufactured home park from scratch is viewed as a last resort. FEMA’s guidance says the agency “must re-evaluate the need for group sites as the housing mission progresses,” and if applicants can be placed into other accommodations, FEMA will prioritize those “instead of continuing to develop the group site.”

Now, FEMA believes “that they have options for all of the people that are eligible and currently still interested in direct housing,” said Douglas Farnham, Vermont’s Chief Recovery Officer, in an interview on Friday.

FEMA is now working with around 25 households interested in direct housing, according to Smythe. Two will have manufactured homes on private sites, five are expected to have units at commercial manufactured home parks, and the rest will be connected to existing apartments. These placements are primarily in Washington County. FEMA anticipates working on Windsor County placements this week, Smythe said.

In August, FEMA officials indicated that around 250 Vermont households qualified for direct housing aid following the July floods. When asked why only a fraction of those households remain on the direct housing list, Smythe said most households “have been able to find interim housing solutions or have been able to return to their homes once repairs are made.”

Farnham said some households in that original 250 were likely utilizing the state’s motel shelter program, and some have moved away from their home community temporarily, “which is far from ideal.”

Anne Giroux, a retired teacher, lost her home when floodwaters inundated the Berlin Mobile Home Park in July. Now, she’s staying at her daughter’s home about half an hour away in Bolton. She had been interested in moving into the Montpelier site to be closer to her former home, and to the schools where she substitute teaches. Then, she got a call from FEMA on Friday morning asking if she would be interested in an apartment within a five mile radius of where she used to live.

Giroux said she’s interested in the option — though FEMA gave few details about where such an apartment might be located, and how soon Giroux could move in, she said. She’s concerned it might be months before the option materializes, and, all the while, the 18-month clock on this housing possibility continues to tick.

“I’m thankful for having the place I have,” Giroux said. “I want to get closer into a community that I’m familiar with.”

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Updated: December 18, 2023 at 2:37 PM EST
This story was updated with comment from the Montpelier city manager.
Carly covers housing and infrastructure for Vermont Public and VTDigger and is a corps member with the national journalism nonprofit Report for America.
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