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FEMA trailers are no longer coming to Montpelier, but feds will still pay the city $500K

A row of white-sided trailers in a parking lot with traffic cones around them
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is abandoning plans to develop temporary housing for July flood victims in Montpelier.

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

The federal government will still pay Montpelier over $500,000 for a tract of city-owned land even though the Federal Emergency Management Agency is abandoning plans to develop temporary housing for July flood victims on-site.

FEMA confirmed on Monday that it was no longer planning to place roughly 20 temporary housing units – better known as “FEMA trailers” – at the former golf course on Country Club Road.

The federal agency and the city executed a lease amendment today, Montpelier City Manager William Fraser wrote in an email.

The federal government will pay the city a lump sum of $513,210, or the equivalent of a years’ worth of rent guaranteed under the original lease contract. Once that payment is made, the lease will be terminated, according to a copy of the amendment provided to VTDigger/Vermont Public.

The update is welcome news to Montpelier city officials, who have pinned longer-term hopes on FEMA’s commitment to help fund infrastructure improvements at the site.

The city is crafting plans for a mixed-income housing project there, and for months, local officials have suggested that FEMA’s efforts to prepare the site for temporary housing – including bolstering water and sewer capacity – would help the city effectively subsidize the cost of the future development.

“The fact that they’re standing by the contract, and will be providing that lump sum, means that we have that to help us move forward on the permanent housing we’re looking to develop,” said Montpelier Mayor Jack McCullough.

The lump sum likely won’t cover all the infrastructure work that’s needed, but having it in hand will help the city “leverage other grants and funding” to advance the project, Fraser said. And now, the city won’t have to work around the temporary FEMA units, he added.

FEMA’s decision to drop its plans for the site caught many off guard earlier this week, including McCullough and Gov. Phil Scott.

“It was a surprise to me,” Scott said in an interview on Vermont Edition on Tuesday. “I learned maybe a few hours before the city of Montpelier did.”

FEMA officials say they have shifted course because the agency believes it has found alternative options for all of the households who would have been eligible for the Montpelier site.

At a press conference on Wednesday, William Roy, FEMA’s coordinating officer in Vermont, explained the agency’s decision making.

Typically, when FEMA uses its “direct housing” program – which it authorizes when few other local housing options are available after a disaster – it makes a series of choices on where to house people who are displaced, Roy said.

First, FEMA looks at rehabbing existing apartments. If that effort doesn’t pan out, it considers placing mobile homes on private properties or in existing manufactured home parks – and looks into expanding those parks. Then, it considers directly leasing apartments, typically at “corporate locations,” Roy said. If none of those options pan out, the agency considers building a temporary housing site from scratch.

But Vermont’s housing shortage is so dire that, instead of moving in sequence, FEMA triggered each of those options at once.

“We recognized very early on that there was a housing challenge before the storm, only exacerbated by the storm,” Roy said. “So what did we do? We pulled every single lever at the same time, to try to get ahead of the wintertime.”

After FEMA entered into its agreement with Montpelier last month, the agency was able to locate enough apartments through its direct lease option to house the majority of the roughly 20 households who would have gone to the Montpelier site, Roy said.

Two individuals in Lamoille County and fourteen in Washington County have been placed in the direct lease program, Roy said. Additionally, two individuals have been placed in an existing manufactured home community in Windsor County, and three have been placed in one in Orange County, Roy said. An additional individual has had a mobile home placed on a private site in Barre.

While many manufactured home communities in Vermont are sited in flood-prone areas, FEMA’s internal guidance says the agency won’t place its temporary housing units in high-risk flood zones “unless no practical alternative exists.”

Roy said the five units in Windsor and Orange Counties have already been placed onsite and are now getting hooked up to utilities before people can move in. FEMA hopes they will be ready “in the next week or so,” he said. By the end of next week, the agency hopes to have placed the first person in their direct lease apartment, he said.

FEMA is “shooting for mid-January to have everybody in their location,” Roy said. If the agency continued pursuing its plans for the Montpelier group site, “we would have been struggling to get them there by the end of February,” he said.

FEMA’s direct housing options 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.

The number of households eligible for direct housing assistance from FEMA has dropped from around 250 in August to around 20 this week, according to Roy.

Some households on the original list have purchased new homes or found more permanent apartments, Roy said. Last week, Douglas Farnham, Vermont’s Chief Recovery Officer, 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.”

When asked Wednesday to give his overall assessment of how much Vermonters have recovered since the historic July floods, Scott said “I still believe we have a long ways to go.”

He acknowledged there are likely more people staying with friends and family “than maybe we realize,” which “is not a solution – a long-term, permanent solution.”

Scott said the situation “reinforces the fact that we need more housing in Vermont.”

“Those folks that are in those temporary situations are going to need permanent housing after they wear out their welcome with their friends and family,” he said.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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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