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Vt. proposes using COVID relief to move mobile homes out of flood zones. But residents worry about expense

A man wearing a gray sweatshirt with sunglasses around his neck on a string and a green baseball hat stands by a stone berm along the Whetstone Brook
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Richard Matteson stands near the Whetstone Brook in the Tri-Park Mobile Home Park in West Brattleboro.

The state wants to use COVID relief money to encourage mobile home owners to move away from areas that are prone to flooding.

Mobile home parks play an important role in providing low-income housing for some Vermonters. They sell for about half of what an average house sells for in Vermont.

But a lot of parks are in flood zones, and there’s a push now to use one-time COVID relief money to convince people to move out of harm’s way.

The Whetstone Brook runs through the Mountain Home mobile home park in West Brattleboro.

And on most days, when the weather’s right, you can find Richard Matteson feeding the ducks or fishing, or just walking along the brook.

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“We have mallards and wood ducks, and a bunch of wild pair of geese that stop in,” he says. “And wildlife — a lot of bears in here lately. I used to hunt that whole mountain all the way up through. It was darn good hunting.”

Mountain Home is one of the three mobile home parks that make up the Tri-Park Cooperative.

Almost 1,000 people live here, and it's one of the largest privately owned providers of affordable housing in Vermont.

Matteson has been here almost 35 years and he says the park, which is spread out along the brook in this rural slice of Windham County just outside of Brattleboro, is a pretty nice place to grow up.

“It’s unreal how many people who have been here all these years,” Matteson said. “The Sleepers down there, they been here forever and ever and ever. And Matt Bishops — I knew him when he was a little boy, ‘cause I taught him how to fish, just like half the kids in the park. And now he’s got little boys and little girls running around.”

About ten years ago Tropical Storm Irene hammered Tri-Park.

Dozens of homes were damaged and sixteen were so bad they had to be hauled away.

Then during an ice jam a few years ago, Matteson had to be rescued with a bucket loader when the brook jumped its banks.

Matteson knows that the Whetstone Brook is likely to do more damage someday.

“We don’t have hardly any money to spend to move on anything... A lot of these people are in the same boat we’re in. And where are all these people going to move to, all these kids?"
- Richard Matteson, Tri-Park resident

The latest FEMA flood map, which was updated a few years ago, lists 42 homes here that should be removed.

Matteson’s trailer is on that list, and he’s wondering what the plan is.

“We don’t have hardly any money to spend to move on anything,” Matteson said. “That’s just it, and we’re not the only ones. A lot of these people are in the same boat we’re in. And where are all these people going to move to, all these kids? There’s a lot of kids that fill up the Brattleboro schools. They won’t have any if they all have to move out of Dodge.”

Tri-Park is not the only mobile home park in the state that’s threatened by flooding.

A recent statewide report listed flood danger as one of the key areas of concern threatening mobile home parks across the state.

Parks in Starksboro, Braintree and Bennington were singled out as having the greatest risk of suffering damage due to flooding.

“Mobile home parks are often a by-product of where they end up being located,” says Stephanie Smith, a hazard mitigation officer with Vermont Emergency Management. “A lot of them are in a vulnerable flood area. And during Irene, there were certainly a lot of parks that were impacted pretty significantly because of their location in flood risk areas.”

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Smith says the agency wants to use about $5 million in COVID-19 relief money to offer voluntary buyouts of mobile homes in flood zones.

Smith says mobile homes can be tricky to fit into the regular FEMA buyout programs.

Many mobile home owners rent the land but own the home, which complicates the process.

Many of the older homes can't be moved, and the federal buyout program often doesn't completely cover the true cost of moving.

“We’re trying to figure out how we can crack the nut of partnering better with housing organizations. Because it’s not enough just to buy a property; we need to know that someone has somewhere to go, or whoever we’re buying it from has someplace to go,” Smith said. “We have aspirations through this program to figure out how to do that in a better, more cohesive way.”

Two older people -- a man and a woman in t-shirts and pants -- sit in folding chairs on their green lawn, outside their mobile home. The woman, who sits to the right, is sitting next to a walker with wheels.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Richard and Jean Earle sit outside their home in Tri-Park Mobile Home Park in West Brattleboro.

But Jean Earle, who lives in Tri-Park in Brattleboro, says it’s just not that simple.

“We got a lady that’s turning 90 that lives up back there. And she’s the one that’s partially blind. And I know she wouldn’t move, ‘cause she’s told us,” Earle said. “She wants to stay right there. So you got these older people that are pretty set in their ways, and if they like it, they don’t want to move. And I don’t blame them. I don’t want to move either.”

Vermont’s housing crisis is squeezing anyone who’s looking for a new home, and that includes folks here who might have to search for a new place if they leave.

And while the COVID-19 money will pay for a buyout, it’s not clear what other help there is for someone looking to move into a new mobile home somewhere nearby.

Tri-Park is cooperative. It’s made up of three mobile parks in Brattleboro, and it’s owned by the people who live here.

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Board president Kay Curtiss says their finances are pretty tight.

And any time a home is washed away, as opposed to being relocated, that’s one less member to pay dues and protect the rest of the residents.

Curtiss says the residents in mobile home parks don’t generally have the savings to move into a new place, and using the COVID-19 money to relocate might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move that process along.

“If the people who are in danger of being washed away won’t move, over time, we will lose — like we lost, you know, ones in Irene — and we’ll lose more,” Curtiss says. “So the idea is to keep affordable housing for Brattleboro. That’s the priority.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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