How floods brought attention to long overlooked mobile home parks

First Look

How floods brought attention to long overlooked mobile home parks

Despite being disproportionately affected by natural disasters, mobile home parks have long been overlooked by United States policymakers. But after the recent bouts of flooding, urgency is rising to protect the parks as a source of affordable housing.

| View caption Hide caption

Mobile home parks have been overlooked by United States policymakers for decades, but heavier and more frequent flooding fueled by climate change is adding urgency to efforts to protect them as a key source of affordable housing.

“We simply can’t afford to lose housing units,” said Sue Fillion, planning director in Brattleboro, Vermont, where floods this month submerged streets in the state capital and revived memories of a devastating storm dubbed Irene 12 years ago.

The 2011 storm flooded Brattleboro’s Tri-Park community, which like many mobile home parks is built on flood-prone land that is generally cheaper and rejected by property developers.

This month’s floods did not cause serious damage at Tri-Park, and officials hope a town and state initiative being funded with COVID-19 relief money will avert future damage to the community’s 300 homes.

Under the plan, 26 homes will be relocated away from a river that runs through the community and rebuilt on higher ground on the site, allowing residents to maintain their property titles.

The project is “hugely significant” as a way to protect residents’ homes and ensure the financial viability of the community, which operates as a cooperative, said Mary Houghton, a member of the Tri-Park board.

The park’s flood risk plan is now a case study to see if such a strategy could work in other communities, said Stephanie A. Smith, a hazard mitigation officer with the Vermont Emergency Management agency.

Vermont last year created the state’s first environmental justice policy, highlighting mobile home parks as disproportionately hit by flooding.

This month’s downpour, which caused havoc in much of the northeastern state, underscored the Tri-Park project’s urgency going forward, said Daniel Ridlehoover, a project development manager with M&S Development, which is coordinating the initiative.

“I constantly remind people we’re preparing a plan for the next event, not reacting to the last one,” he told The Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Disproportionate effect

Until now, the heightened flood risk faced by mobile home park residents has received scant attention, said Kristin K. Smith from Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group.

“For decades, mobile home parks have been overlooked at every level of government,” she said.

Last year, Ms. Smith and her colleagues conducted research that found 1 in 7 mobile homes nationally is in a high-risk area – compared with 1 in 10 for other housing types.

The threat is compounded by the way most mobile home parks operate, Ms. Smith said, with residents often owning the home but not the land it sits on – and with maintenance work for sewage and drinking water systems that could be affected by flooding, for instance, up to the park’s owner.

After a disaster, mobile homeowners can also be uniquely vulnerable given how federal assistance works, said Mr. Ridlehoover, with decisions linked to a home’s appraisal value.

“What does a 50-year-old mobile home in a flood plain appraise for? Not a lot,” he said. “Does it add up to a replacement home or a new situation? It adds up to about a third of that.”

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides assistance to repair or replace disaster-struck homes including manufactured housing, calculating the amount according to prices for similar types of housing in the area, a spokesperson said.

A recent policy change increased the total disaster assistance provided to survivors by millions of dollars, the spokesperson added in emailed comments.

Funding problems

Officials are increasingly coming to appreciate the social and economic value of mobile home parks, Ms. Smith said, lauding the proactive work being done in Vermont and elsewhere.

Boulder, Colorado, for instance, is working to address flood risk in some of its mobile home parks, after formally recognizing the importance of manufactured housing in 2019.

The five parks in the city comprise about 3% of Boulder’s housing stock, said Crystal Launder, a senior project manager for housing policy with the city.

Two of those were threatened by possible flooding, prompting the city to purchase them and work to raise up sites, improve infrastructure and move at-risk homes, often replacing them with modular duplexes or larger units, she said.

Yet the work has been difficult to fund – a point Ms. Launder said is critical as officials start to discuss such strategies nationally.

“That’s the big message: It really does take money to stabilize these communities,” she said.

That is especially a problem for smaller towns, said Danielle Maiden, cooperative housing director for NeighborWorks Montana, a community development finance institution working to address flood risk at a mobile home park in Great Falls.

“We could find smaller portions of money to support this work, but we’re doing it piecemeal,” she said.

As a result, the group has no plan to expand the work to other parks, she added, though it should be a “top priority.”

A decade’s change

In Vermont, Irene jumpstarted work to protect mobile home communities, and it now appears to be making a difference.

Irene destroyed or damaged over 3,500 homes in about 20 parks in the state, said Kelly A. Hamshaw, a research specialist at the University of Vermont who has worked with mobile home communities since the 2011 storm, including doing some of the first in-depth studies on Vermont parks and flood risk.

But the effects of the recent storms have been different, Ms. Hamshaw said, pointing to one park that saw significant damage in 2011 but where subsequent prevention work likely helped result in only minor flooding this month.

Local officials also visited parks with known flood risks to encourage residents to consider evacuating this time, she said.

Still, she said misunderstanding lingers over the particular challenges faced by mobile home park residents.

“Over the past week, I’ve already heard a few people raise the question of ‘Why do folks keep buying or moving their mobile homes into flood-prone parks?’”

“Given the severity of the housing crisis in this state right now, it’s a straightforward question to answer,” she said. “People are making the best of a difficult situation with what’s available.” 


Share This Post

Post Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.