When housing crisis meets mega-flood - High Country News - Know the West

When housing crisis meets mega-flood – High Country News – Know the West

The day after the historic June floods swept through south-central Montana and the Yellowstone area, Amanda Holmes headed to the still-wet mobile home she was renting in Fromberg, Montana. She called her mother-in-law and young children via video chat, scanning the house with her phone’s camera.

Her phone showed damage: her bed, her chest of drawers, her four children’s chests of drawers, all destroyed by mud, silt and water. Holmes, a gas station cashier, said her children began to cry.

“Mom, we have nowhere to live now,” they said.

“We’ll figure it out, we always do,” she told them. “One thing about us is that we always figure things out.”

Like much of the West, south-central Montana has a housing problem: the cost of living far exceeds what locals can afford to pay. June flooding caused millions of dollars in damage to roads and infrastructure in Yellowstone National Park. But it also highlighted – and in some areas exacerbated – the area’s growing inequalities.

Housing costs in Carbon County, where Fromberg is located, have skyrocketed in recent years, according to a report released earlier this year. There is currently a gap of $114,000 between the average selling price of a home and what a person on a low to moderate income can afford to pay.

“Before the flood, it was quite difficult for us to find a place to rent,” Holmes said. According to her, their mobile home had mold and was poorly heated, and they had been unsuccessfully looking for another apartment for six months.

Personal photos of Amanda Holmes of the damage left in her house after the flood.

Contributed by Amanda Holmes

The Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River runs through Fromberg – a city of about 400 people – and the floods damaged or destroyed at least 95 homes. Most of them were mobile homes.

Across the country, about 22 million people live in mobile homes or other industrial housing. For these structures, an important source of affordable housing, construction costs are about half that of other types of single-family homes, and mobile home owners often rent the land they live on rather than buy it. However, land is often located in areas that are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. In Montana, about one in five mobile homes is at high risk of flooding – higher than the national average of one in seven.

Almost no one in Fromberg had flood insurance. As of 2011, only four policies were in effect, according to the county’s disaster planning document. When the flood hit, the federal and state governments were in the process of updating floodplain maps of the area that cover flood insurance—who needs it. and where it is needed—and also where development can take place. The old maps were created in the 1970s and 80s, but the floods put the update on hold.

Rich Holstein, a craftsman from Fromberg, was in the hospital battling a foot infection when the flood hit. He said friends called him the next morning to report the damage, but he didn’t think he had anything to worry about.

“I live three-eighths of a mile from the river,” he said. “I’m in a mobile home two feet off the ground.”

He then turned on the local news and saw his boat sailing in the background. His car had water halfway up the steering wheel. “I couldn’t get out of the hospital fast enough,” he said.

Mobile phone photo of Rich Holfield of his flooded cars.

Contributed By Rich Holfield

For two decades, Holstein made his living building picture frames from historic wood, which he rescued when the iconic Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park was renovated. He said he has sold over 55,000 frames in all 50 states.

Returning home from the hospital, he went to the wall of the house where he kept the remains of firewood. “My heart sank,” he said. “It’s gone. It’s just gone.”

In a matter of hours, he lost his home, livelihood, passion and art.

Chris Smith, a researcher at Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, said that when the flood hit, one of her first thoughts was, “What should be the plan to make sure we don’t exacerbate the housing crisis we know is already here? exists in Montana?

Smith studies flood resilience in rural communities. Her research shows that mobile home parks are often run as commercial ventures, and owners have little incentive to invest in raising structures or other forms of flood protection because the money will cut into their profits. This makes it nearly impossible for tenants like Holstein and Holmes to prepare for floods.

We need more attention to some of our smaller places. What happened in Fromberg is terrible and no one should have to go through this.”

Compared to people living in other types of housing across the country, mobile home residents are more likely to be elderly, families with young children, immigrants or people with physical disabilities. Mobile home residents earn about half the average annual income of the average American family living in a single-family home. This makes it even more difficult for them to prepare for and recover from natural disasters such as floods. Vulnerable communities like Fromberg are also often stigmatized by outsiders and ignored by federal agencies tasked with helping people get back on their feet.

We need more attention to some of our smaller places,” she said. “What happened in Fromberg is terrible and no one should have to go through this.”

Amanda Holmes’ house during the flood.

Contributed by Amanda Holmes

APPROXIMATELY TWO HOURS from Fromberg, a similar story played out on the banks of the Yellowstone River. In Livingston, a city of about 8,000 people, Brian Guyer, director of housing for the Human Resources Development Council, worked at a non-profit shelter to provide a safe place for evacuees when the waters rose. Almost everyone who came was over 70 and lived in mobile homes, he said.

“People who experience the most housing instability were also immediately at risk and immediately affected by the threat of incoming water,” he said. “It shows you that the poor and the unstable bore the biggest burden.”

Livingston’s housing market in Park County is bursting at the seams. According to a housing needs assessment published in 2021, there are almost no vacant apartments, and the average rent in the county is almost three times higher than local wage earners can afford. Many seasonal workers end up living in buildings not designed for long-term habitation, such as Motorhomes, caravans and tents.

The situation with households is no less deplorable. From July 2019 to July 2022, median single-family home prices in Park County more than doubled from $314,000 to $744,500. Compared to the previous decade, the numbers are even more striking, with home values ​​in the area up more than 600% since 2012.

Guyer said that, unlike Fromberg, most mobile homes within Livingston’s city limits remained dry during the flood. However, the rushing muddy waters have dispelled any illusion that the area’s housing problems are likely to be resolved in the near future. “Mobile homes are so important to housing for the workforce,” Guyer said. “And they’re under attack, and they’re so enticing for developers.”

The Yellowstone River floods parts of Paradise Valley, the corridor to Yellowstone National Park, and the south side of Livingston, Montana in June when the river reached historic levels due to rain and snowmelt. The Yellowstone River originates in Yellowstone National Park and is the longest undammed river in the continental United States.

Lawson Moorman, Park County senior planner and floodplain administrator, said he was particularly concerned about one project south of the city, next to the river. Most of the houses there have already paid off and ended up in the floodplain without insurance. It’s also an area that’s been hit hard by the floods, and Moorman is worried residents won’t be able to afford to rebuild it.

“I think we will see many of these houses coming up for sale soon,” he said. “And I think that many of them will be bought by people who have the means to tear them down and build big houses. But I don’t think the people buying these homes will be actively participating in our workforce.”

He can already see these fears playing out. I met Moorman at his office and he told me that two minutes before I walked in the door, he was on the phone with a real estate agent interested in buying and developing a mobile home property that had been demolished. .

FOR THREE MONTHS after the flood, Amanda Holmes and her family moved into a camper on a friend’s property near Fromberg. It’s a temporary fix, but she says her kids love the freedom to go outside. However, winter is fast approaching and she worries about keeping her family comfortable, warm and safe.

And Rich Holstein has a new job: he’s a middle and high school teacher about three hours from Fromberg—his first job after 25 years of self-employment. During the years he sold wood frames at the Old Faithful Inn, he said, he raised over $400,000 for charity. According to him, he managed to salvage some of the remaining wood, and now he gives it to his students to build their own frames and sell them to raise money for the victims of the Fromberg flood.

“I need everything I have to be where I am.”

But his situation is still far from stable. The student council member allows him to live in a camper on his property. “It takes everything I have just to get to where I am,” he said.

According to Brian Guyer, the overall picture is that housing problems in Montana and across the country are multivariate; they intersect with low wages and a high cost of living, a mental health and drug crisis, inadequate government and state assistance, and more. The floods didn’t necessarily exacerbate these problems, Guyer said, but they did show how much overlap there is, even in one small community.

“We just put band-aids on a broken system and hobble around,” he said.

Nick Mott is an award-winning journalist and podcast producer with a focus on climate, public lands, and the environment. He lives in Livingston, Montana.

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