When a housing crisis meets a megaflood — High Country News – Know the West

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

Her phone revealed the damage: her bed, her dresser, her four kids’ dressers, everything ruined by mud, silt and water. Holmes, a cashier at a gas station, said her kids started to cry.

“Mom, we don’t have anywhere to live now,” they said.

“We will figure it out, we always do,” she told them. “One thing about us is we always figure everything out.”

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

According to a report released earlier this year, housing costs in Carbon County, where Fromberg is located, have skyrocketed in recent years. Currently, there’s a $114,000 gap between the median home sales price and what a low- or medium-earner can afford to pay.

“We had a hard enough time finding someplace to rent before the flood,” Holmes said. Their mobile home had mold and was poorly heated, she said, and they’d already spent six months looking for another rental without success.

Amanda Holmes’s personal photos of the damage left behind in her home after the flood.

Courtesy Amanda Holmes

The Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River runs through Fromberg — a town of about 400 — and the floods damaged or destroyed at least 95 residences there. Most of them were mobile homes.

Across the country, about 22 million people live in mobile homes or other manufactured housing. For these structures, a critical source of affordable housing, building costs are approximately half of those of other types of single-family homes, and mobile home owners often rent the land on which they live rather than purchase it. The land, however, is often located in areas particularly vulnerable to natural hazards. Across Montana, about one in five mobile homes are at a high risk of flooding — higher than the national average of one in seven.

Almost no one in Fromberg had flood insurance. According to a disaster planning document from the county, only four policies were in place as of 2011. When the flood hit, the federal and state governments were in the process of updating the area’s floodplain maps, which deal with flood insurance — who needs it and where it’s necessary — as well as where development can occur. The old maps were created in the 1970s and ’80s, but the floods put the updating effort on hold.

Rich Holstein, a craftsman living in Fromberg, was in the hospital fighting a foot infection when the flood hit. He said friends called him the morning after to tell him about 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 that’s two feet off the ground.”

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

Rich Holfield’s cell phone photo of his flooded vehicles.

Courtesy Rich Holfield

For two decades, Holstein made his living building picture frames out of historic timber he’d salvaged when Yellowstone National Park’s iconic Old Faithful Inn was renovated. He said he’d sold more than 55,000 frames in all 50 states.

When he got home from the hospital, he walked to the side of the house where he kept his remaining supply of the wood. “My heart dropped,” he said. “It was gone. It was just gone.”

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

Kris Smith, a researcher at Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics, said that when the flood hit, one of her first thoughts was: “What’s going to be the plan for making sure that we’re not worsening the housing crisis that we know is already existing in Montana?

Smith studies flood resilience in rural communities. Her research shows that mobile home parks are often run as for-profit businesses, and the owners have little incentive to invest in elevating structures or other forms of flood resilience, since the money would cut into their profit margins. That makes it almost impossible for renters like Holstein and Holmes to prepare for floods.

We need more attention on some of our smaller places. What has happened in Fromberg is terrifying, and no one should have to go through that.”

Compared to people living in other types of housing across the country, mobile home residents are more likely to be senior citizens, families with small children, immigrants, or people with mobility issues or disabilities. Mobile home residents earn roughly half of the median annual income of the average American family living in a single-family home. That makes it even harder for them to prepare for and recover from disasters like floods. Vulnerable communities like Fromberg are also often stigmatized by outsiders and overlooked by the federal agencies tasked with helping people get back on their feet.

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

Amanda Holmes’s home during the flood.

Courtesy Amanda Holmes

ABOUT A TWO-HOUR DRIVE from Fromberg, a similar story was playing out on the banks of the Yellowstone River. In Livingston, a town of about 8,000, Brian Guyer, housing director for the Human Resource Development Council, was working at the nonprofit’s shelter to provide a safe space for evacuees as the water rose. Nearly everyone who came in was over 70 and living in a mobile home, he said.

“People who are experiencing the most housing instability were also immediately in danger and immediately impacted by the threat of incoming water,” he said. “It goes to show you that the poor and the unstable were bearing the biggest burden.”

The housing market of Livingston, in Park County, is bursting at the seams. According to a housing needs assessment released in 2021, there are almost no housing vacancies, and average rentals in the county run nearly triple what local wage earners can afford. Many seasonal employees end up living in structures not designed for long-term housing, like RVs, vans and tents.

The home ownership situation is equally dire. From July 2019 to July 2022, median single-family home prices in Park County more than doubled, rising from $314,000 to $744,500. Compared to the previous decade, the numbers are even more stark: The cost of a home in the county has gone up more than 600% since 2012.

Guyer said that, in Fromberg, most mobile homes within Livingston’s unlike city limits stayed dry during the flood. However, the fast-moving muddy water swept away any illusions that the area’s housing problems were likely to get better in the near future. “Mobile home parks are so critical to workforce housing,” Guyer said. “And they’re under attack, and they are so enticing to developers.”

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

Lawson Moorman, Park County’s senior planner and floodplain administrator, said he was particularly concerned about one development just south of town, next to the river. Most of the homes there had already been paid off and grandfathered into the floodplain with no insurance. It’s also an area that saw lots of flood damage, and Moorman is worried the residents won’t be able to afford to rebuild.

“I think we’re going to start to see a lot of those homes go up for sale,” he said. “And I think a lot of those are going to get bought by individuals that have the means to tear those down and rebuild bigger houses. But I don’t think that the individuals purchasing those houses are going to be actively participating in our workforce.”

He’s already seeing those fears play out. I met Moorman in his office, and he told me that two minutes before I walked in the door, he’d gotten off the phone with a real estate agent interested in purchasing and developing a property with a mobile home on it that had been destroyed .

IN THE THREE MONTHS Since the flood, Amanda Holmes and her family have moved into a camper on a friend’s property near Fromberg. It’s a temporary solution, but she says her kids are loving the freedom to roam around outside. Still, winter is fast approaching, and she’s worried about keeping her family comfortable, warm and safe.

And Rich Holstein has a new job, working as a middle- and high-school shop teacher about three hours from Fromberg — his first job after 25 years of self-employment. In the years he sold frames made from the wood from the Old Faithful Inn, he raised more than $400,000 for charities, he said. He was able to salvage a little of the remaining timber, he said, and now he’s giving it to his students to build their own frames and sell to raise money for the Fromberg flood victims.

“It’s taking everything I’ve got just to get me where I am.”

But his situation’s still far from stable. A school board member is letting him live in a camper on his property. “It’s taking everything I’ve got just to get me where I am,” he said.

The bigger picture, Brian Guyer said, is that housing issues in Montana and across the country are multivariate; They intersect with low wages and high cost of living, mental health and drug crises, inadequate federal and state assistance, and much more. The floods didn’t necessarily make those issues worse, Guyer said, but they illuminated just how much everything intersects, even in one small community.

“We are just putting Band-Aids on a broken system and hobbling along,” he said.

Nick Mott is an award-winning journalist and podcast producer who focuses mostly on climate, public land and the environment. He’s based in Livingston, Montana.

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