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Many Still Without Housing After Montana’s June Floods

Working with FEMA and other state agencies following the flood, many families opted to either remain in their damaged homes or move into mobile homes temporarily during the warm, summer months.

Three large traffic cones in a flooded street.
(TNS) - In the weeks following the historic summer floods that swept his house down the Yellowstone River, Mike Kinsey lived in a salvaged tent on his property for six weeks before finding temporary housing nearby.

“I got a lot into this place. It wasn’t just a house,” he said of his lost Park City home. “I lived here for 40 years...and now I don’t even know what to expect.”

Although he is one of the few Montanans to lose their entire home, Kinsey’s far from the only one facing housing uncertainties for the months ahead. According to the Montana Department of Commerce, over 300 homeowners and renters recently self-reported their homes still needing repairs to make them fit to live in.

To date, federal agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) have provided millions of dollars in financial assistance to residents impacted by the floods across the counties declared federal disaster sites. What they haven’t provided is housing for displaced residents.

“We work together with the state and other non-profit agencies to ensure survivors have adequate temporary living conditions,” FEMA public information officer Anthony Mayne wrote in an email to the Gazette. “We can confirm there are no temporary shelters open for those needing a place to stay.”

Working with FEMA and other state agencies following the flood, Montana Housing Administrator Cheryl Cohen said many families opted to either remain in their damaged homes or move into mobile homes temporarily during the warm, summer months. Others have adapted by surrounding their damaged properties with hay bales as makeshift insulation.

Since many of these homes sustained damage to their heating, water and sewage systems, they’ll likely need to find newer temporary housing as repairs continue and temperatures drop. Recent housing trends across the state have exacerbated this challenge.

“We know that there’s a shortage of affordable housing throughout Montana and that’s certainly the case in Carbon, Park, Stillwater and Yellowstone counties where the biggest impacts occurred,” Cohen said. “And so, although we’ve looked at our affordable housing portfolio, there’s just not a lot there.”

‘Anemic at best’

There’s no quick, simple solution to rebuilding a home after a flood, but lacking flood insurance makes the task much more daunting. For Kinsey, the flood insurance he previously owned was lost due to the flood plain changing in 2015 which leaves him ineligible for any replacement funding for his home.

What’s more often the case, according to Montana State Auditor Troy Downing, is for property owners to reject buying the insurance despite living in an at-risk area. Following the floods, he and his office visited impacted communities to assess damages and record the number of National Flood Insurance Plans (NFIP) through FEMA in place. In Red Lodge, the total number of plans was 18, despite the significant amount of damage to the entire town.

“That’s anemic at best,” he said.

According to the State Auditor’s Office, 58 Carbon County residents had NFIPs at the time of the flood while Park County collectively had 77 with 69 plans reported in Stillwater, 16 in Sweet Grass and 185 in Yellowstone County. Of those plans, FEMA reported a total of more than $6 million distributed across 84 claims from the disaster designated counties.

Relief options for those without insurance can be found through FEMA’s Individuals and Households program for assistance toward losses caused by a disaster. This includes housing to help find temporary solutions to living needs and other needs assistance for expenses and needs caused by the disaster.

As of Nov. 10, 899 Montanans have received $3,454,141 from the program with $3,228,486 coming as Housing Assistance and $225,655 as other needs assistance. Funds were distributed across 350 valid registrations in Carbon County, 261 in Park County, 173 in Stillwater County and 97 in Yellowstone.

Both businesses and households impacted by the flooding have also taken advantage of short-term and long-term loans through the SBA. Public Information officer Louise Porter reported a total of 136 home and business loans approved out of 304 applications received for a total of $11,534,500. She noted that most declined applicants are referred back to FEMA’s Other Needs Assistance (ONA) program.

With the annual cost averaging $889 in Montana, NFIP coverage is often passed up. Since the floods, Downing has been emphasizing to homeowners that it’s not required to purchase flood insurance outside the high-risk flood hazard areas but is still a worthwhile investment.

“According to FEMA, 25% of these floods are occurring outside of high-risk areas,” he said. “So, using that as a sole-criteria is not the best way to approach this.”

Downing’s also encouraged homeowners in these communities to explore alternatives to an NFIP through private insurance carriers that may be more cost-friendly and suitable for them. He said they may provide additional options like basement coverage, coverage limits exceeding NFIP’s $250,000 and package deals with earthquake and landslide insurance.

Pointing to a recent increase in Miles City, which now boasts over 700 NFIPs, he expects similar growth throughout the southcentral counties.

“I would be surprised if we didn’t see a big uptick in policies in the areas that were affected a few months ago when they do their insurance renewals next year,” he said.

‘People like to see progress’

Unlike flood insurance, FEMA alone isn’t able to completely replace a home that’s lost. Its relief funds are capped at $37,900 for home repairs, such as for the roof, critical utilities, windows and doors, along with another potential $37,900 for lost property. For houses that are unlivable due to flood damage, FEMA can pay for temporary rentals or hotel stays until it’s repaired in 1-3 month increments for up to 18 months after a federally declared disaster.

Although many Montanans have benefited from disaster aid to date, there are also a number who gave up on the application process due to having to re-submit applications for further funds and repeated rejections stemming from missing information and delays in communication from FEMA representatives.

Kinsey was among those approved for Individual Assistance, but has yet to receive any of the funds due to missing information on his applications. Information needed for approval includes proof of residency, employment, updated contractor bids indicating the ongoing repairs on the property and other requirements.

Another hurdle people have come across is a lack of affordable housing options available in Montana. Upon his approval for assistance, Kinsey was offered an initial monthly amount of $850 in rental assistance that was determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“They said that was the fair market value for a two-bedroom apartment in Yellowstone County,” he said. “That’s a joke.”

Recent fair-market value estimates have since increased to $1,054 according to the Montana Department of Commerce, but a separate report released in April determined the average rent to be $1,149 in Yellowstone County, a 14.7% increase since 2019.

Elsewhere along southcentral Montana where the most significant damage occurred, people have expressed similar frustrations. Former Gardiner resident Victoria Britton also lost most of her possessions from the flood when the five-plex she lived at was swept away by the raging waters. Unlike her husband and most of the others living there, she didn’t work for Yellowstone National Park who owned the employee housing and subsequently lost her job in Gardiner due to the lack of tourism over the summer.

Completely displaced, she was forced to live out of her motor home and various friends’ homes while her husband continued to work and moved into additional housing by the park.

Like Kinsey, Britton was approved for two months of renting assistance from FEMA. Rather than explore SBA loans and re-apply to wait for future assistance, Britton ultimately decided to move back to her home state New Jersey to be closer with family and manage lingering trauma she's experienced since the flood.

“There’s pre-flood life and post-flood life, basically, for all of us,” she said.

During an October flood update in Joliet from Carbon County representatives and other emergency departments, Fromberg Mayor Tim Nottingham echoed similar frustrations in working with the emergency entities since the flooding. He said most of the home repairs and cleanups to date have come from the property owners and renters themselves.

“A lot of these folks, after the first couple of times of talking with FEMA, are not gonna go back because they weren’t getting anywhere,” he said. “People like to see progress and if there’s no progress being made, they’re not gonna pursue it.”

Britton added that the most progress seen to date has come from local nonprofits and volunteers.

“The Park County Community Foundation and Yellowstone Community Fund have been more helpful than anyone else, really,” she said.

Housing Call/options going forward

Noticing these challenges along with the winter weather now in Montana, the Montana Housing Division of the Department of Commerce has been working with FEMA, Montana Disaster and Emergency Services (DES), HUD and other state and county agencies to identify these current problems facing families and temporary housing solutions for them while repairs are ongoing.

One of the biggest setbacks facing flood repairs has been a lack of sufficient contractor bids to meet continued FEMA assistance or contractors available to do the work itself. Temporary solutions to this have been weatherization options for residents’ housing but can only provide so much throughout winter.

“Anyone that’s tried to do a home-remodel or [any] work on their home can relate to the challenges getting vendors to come out to their properties,” Cohen said. “There’s just a shortage of a variety of skilled labor today.”

At the beginning of November, Cohen and the department called on any landlords, property-owners and short-term rental operators in these areas to reach out to the department so that they can contact those in need of temporary housing during the winter.

To date, six landlords have responded, but Cohen expects more to come forward in the weeks to come since the announcement coincided with the midterm elections. She added that local Air BNBs or vacation rentals by owners (VRBOs) in the areas are also encouraged to reach out. Montana Housing will compile all responses and disseminate to local community recovery leads and disaster housing case managers. These local providers may contact landlords/short-term rental operators with information about the families they are working with and collaborate on potential next steps. The property owner’s contact information will not be disseminated directly to flood-impacted families

In addition to any available housing, the department is calling for properties that meet the counties’ fair market values determined by HUD. Families and residents do not have to be receiving assistance from FEMA to qualify for these available properties.

The state department of labor and industry also made a similar call to available contractors in the area to fill the current labor gap facing damaged homes. The agencies also encourage continued support and aid from local charities, nonprofits and volunteers in these communities.

There’s currently no type of credit or incentive for property owners to adjust their monthly rates for the struggling families. Cohen is quick to point out that agencies are likely open to discussing possible options, but that isn’t the reason for this initiative at the end of the day.

“I think [there’s] the incentive of helping out a family in a challenging situation,” she said.

©2022 the Billings Gazette (Billings, Mont.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.