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Yellowstone's historic floods in 2022 exacerbated an affordable housing crisis

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Mobile homes provide affordable housing to millions of Americans. But what happens when disaster strikes? Just over a year ago, record-setting floods washed out roads in and around Yellowstone National Park. They also damaged a number of mobile homes. The park has mostly recovered, but some people who lost their trailer homes are still struggling. We're taking a closer look at an issue that is exacerbating the country's affordable housing crisis. In a couple of minutes, we're going to hear from NPR's Mallika Seshadri about the limited options available to mobile homeowners impacted by natural disasters. But first, we begin with a report from Yellowstone Public Radio's Kayla Desroches.

AMANDA HOLMES: Is that everything, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The rest is all...

KAYLA DESROCHES, BYLINE: Amanda Holmes, a 31-year-old mother of four, helps customers check out at the gas station where she works along the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASH REGISTER CLOSING)

DESROCHES: A year ago, when the big floods hit, she was standing in the kitchen of her mobile home in the small town of Fromberg. It's close to a popular scenic highway into Yellowstone National Park. Her son told her he saw water in the road.

HOLMES: And I was like, well, bud, it's raining. That's going to happen. He's like, no, Mom, there's water in the road.

DESROCHES: A couple of days later, she and her family had to evacuate permanently. Water got deep enough inside her trailer to cover the furniture in the bedrooms. They soon learned their mobile home would have to be condemned. They'd lost their place to live and would need to move into their camper.

HOLMES: Very surreal at the moment, just knowing that all of our stuff is practically gone.

DESROCHES: Now, a year later, Holmes, her husband, and her kids, age 4 to 10, are still living in a camper. Holmes says she got less than $5,000 in assistance money from FEMA and the Red Cross, and her family still can't find a place to rent.

HOLMES: If it's big enough, they either want way too much rent that I can't afford, or they don't want pets.

DESROCHES: There was already an affordable housing crisis in Yellowstone gateway communities before the floods hit, says Kristin Smith with the Montana think tank Headwaters Economics.

KRISTIN SMITH: What happened with the Yellowstone floods is that it came in and made a tough situation even worse.

DESROCHES: The National Low Income Housing Coalition says Montana is short nearly 16,000 rental units for its lowest-income people.

SMITH: So, again, if you have a flood event that actually takes houses offline, you're just creating less housing in a place that already desperately needed more housing options.

DESROCHES: Smith says nearly 10% of Montana's housing stock are mobile homes - a higher rate than most states. Amanda Holmes can't go back to the trailer park where she lived before. The land has been sold to a new developer.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

NATE CATON: So, yeah, big chaotic mess but slowly bringing her back together. So this one will be a big, wide open floor plan, and...

DESROCHES: That's the new owner, Nate Caton. He's refurbishing this house and two others on that property. But trailers are on the way out. Caton is a town councilman here in Fromberg.

CATON: It was a chance to hit the reset button. And why not give something to the community that it needed the most out of anything?

DESROCHES: Caton says the former mobile home park of more than a dozen structures was aging and says only a handful were occupied before the flood. He and his co-owner aren't interested in running it as a trailer park again. Caton says they want to build four new permanent units, but ones that are still accessible for working-class families. For now, though, there's less housing than there used to be in Fromberg, making it a lot harder for working mom Amanda Holmes to stay - which she wants to do because her four kids are enrolled in a school she really likes.

HOLMES: They are great. I would not put them in any other school. They work so good with my kids, and my kids have excelled so far.

DESROCHES: She hopes to find a place, if not in Fromberg, in nearby Bridger, where she works. Until then, she's living on a friend's property and browsing social media, looking for a permanent home.

For NPR News, I'm Kayla Desroches, in Billings, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kayla Descroches
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