WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Two years after Tropical Storm Irene ravaged the Spruces Mobile Home Park, the debate still rages in town about where to build replacement homes.
One thing is not debatable: Both current and former Spruces residents say their home is Williamstown.
This week, the non-profit formed in the wake of the storm to address the crisis at the park revealed the results of its recent survey of former and current residents.
The clear picture that emerges from the poll is that the Sprucians are, as a group, older than the general population, living on modest means and anxious to have safe, permanent housing in the town they choose to call home.
A clear majority — 62 percent — said they would be interested in living in affordable housing in town if it could be built.
That confirms the impassioned plea of Tremus Thompson, who back in April told a packed house at the Mount Greylock Regional High School meeting room, "I fell in love with Williamstown, and I don't want to leave it."
Thompson is one of those who came back after the storm. At last count, the Spruces is home to 66 households.
Two years ago today, 153 homes were destroyed.
Flooding had long been a concern at the park, but Irene brought devestation on an unprecedented scale.
"I don't think anything like this has happened — you have to go back to the hurricane of 1938 — in the history of the commonwealth," Affordable Housing Trust Chairman Stanley Parese said at Monday's meeting of the town's Spruces Roof Group, which heard the results of the Higher Ground survey.
In a town of just more than 4,300 (according to the 2010 Census), the number of Spruces residents scattered to surrounding towns represents a significant portion of the population. If those 153 homes averaged 1.5 people, that's 230 town residents — or more than 5 percent of the population — who lost their homes on Aug. 28, 2011.
The remaining 66 households likely will not be able to remain at the park indefinitely.
Western New York's Morgan Management owns the land and rents the pads to residents, who mostly own their mobile homes. Three months after Irene, Morgan said the park was not financially viable without at least 180 occupied home sites (the park's capacity is 226 sites).
Knowing that the park would close anyway, the town of Williamstown applied for and received a $6 million Hazard Mitigation Grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. About 10 percent of the grant will go to Morgan to pay off the remainder of its note on the park; the rest will be distributed among the residents, facilitate relocation efforts, allow the town to remove the infrastructure in the park and, it is hoped, allow the town to develop replacement housing.
Town Manager Peter Fohlin, who crafted the grant application and negotiated the terms with Morgan, FEMA and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, has estimated somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million will remain to help develop subsidized housing when all is said and done.
The potential location of that housing was the cause of the controversy that has swirled in town for nearly a year.
Meanwhile, those 66 households at the Spruces have lived with day-to-day uncertainty punctuated by occasional terror whenever the forecast called for heavy rain.
They received a touch of certainty last week when Morgan formally notified residents of its intent to sell the park to the town under the terms of the FEMA grant. Under Massachusetts law, the residents have 45 days to band together and exercise their right of first refusal to purchase the park for $600,000 themselves. Although some residents have pushed for that course of action, it is unlikely to come to pass.
What is more likely is that the 45-day window will close and all town residents will decide at a special town meeting whether to take possession of the park and accept responsibility for helping to relocate those town residents directly affected by its closing — likely in fall 2015.
Higher Ground wanted to know what those residents — and the ones who already left the park — want in a new home and what they can afford. The non-profit sent out 185 surveys to the current and former residents it could find, Higher Ground Director Sue Metzner told a town committee this week.
Of those surveys, 103 or 56 percent, were returned. Thirty-eight percent of the respondents said they had no interest in affordable housing in Williamstown.
"Affordable housing" is a term for housing subsidized by the taxpayers in one form or another. Technically, the Spruces Mobile Home Park is not affordable housing; it is market-rate housing that happens to be affordable.
Of the 64 current and former Spruces households expressing an interest in affordable housing, 73 percent are over age 60 and most (56 percent) are retired, Metzner reported.
"I think the numbers do paint a picture of an older population that's vulnerable in a number of ways — financially vulnerable, vulnerable in their health," Metzner said. "It helps me understand why it's such a strongly knit community, and it wants to stay together. They help each other.
"All these networks of helping each other that are in place there are due to the fact that they're so vulnerable in so many different ways."
Seventy percent reported a household income of less than $25,000 per year, and the majority (58 percent) pay between $200 and $299 in rent or mortgage each month.
It is inconceivable that market-rate replacement housing in Williamstown would be available for less than $300 per month, which is why advocates for the Sprucians have been pushing for subsidized housing for the last two years.
In addition to asking where they want to live, the Higher Ground survey asked quality-of-life questions about how they want to live. Specifically, it asked what characteristics of replacement housing the current and former residents consider most important.
Not surprisingly, they want housing that resembles the way of life they chose when they placed or purchased trailers at the park.
Eighty-one percent of respondents listed "parking close to the unit" as one of their top three priorities. Sixty-seven percent listed the "size of the apartment." Sixty-five percent listed "ability to have pet."
The third-ranked criterion is no surprise to those who attended or watched a spring public meeting at the Spruces hosted by the Spruces Roof Group (then the "Long-term Coordinating Committee"). A number of park residents at the event expressed a strong desire to keep their "four walls" and have the freedom to maintain families whose four-legged members are an important element.
"One person [in the survey] mentioned 'no pets' as a priority," Metzner said. "But that person has never said anything like that in a group meeting, I can tell you that."
A look back at Irene here; the last year's land debate, here.