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Published in the June 1, 2017, edition of the Lyons Recorder.
A shorter version of this content, including Carrie Gonzales’s story, was published in the June 14, 2017, edition of the Redstone Review.

COMMENTARY: What’s the future of affordable housing in Lyons?

Renters on buyout properties receive federal Uniform Relocation Assistance funds

by Amy Reinholds

After the Town of Lyons closed on a buyout of the flood-damaged Foothills Mobile Home Park at the end of April with with federal Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds, households who used to live there now are eligible for the Uniform Relocation Assistance program. Also, renters from four other single-family-home buyouts that were completed with CDBG-DR funds are eligible.

Molly O’Donnell, a CDBG Disaster Recovery Project Manager from the City of Longmont, works on the Boulder County Collaborative group, which determines priorities for CDBG-DR funds. She said that the collaborative is generally working with 16 households in Lyons, who either lived at the Foothills mobile home park or rented one of four single family homes that are part of the CDBG-DR buyout program. Three households have already received their benefits.

According to the Uniform Relocation Assistance (URA), responsibilities for residential displacements like the Town of Lyons CDBG-DR buyouts include providing relocation advisory services to displaced tenants and owner occupants, reimbursement for moving expenses, and providing payments for the added cost of renting or purchasing comparable replacement housing.

In general, under the URA program, O’Donnell explained that households have 12 months from the date they are issued a notice of eligibility for relocation assistance to either purchase or lease and occupy a dwelling unit (that is determined to be decent, safe, and sanitary) and 6 months from that date to claim their benefits.

However, we are working to complete the process and pay out all the benefits as soon as possible so these people can move on with their lives,” she said. “Not all 20 households will receive benefits since several have opted not to participate in the program. One property has not yet been purchased, so the notice of eligibility to that house’s tenants is still pending, we expect to complete that property purchase as soon as possible.”

One of the tenants who already received the benefits, Carrie Gonzales, was able to buy a $50,000 home outright in Raton, N.M., using the lump sum Uniform Relocation Assistance settlement and a small amount of savings. She closed on May 15, and she and partner Kevin expect to move by mid-to-late June.

It was a blessing, but it has been a long and painful journey,” Gonzales said. She said she is sad to leave Lyons, and her heart is with all her neighbors who are still struggling to find affordable places to live after losing their homes in the 2013 flood.

The URA program wasn’t available for displaced residents whose landlords didn’t participate in the buyout program for flood-damaged properties. For example, Gonzales, who originally lived in the Riverbend Mobile Home Park, wouldn’t have been eligible even though she couldn’t return to live at Riverbend after the flood. The Lyons Board of Trustees approved the property owners’ request to change zoning of the Riverbend Mobile Home Park property to a commercial use, and it is now an event venue with vacation lodging in tiny homes on wheels. However, Gonzales later rented a house on the west end of the Foothills Mobile Home Park land, whose owner, John Barranway, did participate in the CDBG-funded buyout, which closed April 28 of this year, and all tenants for this property were eligible for URA benefits.

Without the buyout program, the owners of these rental units would not have had a mechanism to sell their substantially damaged properties for pre-flood market values, and the tenants of those units would not have qualified for URA benefits,” O’Donnell said.

All land purchased with the federal funds as part of the the CDBG-DR or the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program buyout programs is now owned by the Town of Lyons. The deed-restricted buy-out properties can be used as open space or recreational land. If the Town of Lyons plans to use any of the properties as recreational land in the future, the only structures that are allowed are open-sided pavilions/shelters and public restrooms. Trails must be soft-surface (such as gravel).

The URA provides payments to the former tenants (either renters or mobile home owners who paid lot rent) for the added cost of renting or purchasing comparable replacement housing. O’Donnell explained that URA replacement housing benefits are determined by a calculation that considers 1) the monthly rent and cost of utility services for a comparable replacement dwelling, 2) the monthly rent and cost of utility services for the home that households were displaced from, and 3) for low-income households, housing costs of 30 percent of their average monthly gross household income. The maximum URA payment is calculated on the difference in the old and new housing costs for a one-month period and multiplied by 42 (the number of months allowed by the URA to be included in the calculation).

If a displaced household wants to purchase a unit rather than rent, then the URA benefit comes in the form of a lump-sum payment for down payment assistance. For renters, the URA is received every month for 3½ years (42 months).

O’Donnell said that the calculation is independent of prior federal disaster assistance received, with one exception: unused FEMA rental assistance.

In addition, under the URA, payment for moving expenses is also allowed. O’Donnell said the moving expenses payment is based on a payment for actual reasonable moving and related expenses, a fixed moving payment in the amount of $1,425 (based on the URA Fixed Residential Moving Cost Schedule), or a combination of both, not to exceed the actual costs for a move using a commercial moving company.

Finally, the URA allows for relocation advisory services. O’Donnell said that the Boulder County Collaborative has a URA subject matter expert consulting firm on board since last year providing relocation advisory services to the tenants. “Our contact there is in close coordination with each of the tenants to walk them through the process, explain their rights and responsibilities, provide status updates, coordinate obtaining the paperwork necessary to calculate and process the benefit payments, finding comparable replacement dwellings and conducting inspections, and assist with determining moving costs and resources.”

Gonzales said that finding another place to live that she could afford was extremely challenging. That she found the home in New Mexico with a seller who was willing to work with her unknown schedule of receiving the URA funds was like “a game of roulette,” she said.

In the 3 ½ years since the Lyons flood, Gonzales pursued several options, including advocating for a new or rebuilt mobile home park in Lyons and trying to find a location that would take an older mobile home that her partner owned that was not damaged in the flood. (She shared some of her information with the researchers who wrote the Manufactured Housing and Flood Recovery in Lyons, Colorado report that was prepared in 2015.) Gonzales rented a house on Apple Valley Road, with much a higher rent, until she found the house available to rent on the west end of the former Foothills Mobile Home Park land. In the past months of working with the URA, she also looked into moving to a mobile home park in Platteville, Colo., but those lot spaces were already taken before the buyout closing completed in Lyons.

In Raton, “We found a place where we are very welcome,” Gonzales said. Because of a health condition that limits the distance she can drive, Gonzales is glad to have bought a home that is in a mile of everything she needs to drive to, and within walking distance of downtown. She said that Raton, with a population of 6,000 people, lost residents after mining industry left town and wants to attract new people and encourage economic development.

The URA program that looked for similar homes in Lyons to what she had been renting before the buyout found only a house for rent near the school that was $2100 a month. Now, instead, she owns a home outright and only has utility payments and property taxes to pay.

Gonzales, who worked for Madhava Honey for 13 years and then ran her own honey store on Hwy 66 east of town since 2012, is bringing a stock of honey to Raton, and plans to work out of her home. But living only a few blocks from downtown, she might find a perfect store front. One of her suppliers is in Rocky Ford, Colo., a lot closer to Raton than Lyons, and she is already meeting people who keep bees in Raton.

It’s been hard to leave friends and to leave Lyons, which was not made whole after the flood, Gonzales says. She is sad, thinking of her pre-flood neighbors who still aren’t able to return to Lyons or to find an affordable living situation after the flood. “But we’re telling people to come join us. You can do a whole lot in Raton. There’s a lot of opportunity for energetic, artistic people.”

Her final step is working with the relocation companies bidding to handle her move through the URA program. A last-minute and stressful issue that came up from one of the companies: an additional $5,000 mileage cost because she is moving more than 50 miles away. She is hoping to get that issue resolved or reduced to a fee she can afford, but still expects the moving date to be either middle or end of June, depending on which moving company gets the bid.

The Town of Lyons purchased the 1.26-acre former Foothills Mobile Home Park on April 28 for $662,165, using CDBG-DR funds. The Town of Lyons was required to grant a 90-day notice after the April 28 closing date to all current tenants (in this case, Gonzales and her partner). After tenants move out, the demolition of the flood-damaged mobile homes on the eastern part of the property can begin. The time-frame requirements for reimbursements of demolition and cleanup costs are mandated by the federal funding sources.

The Lyons Board of Trustees approved a resolution on May 10, ratifying expenditures of up to $591,386 of CDBG-DR Replacement Housing Payment funds (part of the Uniform Relocation Assistance program), available for homeowners and tenants who lived at the Foothills Mobile Home Park, and also 4 other single-family-home buyouts that were completed with CDBG-DR funds. The trustees passed a resolution that approves the expenditure of the Replacement Housing Payment program funds for tenants of the 104 5th Avenue (Foothills Mobile Home Park), 415 Prospect Street, 417 Evans Street, 109 Park Street, and 323 5th Avenue.

For more information about the Uniform Relocation Assistance program, see the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development website.

I don’t know if any of the Lyons participants in the URA benefits will use the funds to rent or buy in Lyons, because the difficulty of finding affordable rentals and homes for sale in Lyons. O’Donnell said the Boulder County collaborative doesn’t know how many households will using funds to rent or buy in the Lyons area or Boulder County. “It is entirely the household’s choice,” she said. “Most are still in the process of determining the benefit calculation.”

After the September 2013 flood, the Town of Lyons lost a total of about 70 flood-destroyed homes to both the federal buyout programs (including the 16 homes in the Foothills Mobile Home Park) and to the changed use of the Riverbend Mobile Home Park property to an event venue (rezoned for commercial use). For history of post-flood efforts for affordable housing in Lyons, you can read previous columns posted on my blog at lyonscoloradonews.wordpress.com. This is a weekly commentary (opinion column) in the Lyons Recorder about affordable housing. If you have any questions, comments, or complaints about this column, please contact me directly at areinholds @hotmail.com.