Plans to use federal dollars on buyouts for homeowners should not be rushed and should incorporate community

The state’s draft action plan for spending $57.8 million in federal disaster recovery funds was released on Jan. 18. The Texas General Land Office, which oversees the administration of the federal funds, has given the public 14 days to comment. Every day untilFeb. 1 Feb. 13, we’ll be asking fundamental questions about the action plan as we draft our own comments to the GLO to advocate for equitable disaster recovery for all Hurricane Harvey survivors. 

Implementing a successful buyout strategy to mitigate flood damage in the future takes much more than money. It takes careful planning, working deliberately with communities, weaving the program with other strategies, and moderating public officials’ rush to get something done after a disaster.

These were the pieces of advice that experts offered this week at a discussion on Buyout Best Practices sponsored by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium.

The New York buyout program supplemented federal grants with state funds to ensure that low-income households received enough funding to purchase a new home in a community that suited their needs.

In the State of Texas action plan for a $57.8 million in federal block grants, the GLO proposes using the majority of the money, $35 million and possibly more, for home buyouts in Harris County. This strategy may eventually put homeowners who benefit from the program out of harm’s way, but there are many ways buyouts can go wrong: Communities can become zombie neighborhoods with a sparse population left after neighbors move away, or homeowners who take buyouts may be left without an affordable place to live.

Before spending millions of dollars on buyouts, the GLO and the Harris County Flood Control District need to put community values and needs at the center of any buyout program and think holistically about protecting homes in a floodplain, relocating families outside of the floodplain and planning for the vacant land that is left.

Harris County began their buyout program in 1985 and since then has spent $342 million to buy 3,100 properties, according to a report by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune. There are thousands more properties that have flooded as a result of the 2015 and 2016 floods as well as Hurricane Harvey. The buyout program being discuss today is on a vastly larger scale. Considering the advice from experts across the country to the Houston flood mitigation community, there’s much to consider before implementing a buyout program.

Take time to plan

One expert on the buyouts panel, Gavin Smith of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, explained there is value in “slowing down the speed up.” Inevitably, survivors of disasters enduring the slog of recovery demand that relief come quickly. Public officials facing political and constituent pressure then attempt to quicken the pace of spending federal recovery dollars. Balancing infrastructure investments and buyouts is a difficult task according to Dave Canaan who oversees Water & Land Resources in Mecklenburg County North Carolina. But it’s important to spend money on the front end to analyze data and models to avoid spending millions more later.

Tom Chapman, of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District explained that a master plan that is adaptable based on community needs helps to make sense of what goals are. When goals are set, it’s important to understand regulations that are tied to various pots of funding and braiding the sources of funding to achieve what residents hope to get out of the program.

Planning can also help minimize the “checkerboard effect” when some homeowners take buyouts and others stay behind, which sometimes means that neighborhoods fall by the wayside without the cohesion that once existed.

Be transparent

Harris County must operate buyouts in a way that is transparent and accessible to all homeowners who might qualify. It is essential to fully inform households the criteria for participating in buyouts and what a qualifying household receives in exchange for their home — likely the largest investment they’ve made in their lives. Households must know how that amount of cash they’re receiving was determined.

It’s also important to explain the process of determining whether buyouts are absolutely necessary. Many times, families are leaving behind homes, schools, and the intangible feeling of community. If there are alternative mitigation strategies that could make it safe for people to stay in their communities, local and state officials should share that with them and allow them to make a choice.

Engage community

Rachel Wider, an expert from New York State Homes and Community Renewal said presenting plans and policies to communities was key to the success of a state-run buyout program after Superstorm Sandy. Residents of a Staten Island community “on their own volition” requested they participate in the buyout program. The first participants became ambassadors for their neighbors and walked them through the ins and outs of the buyout process which helped to increase transparency and understanding.

Once people leave their communities for good, it is also important to memorialize those spaces. Smith of North Carolina suggests finding out what these spaces mean to residents and hearing what they want to see from those spaces can help jurisdictions make the most of those spaces instead of leaving them to become vacant land. “Bring together the personal and the technical,” Smith said.

Be holistic

The New York state buyout program supplemented federal grants with state funds to ensure that low-income households received enough funding to purchase a new home in a community that suited their needs. The program also offered case management to help secure a new home and legal services to deal with residual financial or title issues that were caused by the Great Recession. New York state also maintained the properties to prevent blight in a neighborhood while jurisdictions planned what was next for the land.

Smith of North Carolina added that recovery is not just about the money. It’s not just about getting people out of the floodplain. It’s about the resources that come from investing in the community, Smith said, and understanding  how vacant land can then turn into resources that protect cities and enrich the lives of people who live in communities.

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Lessons for Harris County and the State of Texas

Experts added that there is no solution for floods that will continue to happen due to climate change and urban sprawl, but there are examples of effective strategies to mitigate risk.

The state cannot prioritize paying for buyouts before immediate are met and before a thorough plan is in place. Instead, the state and affected counties considering buyout programs must set goals, guidelines, and engage community. It must also take a look back and evaluate how past buyouts have worked and share that evaluation with the public.

A multi-million investment for mass buyouts has the potential to disrupt a community, alter wealth and socioeconomic outcomes of families, or to promote opportunity for families and communities. Counties and the State cannot leave the bulk of this program to chance or leave families on their own to navigate the aftermath of the double trauma of a disaster and the uprooting of a community.

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