Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A new report finds that it typically takes five years or longer to complete the buyout process, leaving homeowners of flooded properties in limbo.
Sometimes, after a major flooding disaster, it’s better for a community to retreat than to rebuild. And in many cases, local governments around the United States will offer to buy up damaged properties, allowing residents to relocate to safer ground—ideally before the next flood occurs. Yet this process is notorious for taking too long.
A report released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that over the past 30 years, fewer than half of buyout projects—in which municipalities apply for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to acquire flood-damaged homes—reached closure in under five years.
While home buyouts are one of the most cost-effective and permanent ways of protecting homeowners in harm’s way, the complex bureaucratic process often leaves them in limbo. As of last October, the owners of more than 4,600 at-risk properties around the country were still waiting for buyouts to be completed. Some of these owners were affected by the historic Tax Day Flood that hit Houston back in April 2016, or by a historic, multi-day storm that inundated large swaths of Louisiana later that summer.
With extreme weather and urban flooding becoming more frequent, “the way that we currently handle this process is incapable of rising to the challenge,” Anna Weber, a policy analyst at NRDC who led the study, said in a briefing on Thursday.
FEMA has acquired more than 43,000 properties since 1989. Buyouts peaked in 1993, when a major flood in the upper Midwest damaged some 50,000 homes across nine states. The government acquired more than 8,000 flood-prone properties shortly thereafter, and the buyout effort in Missouri (the hardest-hit state) was ultimately considered a success story. Missouri residents relocated to higher ground while local governments tore down damaged homes and turned the land into open space, restricting new development.
FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program accounts for nearly 89 percent of the properties in the researchers’ dataset. How this program works is a multi-step process. After a major disaster is declared, FEMA announces funding availability—sometimes months after the actual disaster—and then cities apply for buyouts on behalf of affected homeowners. If the project is approved, FEMA pays 75 percent of the purchasing cost (the pre-flood value of the property), while state and local governments foot the rest. Local governments then make the proper arrangements to close the buyout.
NRDC’s analysis found that it typically takes more than a year and a half just to get funding approval from FEMA once a disaster is declared. From there, it can take another three-and-a-half years for local governments to implement the buyouts and finally close the project.
“Even the fastest buyout in this dataset … still takes a year or more to complete,” said Rob Moore, who co-authored the report. “That’s still too long to make a person wait.” Between state reviews, cost-benefit analysis, and buyout prioritization, the approval process for some buyouts has taken nearly 10 years. Among states with at least 500 buyouts since the late 1980s, the process has taken the longest in Louisiana, Illinois, Texas, and Indiana—all of which experience frequent flash flooding.
“Considering all the recurring flooding that we’ve been seeing in recent years, many homes will have flooded again during this multi-year process,” said Weber. “That essentially means we are wasting money, time, and the opportunity to reduce risk.”
The inability to move on despite the threat of another flood is more than just a nuisance for residents. It’s a financial burden, since some homeowners have to continue paying their mortgage and home insurance until the buyout is finalized. If they’ve moved elsewhere, they may also be paying rent on top of that. Some end up rebuilding with the immediate funds offered through FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program. When another flood hits, they face the same dilemma again: rebuild now or wait for a buyout? Others may sell their homes for a loss, passing on the burden to a speculator or another homeowner.
A year after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Harris County had received half of the $164 million it had requested from FEMA to buy out some 1,000 homes. But by that time, about 200 applicants gave up on the program, according to Houston Public Media.
For some local governments, the delay is due to funding. Cities have to ensure they can match the FEMA dollars before implementing a buyout program. For others, it may be limited staffing. “The local floodplain manager… [might] may be a sergeant in the police department, or the lieutenant of the volunteer fire department, or she may be the mayor,” Moore said.
The report makes a series of recommendations to streamline the process, including Congress changing the terms of NFIP so that it can directly finance buyouts. That, the authors argue, could give local governments the flexibility to fund expedited buyout programs. They also recommend changing buyout provisions to allow local governments to work with land trusts and other nonprofits to facilitate buyouts, the way land is acquired for conservation.
Weber says that improving the process would allow better access to the program for those who need it most: lower-income families who live in neighborhoods that are more likely to flood, and who can’t relocate without the funds from the buyouts, and therefore have little alternative to rebuilding.
Critics of buyout programs have said they can’t keep up with the frequency of flooding, due to higher demand, competing flood-mitigation priorities, and limited budgets. Communities of color, where statistically people are more likely own homes that are at risk of flooding and of lower value, disproportionately receive less disaster aid—both in HUD-funded buyout programs, as CityLab previously reported, and under FEMA’s programs, according to an NPR investigation earlier this year.
But changing the process is a start, at least, and both Weber and Moore emphasize that any improvements must prioritize low-income families. They also stressed that it has to be an all-hands-on-deck effort.
“When you look a the scope of the challenge due to climate change … leading to a higher risk of flooding in large parts of the nation, this is a problem that demands a federal solution,” Moore said. “No single community can completely address this issue on its own.”