After disaster: Why home buyout programs fizzle out
For more than 40 years, federal cost-share buyout programs in the U.S. have funded local hazard mitigation. Yet in the wake of recent disasters like Hurricane Harvey, impacted residents view voluntary home buyout programs as a means of personal recovery
Home buyout programs may reduce hazard exposure, yet there is little research exploring the overall effectiveness of these programs, nor are there agreed upon best practices for municipalities or state agencies conducting buyouts.
With environmental disasters such as hurricanes and flooding becoming more frequent and severe, government agencies from the federal to local level are looking for ways to address losses and reduce hazard exposure. Local and state government entities can use federal funds to implement a home buyout program, which is a tool for permanently relocating impacted households away from areas that are at risk to future disasters.
Across the course of our ongoing research on the effectiveness of home buyout programs, we have found that government agencies generally design them as long-term disaster mitigation tools -- yet homeowners view them as an opportunity for post-disaster recovery. We conducted interviews with both buyout administrators and participants in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and found diverging perspectives on both the purpose and timing of buyouts. Regardless of whether home buyouts are utilized as hazard mitigation or a recovery tool, inherent tension between government agency and homeowner goals prevent buyout programs from fully realizing their potential for either purpose, reducing their effectiveness and creating challenges for municipal services, individual disaster-affected households and communities.
Home Buyout Programs Used as Recovery, But Designed for Hazard Mitigation
For more than 40 years, buyout programs in the U.S. have been designed, funded and operationalized as a tool for mitigation, or as a passive measure to reduce future disaster losses. Local agencies implementing these programs are responsible for developing and managing them, and their internal processes generally prioritize mitigation goals, such as acquiring repeat-loss properties or addressing pre-existing development issues. As Harris County, Texas, expanded their long-standing program after Hurricane Harvey in 2018, we collaborated with municipal personnel to better understand the design and implementation stages of their home buyout program.
Home buyout programs are almost always initiated in a post-disaster environment, when residents are focused on recovering as quickly as possible. After Hurricane Harvey, when homeowners were still recovering from past events such as 2015’s Memorial Day floods and 2016’s Tax Day floods, affected residents saw the voluntary buyout program as a means of personal recovery in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.
In interviews with municipal workers in Harris County, Texas, who are charged with designing and implementing their buyout program, we observed how these programs are conceived and funded on timescales consistent with mitigation activities (i.e. months and years post-event). Still, disaster funds move slowly through federal channels (generally FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program or HUD’s Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery program), and it takes time for implementing agencies to prepare their programs.
As a result, buyouts typically occur more than a year after the disaster that precipitated them (Greer & Binder 2016).
Buyout Timelines Out of Sync for Recovery
When we asked government workers what residents wanted from buyouts and when we spoke to residents themselves, we found that buyout timescales are out of sync with federal buyout funding mechanisms. In addition to these divergent timelines, residents and municipalities are also approaching buyout programs with different end goals.
Municipal agencies designing and implementing buyout programs are operating on a community-wide or watershed-wide perspective, seeking buyouts as mitigation opportunities that best address flooding for large tracts of land.
Homeowners, by contrast, are focusing on their families’ immediate recovery needs, such as securing safe housing and reclaiming a sense of normalcy. In interviews, impacted homeowners also expressed concern over the loss of their neighborhood as many demonstrated strong social bonds with neighbors and deep place attachments to their neighborhood.
These interviews do not indicate that impacted homeowners cannot view the larger impact of flood mitigation strategies nor that municipal workers do not understand the deeply personal ties to a home. However, they highlight how the government program operations are often out of alignment with the homeowners’ needs following a disaster, which can cause interest in home buyout programs to wane in the ensuing months.
What Happens When Home Buyout Program Participants Drop Out?
The outcome of misalignment and diverging timelines is represented in the number of residents who volunteer for a buyout program in the initial weeks after a disaster yet leave the program during the months spent waiting for federal funding to be secured.
In Harris County, Texas, municipal employees reported that nearly 3,500 people signed up for the home buyout program immediately following Hurricane Harvey. Yet the lag time between Hurricane Harvey and the funding allocations resulted in high attrition rates, even though the funding moved quicker than expected.
These losses in homeowner participation are a major concern for buyout program administrators as they undermine the effectiveness of buyouts as a mitigation measure. Attrition reduces the overall effectiveness of the program.
In Harris County, some of the homeowners who withdrew from the buyout program sold their homes on the open market or foreclosed to the mortgage lender. Many residents in Houston’s flood-impacted neighborhoods reported investors buying flooded homes at under market values only to repair them as rental properties. In each of these examples, the risk is just transferred to a different family, one who may not know the flood history of the house and neighborhood.
Other homeowners declined the program after repairing their homes; the time and money associated with repairs made the buyout program less desirable as they resumed their routine activities.
In each of these cases, the mitigation potential of a state or local government home buyout program is reduced as the potential uses and function of post-buyout open space are limited.
Buyout Programs Lead to Checkerboarding & Higher Municipal Costs
Buyout program attrition is most visible on the landscape through checkerboarding land use patterns. Checkerboarding results when some homeowners elect to participate in a buyout program while their neighbor(s) decline, leaving vacant lots of open space interspersed among homes. This land use pattern significantly impacts how communities can utilize post-buyout open space.
Our previous research indicates that residents and municipal workers value open spaces that offer recreational, ecological, aesthetic and mitigative benefits to the community (Zavar 2015).
Yet checkerboarding reduces communities’ ability to develop hike and bike trails, wetlands and playgrounds, resulting in underutilized post-buyout landscapes that require significant municipal funds to mow and maintain. In this way, the buyout program is less than efficient.
Impacts to municipal budgets are not the only negative outcome of an inefficient home buyout program. Our previous research, as well as that of other scholars, has also found that buyouts can result in negative outcomes for households that relocate through these programs, and those that are left behind in the adjacent communities (Barile Binder & Baker, 2019; Binder Barile Baker & Kulp, 2018; Binder & Greer, 2016). As our study continues, we will examine the ways in which communities are trying to combat issues of attrition, including checkerboarding, and share recommendations for addressing this inherent tension associated with buyout programs in a follow-up to this article.
About the Authors
Dr. Elyse Zavar is an assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Management and Disaster Science at the University of North Texas. Her research explores land use/landscape changes following disaster, including from buyout programs, and how these changes impact long-term community recovery.
Dr. Sherri Brokopp Binder is president of BrokoppBinder Research & Consulting and an affiliate researcher with the Center for the Study of Disasters and Extreme Events at Oklahoma State University. Her research is focused on post-disaster relocation, with an emphasis on home buyout programs and housing recovery policy.
Dr. Alex Greer is an assistant professor in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at SUNY Albany. His research interests include hazard adjustments, relocation decision-making processes, and organizational culture.
Barile, J.P., Binder, S.B., & Baker, C.K. (2019). Recovering After a Natural Disaster: Differences in Quality of Life Across Three Communities After Hurricane Sandy. Applied Research in Quality of Life. doi: 10.1007/s11482-019-09722-3
Binder, S. B., Barile, J. P., Baker, C. K., & Kulp, B. (2018). Home Buyouts and Household Recovery: Neighborhood Differences Three Years After Hurricane Sandy. Environmental Hazards. doi: 10.1080/17477891.2018.1511404
Binder, S. B., & Greer, A. (2016). The Devil Is in the Details: Linking Home Buyout Policy, Practice, and Experience After Hurricane Sandy. Politics and Governance, 4(4), 97.
Zavar, E. (2015). Residential Perspectives: The Value of Floodplain-Buyout Open Space. Geographical Review, 105(1), 78-95.