Taking the long view: Improving home buyout programs through community involvement
To improve outcomes for households and government agencies implementing home buyout programs, emergency management and disaster researchers recommend a resident-centric approach
Home 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. In the article, “Why Home Buyout Programs Fizzle Out,” we identified some of the major challenges that communities encounter when implementing buyouts, including attrition and checkerboarding land use patterns.
Addressing these challenges will require significant policy and funding changes at the federal level, but there are actions that agencies implementing buyouts can undertake to improve outcomes for households and government agencies in the near term.
Opportunities to Improve Buyouts
Here, we draw on learnings from the recovery and buyout literature, including our research on past buyouts, to highlight two lessons learned.
Lesson #1 Incorporate Community Engagement and Resident-Centric Approaches
Providing venues for community engagement in the buyout process, including opportunities for property owners to have their concerns heard, is critical for all stages of a buyout, from conceptualization, to relocation and resettlement, and through to post-buyout land use.
By prioritizing community engagement, implementing agencies can improve the buyout process for themselves and the affected households by ensuring open and clear communication, reducing the spread of harmful rumors, and incorporating community concerns and priorities into buyout-related decisions and practices."
These approaches reflect consistent findings from our own research and calls from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and others to engage communities early and often.
There are a number of ways implementing agencies can integrate affected households, including a series of meetings with all stakeholders involved in the process, opportunities for residents to provide feedback and receive accurate responses to questions via telephone, or even an online message board.
When holding meetings, attention should be given to scheduling meetings at different locations and varying times of the day to allow broad participation, noting that some residents may have job- or family-related responsibilities, transportation challenges, or other challenges that limit their availability.
To ensure that a wide variety of stakeholders are taken into consideration, these meetings should facilitate participation from:
- Residents intending to participate in the buyout,
- Residents within the affected community who are not planning to participate,
- Residents and/or businesses adjacent to the buyout,
- Local community groups,
- Neighborhood associations, and
- Nongovernmental organizations.
While a number of these groups may not be directly participating in the buyout, they will have important ties to the relocated households and a stake in how the bought-out land is used after it is acquired.
Further, agencies responsible for implementing buyouts tend to prioritize mitigation-related goals in the design and management of buyouts. While this is perfectly understandable, a more deliberate focus on resident-centric approaches may improve outcomes for all stakeholders, whether their priority is mitigation or recovery. At a basic level, this means recognizing residents in the affected households and communities as key players throughout the buyout process.
More specifically, it means directing resources to help meet the felt needs of homeowners as they move through the process.
The Harris County Flood Control District, which manages a buyout in the Houston metropolitan area, for example, provides relocation officers who work with buyout participants individually, assisting homeowners in locating and purchasing a new, suitable home in a safer community.
In New Jersey, the Blue Acres Floodplain Buyout Program recognized the importance of allowing homeowners to tell their stories to an empathetic listener and adjusted their staffing so that buyout case managers had the skills to meet this need.
While these are significant programmatic changes, smaller changes can also make a big difference.
For example, our previous research indicates that buyout agencies can make the closing process less costly and stressful by giving homeowners flexibility in setting move out dates from their disaster-damaged home, which can improve their ability to find a comparable home that meets their needs.
In an ideal situation, community conversations about buyouts are part of pre-disaster recovery planning efforts that proactively raise the potential of a buyout before a community is impacted by a disaster."
This approach can improve the process in several ways.
First, it helps to ensure that residents understand their agency in the process, their rights as property owners, and the potential risks and benefits associated with the decision to relocate or remain in their community.
Second, it allows implementing agencies to gauge community interest regarding buyout support, gather input from various stakeholders regarding a potential buyout effort, and generate buy-in to the mitigation plan.
Third, implementing agencies could work in the interim to secure funding, or at least matching funds for a cost-share grant like the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) to support interested communities.
For example, in Kentucky, the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government utilized capital funds to conduct buyouts in neighborhoods routinely impacted by stormwater.
These approaches provide some flexibility in the timing of buyouts and, importantly, offer some control to homeowners over the timing of their participation, enabling them to engage in household-level planning and to make the decision to participate outside of the chaos of recovery.
Lesson #2 Use and Maintenance of Open Space
Successful buyout programs consider the long-term land uses and associated costs of maintaining the open space. Many communities identify target areas to buy out based on both hazard risk and potential post-buyout land use.
For example, Harris County, Texas, prioritizes land adjacent to existing parks or greenways, as they are easier to incorporate into the existing maintenance schedule and budget.
However, this is not always feasible, especially when buyouts occur at sites located away from existing parks or greenbelts. In these instances, municipalities must be creative in determining high-utility open space land uses that benefit the community.
Our previous research has documented the cost burden that many communities endure as they must maintain the open space in perpetuity while also facing a reduced tax base due to the buyouts. Vacant lots or passive open spaces require regular lawn care, yet we often observe minimal to no resident use of these spaces.
By working with community members to identify what functions are valued or needed, municipalities can institute high-functioning, socially-valued land uses that also reduce municipal expenditures on the maintenance."
For example, encouraging the redevelopment of wetlands in the open spaces is a cost-effective tool that maximizes the mitigative potential of the buyout land.
Adjacent homeowners, however, must be supportive of the initiative. We have observed adjacent homeowners mowing wetland grasses due to concerns with snakes, thus reducing the efficiency of the mitigative project.
Other beneficial land use options include prairie grass regrowth (as has been done in Wisconsin and Illinois) and forest regeneration (as seen in Millvale Borough, Pennsylvania).
In cases where efforts like these are cost prohibitive, leasing the buyout land to community groups or homeowners adjacent to the open space for nominal fees can be a good option, providing that the leases are required to maintain the landscape and conform to regulations that prohibit development.
In Cincinnati, Ohio, for example, a local community group uses the open space created from a buyout for community gardens.
These approaches can also help to address the issue of checkerboarding, which is a major concern for buyout administrators.
At the same time, however, we encourage communities to view property acquisition as a long-term strategy and expecting periods of time when checkerboarding is a prominent land use pattern as part of the process."
Communities can develop a plan for these periods and consider intermediary land uses that best serve the adjacent residents and community as a whole. Leasing to adjacent homeowners can be an effective intermediately option, especially when a sizable number of homes remain in a neighborhood and residents do not want public land interspersed amongst private properties.
Sports and athletic uses offer additional options for intermediary checkerboarded landscapes; Frisbee disc golf courses, basketball courts, or skate parks can extend across acquired or individual lots.
Similarly, pocket parks with benches or gardens that only occupy two to three parcels can later develop into larger parks as more homeowners participate in a buyout and land is converted to open space.
The key to this approach is instituting deed restrictions so when a homeowner is ready to move out of the checkerboarded neighborhood, the property is sold to the municipality rather than on the open market. This method of open space management requires long-term planning and community engagement to ensure intermediate and long-term land uses can evolve to meet the needs of stakeholders.
Through these examples from research on past buyout programs, we observe two lessons learned that address some of the major challenges associated with buyout programs. By instituting a resident-centric approach and engaging with a wide range of community stakeholders, implementing agencies and municipalities can improve outcomes for all involved in the buyout process.
Importantly, we recognize the need to view buyouts as a long-term, evolving process that supports residents at each stage of the program and also continues to engage residents and community stakeholders through open space management.
Although this flexible approach may result in piecemeal land acquisition at first, thus impacting post-buyout land use options, over time, communities can obtain larger tracts of open space.
Through community engagement, open space offers an opportunity for residents, government agencies, and other community stakeholders to come together to identify land uses that enhance the mitigative capacity for the area while providing amenities that benefit the community as a whole.
Through these lessons, communities can improve the buyout experience for stakeholders without significant policy and funding changes at the federal level.
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.