Blueprint of a Buyout: Harris County, Texas

Harris County’s program may be a harbinger of the future, when Americans are displaced by flooding and frustrated by the uncertainties of relocation assistance.

A stop sign stands above a flooded suburban street. In the background, a two-story home is flooded up to its front door and a water line on the side of the building reaches the first-story windows.

Flooding in a suburb of Houston, Texas, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.

Credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Glenn Fawcett.

NRDC’s new report Going Under: Long Wait Times for Post-Flood Buyouts Leave Homeowners Underwater highlights the long timelines of FEMA-funded home buyouts. During a buyout, local or state governments purchase flood-damaged properties from willing sellers at pre-flood values and preserve the land as open space. But once a property is included in a request for FEMA funding, homeowners can be kept in limbo for years, waiting to find out if their homes will be purchased.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Roy Wright (FEMA’s deputy administrator for mitigation and insurance) said, “I’m working with my team and lawyers on ways I can move [buyouts] to the front. The point is, I’m not going to pay someone to redo their house, then re-buy it.” But long wait times mean that homes are often repaired and rebuilt over and over, even when the residents would prefer to move—wasting time, money, and an opportunity to reduce risk, not to mention adding to the stress and trauma of flood survivors.

In this blog series, we’ll take a closer look at some existing buyout programs and how they are affected by these long timelines.

Even in localities with extensive buyout experience—like Harris County, TX, where over 3,000 properties were approved for FEMA-funded buyouts between 1995 and 2018—the process can still take years to complete. Even before Hurricane Harvey struck in August 2017, there were more than 1,000 people on a buyout waiting list due to previous flooding in the area.

The Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) website tries to set expectations. “Although some grant funds are made available after a disaster declaration, these buyout grants do not provide immediate flood recovery assistance,” it says, in bold italic type. “These programs typically take eight to twelve months after the flood event to even get started, and then may take place over a period of many years following a flood event.”

Two years after Hurricane Harvey struck Harris County, 420 properties have been acquired through HCFCD's post-Harvey program, out of about 1,100 approved properties selected from 4,000 residents who volunteered for buyouts. At its current pace, it will take years for HCFCD just to work through the list of currently approved properties.  

County staff recognize the challenges caused by this slow pace. An article from August 2018 quotes HCFCD property acquisitions manager James Wade: “I know if it's frustrating for us, for the general public, I'm sure it's much more frustrating. If I was a homeowner who just had four feet of water in my house, I don't want to hear that it's going to take at least ten months.”

The same article describes how the long timeframes, in combination with a lack of affordable housing and low home values in flood-prone neighborhoods, make buyouts a less practical solution for low-income people and people of color. Meanwhile, thousands of Houston-area homeowners have given up on buyouts and sold to investors or developers—passing the risk of flooding on to the next resident like a dangerous game of musical chairs.

In August 2018, on the one-year anniversary of Harvey, Harris County voters approved a $2.5 billion bond measure to finance stormwater and flood protection efforts. The bond includes $184 million for buyouts, which will be added to outside funding to support what may be the nation’s largest-ever post-flood buyout project. But how fast will flood-weary residents receive those buyouts? That remains to be seen.

Harris County’s program may be a harbinger of the future, when more and more Americans are displaced by rising seas and more frequent floods and frustrated by the long delays and uncertainties that are hallmarks of efforts to provide buyouts and relocation assistance. It is clear that a different buyout model is needed if places like Harris County are going to efficiently and equitably help move the growing number of flood-prone residents to higher ground.

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