Property Buyouts and Hazard Mitigation: Old Ideas, Old Concerns About Equity

Land acquisition (or property “buyouts”) has become a key tool in hazard mitigation and resilience planning. At a basic level, land acquisition programs aim to reduce disaster risk by removing development from hazard exposed land and protecting it from future development. These properties are typically returned to a natural state and sometime used for low-intensity recreational uses like bike paths or parks. In Colorado, for instance, jurisdictions have established land acquisition programs with the intention of establishing public control over ‘repetitive loss’ properties and other properties that are highly exposed to natural hazards. FEMA (through the 404 program) and HUD (through Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) grants) both fund voluntarily property acquisition programs, and have spent billions of dollars over the past couple of decades in places like Houston and New York.

These programs raise important equity concerns. A whole lot of communities with low-incomes and affordable housing are located on hazardous land, especially floodplains, for reasons of historical racism and the dynamics of private property markets. When we purchase affordable housing to protect future populations from disasters, we might be trading one type of vulnerability for another. Are the households being “bought out” able to afford to stay in their communities and keep their social networks intact? Are they able to afford housing that is less exposed to hazards? When we take affordable housing out of the system, are we replacing it elsewhere to avoid cost escalations for households with low-incomes, generally?

These are important questions, and not new ones. Recently, one of our graduate planning students (Alex Hemmer) was doing research on his hometown of Cincinnati and came across this report on the 1913 Ohio Valley Flood. This paragraph was especially interesting:

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As this report shows, the idea of property acquisition for hazard mitigation has been around a long time, as have the equity concerns that accompany them. The report also makes you shake your head a bit. After 106 years, have we really only come this far? (if that question interests you, highly recommend the Greer and Binder piece linked below).

Lastly, there has been some terrific research recently on property ‘buyout’ programs post-disaster. I am linking a few of my favorites below, but am interested to hear your recommendations:

Binder, S.B. and Greer, A. (2016). The devil is in the details: Linking home buyout policy, practice and experience after Hurricane Sandy. Politics and Governance.

Gotham, K.F. (2014). Reinforcing Inequalities: The Impact of the CDBG Program on Post-Katrina Rebuilding. Housing Policy Debate.

Greer, A. and Binder, S.B. (2017). A Historical Assessment of Home Buyout Policy: Are We Learning or Just Failing? Housing Policy Debate.