Rice University researchers found flood victims accept federal buyouts as long as their new neighborhood is whiter and wealthier than their former. 

Kevin Loughran, a postdoctoral research fellow in Rice University's Department of Sociology, and James Elliott, a Rice professor and the department's chair, tracked where more than 1,700 Harris County residents in the federal buyout program moved between January 2000 and August 2017 (just before Hurricane Harvey). They used the term “environmental mobility”–defined as local, voluntary moves undertaken in the face of imminent environmental risk–to distinguish this type of adaptation from longer-distance and less-voluntary types of movement.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program allows homeowners to relocate from flooded areas by selling their homes to the government. The home is then demolished and the land is restricted for future development, which reduces the number of households at future risk. More than 500 U.S. cities have adopted this program, and it is touted as a cost-effective strategy that can help the National Flood Insurance Program remain fiscally solvent.

Loughran and Elliott found what appears to be driving environmental mobility is less the environmental push of imminent risk (like their homes flooding again), but instead the social pull of "upgrading" the socioeconomic status of one's neighborhood and by extension, its racial composition. 

"For residents of environmentally risky neighborhoods that are already predominantly white, this tendency means a higher likelihood of relocating within the same flood-prone neighborhood or moving to another neighborhood that also has publicly identified flood risks," the report said. "For residents of minority neighborhoods, this pathway is more likely to mean leaving their neighborhood for a whiter one." 

The study found, on average, participants in the Harris County buyout program moved to nearby destinations that were 34% whiter and 32% wealthier than their old neighborhoods.

"Race and class and property are inextricable in the United States and it is not a coincidence that white, wealthy areas have many assets like good schools," Loughran said when asked about whether other neighborhood assets like schools might have been a factor in residents' decisionmaking. "What is interesting to us is how environmental decision-making does *not* seem to be a major factor in resettlement for buyout recipients, given that some were willing to move to buyout areas despite ongoing flood risks as long as these areas were whiter and wealthier than the neighborhoods they came from."

The federal buyout program is solely for homeowners, and currently there isn't a program for renters, who are the majority of residents in Harris County.

"We absolutely need to come up with better ways to assist renters," Elliott said. "If the buyout program itself cannot be expanded to non-property owners, we need to develop other complementary programs to help renters while not incentivizing large developers to build and maintain rental properties in harm’s way."

"The buyout program must be part of a much larger, more comprehensive regional planning effort that improves the area’s ability to live its watery future," Elliott said. "To be truly effective that plan will need to become not only more efficient but more equitable."

The research draws on a dataset assembled by Loughran and Elliott, with assistance from Allison Yelvington from Rice and Aubrey Calaway from Brown University. The original dataset compromised of 3,076 buyouts, and researchers were able to locate 75 percent of the destination addresses for individual (noncorporate) participants. This dataset enabled an address-level analysis of environmental mobility for the first time in social-scientific research.