In the days and weeks after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, 4,000 people signed up to have their homes bought out by Harris County. Of those 4,000, approximately 1,000 met the Harris County Flood Control District’s eligibility requirements. Now, nearly one year later, only a dozen or so have actually finished the long and arduous process.
If the buyout process seems complicated, it’s because it is. Most post-disaster buyouts are funded by grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that start trickling down from the federal government in the months and even years after a natural disaster like Harvey. Most homeowners don’t see the money until 12-24 months after they volunteer for a buyout program.
During those months, homeowners eligible for buyouts are shuffled between agencies such as the HCFCD, Harris County Community Services Department and the Real Property Division of the county’s Engineering Department. To be eligible, a homeowner must have flood insurance and live in an area that’s “hopelessly deep” in the floodplain; the source of flooding must be a bayou or one of its tributaries. Buyouts are used when other methods of flood mitigation — say, infrastructure improvements or elevating houses — aren’t possible or cost effective. Post-Harvey, the myriad of agencies involved have designated 70 priority areas, including Greenspoint, Northeast Houston, Independence Heights, Inwood and Braeburn Glen.
A barrage of inspectors, appraisers and other county employees go through every house to verify eligibility, income and pre-storm home value. According to data from ProPublica, buyouts from Hurricanes Ike and Rita were still happening six years after the storms.
“I know if it's frustrating for us, for the general public, I'm sure it's much more frustrating,” said James Wade, who manages property acquisitions for HCFCD. “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.”
Wade estimates that by the time his department is able to make an official offer on homes, approximately 200 buyout volunteers, or 20 percent, have already sold their home or started repairs and decided to stay.
But for low-income minority communities, which historically struggle more to recover from disasters, buyouts can be especially promising — and especially difficult to execute.
In Independence Heights, for example, community organizers are encouraging their neighbors to resist buyout offers. As the first African-American founded city in Texas, which was later annexed by the City of Houston, many homeowners here value historical preservation and property ownership above the county’s cost-benefit analysis. Though the area has flooded multiple times in the past decade, only a dozen homes have been bought out by the Flood Control District since 2002.
Housing advocates and experts say that a truly equitable buyout plan involves a lot more than just a pre-storm value offer. They want to see financial incentives, an increase in affordable housing stock and cultural sensitivity.
Financially, Harris County’s buyout program had been steadily improving. An analysis of the ProPublica data and historic home values from Zillow shows that houses in the zip code most frequently bought out after Tropical Storm Allison were purchased for nearly $15,000 less than the median home value in that area. After Hurricane Ike, houses in that same zip code were purchased for $31,000 more than the neighborhood’s median home value.
HCFCD offers homeowners up to $31,000 on top of pre-storm home value to cover the cost of a comparable home in a nicer, less flood-prone area; Renters get a supplement of up to $7,900. Combined with “incentive funding” from the Community Services Department for low- to moderate-income homeowners, these bonuses are meant to help level the playing field for people being bought out of historically undervalued neighborhoods.
But, by late 2016, when buyouts from the Tax Day Floods started to happen, houses in the zip code most frequently bought out were purchased for $50,000 less than the neighborhood’s median home value. Post-Harvey data is not yet available, but so far HCFCD has been awarded $103 million for buyouts. The agency hopes to get a total of $218 million in federal dollars and local matching to complete the 1,000 eligible buyouts.
This week even more buyout funding is on the ballot. Buyout projects make up more than $735 million of the $2.5 billion flood control bond referendum that’s up for a vote on Aug. 25. If approved, more than 3,500 additional buildings could be bought out.
JT Harechmak, an analyst at the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, advocates for a more comprehensive, and costly, buyout plan.
“You need to pay people a fair price for [their] house that encourages some kind of collateral-to-upward mobility,” Harechmak said. “You need to support people through that process with community engagement that fosters trust and centers the people who are surviving this disaster. Then you need to have an eye towards what that's done your housing stock and if it means you need to produce a bunch more affordable housing or incentivize much more affordable housing, that's going to have a price tag too.”
In terms of affordable housing, Houston’s track record isn’t great. Hurricane Ike prompted a $45 million grant for affordable housing yet, 10 years later, only 154 units have been built with that money. In that time, housing advocates have prevented affordable housing from being built in low-income neighborhoods in an effort to break the cycle of racial and economic segregation. Meanwhile, local politicians have acquiesced to pressure from constituents to block building plans in wealthier parts of the city.
A 2016 study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University found that 47 percent of renters in Houston are considered cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing; nearly a quarter of Houston renters pay more than 50 percent. To compound the problem, the Houston Coalition for the Homeless estimated that Hurricane Harvey damaged more than 1,000 affordable housing units.
Earlier this year, the Houston Housing Authority estimated there are 400,000 Houstonians vying for only 60,000 affordable units.
The Community Services Department, which handles buyouts exclusively for low-income homeowners, plans to build more single- and multi-family affordable housing with post-Harvey grant funding, but they’re at least a year away from breaking ground. This month, the Houston City Council approved $6.7 million in funding for additional new single-family affordable housing construction.
Despite the county’s efforts, buyouts can still be particularly burdensome for communities of color.
“The amount of money that a homeowner might get from a buyout is born of the kind of neighborhood that they live in, and we know that home values are affected by neighborhood racial composition,” said Amanda Martin, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, who is writing her dissertation on buyouts in African-American communities.
Martin has also found that though buyouts may be beneficial for the individual homeowner, they interrupt important social networks and can decimate the larger community. Often homeowners provide economic stability for poor neighborhoods, and when they’re bought out, those they leave behind begin to struggle even more. Martin recalled interviewing one buyout participant who carpooled to work with his neighbors every day. Once he moved away, his neighbors lost their jobs because he was their only ride to work.
In the context of Houston, neighborhoods that have been marred by disinvestment and other systemic injustices are wary of buyout propositions.
“You’re letting people lay slabs of concrete in certain places but now you want to make our neighborhood green space?” said Tanya Debose, who heads the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council. “So where are these people going to live? The amount of money you’re going to give them isn’t going to be enough to buy a home within the city limits and not owe anything on it, like they do now.”
The median purchase price of those twelve homes previously bought out in Independence Heights is less than $74,000.
When asked if there was any sort of buyout program that could be effective and sensitive in neighborhoods like Independence Heights, Debose gave a firm no. She views it as “the easy way out” — it’s cost effective for the county to buy out lower-priced properties, but it can come at the expense of homeowners often with nowhere else to go.