If the past is any indication, worsening threats from climate change, like rising seas in South Florida, could take a larger toll on the poor as people are forced to abandon their homes.
In a study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, a team of researchers looked at nearly 30 years worth of data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and found that of the 43,000 properties voluntarily sold around the U.S., most were in neighborhoods with lower incomes, less education and poorer housing.
Buyouts occurred in counties with higher incomes, but the neighborhoods targeted had far fewer resources.
Researchers aren’t sure why the number was higher in poor neighborhoods, but say it calls for the need to pay close attention to equity as the number of buyouts is expected to rise.
“The equity questions must be at the forefront,” said lead author Katharine Mach, a University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science researcher and lead author in the United Nations upcoming sixth climate assessment. “There's real need for evaluation to figure out how well these programs are faring for everyone.”
For the study, the team examined all the voluntary buyouts since 1989 in FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. Most of the grants are administered by counties and local authorities, meaning decisions on what properties are purchased can vary widely. Buyouts occurred in 49 states and three U.S. territories - most in areas with high damage from flooding.
The most purchases in a single county occurred near Houston, in Harris County, where haphazard building codes have allowed heavy development in flood plains.
Florida topped the list in flood-related property damage during the study period, but it ranked 23rd on the list of buyouts. That likely has to do more with how able local governments are able to handle the complicated process that, on average, took a little more than five years to complete. And how much local communities are willing to sell.
“Some communities are really vocally opting in. And we know there are more places that want buyouts than have received them,” Mach said. “But at the same time, there are some communities that...really do not want buyouts and view them as a form of failure to respond to the flooding challenge.”
Buyouts are drawing increasing attention as projections for flooding and other impacts worsen, especially in South Florida. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in September that it’s considering buyouts around Biscayne Bay as part of a plan to fortify cities and neighborhoods against storm surge from hurricanes.
Already, about a million people in 22 countries have been forced to move because of increased flooding and other threats driven by climate change, Mach said. In a previous study, she found between 4 million and 13 million Americans could see their homes go underwater if no change is made in carbon emissions by 2100. Across the planet, the number soars to 200 million, she said.
That’s lead social justice advocates to raise concerns that communities already struggling with poor housing will not be treated equally.
They worry basing flood protection on property values “will just perpetuate the inequitable use of public funds for resilience projects,” said Natalie Barefoot, director of UM Environmental Justice Clinic. “Our concern is that communities that are vulnerable, and that don't have high-income real estate properties, are going to be left behind.”
While this study found no evidence of racial bias in buy-outs, past case studies have shown race playing a part, said co-author Caroline Kraan. One study found Houston owners who identified themselves as white moved from diverse neighborhoods to areas that were predominantly white, she said. She’s conducting a follow-up study to better understand, on a broader scale, what happens to people after their homes are purchased.
Coming up with a general policy for buyouts is also complicated by mitigation plans tailored for specific places that can have varied timelines for when impacts occur. In South Florida alone, Mach said planners are in the midst of stitching together a quilt of responses.
“This is going to be, frankly, hundreds of different interventions that are deployed across the region, in many different communities, with a real need to figure out participatory processes [so that] these are programs that work for everyone,” she said.
Mach said the FEMA progran can provide valuable insight into how to proceed with buyouts.
“We actually see in this incredibly difficult form of managing flood risk that 49 states have deployed buyouts in over one thousand counties across the United States,” she said. “That is a whole lot to learn from in terms of figuring out how we might scale up the program into the future.”
Still, how governments choose to move forward remains “a wide open frontier,” she said. “How do you evaluate success when everyone is going to perceive success differently?” she asked. “How do you evaluate equity, when there is a real potential for the winners to become winners yet again?”