Climate change means more home buyouts ahead. A new study shows they can worsen inequality

In Big Pine Key, one of the areas in the Florida Keys hardest hit by Hurricane Irma, wrecked homes still line the roads nearly nine months later. Some sport ‘for sale’ signs, a popular option on the working class island for those who can’t afford to rebuild.
In Big Pine Key, one of the areas in the Florida Keys hardest hit by Hurricane Irma, wrecked homes still line the roads nearly nine months later. Some sport ‘for sale’ signs, a popular option on the working class island for those who can’t afford to rebuild. aharris@miamiherald.com

As sea levels rise, more and more homeowners will be desperate to sell their flooding homes. And increasingly, they’re expected to turn to an unusual buyer: the federal government.

It’s a form of retreat from climate change, one the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been paying for since 1989 using local governments as the brokers. Economic models suggest buying people out will be the most common tool in poorer, less dense communities, and wealthier places will spend their cash armoring the coast so that residents can fight nature and stay in their homes.

But a study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances showed the last three decades of buyouts actually buck that trend. Of the more than 43,000 properties FEMA has paid to demolish and return to nature, most of them are in rich counties.

That leaves researchers worried that buyouts — traditionally considered a tool to help the most vulnerable adapt to climate change — can actually worsen inequality.

“There is a real potential for our responses in a changing climate to make the fat cats fatter, so to speak, and to be to the detriment of our marginalized front line communities,” said Katharine Mach, an associate professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a co-author on the study.

Part of the reason richer counties tend to do more buyouts could be that the process is difficult and complicated. It’s a strain on smaller governments that don’t have the capacity to arrange to purchase properties, said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center and co-author of the study.

“What about all these small towns along the coast? These smaller places who don’t have dedicated planners or resources,” she said. “These towns are very likely not where we’re going to spend billions to build sea walls or nourish beaches.”

A chart shows flood-prone areas of the US, flood-related property damage and where all FEMA-funded buyouts have happened since the program began in 1989. Science Advances

That pattern is visible in the $75 million Florida buyout program set up after Hurricane Irma. The cash is from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, not FEMA, so it doesn’t fall in the same category as the buyouts the study reviewed.

Although there were hundreds of homes damaged by the hurricane within Miami-Dade County, no cities applied for the program, blaming the small application window and mountain of paperwork needed. The county did apply for unincorporated areas but said the short time period to reach out to the public meant it could only find a handful of applicants.

Buyouts in Miami-Dade, despite its huge population and immense real estate value at risk, aren’t very common. Florida as a whole hasn’t done many compared to Midwestern and Northeastern states, the study found.

The research showed — contrary to popular opinion — buyouts aren’t that common in the states with the most flood damage. Florida tops the charts in billions of dollars in flood damage, but it’s in the middle of the pack when it comes to using buyouts. Florida has only seen 562 FEMA-funded buyouts since 1989, with the biggest buyouts in Volusia (87), Washington (70) and Escambia (60) Counties.

Including a surge after Hurricane Harvey, Houston’s Harris County has reached a record-breaking 2,190 FEMA-funded buyouts since the program began.

Miami-Dade has only ever done two FEMA-funded buyouts, both of which were in North Miami. One of those buyouts is being turned into a demonstration park that absorbs extra floodwater as a way to protect the low-lying community from the impacts of sea rise.

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This time, with its Irma dollars, Miami-Dade plans to buy out 10 properties for $4.5 million, although Chief Resilience Officer Jim Murley said there are likely lots more people who want or need a buyout.

“It’s a handful if you consider the number of people in the county and the short window for public outreach,” he said. “There are many more out there and there are probably even more out there that aren’t officially called repetitive loss but they still flood.”

Demand outstripped availability for the Keys, which had $10 million of the total money pot set aside for buying out homes in the part of the state Irma hit hardest. Monroe County’s final application to the state had 62 applications totaling more than $25 million in project costs. Eleven municipalities applied for buyout money, but the state “is still reviewing the applications” and did not have a total number of property requests to release on Wednesday.

It’s up to the state now to pick which homes get prioritized, although the county commission agreed on a standard that gives extra weight to properties in more vulnerable flood zones and at high risk from sea rise.

Miami-Dade County is applying for federal money to buy out 10 flood-prone homes in unincorporated areas that were damaged by Hurricane Irma. Miami-Dade County

Seas have risen about three inches since the FEMA buyout program began, and massive storms have flooded millions of homes across the country. But despite the growing awareness of sea rise and extreme weather caused by climate change, the researchers found that the number of FEMA-funded buyouts has gone down over time.

“We saw an opposite effect of what you might think has happened in the last few decades,” said Carolien Kraan, a University of Miami Ph.D. student who co-authored the study.

Kraan said fewer properties are bought out annually now, although a relatively larger fraction of those buyouts is happening in coastal communities, particularly in the Northeast.

Despite the recent downtick of buyouts, experts say they’ll be a key tool to adapting to climate change in the future.

Even Miami-Dade is considering more buyouts in the future, although Murley said there isn’t enough data out there for the county to come up with a full strategy and start looking for money. For that, he said, he needs the South Florida Water Management District to complete more “level of service” studies that show how it’s going to handle rising seas.

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In 2016, the county paid for a study of the Arch Creek area that showed the most vulnerable spots and suggested targeted buyouts that left the county with enough land to create a wetland park. Murley called that a “pilot program” for the eventual county-wide plan and said Miami-Dade recently applied for state money to do another study east of Little River.

Experts say it’s impossibly expensive — and impossible — to armor every single coastal city enough to weather climate change. South Florida alone could see six feet of sea rise by 2100. People are going to have to move. Likely, a lot of people. The United States has 49 million housing units in spots vulnerable to sea rise, Siders said.

“And if even one-tenth of that needed to relocate, we’d be talking about orders of magnitude larger than we’ve ever done before with buyouts,” she said. “We’ve only relocated something like forty-five thousand homes.”

Alex Harris covers climate change for the Miami Herald, including how South Florida communities are adapting to the warming world. She attended the University of Florida.