After an ominously slow start to hurricane season, September was a disaster-filled and devastating month. Hurricanes Fiona and Ian wreaked havoc across Puerto Rico and Florida: five years after Hurricane Maria, catastrophic flooding will bring an already slow recovery to a grinding halt. Not far away, the western coast of The Sunshine State saw the most destructive storm in nearly a century.
Even before Ian, the recent 25th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew raised awareness of how hurricane season is becoming more dangerous and how unprepared we are. Despite growing threats, an increasing number of people are moving to high risk areas. In some areas, flood prone homes are a form of Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing (NOAH), with below average market prices and rents compared to other parts of the country. However, living in a flood zone doesn’t come without its costs.
Limited mandatory flood disclosure laws in real estate mean that many buyers are left unaware of their risks. Flood-related mortality is on the rise. Every year, people lose their lives due to miscommunication and misunderstanding of the risks of living in floodplains, the increasing severity of flash flooding, and a lack of public safety and emergency management information. Flood damaged properties can breed mold, leading to respiratory infections, asthma and other serious health complications. “Grandfathered” insurance policies may make buyers feel they are getting a deal, but living through a disaster can bankrupt a household living paycheck to paycheck. As a result, low income households are not only put in positions of highest risk, but they are more likely to suffer financially when disaster strikes, with limited savings to help them recover.
Insurance as a trojan horse
Insurance may be an important part of addressing increasing climate risks for some households, but it will not solve the problem. Insurance payouts do provide some financial relief but are rarely enough to cover all damages, especially if owners only carry the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) flood insurance, and not supplemental insurance such as wind. Unfortunately, small providers of these policies can easily go under after a bad year. For example, in the nine months after Hurricane Ida in 2021, at least seven insurance companies in Louisiana failed and left the state, leaving more than 30,000 homeowners without support. Lack of insurance, high associated costs for repairs, and growing consumer wariness of climate impacts on real estate may lead to depreciating home values.
The potential collapse of housing markets in such communities could leave thousands of homeowners across hurricane-prone states completely stranded. We call these market collapses, “unmanaged retreats,” unlike the enormously unpopular managed retreat programs that face massive backlash and resistance across the country. In theory, managed retreat facilitates the proactive relocation of assets and infrastructure out of high risk areas, providing owners with a buyout to relocate somewhere safer. Although such buyout programs are not new (FEMA has implemented over 40,000 since the 1980s) they face massive hurdles such as long wait times, poor communication, and racially-inequitable outcomes. Likewise, the national affordable housing crisis means that many households have no place to go. New relocation assistance programs that center equity are imperative to helping people adapt in such challenging times.
How Buy-In is making home buyouts more equitable
We started Buy-In Community Planning to improve the home buyout process for individuals and communities, partnering directly with community organizations to ensure residents have the information they need to understand their risks and evaluate relocation options to protect their families’ physical, emotional, and financial security. In our work to date, conversations with flood-affected residents reinforce that people understand their risks but often face significant barriers to relocating. Some of these barriers may be social relationships and connections to places that can span generations. But other barriers are more malicious - such as how policies like redlining and industrial siting put toxic sites in BIPOC communities, which depresses home value, and creates significant health disparities. Now, due to climate change, these communities face higher risks of flooding as well, both from overland flows as well as rising groundwater levels that are bringing toxic chemicals to the surface.
For these communities, providing relocation assistance goes beyond cutting a check. It’s about recognizing and validating the lived experience of people who have suffered through the harms of environmental injustice and building truly community-led programs and processes that build agency through adaptation. Providing subsidized insurance policies as the only option for improving resilience is not a sufficient way to ensure the health, safety, and security of communities on the frontlines of environmental change. And traditional buyout programs won't do it alone either - Housing reparations for communities living in redlined neighborhoods affected by flooding could be one way to provide the capital needed to help residents relocate permanently out of harm's way and into the safe and secure housing of their choice.
Following the principles of Environmental Justice, Buy-In is also dedicated to improving the health of our non-human world. We have committed to helping restore bought out land into open spaces like wetland ecosystems which provide critical benefits like improving water quality, providing species biodiversity, and cycling carbon. Through this holistic approach, we seek to work towards healing many of the environmental injustices and climate traumas in partnership with residents and local leaders faced with the difficult decision of whether to stay or go in the face of mounting risk.
One Million Moves: Connecting Domestic Climate Migrants to Relocation Resources
Since its inception, Buy-In Community Planning has been working primarily with existing Environmental Justice, Climate Justice, and frontline Community Based Organization partners to understand local demand for relocation assistance and develop strategies for overcoming the barriers to voluntary relocation. With our local partners, we are mobilizing a truly grassroots effort for getting targeted support to households who need it most. Likewise, after being chosen as a 2021 Solver for the Resilient Ecosystems Challenge, Buy-In has been fortunate to work with mentors like Hanni Ali from Hamilton Insurance Group who have helped us identify new ways to bring more buy-in to the buyout process across the private and public sector. Through the support of General Motors Climate Equity Fund, Buy-In is launching One Million Moves this year, an initiative to reach one million flood affected households by 2030. One Million Moves will build a national database of relocation assistance support to raise awareness of the need for supported relocation services and target rehousing resources to the people who need it most.
If you’re interested in learning more about this year’s Global Challenges or how you might submit your own solution, sign up for Solve’s newsletter.