Report: Harris County buyouts of flooded homes have been less than strategic

A new study by The Nature Conservancy and Texas A&M University says it's more cost effective to buy out homes in clusters instead of an uncoordinated, checkerboard approach.

People walk along the Barker Reservoir Dam in Houston on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Torrential rains from Hurricane Harvey caused the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release water from the reservoir, aggravating flooding in neighborhoods below the dam.

Long after the rains stopped and floodwaters receded, thousands of Texans whose homes were flooded by Hurricane Harvey tried to participate in buyout programs that would help diminish the property damage of future floods.

And while some homeowners have taken advantage, these buyouts did not always happen in the most strategic possible way, according to a new report by Texas A&M University and The Nature Conservancy.

Historically, experts and politicians have seen buyouts as essential to disaster recovery, a means to avoid repeated flooding and to take chronically flooded homes and transform those lots into open space to improve drainage. Looking at more than 74,000 Harris County properties, researchers studied current buyout practices there and saw an uncoordinated, checkerboard approach. To avoid a future patchwork of vacant lots, the study endorses a clustered buyout approach.

The Nature Conservancy and Texas A&M University study says a clustering of buyout properties can still be cost effective for communities and has the added benefit of nearby green spaces, like parks and protected areas. It's easier, the study says, to manage “fewer, larger areas with multiple functions rather than scattered, empty lots.” The idea is that those open spaces could become sites for outdoor recreation or land to absorb storm water.

"By developing an approach that promotes the clustering of homes in proximity to open spaces, you can combine a nature-based solution with smart development," said Lily Verdone, director of Freshwater and Marine at The Nature Conservancy.

Verdone said Harris County is "advanced in what they're doing," but adds there is a better way to do buyouts.

But in Harris County, which has had its own buyout program since the 1980s, the process is no simple matter.

Officials at the Harris County Flood Control District — the main entity managing buyouts in the Houston area — say a clustered buyout approach, while preferred, isn't always possible. That's because the district, when using grant dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, must have voluntary participation from homeowners. They don't always receive it.

There are 72 areas in Harris County where the district is focusing its buyout efforts. In those areas, roughly 30 percent of the 9,000 identified properties there have been purchased by the district over time. James Wade, the district's acquisitions manager, said a checkerboard pattern can emerge when some homeowners decide to do repairs and stay in their homes, while others participate in a buyout program.

"There are going to be folks who don't want to sell for various reasons," Wade said. "We do encourage them to reconsider, but when using federal FEMA grant dollars, the program has to be voluntary."

Wade said their program is "happening in a coordinated effort."

He adds there are always more voluntary sellers than available funds. Of the 4,000 property owners who've volunteered so far, just over a quarter of that have been approved for the district's buyout program. Of those, 200 have had their homes purchased. Hundreds more buyouts are in progress.

Harris County residents face a high degree of uncertainty when it comes to buyouts because of the complex eligibility criteria the district uses. The district prioritizes buyouts in neighborhoods where flooding cannot be fixed through engineering and areas that are several feet deep in the floodplain.

Once they've been bought by the district, structures can never again be developed as private property.

In August, Harris County voters overwhelming approved a $2.5 billion bond measure to finance more than 230 flood-control projects. Included is the largest flood-related home buyout program in U.S. history.

Buying out severely damaged properties was also one of several recommendations listed in a December report by the Commission to Rebuild Texas, which Gov. Greg Abbott authorized to prepare Texans for the next major storm.

“Buyouts are complicated and being impacted over and over again by flooding is a frustrating, time-intensive thing,” Verdone said. “This [study] is important for anybody to read, from homeowners in Harris County to policymakers at the federal level and all of that in between.”

Disclosure: The Nature Conservancy and the Texas A&M University System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.