Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit

Equitable Opportunities for Relocation in Response to Disasters

Given the growing threat of impacts from climate change, like sea-level rise, wildfires, and the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, communities are increasingly confronting difficult questions regarding how to address risks to existing residents. Relocation should be considered for those low-lying communities located along the ocean, Gulf, or along tidal waterbodies or those frequently flooded along riverbanks as well as communities hit hard and repeatedly by major hurricanes or wildfires. In order for relocation through “managed retreat” to be equitable, residents should have the opportunity to be a part of planning for their own relocation. Those who are in “receiving communities” should also be engaged in conversations about the effects of relocation of others into their communities through gentrification and other efforts. To address these emerging challenges, state and local governments are beginning to consider and implement responses to threats that help move communities out of harm’s way where other adaptation strategies are not an option and where communities are supportive of relocation measures.

While difficult legally, physically, culturally, and emotionally, there are multiple ways people may leave their communities behind. One common way in a post-disaster context is through a buyout program. A buyout is defined as the set of actions whereby a government generally purchases a property, demolishes existing structures on the property, and prohibits future development (e.g., through deed restrictions or a conservation easement), and allows the property to naturally revert to open space (or be restored to specific environmental conditions depending on varying degrees of human intervention) in perpetuity. While buyouts can have benefits for communities and individuals in harm’s way, there are also ways they, and post-disaster relocations generally, can be made more equitable. Since buyouts are a common and frequently used tool, they are discussed further in the table below.

This section includes examples of how to ensure an equitable approach to relocation in response to disasters. To implement equitable relocation, policymakers will need to develop strategies in collaboration with the communities affected by recurring climate-related impacts to help residents relocate to safer locations in ways that maintain meaningful social connections and provide needed services, housing, and jobs. On the other hand, many marginalized communities, often relegated to areas once deemed undesirable decades ago through policies like redlining, are now being displaced from their communities as environmental amenities like natural resilience features and higher ground are being sought after by wealthier new neighbors. No community should be unfairly and involuntarily displaced by climate disasters or by environmental projects, and creating equitable opportunities for informed, transparent, and collaborative relocation should consider both of these scenarios: The need for support for the safe relocation of low-income individuals and vulnerable communities and the implications of gentrification in relatively safer locations due to in-migration driven by climate impacts. 

Considerations of Equitable Opportunities for Relocation in Response to Disasters


  • Disaster prone areas may begin to experience an exodus of investment as investors begin to see the risk of loss in certain communities.
  • Market forces drive gentrification and often leave frontline communities behind when it comes to reaping benefits. 
  • Funding for buyout programs is often only available in a post-disaster context. 
  • There is a need for more types of sustainable funding sources for disaster recovery efforts through state, local, and public-private partnerships (PPPs) to facilitate better transitions for people. 
  • Making relocations more equitable can be extremely expensive, so it will be essential to leverage funding from a variety of different sectors. 
  • Returning a disaster-prone area to nature via a buyout can create park and recreation opportunities for a community, and support more natural ecosystem resilience. There may be funding opportunities available to return the land to its original natural state. 
  • Governments should provide support for buyout participants to help them move to more resilient and safer areas that meet their individual needs.


  • Governments administering buyout programs can restore natural environments in buyout areas, which can help to build natural resilience. Constructing green infrastructure projects including “living shorelines” can help to buffer communities from sea-level rise and climate events such as hurricanes. 
  • Developing receiving communities with amenities like public open spaces and natural infrastructure can help to ensure that communities are better off/safer in new locations.


  • Equitable relocation programs should be focused primarily on frontline communities that are disproportionately affected by disaster events. 
  • Communities disproportionately burdened by climate gentrification should be offered first priority to remain rooted in their communities with affordable housing options
  • The heart of successful buyout and relocation programs is that they are built from the ground up, and start with the community itself asking for assistance.
  • The community should be involved in the design of relocation programs and the consideration of alternatives before a buyout is even offered as a solution to a resident who has a choice of whether to participate in a buyout or not.
  • It will be important for any individual who chooses to relocate to be provided with opportunities to ensure a more equitable transition to ideally a more resilient community and home.


  • Buyout programs can be complex, especially when they involve mass buyouts of entire communities. 
  • Communities should decide together that they are willing to relocate. 
  • Receiving communities should be carefully planned to meet the many needs of the relocated community members.
  • Government agencies and policymakers can act as funders and facilitators of the relocation process, allowing community members to guide their own terms and participation in a buyout program. 
  • After relocation, local municipalities and agencies will likely need to work with nonprofits, businesses, etc. to ensure that the natural environment is restored, monitored, and utilized in a way that acts as an amenity, e.g., a stormwater management solution.


  • Local governments need tools that help them evaluate risks and develop legally viable approaches.
  • These programs should be voluntary. Offering incentives and support is the only equitable way to implement a buyout or relocation program. 

Lessons Learned

  • Forced relocation is not a good or fair option and proactive planning for risks with community input will help to ensure that forced relocation is not the result.
  • Larger scale buyouts present better opportunities for environmental restoration and associated community benefits. Where multiple homeowners or entire neighborhoods are interested in relocating together or through phased buyout processes, multiple, rather than single buyouts can help maximize these benefits and avoid checkerboarding.
  • Policymakers implementing a buyout or relocation effort must involve the community early and often throughout the process, ideally before a disaster strikes. Communities are much less likely to be willing to relocate if the government demands or requires that they do so. When a buyout program begins from the ground up, and policymakers are involved as facilitators, people become more open to the idea of relocating together. 
  • In practice, buyout or relocation programs usually occur after a disaster event has hit a particular community. Policymakers hoping to implement a relocation or buyout program need to conduct outreach and educational efforts to inform community members before an event of the risks that they face based on where they live, and the benefits of relocating to a more environmentally resilient and safe area.


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