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

Economic

  • 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.

Environmental

  • 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.

Social/Equity

  • 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.

Administrative

  • 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.

Legal

  • 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.

 

Related Resources

 
Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE) Adaptation Strategies

Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE) is a community-based planning and capital investment process that will help the state fund and implement several projects, including for managed retreat, to make its coasts more resilient. In 2016, Louisiana’s Office for Community Development–Disaster Recovery Unit received a nearly $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the National Disaster Resilience Competition and additional state and nongovernmental funds to implement LA SAFE. The grant supports the design and implementation of ten resilience projects to address impacts in six coastal parishes that were affected by Hurricane Isaac in 2012 (Jefferson, Lafourche, Plaquemines, St. John the Baptist, St. Tammany, and Terrebonne). Community engagement has served as the foundation for developing the projects. To ensure effective community engagement, the state has trained community members to facilitate public meetings, translated materials for non-English speakers, and offered childcare and other resources to increase the accessibility of the meetings for all community members. Building on LA SAFE’s community-driven framework for adaptation and the ten state-funded projects, the state is continuing to work with the six parishes to mainstream and institutionalize adaptation and resilience at both the regional and parish levels. In May 2019, the state released a regional adaptation strategy and six parish-level strategies to support long-term adaptation planning. Each strategy follows LA SAFE’s framework for identifying projects to meet different adaptation and development goals based on flood risk to ensure that future regional and local projects are similarly designed to advance comprehensive approaches. These strategies will assist the parishes to develop and invest in additional projects that will be more resilient to coastal impacts over the state's 50-year planning horizon and achieve multiple benefits for communities. These strategies can serve as an example for other state, regional, and local jurisdictions considering long-term, comprehensive planning for adaptation and managed retreat.

Anticipated Vulnerabilities: Displacement and Migration in the Age of Climate Change

When Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in September of 2017, thousands of its inhabitants were forced to flee their homes - many of whom ended up in the City of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Between 2017 and 2018, over 5,400 people moved from Puerto Rico to Holyoke. In the years that followed, the city and partners at Hunter College and the University of Connecticut surveyed these families, intending to learn what aspects worked in response to their displacement and resettlement. Officials also hoped to assess how other cities could duplicate the incorporation of Puerto Rican climate migrants into Holyoke as more frequent climate events displace additional communities in the coming years. In 2019, Hunter College at the City University of New York and the University of Connecticut, in partnership with the City of Holyoke, Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, released the report Anticipated Vulnerabilities: Displacement and Migration in the Age of Climate Change. The purpose of the report is to assess the Holyoke’s capacity to respond to an influx of climate migrants and how to better prepare for such an influx. The report includes an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the city’s responses and provides recommendations on how Holyoke and similar cities can better support climate migrants relocating after future disaster events.  

Managing the Retreat from Rising Seas — State of New Jersey: Blue Acres Buyout Program

Established in 1995, the New Jersey Blue Acres Buyout Program is a nationally recognized example of a longstanding, state-run buyout program. Blue Acres works closely with municipalities throughout the state to identify privately owned properties that are routinely threatened or flooded due to sea-level rise and more frequent weather events. The program’s experience with buyouts positioned the state to respond quickly to purchase properties from willing residents in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The program works directly with local governments to prioritize comprehensive buyouts of affected neighborhoods, instead of individual properties, and restores and protects the properties to maximize the flood and cost-reduction benefits for communities and the environment. To encourage community participation, the program holds informational meetings and door-to-door outreach campaigns to educate people about the program. Also, to ensure that all communities have equal opportunities to participate, the program has a staff from diverse agencies to serve local needs, such as caseworkers who work directly with participants in each buyout area, and a financial team that negotiates mortgage forgiveness with banks and other financial lenders on behalf of homeowners. Originally established with several rounds of bond funding, Blue Acres has also received federal disaster recovery funding following Hurricane Sandy and has since transitioned to a more sustainable source of funding through legislation setting aside a portion of the state’s corporate business tax.

Minot, North Dakota Floodplain Buyouts and Affordable, Resilient Housing “Buy-In” Program

The City of Minot, North Dakota will implement a voluntary buyout program for homes most vulnerable to flooding along the Souris River and make resilient, affordable housing investments in higher, upland “Resilient Neighborhoods” located outside of the city’s floodplain to relocate homeowners and renters. The program prioritizes eligibility for low- and moderate-income buyers to ensure all residents have equal access to this program. Minot’s unique “buyouts for buy-in” model helps to preserve the city’s tax base and community cohesion, especially benefitting its most vulnerable residents. The city was awarded $74.3 million through its National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) to implement several projects to improve the city’s resilience to flooding from the Souris River specifically in response to the June 2011 catastrophic flood. The flood, in combination with a “boom-bust” oil economy and lack of affordable housing, motivated the city to envision a more resilient future for its residents, economy, and environment. The city will also undertake projects to restore the floodplain, preserve open space, create recreational greenways, and provide resilient city hubs that offer economic job development and other services. Projects will be implemented between 2017 and 2022. Local policymakers and planners can consider the Minot example to equitably relocate people and development out of vulnerable flood or coastal areas to safer, higher ground as a part of comprehensive managed retreat strategies.

Post-Disaster Community Investments in Lumberton Through the North Carolina State Acquisition and Relocation Fund for Buyout Relocation Assistance

Lumberton, North Carolina provides one example of how state funding for relocation assistance can help support local buyouts and community investments in underserved communities. In the fall of 2016, Hurricane Matthew devastated the small community of Lumberton when the Lumber River flooded over 870 households, as well as a number of businesses. As the city was beginning to recover, only two years later, Lumberton was hit a second time by Hurricane Florence, resulting in damage to over 500 structures. The lower-income neighborhoods were hit severely because of the back-to-back disasters. As of 2019, Lumberton is seeking to leverage several grants and funding programs, including North Carolina’s State Acquisition and Relocation Fund (SARF), to rebuild the low-income communities and provide residents with relocation assistance to obtain new homes in Lumberton through a state-local partnership. Specifically, with funding from SARF, the local government is considering opportunities to invest in new homes in one existing but underserved neighborhood of Lumberton that can offer a safer location for bought-out residents’ homes. As SARF and the ongoing work in Lumberton demonstrate, state and local governments can support voluntary, post-disaster transitions of people and minimize negative impacts to individuals, communities, and local tax bases from buyouts by reinvesting in underserved areas within their municipalities.

City of Miami, Florida Resolution on Climate Gentrification

On November 5, 2018, the Mayor of Miami signed a resolution directing city staff to research the effects of “climate gentrification” on low-income communities that are inland at higher elevations, and to explore ways to stabilize property taxes to reduce displacement. The City of Miami, Florida is seeing high rates of sea-level rise and increasing incidence of nuisance flooding in low-lying parts of the city. Higher elevation areas of the city, which house many of the city’s lower- and moderate-income communities, are seeing greater development pressures, which are affecting property values and taxes. Higher tax rates and real estate speculation result in higher housing costs that have the potential to displace lower-income homeowners and renters. The Resolution acknowledges these threats causing “climate gentrification” and directs city staff to identify policy solutions to lessen its negative impact. The Resolution directs the City Manager and city staff to research how climate change may cause gentrification and displacement in areas “that exhibit low Area Median Income rates and higher topographic elevations.” The resolution further directs research on options for stabilizing property tax rates so that “residents who wish to remain in affected neighborhoods can do so.”

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