FEMA’s Home Buyout Program Weighted in Bureaucracy, Lacks Equity: Cornell

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As climate change threatens residential areas, a long-running federal home purchase program — designed to eliminate risk to people and property — has become bureaucratically inaccessible and unjust, according to Cornell University researchers.

To offer solutions, the researchers compared federal homebuying policies to regional and state programs, showing that coordinating local strategies at the federal level can make these buyouts more equitable and effective.

“We have a big challenge with a spatial discrepancy between where people live now and where it’s safe for people to live,” said Linda Shi, an assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University. “How do we respond to such a challenge?”

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, runs the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), which accounts for 70% of federally funded home purchases. It has bought more than 43,000 homes since 1989, mostly following a presidential declaration of disaster. The buyouts aim to reduce flood insurance liability and turn the property into green space.

HMGP procedures favor single-family homes, nuclear households, people with clear mortgages, US citizenship and the ability to pass a difficult process, the paper said. Households with reverse mortgages – where the mortgage debt exceeds its pre-disaster market value – are not eligible for a commutation, as such a payment would not resolve the debt.

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The researchers examined five different jurisdictions in New Jersey, Texas, Washington and North Carolina, which provide insight into how to implement buyouts more effectively.

“There are many things that subnational programs have done that the national program could learn from in terms of expanding access to this program,” Shi said. “This includes making it easier to join and participate, expanding access, reducing wait times, making it more transparent, and having peer counselors who can guide homeowners through a complicated and emotional process.”

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The biggest takeaway is that communities need dedicated, long-term programs to make the buyout process more equitable and responsive, Shi said.

“Communities starting over after a disaster don’t have the time or the ability to be as considerate and inclusive,” she said. “FEMA can help communities not only by increasing funding for implementation, but also by building institutions at the state and regional levels.”

This work was supported by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and the Nature Conservancy.

SOURCE: Cornell University

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