Administration Pressing Cities to Evict Homeowners from Flood Zones

The federal government is giving local officials nationwide a painful choice: Agree to use eminent domain to force people out of flood-prone homes, or forfeit a shot at federal money they need to combat climate change.

Source: New York Times | Published on March 12, 2020

Superstorm Sandy

That choice, part of an effort by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect people from disasters, is facing officials from the Florida Keys to the New Jersey coast, including Miami, Charleston, S.C., and Selma, Ala. Local governments seeking federal money to help people leave flood zones must first commit to push out people who refuse to move.

In one city in the heartland, the letters have already started going out.

Last year, Giovanni Rodriguez, whose white midcentury house backs onto a creek in the southern suburbs of Nashville, got a letter saying his home “is eligible for participation in a floodplain home buyout program.” The surprise came a few lines lower: If necessary, the city “would acquire properties through the use of eminent domain.”

Mr. Rodriguez, a 39-year-old freelance musician and composer of funk, R&B and Latin jazz, said he had no interest in selling — at least not for what the city is offering, which he said wasn’t much more than the $188,500 he paid for the home in 2013. “I would lose this house that I love,” he said.

Eminent domain — the government’s authority to take private property, with compensation, for public use — has long been viewed as too blunt a tool for getting people out of disaster-prone areas. It has a controversial history: Local governments have used it to tear down African-American neighborhoods, as well as to build freeways and other projects over residents’ objections. Even when the purpose of eminent domain is seen as legitimate, elected officials are generally loathe to evict people.

Still, in a sign of how serious the threat of climate change has become, some local governments have told the Corps they will do so if necessary, according to documents obtained through public records requests and interviews with officials. Other cities have yet to decide, saying they feel torn between two bad options.

The willingness to use eminent domain shows how quickly the discussion around climate has shifted. Even as President Trump publicly dismisses the scientific consensus of climate change, his administration is wrestling with how to move people out of the way of rising seas and increasingly intense rainfall.

Still, threatening to push people out of their houses is an extreme step, experts said.

“It’s going to create a really big political backlash,” said A.R. Siders, a professor at the University of Delaware who studies buyouts. Still, she praised the Corps for “recognizing that the degree of action we’re taking needs to match the degree of the crisis.”

The Corps’ mission includes protecting Americans from flooding and coastal storms. It does that in different ways, including building sea walls, levees and other protections, and elevating homes. The Corps generally pays two-thirds of the cost, which can stretch into billions of dollars. The local government usually pays the rest.

As that risk grows because of climate change, the Corps has shifted toward paying local governments to buy and demolish homes at risk of flooding. The logic is that the only surefire way to guarantee the homes won’t flood again is if they no longer exist. But it also uproots people and can destroy communities.

As a result, federally funded buyouts have usually been voluntary; residents could decline. But at the end of 2015, the Corps said that voluntary programs were “not acceptable” and that all future buyout programs “must include the option to use eminent domain, where warranted.”

The consequences are now coming into view. In 2018, following a string of devastating hurricanes, Congress gave the Corps money to plan flood-control projects in more than three dozen cities and counties. Many of them now face a difficult decision — a dilemma the Corps saw coming.

“I know what we’re saying” when asking cities to evict people, Jeremy LaDart, an economist with the Corps, said in a 2016 webinar explaining the approach. “In order to do this project with us, you’re going to have to commit to buying out your constituencies and constituents, and doing something that may not be popular.”

Some officials within the Corps were surprised by how far the policy went.

Randall Behm was head of the committee within the Corps that studies buyouts. He said that voluntary programs are imperfect, often leaving vulnerable homes in place. Even so, Mr. Behm said the Corps should require eminent domain only for homes whose flood risk was so severe that their inhabitants were in physical danger.

“That’s where we really need to clear out the structures,” said Mr. Behm, who retired in 2018. By contrast, he said the Corps’ current approach “scares a lot of community officials.”

The Corps defended its policy. Without using eminent domain, officials said, the Corps can’t guarantee to Congress that the buyouts lawmakers have funded will actually happen.

And that would leave residents still at risk. Imagine the Corps identifies 10 homes for buyouts, but only three people say yes, said Susan Layton, chief of planning and policy for the Corps’ Norfolk District office, which is working on buyout plans in Florida. With a voluntary program, that leaves seven homes still exposed. “You’re probably not doing your best job,” she said.

The Corps applies a relatively simple formula to decide which houses should be condemned, officials said: It estimates how much damage a house is likely to suffer in the next 50 years, then compares that to what it would cost to buy and tear down the house, plus moving expenses for the owner. If the buyout costs less, the homeowner is asked to sell for the assessed value of the home. That price is not negotiable, and neither is the offer.

Many officials have balked, at least for now. Miami-Dade has yet to agree to evict residents, and New Jersey has refused. In the Florida Keys, Roman Gastesi, the county administrator, said he doubted the county commission would approve it.

“Eminent domain is not something that’s going to be palatable,” Mr. Gastesi said, adding that the Corps should fund the buyout program it’s currently looking at in the Keys, but make it voluntary. “We don’t want to kick people out of their houses.”

But local officials in other communities have been willing to accept the Corps’ terms.

Brookhaven, a town on Long Island in New York, agreed in 2018 to use eminent domain if necessary as part of a Corps plan to protect against flooding, according to James D’Ambrosio, a Corps spokesman. A spokesman for Brookhaven, Jack Krieger, referred questions to the Suffolk County government, which didn’t respond.

In Okaloosa County, Fla., the Corps asked officials to say in writing that they had the authority and the expertise needed to evict homeowners. The county said yes last June, but added that it might need the Corps’ help “justifying the necessity of the taking of private property,” according to documents obtained through a public records request.

Asked for comment, a spokesman for Okaloosa County, Christopher Saul, responded: “We are prepared to work with the Corps of Engineers to the best of our abilities in order to preserve the safety of Okaloosans.”

Other places appear to have had second thoughts. Last summer, Atlanta told the Corps that the city was able to use eminent domain, according to documents obtained through a public records request. The city informed the Corps in January that it was pulling out of the project.

Michael Smith, a spokesman for Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Another city looking at buyouts is Charleston. At a planning meeting in January, city staff told the Corps that they expected to acquire the land in phases, according to notes obtained through a records request.

Mark Wilbert, Charleston’s chief resilience officer, said the city had told the Corps it would acquire the property required for the project. Asked if Charleston would use eminent domain for those who refuse, Mr. Wilbert said that “yeah, we’d look at it real close.”

One of the first locales to invoke the threat of eminent domain is Nashville, where the Corps identified 44 homes it wanted the city to buy. Some homeowners have nonetheless said no.

Down the road from Mr. Rodriguez, Homer Adams, who is 98, said the city had approached him about buying his house. But he said that he and his wife, Wilma, who is 97, want to stay, and were under the impression that the program left them free to do so. “It was completely voluntary,” Mr. Adams said.

The city, however, said every resident selected for the buyout got the same letter, saying eminent domain would be used if the city thought it was necessary.

Lonnie Smith, who lives in a house by another creek in the outskirts of Nashville, likewise said he didn’t want to sell. So did David Woods, who said he thought his house was at less risk than some of the homes around it.

It now falls to the city to decide whether, and how, to enforce its pledge to the Corps to get these people out of their homes.

“Our preference is always, ‘willing seller,’” said Tom Palko, assistant director of Nashville’s storm water division. He said the city’s approach was buying homes from people who want to participate, while giving those who don’t time to change their minds.

Craig Carrington, chief of project planning for the Corps’ Nashville district, said his office wasn’t giving the city a deadline for evicting people. “We knew that this would take several years,” Mr. Carrington said. “We’re trying to eat the elephant one bite at a time.”