Many coastal areas in the United States, as well as towns near rivers and lakes, could be facing severe flooding from rising sea levels in the coming years. In an effort to get residents to move away before the situation becomes dire, some states have started offering home buyout programs to people living in flood-prone areas. These programs exist in states like New Jersey, New York, Texas, Louisiana, and even states without coastlines, like Iowa and North Dakota.
The buyout programs currently in existence are completely voluntary—the state cannot force someone to sell their home because of the potential for future flooding in the area. How does it work? Each program operates a little bit differently, but basically, a resident can apply to sell their home to the state through the buyout program. If they are approved, the state will pay them, and then it’s time to move out. What happens once they move? The house is demolished. This serves two purposes: first, it ensures that someone new doesn’t move in, who would end up facing the same flooding problem in the future. The empty land also acts as a sponge for floodwaters and helps lessen the severity of future natural disasters.
But just how successful are these programs? So far, success has been limited. For example, the Blue Acres program in New Jersey has purchased just over 1,000 homes since 2013. But there are far more than 1,000 homes in flood-prone areas of New Jersey. So, why aren’t more people taking up the offer?
First of all, there’s the fact that even in areas facing serious threats from rising sea levels, oceanfront property is still highly valued. The prices offered from the state through the buyout program can’t compete with the price the owner could ask for if they put their home on the market—and yes, there are still plenty of buyers for oceanfront homes, despite the risks. Therefore, rather than taking the money from the buyout program and allowing their homes to be demolished after they move, people with oceanfront homes who want to relocate (or don’t want to hold on to their vacation home) would generally prefer to simply list their home on their own and find a willing buyer.
Of course, this doesn’t solve the initial problem: when the next storm hits, there will be a new resident in the house who has to deal with the issue. Until the value of oceanfront property drops—or states afford to offer more money through buyout programs— this probably won’t change. Raising the states’ offer price also poses an ethical-fiscal dilemma. When we are working to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and turn into a carbon-neutral, 100% renewable-powered, circular society, are we doing the most good by offering money to owners of oceanfront properties? Or should we be allocating our resources into infrastructure changes such as building offshore wind farms and solar power plants, or even investing in plant-based agriculture and food production, which is the most pragmatic way to resist climate change according to the world’s top scientists?
Allocation of resources aside, buyout programs are met with emotional decision-making: who wants to pack up and leave their hometown, especially when they still might be able to live there safely for another decade or two, depending on how things play out? Our predictions aren’t perfect. No one knows the exact year when a particular area will become unlivable. So instead of checking out early, they gamble on the possibility that they will be okay for a while, and that staying will be worth it. People who live in coastal communities can be stubborn about staying put—when you move to an area like this, or choose to stay as an adult after growing up there, you know there will always be an inherent risk, and you accept it.
But that same quality that can serve people so well when it comes to dealing with the regular challenges that can come along with living somewhere with a harsh climate can be detrimental. No one wants to say goodbye to their home—but for many people living in coastal areas, where being resilient in the face of flooding and natural disasters is simply part of life sometimes and may even be seen as a point of local pride, participating in a buyout program can feel a lot like giving up on their community.
On the surface, it’s easy to see that staying put is not the most logical decision, but how many of us make all of our important decisions based purely on logic? When it comes to life-changing choices like saying goodbye to the place you call home, your ultimate decision will likely be rooted in emotion. We all like to think that we’re totally rational beings, yet the truth is that most of us make decisions based on emotion first and then work backward to rationalize them.
These voluntary buyout programs are a step in the right direction. But for those living in areas threatened by sea-level rise, many people will choose to stay until that threat is impossible to ignore.