Weighing the Social Costs of Retreat

Much of the discussion around managed retreat focuses on the anticipation and immediate aftermath of disasters, weighing the difficult choices residents make about whether to stay or leave. But given the far-reaching impacts of that choice, it can be difficult to understand how it changes the lives of those after they make it.

Researchers like Drs. Sherri Brokopp Binder and Alex Greer study the community resilience of those affected by home buyout programs. Along with their colleagues, they have published multiple papers focusing on the spectrum of households and populations affected by retreat: those staying, leaving, and still deciding. In particular, a few of their papers focus on the community experience of buyouts that took place within Staten Island, New York after Superstorm Sandy, from the perspectives of both those who left and stayed.

In one paper published in Environmental Hazards, Binder and her collaborators from the University of Hawaii assessed buyout impacts across three different Staten Island communities, three years after Sandy: Oakwood (a community that rejected retreat), Oakwood Beach (which chose to relocate) and Rockaway Park (which rebuilt in situ). Focusing on three key recovery indicators — social capital, place attachment, and perceived risk — the research found that, a few years after relocating, those who chose to retreat can face worse health and social outcomes than those who chose to stay. In summary, “it is uncertain whether this perceived [lowered risk of future hazards] offsets psycho-social losses such as decreased place attachment and bonding social capital. Taken together, these findings raise important questions about the overall efficacy of home buyout programs, highlighting long-term social costs and the potential implications of losses in social and place-based attachments on recovery and social resilience.”

Below, Drs. Greer and Binder explain how certain aspects of federal buyout policy can undermine social outcomes for those who choose to make this difficult decision. Research like this, that points to the weaknesses of buyout policy, is necessary for the federal program to improve and proactively address the costs of retreat.

Counting the cost: The social and psychological implications of relocation and retreat

Sherri Brokopp Binder, PhD and Alex Greer, PhD

Every time a major natural disaster hits the US, we are reminded of how many of us live in areas that are fundamentally hazardous. Major storm events like Katrina, Sandy and many others have raised the national consciousness around these vulnerabilities, as have projections related to the current and future impacts of sea level rise in densely populated coastal areas. Home buyout programs, which are designed to reduce vulnerability by permanently relocating residents away from areas considered to be at risk of future disaster events, are generally funded by the federal government, though they are managed and implemented locally, typically through a state or county agency. The logic behind buyouts is deceptively simple: in areas where people and property are at risk for repeated or chronic disasters, buyouts allow participating residents to sell their at-risk homes to the government — hopefully, they can then relocate to new, safer communities. The purchased properties are then ideally converted into open space, thereby avoiding any future losses to those residents and providing a natural buffer for future events.

Look a little closer, however, and it soon becomes clear that things are not so simple. Risks associated with hazards are constantly being weighed against investment in and attachment to place, among other factors. In our recent research on a home buyout program implemented after Hurricane Sandy, for example, residents who had established their homes and built their lives in the areas devastated by the storm found the thought of relocating to be enormously disruptive and devastating, even if it seemed like the best available option.

Our research on buyouts has been guided by one overarching question: Are residents better off for having participated in buyout programs? Our findings suggest that, even several years after a disaster, buyout participants fare worse than residents in communities that choose to rebuild on indicators including social capital and place attachment. These findings are significant, as they represent losses in place-based ties and social support systems that disaster survivors typically rely on to cope with disaster impacts and navigate recovery.

Our work, and that of other scholars who have studied buyouts and relocation, has found that relocation is associated with a suite of of losses, including losses in homeownership, employment, income, access to healthcare, and physical and mental health. For example, federal policy requires buyout participants to receive fair, pre-storm market value for their homes, though this does not necessarily protect households from experiencing net losses in weath. Federal policy prohibits the duplication of benefits for disaster survivors, which is intended to avoid repeated government payments for repairs or recovery costs. While this approach makes good sense in many disaster contexts, buyout participants often use disaster aid to rebuild their disaster damaged home while they wait for the buyout to be implemented (a process that can take a year or more, during which time residents exhaust their alternative housing options). The costs of these repairs are later deducted off of the sale price of their home, leaving them with reduced capital when finding a new, post-buyout home. When combined with market and development forces that make higher risk homes relatively more affordable, this can leave buyout participants unable to purchase a comparable home in a comparable community.

These losses, in turn, directly impact residents’ options when choosing their post-buyout homes, and may lead to significant compromises. Homeowners who participated in the post-Sandy buyout in New York, for example, were rarely able to purchase a comparable home in a similar community. Instead, they were left to choose among several less than ideal options; moving to an area that was affordable but far from their critical social networks (family, close friends, social groups); buying a house they couldn’t afford in order to stay near their original community; or moving to a neighborhood that was less desirable socially (such as an area with higher crime rates) in order to buy an affordable home near their original community. All of these options carry social and psychological costs that extend far beyond the implementation of the buyout program.

So, are residents better off for having participated in buyout programs? At this point, the answer to this question is unclear at best. Our research has found buyouts to be associated with a suite of negative consequences for participating households and communities, including losses in homeownership, employment, income, access to healthcare, physical and mental health, and social and place attachments. Other scholars have found similar results when studying relocation programs. While studies have raised a number of concerns about buyouts and relocations as they are currently conceived, we continue to implement such programs nationwide. At present, there are over 40 buyout programs underway in the U.S., several active relocations due to sea level rise, and many other communities facing the prospect of relocation or managed retreat. To ensure the best possible outcomes for these communities and those that will face similar decisions in the future, more research is needed to ensure that the social costs of relocation are accounted for within buyout policy and practice.

For the papers referenced by Brokopp Binder and Greer, see below:

Sherri Brokopp Binder and Alex Greer (2016): “The Devil Is in the Details: Linking Home Buyout Policy, Practice, and Experience After Hurricane Sandy”, Politics and Governance, Volume 4, Issue 4, p. 97–106.

Sherri B. Binder, John P. Barile, Charlene K. Baker & Bethann Kulp (2018): “Home buyouts and household recovery: neighborhood differences three years after Hurricane Sandy”, Environmental Hazards