Trump Administration Presses Cities to Evict Homeowners From Flood Zones
Article Excerpt: 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.