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Dolores Mendoza stands on a lot adjacent to where her old home once stood in the Allen Field neighborhood, just outside of Houston. (Alex Lubben / VICE News)

Houston’s Solution to Climate Change Is to Force Low-Income People to Move

“Where are these poor people going to live? What’s happening to us is an injustice.” 

HARRIS COUNTY, TEXAS — Génesis’ pink mobile home, in a flood-prone area just northeast of the Houston city limits, has been battered by storm after storm. 

“Harvey did it again,” she said, gesturing toward the wood panels on her front deck to indicate that everything was strewn about in the 2017 hurricane that flooded the area. “Then the snow messed up that room over there,” she added, referring to last winter’s freak winter storms that knocked out power to millions in the state. A blue plastic bin gathers rainwater that drips through her roof. Part of the ceiling is supported by a ladder to keep it from caving in.

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Génesis has building materials, replacement flooring, and supplies to fix her roof, piled up outside. Every time her home is damaged, she fixes it herself. She’s poured a lot of herself into the trailer, and she’s proud of it. She’s 65 and has lived in her home for 15 years. 

Soon she’ll have to leave it all behind. 

The federal government is buying out the mobile home park, located near Greens Bayou, just northeast of Houston’s city limits, and is planning to demolish Génesis and her neighbors’ homes so that water can pool there in order to protect the surrounding communities—some of which are substantially more affluent than the mobile home park—from floods. She has no choice but to leave. This round of buyouts is mandatory, which is unusual, if not unprecedented. 

As the climate crisis accelerates, communities across the U.S. will find themselves increasingly unable to live where they currently are. It’s likely that mandatory buyouts, like the one affecting Génesis, will become more common, experts and officials told VICE News. 

“I’ve never heard of a mandatory buyout,” said Sam Brody, the director of the Institute for a Disaster Resilient Texas at Texas A&M University, Galveston, who studies buyouts in the region. “I wasn’t aware of that taking place or even how it’s possible, particularly in Texas,” a state known for valuing private property rights. 

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The buyouts are funded through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But Génesis, who is undocumented, doesn’t qualify for federal assistance. (VICE News is using a pseudonym to protect her identity.) Though the county has set up a fund specifically to provide assistance to undocumented residents, Génesis worries that she might not qualify for the help she’ll need to find a new home. 

She’s been told she’ll receive $31,000 to relocate. That’s not enough for her to find comparable housing in the area, she said. 

Houston and Harris County are at an epicenter of the climate crisis: The county stands to lose more than $1.1 billion in property value and nearly 5,500 parcels on more than eight square miles of land to sea level rise by the end of the century, according to a recent report from research nonprofit Climate Central. (That estimate does not take into account the potential property loss due to hurricanes or more intense rainfall, both of which are expected to become more damaging as the planet warms.) 

To try to keep residents safe, Harris County has turned to buyouts, and has likely conducted more of them through FEMA than any other county in the U.S. 

In this round of mandatory buyouts, 358 homes will be purchased by the county and demolished before August of next year, according to the Department of Community Services. An additional 357 mobile home units will be bought out, along with more than 30 businesses. 

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But the buyout Génesis is going through has not gone smoothly. 

“Where are these poor people going to live?” Génesis asks. “What’s happening to us is an injustice.” 

‘You don’t have to kick them out of their houses’

The mandatory buyouts that will force Génesis from her home are affecting seven neighborhoods in unincorporated Harris County, most of which are also along Greens Bayou. Most of the people being bought out are working-class people of color. 

That’s partly because the HUD grant that’s funding these buyouts requires that its projects take place in “low- or moderate-income” communities, and so targets poorer places. But across the country, flood buyouts largely affect poorer communities, in part because flooding tends to be worse in those neighborhoods than in wealthier ones. A recent study found that whiter communities tend to be offered government buyouts more frequently, but communities of color disproportionately accept them.

“Where’s low-income housing? It’s where land is cheap. Where’s land cheap? Where there’s hazards,” said Andrew Rumbach, a professor of landscape architecture at Texas A&M University who studies mobile home buyouts. “It’s a really awful historical, structural issue that is really difficult to sort out.”

Still, the approach that Harris County is taking with these buyouts is highly unusual — but it will likely become more common as the climate changes. 

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Of the several buyout experts VICE News contacted for this story, none could think of another example of a mandatory buyout project structured like the one affecting Génesis. For people who live in mobile home parks, buyouts are always, in a sense, mandatory: They usually own their mobile homes but pay rent on the lots they stand on, so if the landlord decides to participate in the buyout, residents have no choice but to clear out. (The “mobile” in mobile homes is a misnomer; it can be extremely expensive to move them, and older homes sometimes break apart when they’re moved.) But in almost all other buyout scenarios, homeowners have a choice about whether to sell their home to the government. 

A.R. Siders, who also studies buyouts as a professor at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, had also not heard of mandatory buyout projects structured like this one. Nicholas Pinter, a professor at the University of California, Davis who wrote a paper about the history of community relocation projects in the U.S., cites only two other examples of mandatory buyouts. One took place in the 1970s, and the other involved a wholesale community relocation effort in rural Kentucky that affected far fewer people than the buyouts underway in Harris County. Both of the other projects were implemented by the Army Corps of Engineers rather than by HUD. 

The process now underway started in the summer of 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with an email informing residents that they would be subject to mandatory buyouts, according to residents. Several residents VICE News spoke with either don’t have an internet connection or only got Wi-Fi in the last few years. Even if they did get the email, they might not have been able to read it. The initial communication about the buyouts from the Harris County Community Services Department, residents said, was exclusively in English — even though many people in these communities speak only Spanish.

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The Community Services Department told VICE News in a statement that they’ve made “72 outreach efforts in 2022 alone” and noted that the “process is complex,” which has “made it difficult to produce information for the masses that would not create misunderstandings and confusion for individuals.” All the written material that their office has produced about the program, CSD said, has been translated to Spanish, and in some cases, Vietnamese. 

The agency declined VICE News’ interview request.

“When the program launched in July of 2020, residents were confused, scared, angry, and rightfully so,” said Raymundo Beltran, a community engagement coordinator with Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis’ office. “One challenge for us was coming in here and trying to earn their trust.” 

After introducing the program to residents, the county hired independent appraisers to assess the value of each property. If the resident disagrees with the county’s appraised value, they can hire their own appraiser to counter the government’s appraisal—at their own expense. Because these buyouts are mandatory, regardless of whether the homeowner and the county come to an agreement on the value of their house, the county can invoke eminent domain and force them out. And because Génesis is undocumented, the assistance she’s eligible for is capped at $31,000, regardless of the appraised value of her home. 

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“Having that ax waiting to fall, even if you don’t think it’s fair and you don’t want to move, is definitely inequitable,” said Jim Elliott, the chair of the department of sociology at Rice University, who studies buyouts. 

So far, the county has made 348 offers to purchase property from homeowners, officials told VICE News in a written statement. Of those, 174 offers have been accepted. 

“This was a very harsh program,” said Shirley Ronquillo, the founder of a resident-led housing justice organization called the Houston Department of Transformation, which helped residents navigate the buyout process. And with the county continuing to greenlight new development in the area, she added, “It’s really hard to swallow what we’re being told” about how necessary these buyouts are.

“These areas are significantly deep in the floodplain, and [the Harris County Flood Control District] can identify no drainage-improvement projects that would have a substantial change to the flood risk,” the Harris County Community Services Department told VICE News. These buyouts, the agency noted, “could have significant impacts on flooding, protecting the lives and property of countless residents both within the buyout areas and to nearby neighborhoods.” 

Experts remain skeptical. “There shouldn’t have to be a forcing,” Brody said. “The word ‘mandatory’ frightens me.” 

If a buyout is done right, Brody emphasized, it shouldn’t need to be mandatory in order to be effective. “If I’m able to show and articulate the importance of this problem, and provide opportunities for a better situation, everybody would want to be on board with that,” he said. “You don’t have to kick them out of their houses.” 

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A HUD representative told VICE News that other mandatory buyouts had taken place through their programs but cited only one other example, which took place in North Dakota in the mid-2010s, involving buyouts that made way for a flood control project. 

The invocation of eminent domain isn’t unusual, “but it is usually for the sake of building something,” Siders said, like a dam, or a flood control wall. What’s happening in Harris County “is unusual in that people are being required to leave to un-build an area.”

‘They’re going to destroy it. We earned it. It was peaceful here’

From the deck of what used to be Dolores Mendoza’s house in Allen Field, one of the mandatory buyout communities, she could see Fall Creek, a community filled with expensive homes on the other side of Greens Bayou. 

Mendoza and her family had lived in Allen Field for generations. Her immediate family, she said, owned seven homes in the neighborhood; her grandparents met as neighbors there in the 1950s. But her home is gone. She took a mandatory buyout and moved to Kingwood, about a 25-minute drive to the northeast. She ultimately made out OK through the buyouts — she has a good job, she said, and was able to front more than $6,000 in moving costs that weren’t initially covered. Her new house has a pool. But her monthly expenses have skyrocketed. 

“My kids keep asking me, ‘Mom, when are we going to go on vacation again?’” she said. It’s been harder to afford trips to Disney World with her higher utility bills and homeowners association fees. 

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Her old home was demolished this summer, but Fall Creek is still there. The master-planned community was built in 2001, according to the Houston Chronicle — the same year Tropical Storm Allison flooded Allen Field. Homes on the market there are selling for between $350,000 and over $2 million.

Allen Field, meanwhile, has been historically neglected by the county. “When I came into this neighborhood, they let me know that they can’t remember the last time a county vehicle was in the area,” Beltran said.  

But just a few miles away, banners reading “Fall Creek” hang from the streetlamps along well-paved roads lined with cookie-cutter brick houses.  

Buyout projects funded with federal dollars rely on a cost-benefit test that’s driven by property values that make it harder to justify buying out million-dollar homes, even if they’re flood prone, because the dollar-value benefits of a buyout need to exceed the costs. On the flipside, the more a property is worth, the easier it is to justify spending government funds on flood protection, since the on-paper benefit of protecting expensive property is higher. 

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The financial calculus tends to lead to more buyouts in poorer neighborhoods—and more flood control in rich ones. 

But what that kind of cost-benefit thinking doesn’t reflect, residents and experts emphasize, is the loss of community that results from buyouts. 

“When we buy people out and scatter them, we’re effectively severing all their social networks,” Rumbach said. 

Génesis and the residents in Allen Field dread losing their neighborhood ties after they leave. 

“I’ll miss everything about this neighborhood, but especially this house,” Perla Garcia, 34, another resident of Allen Field, said, holding back tears. “It’s frustrating and painful to know that they’re going to destroy it. We earned it. It was peaceful here.” 

Back in the mobile home park, Génesis has an unused commercial-grade stove in the back room of her trailer, along with tables, chairs, and giant steel pots. “I have a complete restaurant here for my grandson,” she said. “It doesn’t exist yet, but it’s all up here,” she added, tapping her temple. 

She stands to lose the dream of the restaurant when she moves. Whatever housing she is able to find on her relocation assistance likely won’t have enough space for her restaurant supplies. 

Meanwhile, new housing developments in the area around Greens Bayou have continued to spring up over the last few decades, even as buyouts proliferate. To the residents subject to these mandatory buyouts, it feels like the county is more interested in protecting affluent areas with higher property tax rates. The county just built a new school right across the bayou from Allen Field.  

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“They have the big houses. They have the higher tax rates,” Ronquillo said. “The residents of Allen Field could not understand how they could build a school less than half a block away that is raised, or how they could build a whole subdivision on the other side [of the bayou].”

‘Where do the people go?’

Officials and advocates in Houston know that this round of mandatory buyouts is likely the first of many. 

“This will be the first wave,” said Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who represents some of the neighborhoods being bought out. “We’re only going to do mandatory buyouts as a last resort.”  

“The big challenge will be, where do the people go?” he added. 

Doris Brown, 72, lives a few miles south of Allen Field, in a predominantly Black neighborhood called Scenic Woods. She and her neighbors have also been historically passed over for ambitious flood control projects. “We’ve been the sacrificial lambs for years,” she said. 

She’s not being bought out. But she worries that she might be soon. 

Whether through buyouts, more conventional redevelopment projects, or neglect from government agencies after successive floods, Brown has seen members of her community displaced. They’ve been priced out over the years, or unable to rebuild after their homes were damaged in a storm. “They couldn’t get any help, so they just left,” she said. 

But despite the flood risk in her neighborhood, Brown’s determined to work with her neighbors against any effort to split up her community. “We’ve already had some discussions about buyouts,” she said. “Our communities are just not going to go for that.” 

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“We want a better quality of life,” she added. “We want to not flood.” 

Still, experts emphasize that as the climate crisis accelerates, the government will have to find ways to relocate a lot of people. The key is figuring out how to help people move in an equitable way. 

“Buyouts don't have to be a bad thing,” said Maddie Sloan, the director of disaster recovery for Texas Appleseed, a social, economic, and racial justice advocacy organization. “But the way we do them doesn’t work. We are not giving people enough money to relocate. We are not proposing buyouts in collaboration with communities and taking into account what they want.” 

Génesis worries that she won’t be able to support her family the way she has before. When one of her kids got divorced, he stayed with her. During last year’s snowstorm, she provided shelter for her neighbors. In addition to all the restaurant supplies, she has bamboo tiles that she wants to use for flooring in one of her kids’ homes, and materials to fix their roofs if they start to leak. 

But the more immediate question that worries her is: Where will she go? 

“I told them I’m going to get myself a space in the graveyard,” Génesis said. “What else?”

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