Results from the semi-structured interviews were organized into themes surrounding various aspects of the success of the buyout program—from reducing flood risk, to equity in the buyout process, to post buy-out land use and the impact of that land use on the community.
4.1 “Thank God it’s Better Now”- Impact of Acquisition Program on Flooding
Across all of the study sites, affected communities feel that the floodplain acquisition program has been beneficial and effective in terms of reducing flood risk. The removal of high-risk homes has removed a stressor on the community, and the additional stream modifications made by Mecklenburg County Storm Water Services after buyouts provide an additional perceived reduction in flood risk for the neighborhood.
Echoing FEMA’s goal to reduce flood risk by offering a permanent solution to high risk flood properties, the buyout program is seen as effective on the most basic level because “those houses are just gone”. As one resident noted, significant flooding has still occurred in his community, but the impact was much lower because “there weren’t houses to be affected”. Another resident recognized that “those mitigation projects served the purpose of stopping those houses from flooding again, [he] thinks those houses would have flooded again”. The same resident noted that “it feels good not to have to worry about it”. This difference in flood risk was especially evident to long-term residents of flood risk neighborhoods. As one older resident recalls, “I lived here when this place flooded all the time. It really seems like what they’ve done here has helped”. He recalls the stress on the neighborhood that repeated flooding caused—citing community concern for their affected neighborhoods and a feeling of always being on edge waiting for another flood event.
Another part of the county’s flood risk mitigation programming involves creek and stream modification to reduce flooding on land purchased through the buyout program. This often includes re-meandering streams to combat the problematic effects of Charlotte’s historic dredging and straightening programs, creating storm water retention ponds, and other stream restoration actions like revegetating the stream banks. These actions were noted often by residents as increasing the effectiveness of the county’s mitigation strategy, especially when taken in contrast with prior mitigation measures. “The county has spent a lot of time modifying the creek. They had to undo all they’ve done before”, said one resident, referencing the prior dredging program on Little Sugar Creek. This shift to returning the streams and the floodplain to more natural conditions was generally seen as a positive thing as residents recognized the poor planning involved in development in a floodplain, as well as how this development had increased flooding. As one community member laments, “the sixties were just a different time. They weren’t thinking about the future”. In this sense, the value of the open space created by the acquisition program has realized its flood control potential. One resident noted that “when you remove a house, the rain doesn’t pour off of it; it can just sink into the ground there, so I think that it helps”. The county taking steps to reverse the impact of poor development planning is seen as a good faith effort in rectifying flood risk for communities affected by flooding.
4.2 Inequities in Experience
While all interviewees believed that the buyout program was effective at its first objective—reducing flood risk in a community—inequities between sites and experiences provide some of the most salient evidence for the importance of community specific examination of the effectiveness of floodplain management efforts and the buyout program more specifically. Certain community dynamics, including the history of interactions with government entities, the perceived accessibility of government officials, sentiment towards flooding, and extent of economic and social capital are heavily influenced by the unequal power landscape in Charlotte. Differing social and economic situations, and how this interacts with people’s ability to effectively engage with the buyout program, significantly impacts the ability of buyout land to act as a benefit to the community in line with FEMA’s goal to improve the community environment.
4.2.1 “They Would Have Lost Everything if They Hadn’t Sold” vs. “They Had the Means to Stay” - Perceptions of Choice in the Acquisition Program
The majority of houses in Charlotte were acquired after a major flood event where there was significant flood damage to the property. In addition, many of the homes acquired were sites of repeat flooding and had sustained significant damages over the years. Because of the prevalence of post-disaster mitigation, and the additional financial benefits offered to those people who participate in the buyout program, participation in the acquisition program is often seen as a necessity. However, in some cases, residents were able to bypass participation in the program because they had the financial capital to remain in place. The ability to reject a buyout offer also allowed these residents to avoid the potential impacts of displacement.
One of the biggest benefits of the buyout program is that homeowners are offered the market price for their home calculated as if the house hadn’t sustained flood damage. Flooding damage, as well as the location factor of existing in a floodplain, can have a significant impact on home value. Because of this, the price the county offers in their acquisition program provides a significant financial incentive to sell. This was seen as the “tipping point” for many people on the fence about selling. Because of the extent of flood damage sustained by many of these houses—one resident remembers people having to be “rescued from their rooftops” because the water was so high—and the complications of working through flood insurance to get home repairs (or not having flood insurance at all), many people felt a personal pressure to sell. This pressure was also driven by the county’s focus on post-disaster mitigation. Because these residents were approached after a serious flood event in which their property has been damaged, and not before, many of them experienced increased sensitivity to flood risk and its continued impact which contributed significantly to their decision to sell.
The financial ramifications of flooding are remarkable and play a significant role in perception of the program. As one resident whose home had been acquired through the program put it—“we’re the lucky ones.”. She recognized the difficulty that she would have in selling her house in the future since she would have to disclose the flood risk, and the difficulties that she would face in making the necessary repairs to her home to be able to continue living there. To her, “there really wasn’t another option”. Many people living close to buyout areas are still waiting for their chance to participate in the program. As one resident, who is eligible for buyout but wasn’t on the “first tier” explained: “I’m on some sort of a list. It’s a bit like purgatory, I keep waiting for the county to contact me”. The benefits of the acquisition program are well known to other people with heightened flood risk, many of whom haven’t had the opportunity to participate in the program but would like the opportunity.
In many cases, especially for individuals or communities with limited financial capital, the financial ramifications of owning and living in a flood risk property take precedence over other considerations simply because of necessity. This was especially true for interview respondents surrounding some of the more socially vulnerable buyout sites (including sites 4 and 10). Because of financial necessity in more socially vulnerable areas, the many other variables that may impact someone’s willingness to sell their home, such as community connection, sense of place, and connectedness to the home, are disproportionately minimized for these residents. There are homeowners, however, who have the financial resources to give larger weight to these other complicating variables when making the decision whether or not to sell their home. This creates a dichotomy between those homeowners with the necessary resources to disregard, or place lower emphasis on the financial ramifications, and those who must place this as paramount.
In Charlotte, this creates a differential impact in the properties that are acquired. In several flood risk neighborhoods, property owners who were approached about participation in the buyout program refused participation in the program. One resident who knew two people (at Site 5) who refused a buyout cited their connection to their community for being the reason they wanted to stay. Even though those people “aren’t eligible for insurance now”, meaning that the financial ramifications of a flood would be even higher, “they just didn’t want to move, and they had the resources not to”. Because not everyone has the appropriate resources to refuse the county’s offer of a buyout, even if they would prefer to stay in their homes, the buyout program created a differential impact for individuals of different means. The impact of this program is especially relevant at one site (Site 5) because new houses, “multimillion dollar” houses, continue to be built in this community, specifically in areas that still hold flood risk. Several residents spoke towards the propensity for these newer houses to have special modifications, such as a high foundation, to help lower the flood risk. Because making these modifications are an impossibility for many community members, their flood risk is heightened.
4.2.2 “They Were Blatantly Displaced” vs. “They Made So Much Money”- How Far can Buyout Money Take Someone?
Although all homeowners were offered a fair value price for their homes, the particular financial dynamics of the buyout program held differential impact at different buyout sites. In particular, owners found themselves in better financial circumstances than renters. Some of the greatest instances of displacement came from renters, many of whom weren’t aware of the flood risk of the property. In addition, those homeowners in neighborhoods which had witnessed an increase in average home value benefitted disproportionately from the buyout program as compared to neighborhoods where home value had stayed more stagnant.
Site 7, the Chantilly Ecological Sanctuary, lies on land that formerly housed the Cavalier Apartments and half of the Doral Apartment Complex. These apartment buildings, which had experienced significant and repeated flooding and fell in some of the most high flood risk areas in the county, were also highly populated by low-income renters, including people using the housing choice voucher program. Many former residents of the apartment buildings, many of whom benefited from the low rent, recall that they were not appropriately notified of their flood risk (Hartnett 2003). As for those people following the buyout, one current resident notes that “they were displaced. They were grossly displaced, I mean they don’t live in this community anymore”. The acquisition of those two apartment complexes significantly decreased opportunities for low-cost housing in Chantilly. Unable to afford the growing price of homes and apartments in the Chantilly neighborhood, those renters who lost their housing when the Cavalier and Doral Apartments were forced out of the community.
At several sites, including Site 10 and Site 13, many of the homes that were acquired were rental homes. Residents noted that the landlords, many of whom were described as “absentee” and disengaged from the community, were able to benefit financially from the buyout program, while the renters were displaced. One resident expressed their frustration that these landlords who “couldn’t care less about the neighborhood” were able to make a financial gain from the buyout program. Another resident called it “unfair that those owners got such a good deal for the home that they owned because they weren’t contributing to the community”. In these instances, the home buyout program wasn’t seen as benefitting the community. Instead, it was seen as benefitting landlords who were actively disengaged from the community, while simultaneously displacing the disadvantaged renters living there.
At Site 5, many residents noted that the properties that were acquired were generally “smaller homes that were presumably lower income”. The result of the acquisition program at this site was that “those houses, and those people, are just gone”. One resident compared the results of the displacement of these people to “a sort of gentrification in the area”. Because those houses that were acquired were of lower value than other houses in the neighborhood, resettlement within the neighborhood was an impossibility.
Site 9, which falls in the Country Club Heights area of Charlotte, has witnessed a dramatic increase in home value in the past 10 years. In this case, residents didn’t resettle in the same area, but for a drastically different reason. One resident recalls that “most of the people [she] knows made so much money because the house had appreciated so much value that they were able to move to nicer places”. People in this neighborhood were able to benefit from the growing value of homes in their area, whereas they would have a much more difficult time selling their home on the open market, given the flood risk. Growth of home value is directly related to the changing neighborhood dynamics. Country Club Heights has witnessed a lowering in average social vulnerability as average income increases and the location becomes more desirable.
The specific circumstances of individuals and communities played a large role in the fate of those people whose homes were acquired through the buyout program. While some people were able to resettle in their same neighborhood, others were displaced. Even further, some homeowners actually saw their financial situation improve after participation in the buyout program. These differential effects relate specifically to vulnerabilities, or lack of vulnerability, of these individuals and communities, creating a situation in which more vulnerable groups are more likely to be displaced while less vulnerable groups are more likely to see their situation stay the same or improve.
4.2.3 “A Huge Community Builder” vs. “They Said They Were Doing This For Us… No, No, No”- Differing Opinions of Current Land Use
Perhaps the most salient differential impact of the county’s buyout program comes with community interaction with the land post buyout and differing opinions of current land use. In some sites, the land vacated by the buyout program is seen as a community asset, where the land is increasing community value and community resilience. In other sites, however, the land is seen as a detriment to the community—often due either to a lack of county maintenance or engagement, or a disregard for needs of the community when planning for the land use. The divergent impact of the land use on community sentiment is related directly to the community interaction with the land as a feature of the intersection of the county’s power to ultimately decide the use of the land and the community’s desire to be an active participate in planning procedures, and how well those two desires are mediated and informed by community specific factors.
4.2.4 Country Club Heights Community Garden and Biddleville-Smallwood Community Garden
At several of the buyout sites, Mecklenburg County has utilized the open land created to establish community gardens. Two of these community gardens, both run by Mecklenburg County, illuminate the differential impact of land use on a community. The County Club Heights Community Garden was driven by the community, has high community buy in, and is seen as an asset to the value of the County Club Community more generally. The Biddleville-Smallwood Community Garden is underutilized, has high turnover rate for the plots, and a lack of engagement from community members, contributing to its failure to act as a beneficial use for the community of the land vacated by the buyout program. The differences in the effectiveness of these two gardens relates strongly to the opportunity for community engagement in planning post-buyout land use, and the way that this community engagement is tempered or increased due to community specific factors.
Site 9, which now houses the Country Club Heights Community Garden and a large open space beside the garden, is seen as a huge asset to the community. Community members regularly engage with the land, both as a “park-like space”, as well as a community garden. It’s seen as a community builder, where the open area becomes a space for community growth. The community garden was actually started without permission as an attempt by the self-described “incredibly strong community” to utilize the vacant land. There were several figureheads in the community who fought strongly for the community garden as an appropriate land use for the buyout land, and called for accountability from the county in maintenance and continued engagement with the land. After the attempt by the county to shut down the garden, the founders and supporters of the garden “went to talk to their friends in city council and got permission” for the garden to continue. As one resident described, Country Club Heights community members have had “the time and energy” to fight and be involved in the land. Not unremarkably, they also had the proper county connections, and an appropriate channel (e.g., friends in city council) to be able to leverage these connections to engage the county’s limited resources for post-buyout land use development.
Site 2, which houses the Biddleville-Smallwood Community Garden tells a different story. This garden, which was implemented by the county with limited community engagement in the planning process, is largely vacant. While there is large waiting list to plant the County Club Heights Community Garden and desire to continue gardening the plots year after year, there is large turnover in the few plots utilized by community members in the Biddleville-Smallwood Garden. The turnover rate is so large that almost each growing season “nobody comes back”. The garden is unable to act as a community asset because there is a lack of engagement from the community in response to the current land use development on the vacated land.
The differences in these two gardens relate most directly to community influence in the planning stage of the buyout land use. While land use in Country Club Heights was driven by the community, acutely representing community desire, the Biddleville-Smallwood land use was implemented by the county with limited community engagement. The fact that community members in Country Club Heights were able to leverage connections to help reflect their community desires in land use point to this power being a significant factor in successful community engagement with post buyout land. Because this is not a possibility for every community due to a variety of factors (lack of these connections, lack of time or ability to engage with county officials, distrust of government officials, etc.), this ability demonstrates a difference in power relations between these two communities. While Biddleville-Smallwood represents an area of high social vulnerability—with especially higher than county average rates of non-white populations and levels of poverty—Country Club Heights represents lower levels of social vulnerability (and is trending even lower) and is also located adjacent to even higher-income, lower social vulnerability areas of Charlotte such as Chantilly and Plaza-Midwood. The largest impact of these different levels of vulnerability is especially visible in the difference in time and resources available for engagement with post buyout land use. As one resident noted—“it’s hard to fight. It’s such a big ask for the community to be involved in the land… A lot of people don’t have the resources or time to fight”.
4.2.5 Chantilly Ecological Preserve and Hidden Valley Ecological Garden
Both the Chantilly Ecological Preserve (Site 7) and the Hidden Valley Ecological Garden (Site 13) were attempts by the county to preserve and re-discover the ecological value of land vacated by the floodplain buyout program. The land uses of these two sites are explicitly ecological in nature and encourage community engagement with a natural area acting appropriately as a floodplain. However, while the Chantilly neighborhood attributes high community value to the Chantilly Ecological Preserve, the Hidden Valley Ecological Garden is seen as an “eyesore” and a detriment to the community. Differences in the community experience of these two ecological areas also relate directly to perceived county engagement with the land, and level of community influence in the planning and execution of the land development.
The Chantilly Ecological Preserve falls on the land vacated by the Doral and Cavalier Apartment Complexes. One of its biggest values to the community is the increase of open space. As one resident noted, the preserve has benefitted the neighborhood “a ton, because [the community] went from having an apartment complex in a floodplain to now having a big open park”. Residents note that the ecological preserve is frequented by community members, who especially appreciate the stream modifications and the increase in plant and animal life. Inherent in Chantilly’s buyout site is the privilege of residents to have access to this open space that “everyone just feels great about” at the cost of the displacement of the lower income residents who had lived in those apartment buildings. The Chantilly Ecological Preserve was developed closely with the community, and the county facilitated effective partnerships with non-profits such as the Charlotte Public Tree Fund to foster continued engagement in the buyout site by both county and non-profit entities, as well as the community itself. Community members feel like their desires were reflected in the state of the current land use, which contribute to the general understanding of the Ecological Preserve as adding value to the community.
On the other hand, the Hidden Valley Ecological Garden, which was the first large scale floodplain buyout project undertaken by the county, is seen as a failure. As one resident described it—“the ecological park was the worst mistake that they (Mecklenburg County) ever made”. The two most significant factors in the limited success of the Hidden Valley Ecological Garden are a perceived lack of interest and engagement from the county with the project, and the failure of the county to fulfill the promises made in the planning stages of the garden. As one resident noted, “once they landscaped it, Mecklenburg County has yet to come back to the community to ask about the park. In the years since the garden has been erected, they might have reached out once or twice”. This lack of engagement is seen as neglect, especially when compared to other flood sites that the community perceives as having more engagement. As a community member pointed out, “if you look at other sites (flood sites), it’s absolutely unacceptable for Mecklenburg County to neglect this area. Absolutely unacceptable”. The same resident questions “how consistent Charlotte has been in floodplain management. [He] doesn’t know how equitable the county has been in their flood mitigation programs. [He] think[s] that they might have done a better job in other parts of the county”. The lack of maintenance of the Ecological Garden has resulted in trash accumulation, mosquito issues in the summer, and downed portions of the fencing around the garden. Further, residents believe that there is a feedback loop where the lack of county engagement results in deteriorating conditions of the Garden, which further disincentivize county engagement. As one resident mentioned, he “think[s] that [their] county representatives know what’s going on and that’s why they haven’t made visits to the community”.
Beyond the lack of engagement, community members feel like the promises the county made about the use of the Garden have not been fulfilled, that the county has “reneged on their promises”. The community strongly supported the original creation of the garden because “it was developed and designed so that school children could benefit from studying the ecological garden—animals and plant life. That is not happening”. One community member estimates that it’s been at least 10 years since he heard of the Garden being used for educational purposes—“we didn’t want it for us, we’re not using it. We wanted it for the kids”. Because of this, when community members talk about the Ecological Garden, “everyone gets a little heated under the wind because the city came in and said they were going to do this and that and they never did”.
Because the main reason for community support of the Garden never became an actuality, the Garden is perpetually underutilized. Despite walking trails and educational signs, the main use of the Garden is as a cut-through to the apartments across the road. Community members agree that the extremely limited engagement of community members with the Garden means that the garden cannot act as community asset, and that currently it is not contributing to the community. Residents feel strongly that redevelopment or increased county engagement is essential because the county is using “[the community’s] money, [the community’s] taxes, so they have a responsibility to develop the land so that it is contributing to the community”.
Although both the Chantilly Ecological Preserve and the Hidden Valley Ecological Garden were attempts by the county to reclaim the natural value of an area, thus creating a community asset on land reclaimed by the floodplain buyout program, this was realized in only one of these cases. The Chantilly Ecological Preserve was successful because of active engagement of community members in aspects of the planning and execution of the Ecological Preserve, as well as the facilitation of county-community and non-profit-community connections that created accountability for the fulfillment of the vision of the Ecological Preserve. The Hidden Valley community, on the other hand, feels a lack of engagement and responsibility coming from the county, which has created discontentment towards both the Garden and the county (“I think I would vote against supporting Parks & Rec right now”). Residents attach this disconnect between the plan and the actuality of the Ecological Garden as representative of a history of being disregarded and undervalued by the county in comparison to wealthier, and whiter, areas (including Chantilly) of the city.
4.2.6 Vacant Land
Like many other buyout programs across the country, the majority of land acquired in Charlotte’s floodplain buyout program is now vacant. Generally community members are ambivalent towards vacant areas, beyond recognizing the value for reducing flood risk. In many situations, there’s confusion about the purpose of the land, who owns it, and what’s allowed to be done on it. In some areas (like Site 1) access to the land is prohibited. In other places, the land is “just there”, but isn’t actively utilized as community space. Still, in other sites, community members have a negative view of the open space, believing it could increase crime, and that it is not maintained well by the county.
Most of the buyout sites are slated, at some point, to become part of Charlotte’s greenway system. However, only one is actively part of a greenway so far. This is largely due to delays in greenway implementation. Although Mecklenburg County planned to have 129 miles of connected greenway by 2018, today there is just around 50. Many residents have heard of the vacated land in their community eventually becoming a greenway, but there is confusion as to when this will become a reality. Many residents recall conversations with county officials, seeing their community on master plan maps, or even seeing the beginnings of greenway projects in their community (a common beginning phase of greenway development is a “dirtway” that is unpaved but tracks the path of a potential greenway), but haven’t seen much further progress. This reflects an issue common in buyout programs—there is engagement and accountability from the county during the actual buyout process, but then a sharp decrease after the land is actually acquired.
Many community members feel that if their land was connected through a greenway there would be more accountability from the county to show continued interest in the land post buyout. Unfortunately, there is currently inequities in funding for greenways. The current plan for funding involves finishing sections in the wealthier “wedge” area of Charlotte, while passing over less affluent areas like Hidden Valley which are also supposed to be connected on greenway trails(Portillo 2019). As one Hidden Valley resident described it, “we got screwed on the deal”. Because the lack of engagement from county officials has been understood as a cornerstone of community understanding of many of the most socially vulnerable flood sites, instances of increased disengagement amplify an already existing problem