As Flood Plains Expand, Sellers Continue to Hide Risk from Residents

Image: Burak K./Pexels

by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer 

Across the nation, 15 million residences are at high risk of flooding within the next 30 years, and most homeowners and renters aren’t aware of this risk.

Why This Matters: The remnants of flooding, and the financial or physical inability to repair the damage, can impact people’s health, financial stability, access to education, and access to clean water. The lack of transparency by sellers, landlords, and governments puts lives in jeopardy, and like all impacts of climate change, low-income communities and people of color are especially affected. For many people, a majority of their wealth is tied up in their homes, and rebuilding completely may be next to impossible. As storms become more frequent, residents have less time to recover between them, increasing the amount of long-term damage their homes sustain.

A Government Shortfall: So far 21 states have no law requiring disclosure of flood risk even if the home has flooded in the past. Areas at risk of flooding are growing larger and encompass more urban spaces than before. Despite this, only one-third of federal disaster money is awarded to damaged homes outside of official flood zones, leaving too many uninsured tenants and homeowners to pay exorbitant costs to repair and rebuild. 

Currently, residents who learn that their home is in a flood plain after signing a contract are often trapped in expensive, required flood insurance plans

Scott Harris of Baltimore learned too late that his block had flooded seven times since the 1970s, and now pays $1,200 a month for flood insurance, “I’m bent over a barrel,” he said, “I can’t do anything else about it.” 

For those who rent, existing tenant protection may not cover them. In Texas, the law requiring disclosure of past floods only covers homes, not rented apartments. Renters, especially low-income renters, are displaced at high rates due to floods and are unable to find affordable housing nearby due to sudden high demand. Some are pushing to make these laws more inclusive, but for now, renters remain in danger of losing everything to a disaster they never saw coming.

Taking Action: Experts and activists from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are pushing for reform of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which provides federally subsidized insurance for those whose homes are susceptible to flooding. They call for FEMA to provide homeowners with information about flood insurance formerly covering their homes and create a national database to track damage claims and repeatedly flooded properties.

Meanwhile, NPR suggests that prospective homebuyers should look to media and local news to find out if the home or area they’re considering has been flooded before, and use flood tracking websites that can help determine if their prospective home will be flooded in the future. NPR also recommends doing a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to flood insurance, noting that buyers may get their insurance at a bargain in areas designated low risk by FEMA

Despite all the ways people can prepare for life in a flood zone, the risk of flood takes an emotional toll.

Akouete Yemey of Roanoke, Virginia fears the creek behind his home explaining, “basically, every time it starts raining, the panic and anxiety start kicking in.” Harris feels the same anxiety, “it’s not a matter of if, but when. With climate change, we seem to be getting more and more rain, heavier rain, and it’s been a lot more unpredictable.”

Without comprehensive and aggressive action to fight climate change and warming ocean temperatures, no amount of warnings will be able to prevent devastating harm to the growing number of floodplain residents.

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