It’s hard to find a home in Austin for under $200,000.
Especially when the city decides your last home is worth about $125,000.
As city officials put together buyout packages for Onion Creek residents devastated by the 2013 Halloween flood, they tried to close that gap by offering another payment for new housing. Federal law allows a “replacement housing” payment of up to $31,000, unless the city waives the cap — which Austin officials have done in nearly every case, an American-Statesman review found.
The Statesman’s analysis of data provided by the city on 113 buyout packages offered to Onion Creek residents between October 2014 and June 2015, funded by a mix of federal and local tax dollars, also found that:
• Nearly all homeowners received a buyout that was higher than what the Travis Central Appraisal District said their houses were worth that year. Buyouts were an average of about $29,000 higher than the last appraisal done before the house was sold to the city.
• The city paid about $125,000 for the average Onion Creek home. The smallest buyout was about $64,000 and the largest was $170,000. The middle 50 percent of the buyouts were between about $121,000 and $136,000.
• Combining the new housing payment with the home buyout, as well as smaller benefits such as moving expenses, brought the average total package to about $191,000. The lowest package was about $130,000 and the highest was about $226,000. The middle 50 percent of the packages were between about $183,000 and $203,000.
• Renters in Onion Creek received thousands of dollars, too. The city provided up to 42 months of rental assistance, which is based on the difference between their rent in Onion Creek and the rent of a comparable unit elsewhere. Among the 17 bought-out properties where tenants received a rental assistance payment, the median payout was about $24,000.
City Real Estate Officer Lauraine Rizer is adamant that Austin hasn’t paid more for homes than they were worth, or more than it takes for former Onion Creek residents to get settled in a livable and comparable dwelling. At the same time, city officials are well aware that, to accomplish their aim of moving residents out of an area at risk of flooding, they can’t make offers so low that no one will accept.
Why the difference?
Since the 2013 flood that killed three people in Travis County and damaged or destroyed 659 structures, some Onion Creek residents have contended that the city isn’t paying enough for their homes. Looking at one measure — comparing the city’s purchase price to the fair market value determined by the Travis appraisal district — the city has consistently bought homes for more than their value on the tax roll.
Rizer said the city always purchases homes for the market value determined by an independent appraiser, though a property owner can point out factual errors in the appraisal and have the home re-examined. Soon after the flood, the city used the pre-flood value and subtracted the amount of structural flood insurance payments that residents received to avoid doubling up on assistance. But as time passed, and pre-flood values became tougher to ascertain, the city used the current value and didn’t subtract out flood insurance, which residents had used to fix their homes.
Rizer noted that the appraisal district uses mathematical models to value properties, whereas the city appraises each home individually and follows specific provisions in federal law and guidelines.
The district also values homes as of Jan. 1 each year, Rizer said. If a homeowner fixes up the house after that date, she said, the home could be worth more than the district’s appraisal and the city could end up paying a higher price.
Paul Snyder, the district’s deputy chief of appraisal, defended the district’s appraisals. He said the district visited the properties affected by Onion Creek after the 2013 flood to ascertain their conditions and adjusted its appraisal models for the area.
The district has since gone back each year to revisit those properties, some of which have since been repaired. The total appraisal of flooded properties in Onion Creek dropped from $91.3 million at the start of 2013 to $71.3 million at the start of 2014, but rose back up to $100.8 million this year (not all that value will be on the tax rolls, as some properties have been purchased by the city).
Still, it’s not unusual in a buyout situation for a city to pay more than the home’s value for tax purposes, said Ron Flanagan, principal planner of consulting firm Flanagan & Associates, who helped Tulsa, Okla., buy 1,000 houses in a floodplain.
Tulsa starts by looking up the county assessor’s value for a home and then hires a private appraiser, Flanagan said. The city pays the higher of the two values, he said.
“We’re not out to make anybody rich, but we’re not out to screw anybody,” Flanagan said.
Finding a new home
Variation in the package amounts given to Onion Creek residents can stem from a multitude of factors, such as differences in home size and features or the number of homes on the market at the time the city purchased a homeowner’s property, Rizer said.
The city is supposed to ensure residents have “decent, safe and sanitary” housing, so if three families were living in a two-bedroom house in Onion Creek, for instance, the city would need to help them buy a larger dwelling, Rizer said. Or an elderly resident might need to be close to a doctor, Rizer said, and homes in the area might be pricier.
Christine and Danny Phillips, who have lived in their home near Onion Creek since the 1970s, are moving in a couple weeks to Bastrop, where they bought an acre of land and a manufactured home, so as not to have to deal with a homeowners association’s rules and dues. The couple is bringing their two dogs, two cats and chickens with them.
They received a buyout package of $219,000 from the city, including $137,000 for their house, Christine Phillips said. If they don’t use the whole sum on their new home, they won’t get the remaining amount of money at all — so they’ve been finding features to add onto the home, such as a fence, and they went for a slightly bigger house than they might have otherwise, Phillips said.
Phillips said she’s happy with the package she ultimately received but that it was deeply frustrating dealing with the city.
After the flood, city staffers told them they wouldn’t be bought out for at least 10 years, Phillips said, so the couple paid for new walls, a new roof, new floors, new cabinets and painted the inside of their house a cheery yellow. The cost was $57,000, which included $42,000 from flood insurance and $15,000 out of their own pockets, Phillips said.
Three months later, the city called and said the couple’s house was slated for purchase, she said.
“If the city had been honest from the beginning, I would have more money in the bank right now,” Phillips said. (City watershed managing engineer Mapi Vigil said that, ever since the flood, the city told Onion Creek residents that their homes would be purchased if the city could find the funding to do so.)
Lillie Flores, who lived by Onion Creek for 22 years, moved this spring to a new home in a Southeast Austin subdivision with the help of a buyout package from the city. Flores wouldn’t say the amount she received but said she was “very pleased.”
She won’t feel she has closure until she’s unpacked all the boxes of her belongings that wound up in various friends’ and families’ houses after the flood. She’s not sure how many boxes she has to retrieve, or whether the items inside are salvageable.
After a week in her new house, she said, it still felt strange to be sleeping in a new bed in a new room, but “it’s finally sinking in. I now have a place to call home.”
What the future holds
Federal money was used in some of the Onion Creek buyouts, so the city decided to use the more generous federal standards for relocation assistance for all the homes it purchased. Unlike the federal standards, city policy caps payments for replacement housing at $22,500, with no exceptions.
The Austin City Council decided in June, out of fairness, to extend the federal standards to Williamson Creek residents in the flood zone who will be bought out with city money. But several council members said the city needs to decide on a consistent policy for any future buyouts.
A flood mitigation task force formed by the council will soon review the city’s own buyout policy. Rizer said the council’s “dilemma is this: Do I help more people by offering less money? Or do I try to help the families be able to afford to move out without leaving the city limits, if they choose to stay in the city?”
Council Member Delia Garza, who represents Southeast Austin’s District 2, said any buyout policy should be flexible enough to account for different situations.
“There’s a move to make general policies for everything, it seems like, on council,” Garza said. “I don’t know how that’s possible because everything is so fact-specific.”
It’s unclear how many of the roughly 5,000 properties in the 100-year floodplain the city will actually buy in the future. In most of Austin’s flood-prone watersheds, the city has identified buyouts as one of many possible solutions, but it hasn’t yet studied whether the best way to prevent flood damage is purchasing properties or building a structure such as a detention pond or a levee.
Meanwhile, the city will continue moving forward with buyouts in Onion Creek under the federal standards.
Stephanie Weijers’ home is among the 232 slated for purchase after the City Council approved a budget of $60 million last year and gave the green-light to move ahead on the buyouts in March. She’s been living in limbo for the past two years, washing dishes in her bathtub and holding off on replacing the countertops in her kitchen.
The latest she’s heard is that the city hopes to finish contacting all homeowners in the buyout by summer 2016, Weijers said, and because her house is lower on the city’s ranking list, she doesn’t expect to hear anything until next spring or summer. She knows from neighbors the buyout process takes about nine months, Weijers said. That’s about another two years of an in-between lifestyle, she said.
“I’m almost 31,” Weijers said. “I would like to have kids, but not like this.”
American-Statesman reporter Andra Lim’s analysis of the buyouts of 113 homes in Onion Creek provides the first public accounting of how much the city has paid for these homes, how that compares with the appraisal district’s values and how much has gone toward relocation payments to help residents buy new homes elsewhere. This story is part of the Statesman’s focus on government spending and continuing coverage of the recovery from the 2013 Halloween flood.
How many homes have been bought?
The city’s voluntary buyout program in Onion Creek, which started in the 1990s, includes $170.5 million in city and federal funding for the purchase of 855 homes. Of those, 323 were bought before the Halloween flood, and 215 have been purchased since the flood (the city provided information on 113 of those buyouts for the Statesman analysis). Once acquired by the city, the homes are demolished, and some of the land is slated to become a recreational area.
The City Council in March green-lighted the purchase of 232 more homes, which could take another year or so.