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Why Some Flood Homeowners Think Twice Before Selling to the City of Austin

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT
The aftermath of the Halloween flooding in the Onion Creek neighborhood.

The city of Austin has made offers to buy at least two dozen homes damaged by the Halloween flood. Why then, are some homeowners refusing to sell?

Floods are nothing new in South East Austin’s Onion Creek neighborhood. And neither is the city’s buyout program. It began back in 1998. The idea has always been to buy homes in the floodplain using taxpayer money to avoid future loss of life and property damages.

Terry Morris, a contractor and a real estate agent in Austin, owns a duplex in Onion Creek that’s been on the city’s buyout list for years. He recently opted out of the program.

“We went through the whole process with the city,” Morris says, “[the city] appraised the value of the property. We didn’t agree with that appraisal. We did our own. And I can tell you, as a realtor, they weren’t willing to pay what the property was worth.”

The city says its Real Estate Department follows the same rules any other real estate company would when appraising properties. They look into comparable properties and, in this particular case, they are appraising damaged properties according to what they were worth before the flood.

City of Austin employee Pam Griffith is one of the people involved with the buyout program.

“As of today, we have 26 offers that have been made to property owners. And half of those have already been accepted," Griffith says.

It’s hard to tell why the other half of the offers have yet to be accepted. The city cites confidentiality issues. But it could be that some owners, like Morris, disagree with the value the city has placed on their property. Others may not be ready to sell at the moment because their entire life is still in limbo.

The case of Diana Rivera is kind of like that. She knows she’s getting bought out. But she hasn’t received an offer from the city. At the same time, she has received some money from her insurance. But wonders whether she should invest more money into a property that the city says it will appraise at pre-flood values. 

“I’m waiting. They haven’t given me a time frame. I don’t know whether to rebuild [or not]” Rivera says.

The city is not disclosing how much it is offering homeowners for their Onion Creek homes. But Melinda Ruby, with the city’s Real Estate Department, says that’s because the packages are not “straight-forward."

“There’s a lot other things that go in. [The city] also [pays] closing costs. We also give moving [expenses]. So, it’s just not the appraised value that we are giving," Ruby says.

While the purchases are finalized by the city, it is important to note that all of the homes that are being bought out are part of the original buyout plan that was crafted in the 90’s. That’s roughly six hundred homes.

There simply isn’t enough money to buy all of the eleven hundred homes that were damaged or destroyed in the Halloween flood.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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