Is white flight driving flood buyouts in Houston?

A new analysis of home buyouts in the Houston area before Hurricane Harvey shows that most federally subsidized buyouts after major floods have occurred in areas that in earlier decades saw the greatest exodus of white residents.

“Urban Ecology in the Time of Climate Change: Houston, Flooding and the Case of Federal Buyouts,” will appear in an upcoming issue of Social Currents. Rice University researchers Kevin Loughran, a postdoctoral research fellow in sociology; James Elliott, a professor of sociology; and S. Wright Kennedy, who is now a postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia University after earning a Ph.D. in history at Rice this year, drew on data from more than 3,000 buyouts in Harris County during recent decades, matching them to the changing racial composition of neighborhoods over time.

The researchers found that the biggest predictor of buyouts is a neighborhood’s residential transition from a white (non-Hispanic) majority to a Hispanic majority between 1970 and 2000, before most buyouts occurred. Super neighborhoods that fit this criterion – including La Porte/Shoreacres – had up to eight times more buyouts than Meyerland, which has remained a majority-white neighborhood since before 1970, and four times more than Kashmere Gardens, which has had an African-American majority over the same period.

This pattern emerged even after researchers controlled for various socio-economic factors, including residents’ average income, the dollar amount per acre of the buyout offer and population density. Loughran said this suggests the possibility that buyouts are accelerating, perhaps unwittingly, white flight to the suburbs, where new data suggests many participants in buyout programs end up.

“Government officials typically view higher acceptance of buyouts as a measure of success,” Loughran said. “Given that Houston has many flood-prone neighborhoods, it stands to reason that officials may target areas where they anticipate more people are willing to accept the buyouts. While we do not know the racial identity of the people who have accepted buyouts, our results raise the question of whether whites are using buyouts to leave areas in which they are increasingly in the minority.”

For example, the population of the Inwood neighborhood, which had the highest number of buyouts in the study (476), was 83 percent white in 1970 but has a Hispanic majority now. Similarly, a neighborhood in Aldine Southeast with the second-highest number of buyouts – 224 – went from 91 percent white in 1970 to 85 percent Hispanic now.

Given the evidence of white flight in neighborhoods with the most buyouts, the researchers examined areas where racial changes have been the most pronounced, including Channelview and Pasadena. Of the individuals in these neighborhoods who took buyouts, only 22 percent had Spanish surnames, a rough proxy for Hispanic identity. This percentage is much lower than the overall Hispanic composition of these neighborhoods, which now averages approximately 67 percent.

Loughran said these findings are just one piece in a bigger puzzle of how buyouts affect communities and vice versa.

“Individuals moving away from neighborhoods affect different places in different ways,” Loughran said. “In whiter, more affluent areas, vacant lots from buyout properties often turn into small recreational spaces, while similar lots in minority, less affluent areas are not so well-tended and can negatively affect home values in the surrounding area. There’s also the issue of people moving from one area to another after buyouts in ways that create new flood risks in old areas due to increased development and runoff upstream.”

The researchers hope the study will encourage more study of how buyouts – including those following Hurricane Harvey – reflect and shape ongoing racial change and residential mobility, not just in Houston but across the country as federally funded buyouts are increasingly adopted as a policy tool to deal with mounting costs of repeat flooding.

The paper is available online at

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.