Post-Sandy Buyouts Lead to Complicated Question: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Tracey Samuelson, Scott Gurian | August 7, 2013 | Sandy
Taking money and leaving may seem like the obvious move -- but it's not that simple

This interactive poll is part of an editorial package that includes an article about how Sandy survivors are struggling to get on with their lives.

Sayreville resident Dawn Obel has been holding off on doing repairs, hoping for a buyout so she can leave the neighborhood.
In the aftermath of Sandy, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection has earmarked $300 million of federal storm relief money to acquire 1,300 flood-prone properties in tidal areas throughout the state. So far, 138 homeowners in Sayreville and 76 in South River have been accepted into the program, and more will be announced in the coming months.

Governor Christie has stressed that the buyouts are completely voluntary.

“I’m not coming in here and telling people who want to stay that they have to go,” he said last month at a press conference in South River, “But I know there are a lot of people who want to go, and this is their chance to do that.”

To outsiders seeing the extent of the damage caused by Sandy, applying for a buyout might seem like a no-brainer, but for those directly affected, choosing whether to stay or whether to throw in the towel can be an extremely difficult decision, amid a myriad of factors to consider.

To help you understand some of the complexities that might be involved in making such a decision, NJ Spotlight has created an online questionnaire to present some of the pros and cons that people placed in this situation might have to weigh. The specific situations and arguments described are hypothetical, but they’re based on real conversations with actual residents. This questionnaire is for informational purposes only, and is in no way intended to simplify or belittle the life-changing decisions that residents of flood-prone area may need to make. Rather, it’s intended to make people think and challenge their assumptions.

Read the arguments and counter-arguments, cast your vote and leave us your comments to let us know what you think!

Here’s how it works: During the course of this activity, we’ll ask you four times: If your home was severely flooded during Sandy and you were offered a buyout, should you take it? Based on how you answer, we’ll present the opposite point of view for your consideration. Only your final vote will count toward the results of this poll.

Let’s get started:

If your home was severely flooded during Sandy and you were offered a buyout, should you take it?
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* Yes
* No

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Yes. But have you considered…

Let’s say you grew up in this neighborhood and have lived here all your life. Your parents settled here after emigrating from Poland, and your father built the house by hand, using local stones and lumber. All your siblings and extended family members live within a three block radius. You have three kids who attend the local elementary school, and the school system is above average for the area. It would be tough at their age moving them away from their friends. It’s also just ten minutes away from your office. Your spouse can’t imagine leaving.

You live in a safe, friendly, tight-knit community where everyone knows and watches after each other, and you’ve got a ton of great memories spanning nearly forty years. There are block parties in the summer, and people help shovel out their elderly neighbors during winter snow storms. Your neighbors regularly invite you over for dinner or coffee, and they sit on their front porches for hours when the weather is nice, chatting with friends who live on the street and dishing all the local gossip.

Sandy hit your neighborhood heard, but people banded together to help each other out, and you can’t imagine too many places where there’d be this sort of incredible camaraderie.

Besides, after living here for decades, where would you go?

No. But have you considered…

Governor Christie has said the state will focus on acquiring entire blocks or sections of neighborhoods rather than individual homes. If a group of people on your street wants to leave, you and other holdouts might jeopardize their chance of being considered for a buyout if there’s not enough neighborhood consensus.

Suppose a bunch of your neighbors are offered a buyout, and you decide to stay. You’ll be one of the few people left in what will become a ghost town. Without as much density, city services could suffer, and crime could increase with less people around to watch after each other. There will be no more block parties or neighborhood barbeques, and it could be quite lonely at times. If another big storm came along, you’d be on your own. All the neighbors who pitched in and helped after Sandy, shoveling out each other’s basements and providing moral support would now be gone.

If your home was severely flooded during Sandy and you were offered a buyout, should you take it?
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* Yes
* No

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Yes. But have you considered…

What if you don’t feel the price the state is offering you for your home is fair? You can try to appeal and ask for a higher price, but what if you’re still not satisfied?

Part of your home’s value is not just the structure of your house itself, but all the amenities in the neighborhood. For example, you live near the river, so there’s a marina where people launch their boats. The neighborhood has its own park and ball field just down the block. It’s walking distance from several stores, and there are several major highways close by.

There are also more intangible benefits, on which it’s hard to put a dollar amount: it’s a great place to raise children, you have wonderful neighbors, and it’s a safe place to live. Plus, the neighborhood is close to a hundred years old, so there’s a strong sense of history that would be a shame to simply demolish.

Despite all these selling points, this is a very affordable neighborhood, and you were able to get great value for your money living here. Based on what the state is offering you, there’s no way you’d be able to afford living anywhere else that comes even remotely close to your experience in this community.

No. But have you considered…

Leaving may be your best option. You don’t really have the money to make all the needed repairs, and if you stay, you’ll have to raise your home to comply with the new FEMA flood map elevation requirements. That could cost tens of thousands of dollars. Alternately, if you don’t raise your home, your new flood insurance premiums could skyrocket, making it dramatically more expensive to live in this neighborhood. And all these expenses are on top of your mortgage, which you’re already struggling to pay. If you decide to stay, you could risk foreclosure. You’ve applied for various types of FEMA assistance but have been placed on waiting lists. So as much as you may want to stay, you might not really have a choice.

If your home was severely flooded during Sandy and you were offered a buyout, should you take it?
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* Yes
* No

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Yes. But have you considered…

You’re 73 years old. Sandy was an awful experience, but it was probably the storm of the century, and given your age, it seems unlikely that you’ll ever live through something like that again.

Sure, your neighborhood has experienced some flooding in previous storms, but it wasn’t anywhere near this bad. You can deal with pumping a little water out of your basement. People are overreacting.

Making major changes is hard at your age. Rather than sacrifice everything you’ve come to know and love about living where you do for something that you don’t think you’ll ever experience again, you should take the risk and stay put.

No. But have you considered…

Scientists say storms like Sandy could become more frequent and more severe. In addition, environmentalists say continued over-development throughout the area will erode more wetlands, taking away from the natural storm buffer system and making flooding an even more regular occurrence.

Continuing to live where you live may become more expensive, since you may have to make frequent repairs due to storms. More importantly, Sandy has taught you that living in this neighborhood is not safe for you and your family.

You’re getting up there in years and nearing retirement, and you can’t do everything you used to do. You should spend your golden years living somewhere where you don’t have to worry about things like this. It was a lot easier when you were younger, but who knows if you’ll physically be able to handle another storm like this?

If your home was severely flooded during Sandy and you were offered a buyout, should you take it?
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* Yes
* No

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Yes. But have you considered…

The cost of paying for someone to totally repair and elevate their home that was severely damaged by Sandy could top $100,000, but it would still be much cheaper than giving people buyouts, so the money could be used to help many more residents. Plus, if you give people money to help them stay rather than leave, they’ll remain as tax-paying residents of the town, and the hit to the municipal budget won’t be as great.

Furthermore, this neighborhood may be prone to flooding and not be safe to live in right now, but if the homes are elevated high enough and proper mitigation measures like dunes and levies are constructed and maintained going forward, it’s possible that people could continue to live here without further harm or major damage to property.

Besides, simply offering people buyouts and declaring certain neighborhoods uninhabitable is a cop-out because it avoids confronting part of the root cause of the problem — the over-development practices that continue to this day, further eroding natural storm buffers and contributing to even more flooding in future storms.

No. But have you considered…

This may be your one and only chance to leave. If you’re offered a buyout but you turn it down, it’s unlikely that you’ll be offered again in the future. And good luck selling your house for anything near what it’s worth. The longer you stay, the more storms there are and the more the flood risk increases, the more your home’s value will drop. Many buyers will be scared away from considering anything in this neighborhood, not only because of the dangers of future flooding but also because of the increased cost of insurance if you choose not to elevate your house.

You may want to continue living there, but what about when you die and your kids inherit it? They won’t be able to do anything with it either. Think through this decision very carefully, because you won’t be able to change your mind later on.

Now that you’ve read some of the arguments, it’s time to cast your final vote to see the results of the poll.

If your home was severely flooded during Sandy and you were offered a buyout, should you take it?
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* Yes
* No

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Thanks for participating.

As noted at the beginning, the purpose of this questionnaire was to present some of the hypothetical arguments that people might have to consider when choosing whether to accept a buyout. Obviously, reading something on a website is very different from experiencing it in person, so it would be unrealistic for us to expect that this questionnaire would give anyone a sense of what it’s “really like.” Nor would we expect that someone placed in this difficult situation could make such a complicated choice by merely taking a quick survey like this. Still, we hope this experience was informative and insightful. Please let us know what you think by clicking the “comments” link below.