Benito Arellano, a 39-year-old father of three, has been waiting for a city buyout since the 2013 Halloween flood brought a foot of water into his Onion Creek home. He used his own money to rebuild the home he’s lived in with his wife since 1998, only to get hit again by the Oct. 30 floods.
“I can’t afford to rebuild again,” he said.
Arellano was one of more than two dozen homeowners who delivered emotional testimony Sunday afternoon in a special City Council meeting called by Mayor Steve Adler to discuss flood relief efforts. Anna Perez, whose home filled a third of the way to the ceiling during the 2013 Halloween flood, was among the residents pleading with the city to speed up the buyout program.
“How many more floods do we have to go through?” Perez asked. “How many lives have to be lost?”
City Council members worked to address their concerns by discussing several aspects of the recovery. They approved an ordinance waiving the permit fees for repairs on flooded properties, which would otherwise cost the typical homeowner $974.
After considerable discussion, the council also spelled out how the buyouts of remaining homes will work. Appraisals will be done for the homes’ value before the Oct. 30 flood, and the buyout offer will be based on the appraised value minus any payment provided by insurance.
Residents with insurance will get a $15,000 credit toward their buyout offer, though, under the assumption that they spent about that amount on interim repairs and other living expenses until their buyout from the city came through. Those who believe they need to spend more than that should meet with the city first to discuss those repairs, and they would have to provide receipts to get credit for anything above that $15,000 threshold.
Council Member Delia Garza offered the $15,000 provision in hopes of simplifying the process for residents. Adler noted that such a threshold would encourage residents to keep repairs to a minimum on homes that ultimately will be bought out.
“What we really don’t want is people spending money on these houses that are going to be torn down in six months or eight months or a year,” Adler said.
Before the Oct. 30 flood, 585 properties were bought out in the Lower Onion Creek area, and another 270 remain to be acquired, City Real Estate Officer Lauraine Rizer told the council. At the current rate, it could take two years to complete all of those buyouts, she said.
One of the biggest reason for the delays, she said, is “they can’t find a home for the amount of money we’re offering in the city limits.”
Austin offers a relocation payment to help cover the difference, but Rizer suggested the city could expedite the buyouts by increasing that payment and expanding the area where the city looks for possible replacement homes for these residents.
Increasing the relocation payment by $75,000 per home, for instance, would “allow us to move people quickly,” Rizer said — at a cost of $20 million more for those 270 buyouts.
Council members did not make any decision on the relocation payments but asked the staff to bring them more detailed proposals on how they might expedite the buyouts and what the costs would be.
Adler declared a local state of disaster last week, and Garza urged Adler to call the special meeting Sunday. Council members approved extending the local state of disaster for 30 days. The declaration helps the city qualify for federal reimbursement for certain recovery costs.
Residents of Dove Springs and the Onion Creek area, which were hit hardest in both the 2013 and 2015 floods, called on city officials to press forward with buyouts with greater urgency.
Mike Rodriguez, a member of the Onion Creek Homeowners Association board of directors, told council members that 15 percent of his neighborhood’s homes were flooded in 2013.
“It shouldn’t be called the 100-year flood plain,” Rodriguez said. “This time 66 homes were flooded again.”