Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Act of 1970
The Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Act of 1970 (URA) (42 U.S.C. §§ 4621 et seq. (2020); 49 C.F.R. pt. 24 (2020)) is a federal law enacted to provide standard and predictable real property acquisition and relocation expenses for homeowners and tenants of land acquired through eminent domain. URA ensures consistent treatment for people displaced through federal programs or with federal funding. State and local governments can learn and draw from URA when evaluating the amount and types of relocation assistance potentially provided for bought-out homeowners and tenants as a part of comprehensive retreat strategies. Relocation assistance can help people impacted by disaster events, like flooding, or more gradual changes from climate change, like sea-level rise, afford a new home on safer ground by offsetting the different costs associated with buyouts. In addition, relocation assistance can potentially incentivize and better enable residents to relocate within their same municipality or region if housing prices are cost prohibitive without gap or supplemental government funding above the money provided for a buyout (e.g., pre-storm fair market value). Local relocations can help to preserve communities and minimize the social and economic costs of moving and reductions in tax bases.
Homeowners whose properties are acquired through eminent domain have a number of rights under the URA. First, governments must provide homeowners with relocation advisory services (42 U.S.C. § 4625 (2020)). Second, government must provide at least 90 days written notice prior to requiring an owner to vacate his/her residence (42 U.S.C. § 4623 (2020)). Third, governments must provide payments to the displaced owner sufficient to cover the reasonable price of a “comparable replacement dwelling,”1 as well as any additional costs that might arise in the process of acquiring the replacement (42 U.S.C. § 4623 (2020)), including any moving expenses (42 U.S.C. § 4622 (2020)). These additional payments may include compensation for increased interest or other debt service costs that are required to finance the replacement. Additional costs may also include compensation for reasonable expenses a homeowner may incur for evidence of proof of title, recording fees, and other closing costs that result from purchasing a replacement dwelling.
Like for private property owners, the URA includes requirements to prevent the displacement of tenants; however, when it comes to tenants, the URA is considered, by default, involuntary (42 U.S.C. § 4624 (2020)). Compared to homeowners, tenants who meet minimum requirements (i.e., have occupied a property for more than 90 days and move to a replacement dwelling within one year) are provided benefits and relocation assistance under the URA regardless of whether the acquisition of their place of residence is involuntary through eminent domain or voluntary (i.e., with the consent of a property’s owner) through federal programs like the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.2 To that end, governments are required to provide tenants certain rights and protections for both involuntary and voluntary acquisitions. First, they must provide tenants notice of a property’s acquisition. Tenants must be made aware that the property is subject to purchase by the government and they must be given at least 90 days to relocate to a “comparable replacement dwelling” outside the floodplain. This comparable dwelling, however, must be “decent, safe, and sanitary.”3 In some circumstances, tenants may be given more than 90 days to have sufficient time to find a replacement dwelling. Tenants must also be kept regularly apprised of the availability and prices of replacement dwelling options. Second, government acquisition payments should be large enough to allow the tenants to lease or rent a comparable dwelling for up to 42 months. If a tenant qualifies as a “low-income” person under the act, that must be taken into consideration when determining the level of these payments. Payments can be adjusted if the head of the lead government agency determines that cost of living, inflation, or other factors suggest adjustment would be necessary to meet the policy objectives of the act.
State and local governments can consider creating voluntary buyout programs as one way to adapt to sea-level rise, flooding, and erosion by helping people “retreat” or move out of harm’s way in vulnerable coastal zones and floodplains. Interested governments should seek to provide relocation assistance when the URA would not apply - notably for federally funded voluntary buyouts for homeowners and state- and locally funded buyouts for both homeowners and tenants - to minimize the economic and social impacts of voluntary buyouts. As a starting point, state and local governments can evaluate the URA and existing examples of relocation assistance within their own or other states. In accordance with URA, states have developed relocation assistance laws and guidance for properties acquired through eminent domain for transportation (e.g., right-of-ways, road improvements) and other public works projects.4 State or local governments can replicate or build on this already-established work and adapt it for institutionalizing voluntary buyouts in a coastal context. For example, in Austin, Texas, the city’s Watershed Protection Department has exceeded federal and state requirements5 and adopted URA's relocation assistance model for voluntary, in addition to involuntary, buyouts for homeowners for flood risk reduction projects.6 Austin utilizes an existing system to provide relocation assistance to homeowners (in the form of payments above a buyout offer to enable people to purchase a “comparable home” in Austin) and does not need to dedicate limited city resources to develop new relocation assistance policies from scratch.
- Post-Disaster Community Investments in Lumberton Through the North Carolina State Acquisition and Relocation Fund for Buyout Relocation Assistance
- Managing the Retreat from Rising Seas — City of Austin, Texas: Flood Risk Reduction Buyout Projects
1. “Comparable replacement dwelling” means “any dwelling that is (A) decent, safe, and sanitary; (B) adequate in size to accommodate the occupants; (C) within the financial means of the displaced person; (D) functionally equivalent; (E) in an area not subject to unreasonable adverse environmental conditions; and (F) in a location generally not less desirable than the location of the displaced person's dwelling with respect to public utilities, facilities, services, and the displaced person's place of employment.” Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Act of 1970, 42 U.S.C. § 4601(10) (2020).
2. Fed. Emergency Mgmt. Agency, Hazard Mitigation Assistance (HMA) Guidance on Property Acquisition and Relocation for the Purpose of Open Space 188.8.131.52.1.8 Tenants, https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/20130726-1721-25045-7176/web_page_3_acq_guidance_06_20_08__2_.txt; Fed. Emergency Mgmt. Agency, URA Relocation Assistance for Tenants Fact Sheet, available at https://www.fema.gov/pdf/government/grant/resources/hbf_ii_3.pdf.
3. A “decent, safe, and sanitary dwelling” is generally defined as “a dwelling which meets local housing and occupancy codes,” and that must satisfy a number of conditions prescribed in the regulations at 49 C.F.R. § 24.2(a)(8) (2020), including that a dwelling be structurally sound and the amount of living space adequately accommodates the displaced person and his/her family.
4. See, e.g., N.C. Dep’t of Transp., Guidance on Relocation Assistance (Dec. 2016), available at https://connect.ncdot.gov/business/ROW/ROW%20Documents/Relocation%20Assistance%20Brochure.pdf; N.C. Gen. Stat. ch. 133, art. 2 (2019); S.C. Dep’t of Transp., Relocation Assistance Manual (Jan. 2016), available at https://www.scdot.org/business/pdf/rightofway/Relocation.pdf.
5. Tex. Prop. Code: Prop. § 21.046 (2019).
6. City of Austin Code ch. 14-3 (2019), available at https://library.municode.com/tx/austin/codes/code_of_ordinances?nodeId=TIT14USSTPUPR_CH14-3REBE.