Demands begin in Columbia, Richland County for flood buyouts

Flood leaves a ghost town in neighborhood

The lowest lying houses in the flooded neighborhood off South Beltline Avenue are vacant leaving the few remaining residents a mostly quiet neighborhood.
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The lowest lying houses in the flooded neighborhood off South Beltline Avenue are vacant leaving the few remaining residents a mostly quiet neighborhood.

More than 70 property owners in Richland County have told officials they are interested in selling their properties to transform them into green space.

And that number is likely to rise as more residents respond to letters from Columbia and Richland County asking about their interest in a buyout.

“There’s definitely a demand,” said Rachel Larratt, a member of the Blue Ribbon Committee that in February advised Richland County to make buyouts its top priority for expected disaster relief. “And it makes sense for the county and city as well as the homeowners.”

The possibility of buyouts has been discussed since record rain on Oct. 4 damaged hundreds of homes in the Midlands.

Steep costs and restrictions to rebuilding, plus the allocation of tens of millions of federal dollars to South Carolina communities for flood recovery, has fueled the talk.

Some of the $20 million that Columbia and $23.5 million that Richland County will receive in flood recovery aid from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development can be used for buyouts.

So can about $9 million of the estimated $36 million available to local governments statewide for long-term disaster recovery projects. Columbia, Richland County and other governments will apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for that money.

Even with several sources of aid available, not all eligible properties are guaranteed to be bought out. Local governments still are identifying properties eligible to be purchased and contacting property owners.

Nineteen Columbia property owners so far have called the city to ask for buyouts, city budget director Missy Caughman said. And that’s even before the city distributes letters this week asking more than 200 property owners if they would be interested.

Owners of 57 eligible properties in unincorporated Richland County have told officials they would be receptive to a buyout and another 18 have not replied, spokeswoman Beverly Harris said.

A chunk of those “yes” replies came at a Feb. 25 meeting between county officials and residents. After county officials explained the buyout process, 19 residents there immediately signed a form indicating interest.

One of those was Jim Cheatham, whose home on Timberlane Drive along Gills Creek was ruined.

Cheatham and others in his neighborhood off South Beltline Boulevard found repairs to their homes – including raising them to meet flood protection standards – would be more costly than starting over elsewhere.

“I signed it (the form) that night and turned it in,” said Cheatham, who recently bought a home in West Columbia. “That’s just going to be a godsend if that happens.”

Municipal and county officials will rank eligible properties during the next few months and include some or all in applications for federal aid. Property owners who indicate their interest in buyouts can back out until the purchase. If bought, their homes would be converted to green space, never again to be developed.

Larratt, whose home near Gills Creek was damaged but isn’t eligible for a buyout, said buyouts are a “really good option” for residents who balk at the price of repairs.

“We can’t make everybody whole,” she said, “but we can at least give them a better start.”

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks

Home buyouts in Columbia and Richland County

19 Columbia property owners have asked for it

More than 200 letters will be sent to Columbia property owners this week asking if they are interested in a buyout

Owners of 57 of 75 eligible properties – mainly homes – in unincorporated Richland County expressed interest in a buyout