BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — The houses devastated by 2011 floods along the Susquehanna River in Sidney were some of the village’s most affordable homes. They had already endured historic flooding in 2006, and many had undergone extensive renovations in the aftermath.
Instead of building back again after 2011’s Tropical Storm Lee, over a hundred homeowners decided to sell their properties as part of a floodplain buyout program. Finding a comparable place to live in the village and out of the floodplain, however, has proved difficult in the decade since the flooding.
An Older Affordable Housing Stock
Many of the homes in Sidney’s floodplain are older and housed families for generations.
“I bought this house from my mom and my uncle,” said Steve Bargher, who grew up in Sidney and raised his three kids in a floodplain home. “It was my grandparents’ house and then my grandfather had it built in 1940.”
Bargher’s family home on Winegard Street was among nearly 600 that were damaged in the floods Tropical Storm Lee produced. Bargher’s first floor was flooded with 2 feet of water and outside the water stood 6 feet tall. Emergency responders used boats to rescue residents from their homes.
Gutting the house cost more than $70,000, according to Bargher.
He tried to sell his house on the market. Otherwise, he could not afford to move out of the floodplain.
“We weren’t getting any bites,” Bargher recalled. “Especially when they found out about the flooding.”
Bargher said that was when he decided to enter the village buyout program run by Delaware County.
With federal and state dollars, the county has acquired about 100 homes that were substantially damaged by the 2011 flooding, meaning they lost at least 50 percent of their value.
The idea was that the county would demolish each property in the buyout program and the plots would be held as greenspace in perpetuity, so new residents could not move into the floodplain and homeowners could move to safer ground.
Greenspaces also absorb water, reducing the risk of stormwater runoff and cleanup costs.
Bargher’s neighborhood, which sits between Railroad Avenue and River Street, was one of the worst hit in Sidney. A decade later and the sidewalks remain, but only a few homes dot the neighborhood.
“So you see, there’s still sidewalk, because there were homes all down this side. But the homes are gone, so you just kind of have a sidewalk to nowhere, to the lonely house sitting at the corner now,” Shelly Johnson-Bennett, Delaware County’s Planning Director, pointed out on a visit to the area in July.
Johnson-Bennett oversees the buyout program, which has typically offered homeowners the worth of their house pre-flood. But many of the homes bought out were built for working families during World War II.
Johnson-Bennett said there just is not a lot of value in them.
“Because this is the affordable housing stock, for what they got, [it] wasn’t enough to go out and buy another home of the same value,” Johnson-Bennett said. “That doesn’t exist. We don’t have a lot of affordable housing anywhere in Delaware County.”
Steve Bargher said he received $80,000 for his home, but added that before the village was first devastated by floods in 2006, his home was worth about $120,000.
Bargher did not want to deal with flooding again, so he took the loss.
“It’s very stressful, it’s a lot of work,” he explained. “And we’re getting older.”
A Lack Of Local Options
During the buyout process, Bargher looked for places to move all over Sidney. When he could not find anything at the right price in the village, he expanded his search outward, to nearby Bainbridge and Masonville.
Johnson-Bennett said others who took buyouts moved to Binghamton and Oneonta, where there are more housing options.
When Sherwood Landing, a 32-unit affordable housing development in Sidney, opened just two years after the floods, it filled quickly and not solely with families displaced by the floods.
“They usually were built so much quicker than we can buy out the homes that they actually filled up before we acquired most people,” Johnson-Bennett said.
Plus, only households that fit within a specific income range could qualify for Sherwood Landing. Working families with incomes that exceeded the limit were left to look for other options.
Johnson-Bennett said those options are few. Affordable housing has become increasingly difficult to find in Sidney and its surroundings, known as the Tri-Town, even as it remains a hub for working families because of its proximity to Amphenol Aerospace, which is based in the village and is Delaware County’s largest employer.
“The Tri-Town is particularly in a bad shape for affordable, working family housing, on a nice lot, in a nice neighborhood,” Johnson-Bennett said. “It’s very, very challenging.”
Still, households in the buyout program need somewhere to go. Bargher looked for a new place for eight years and found there was nothing affordable and comparable to his old home nearby. Eventually, he left his manufacturing job at ACCO Brands and moved to North Carolina, where his kids and grandkids live.
Building A Strong Buyout
Jamie Vanucchi, an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at Cornell University*, studies floodplains and communities in them. She said household income largely determines flood resilience.
“When you think about higher-income people living in these zones, they’re usually pretty good at fending for themselves. They have flood insurance or they’re able to move more easily,” Vanucchi explained. “The trouble group that I know they were finding in Sidney was those middle-income people.”
Vanucchi said those families often do not have the freedom to move to another home in the area, or at all, without some support. Strong buyout programs, Vanucchi said, give people with varying incomes incentives to stay in the community.
The more people who move out of an area after a disaster, the more its tax base is reduced. That could make the area financially worse-off, but migration out of a small community like Sidney, Johnson-Bennett emphasized, has other far-reaching effects.
“When you move families out, you move kids out of the school district. You move your volunteer firemen away from your fire department. The people that serve the rotary, the people that are in United Way, the people that attend our local churches,” Johnson-Bennett said. “Those are the people that are the heart and soul of the community. Those are the people that you want to preserve and protect because they are the community.”
A decade after the flood and there are still more than a dozen buyouts left to close on. It remains a chance to keep those residents in Sidney, if only housing for them exists.
*Full Disclosure: Cornell University is a WSKG Underwriter