A government buyout program will pay some Denham Springs residents to move away from their flood-prone neighborhood if they choose, potentially freeing up green space in the city to reduce flooding by retaining more water during heavy rains.
The state awarded Denham Springs $10 million through the Louisiana Watershed Initiative to participate in voluntary buyouts of homes that have repeatedly flooded in the city.
Denham Springs is one of seven locations statewide chosen to participate in the $87 million buyout program, which ideally will benefit low- to moderate-income residents, according to the LWI website.
City officials chose the Spring Park area for the buyouts, which are voluntary. The neighborhood lies along North River Road and backs up to the Amite River.
It was chosen "because it's one of the lowest spots in the city and right next to the river," Denham Springs Mayor Gerard Landry said. "It’s been devastated almost every time we’ve ever had high water," he said.
Since the 2016 flood, Landry said he regularly hears from anxious constituents when it begins to rain. Many of them remain traumatized from the losses sustained in that disaster.
During thunderstorms and flash floods, his phone starts ringing non-stop as he receives texted photos showing rising water in streets and intersections.
"People panic," he said. "If my citizens could go to bed at night and not worry about flooding, that would be the ultimate for me."
Now, homeowners and landlords with property in Spring Park have the option to leave — and get paid to buy a house somewhere else. Even tenants renting in the area could get help on a case-by-case basis. Owners of empty lots can also seek the award.
"This program is 100% — they will buy you out," Landry said. "They’ll pay off your mortgage and give you a check to move to a non-flood area."
Landry sees this as a "game changer" that could help some of his most vulnerable constituents while freeing up space to give back to the community. He stressed the buyouts are not mandatory, but could be a win for all involved.
The buyout awards are based on the appraised fair market value of eligible properties and are capped at $250,000. Those applying for the awards must have clear titles to their properties.
However, officials say duplicative assistance will be subtracted from the award.
A further incentive — which is in addition to the buyout — offers payment above fair market value for those who move to areas of minimal to moderate flood risk.
"We’ve already had probably 20 or 25 homes that have applied for and received federal funds," Mayor Landry said. "This is another way to offer people a way out."
The initiative was introduced at Tuesday's city council meeting.
A timeline shows the application period projected for December and January, with closings beginning as early as March.
Demolition is planned for a year from this November, and organizers predict the project will be completed by June 2023.
For Landry, he said he hopes the buyouts could align with the 2017 Denham Strong initiative which envisioned, among other improvements, a park or green space in the city replete with nature trails, bike paths and potential water storage.
If enough residents choose the buyout, the empty land could be used to develop that plan. A retention pond may even help mitigate flooding.
"What if you don’t have 100% participation?" Landry asked. "My job as mayor is to bring the best possible resolution to the citizens that I can find. As of today, this is the best one."