April 4, 2023
Scientists predict that, by 2100, over 13 million Americans could be forced to permanently leave their homes due to climate change. Already, natural disasters impacted 10 percent of all U.S. homes in 2021, resulting in $60 billion in damages and 57,000 displaced people. Making things even more complicated, the prospect of climate change is pushing some property values down in vulnerable areas, while prompting housing costs in relatively protected areas to increase — exacerbating existing racial and economic inequalities. As climate conditions deteriorate, this predicament will very likely worsen.
In the face of these bleak facts, what might this mean for housing security in the United States?
The good news is that if we can make smart policy choices now, we can chart a course towards proactive, cost-effective solutions that ensure the most vulnerable communities in the U.S. are resilient in the face of climate crises.
One promising policy that New America is exploring is managed retreat, an adaptation measure that seeks to incentivize residents in vulnerable places to move to safer ground. It often involves governments proactively planning buyouts (i.e., paying someone the value of their home to move instead of rebuilding after a disaster) or preventing residents from moving to a climate-vulnerable area. To be effective, though, it requires collaboration among federal agencies, local governments, and private industry. And proactive planning is also key: Buyouts, for example, need to be available before disasters strike, which is a far cry from the current norm.
For coastal communities in the U.S. facing both storms and rising sea levels, a solution is especially urgent. Providing pathways for these residents to move would allow for measured relocations rather than abrupt, traumatic displacement following a disaster. Moving the 20 million people at risk from sea-level rise alone appears daunting. Gradually relocating 250,000 per year until 2100 doesn’t sound quite as harrowing, especially when you consider that 40 million Americans already move each year.
But there are equity considerations. We know, for example, that climate disasters disproportionately impact historically marginalized communities. And managed retreat, even when executed, is becoming increasingly inequitable. To offset these harms and level the playing field, one solution might be to provide targeted funding and technical assistance directly to smaller or poorer municipalities, those with less capacity to secure funds and stand up programs themselves.
Managed retreat admittedly isn’t an easy sell — for various social and political reasons. Nonetheless, the strategy has been implemented successfully in certain communities. New Jersey’s Blue Acres Buyout Plan has facilitated over 1,000 voluntary buyouts since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Two Native American tribes in Alaska and one in Washington State have received $25 million, respectively, to relocate from their flood-prone communities.
But what about those who stay in vulnerable communities, either by choice or necessity? Higher-income households are more likely to have the social and economic resources to access assistance, rebuild, or move away, perpetuating existing inequalities in the process by draining vulnerable areas of its most well-resourced residents. To make matters worse, housing values in vulnerable areas might plummet as climate-related risks become increasingly apparent.
To allow residents to remain in their homes with a judicious eye toward the future, local governments might offer “life estates,” where residents are permitted to stay in their homes for the remainder of their lives, but afterwards those homes revert to government control. Similarly, communities could deploy rolling easements, which halt construction over time in response to rising sea levels and coastal erosion.
Those who do leave might opt to move to safer areas. Some Rust Belt cities — Buffalo, Duluth, and Detroit, for example — are branding themselves as “climate havens.” Although these cities possess the space necessary to house thousands of climate refugees, climate gentrification threatens to raise housing costs and exacerbate affordable housing shortages. Indeed, these dynamics have already surfaced in New Orleans, Miami, and Flagstaff. As such, we recommend that the federal and state governments help these future climate havens welcome migrants through tax breaks and affordable housing construction — creating climate opportunity zones of sorts.
As the impacts of climate change on housing continue to intensify, the decisions we make now will determine the degree to which adaptation measures are fair and equitable. Proactive and principled policies are critical to ensuring all communities have access to safe, affordable housing in the face of climate threats.
Read more from our Climate Changes Everything themed issue:
🌎 Barbados’s Urgent Call for a Global Climate Finance Plan: Global coordination is needed to tackle the climate crisis, and the Bridgetown Initiative would overhaul the global finance system for the fight.
🖊️ Why We Need Stories of Climate Optimism: Meeting the challenges of climate change will require imagination at every level, from local communities to global institutions.
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