The last month in the United States has offered a preview of life in a changing climate. The hurricane-induced flooding and power outages, wildfire destruction, and drought leading to the Colorado River’s first compact call are examples of the kinds of impacts that rising global temperatures will bring. The physical realities of climate change, including rising sea levels, decreasing access to water, heightened fire risk, hotter surface temperatures, and more, are only expected to intensify. And those physical changes will of course have tremendous social consequences. While the severity of both physical and social impacts depends ultimately on how much warming the planet experiences, even at current levels of warming we have seen these impacts start to occur. And as is already being made clear, those impacts will be felt very differently, both within particular regions and in the country (and world) as a whole.
The expectation of disparate impacts of climate change is backed up by the Environmental Protection Agency’s recently-released report on climate change and social vulnerability in the United States. The EPA report confirms that populations, including Black and African-American, American Indian and Alaska Native, Hispanic and Latino, low income, and Asian individuals and Pacific Islanders, “who are already vulnerable due to a range of social, economic, historical, and political factors have a lower capacity to prepare for, cope with, and recover from climate change impacts.” The studied impacts include increased risk of property destruction and loss, as well as negative health outcomes from extreme heat and air pollution. All of those impacts should be carefully considered by local governments anticipating how their most vulnerable populations will be impacted by climate change.
Among those possible local impacts is the potential for climate change to enhance existing housing pressures, or to create new ones. Physical destruction caused by climate change is likely to render unusable or undesirable some amount of the housing stock in much of the country. Susceptibility to coastal or inland flooding, wildfire risk, inferiority of water rights, or relative vulnerability to increased temperatures will make certain parts of local areas less livable. These climate impacts are likely to stress the inventory of available climate-safe housing. When this happens, both the quantity and desirability of the housing supply will change. For instance, in areas that once prized living close to the water, neighborhoods situated further inland may become more desirable. In areas vulnerable to forest fires, living farther from flammable brush may provide greater fire protection. As those housing preferences shift, we can expect to see increased rental or sales prices in areas of relative climate safety.
That market response is entirely predictable, as is the fact that climate security is now likely to be an indicator of the potential for climate gentrification. Climate gentrification, like gentrification more broadly, refers to a cycle of rising desirability in an area followed by higher costs of housing that may operate to displace current residents. Similar to other forms of environmental gentrification, climate gentrification has the added attribute of being triggered by an environmental benefit that displaced residents do not get to share in. Climate security is likely to become a new factor in determining housing value and price, and may also mean that residents—particularly tenants—in areas of relative climate safety face the prospect of displacement in the future. If insufficient supply of climate-safe housing is available, then those displaced either by climate impacts or by gentrification pressures will have limited housing options.
Tied into that prospect of displacement is the fact that many local governments will be faced with the question of whether and how to protect against—or rebuild in the face of—climate change-induced destruction. When it comes to flooding, adaptations like sea walls have been considered or adopted by many localities with some apparent success, although these measures are also accompanied by concerns about their overall effectiveness and negative environmental impacts. These kinds of interventions are also tremendously expensive, and their limited use capacity raises the question of which properties to save and which to relinquish. A simple cost-benefit analysis based on property values is likely to result in the preservation of property owned by relatively wealthier—and, broadly speaking, whiter—populations, while leaving lower value coastal properties still vulnerable to climate impacts. It also means that, given the market pressures described above, areas of what is now affordable housing that gain the benefit of these protections are likely to become much more desirable and therefore primed for gentrification.
Shifts of population in response to climate change could occur at a relatively micro level, as people move within a particular city or region. But if—and, increasingly likely, when—global temperature moves closer to an average of four degrees of warming, these smaller patterns related to climate safe housing will also play out at a national level. In other words, at higher levels of warming, large areas of the country will be rendered uninhabitable by climate change, and will see the out-migration of large numbers of residents. These climate migrants may be drawn in large numbers to areas of the United States like the Great Lakes region, that, while not immune to climate change, are expected to suffer relatively less dramatic impacts than some other parts of the country. If that kind of migration occurs in large enough numbers, it could place pressure on available housing supply and increase prices in these climate destinations in ways that impact both long-term residents there as well as those seeking a climate haven.
Climate security, then, is a residential and commercial amenity. As the realities of climate change and attendant environmental destruction sink in, we can expect to see increased rental or sales prices in areas that offer better protection from climate impacts. As local governments that are vulnerable to shortages in the climate-safe housing supply plan for climate change (read: ideally all of them), it is worth thinking now about how to soften the impacts of climate gentrification. A number of planning tools are available to help ensure that climate-safe housing is available to everyone. As in the broader debates about zoning reform and sufficiency of housing, local governments can take actions to remove zoning barriers to the construction of additional housing. They can attach affordable housing requirements to development permits, use community land trusts to help current residents stay in place, and apply vacancy taxes, among other steps. And to the extent this kind of planning isn’t occurring at the local level—or local governments are actively putting up barriers to climate-secure housing—then there is a role for the state or federal government to get involved in insuring sufficient housing supply.
The above discussion, and the problem it details, is riddled with “ifs.” Both the extent and impact climate change will have on the availability of housing to all still is uncertain. Planning now at all levels of government is important, because if housing equity is not integrated into the climate conversation at an early stage, experience tells us that it will be lost in a warming world as costs rise and housing needs become increasingly pressing .