by Aparna Nathan
Bright blue water, white sand beaches, and all within feet of your front door: these features make beachfront properties in Miami some of the most desirable (and expensive) real estate in the city. But in 2017, Hurricane Irma swept through the city, causing billions of dollars in damage to these sought-after properties. Meanwhile, lower-income inland neighborhoods like Little Haiti and Liberty City were battered but somewhat protected from flooding and winds by their elevation and distance from the coast.
These neighborhoods have historically been seen as undesirable by real estate developers and affluent homebuyers. But their climate resilience may lead to an influx of real estate investment and spiking home prices as the changing climate starts playing a bigger role in determining where and how we live. This phenomenon, known as “climate gentrification,” will not only exacerbate inequality in cities already plagued by housing shortages and socioeconomic inequity, but also puts vulnerable populations right in the path of impending natural disasters.
In search of resilient real estate
The term “gentrification” tends to evoke images of luxury condos rising from the rubble of public housing developments and the replacement of community-run businesses with high-end commercial real estate development. Officially, it is defined as the renovation of under-developed neighborhoods to make them suitable for more affluent residents, often resulting in the displacement of low-income people of color who can no longer afford to live in their homes.
But climate gentrification throws in an additional factor: the impending shifts in global climate as a result of carbon emissions. For example, warmer sea temperatures infuse hurricanes with more energy and higher wind speeds, making them more destructive. This has been reflected in the increasing frequency of Category 5 hurricanes—the highest possible rating on the Saffir-Simpson scale. And it’s not just hurricanes; other natural disasters like wildfires and tornadoes are also escalating. Rising temperatures in the West are causing snowpacks in the mountains—a major source of water for surrounding areas—to melt earlier, leaving the region drier for a longer period of subsequent time. As a result, wildfire season now extends for over half the year.
The prospect of purchasing a home that will be underwater or in the middle of a desert in fifty years is unappealing to homebuyers and makes weather-resilient neighborhoods more desirable. This means that homes protected from floods at higher elevations or far from wildfire-prone brush will increase in price, making them unaffordable for low-income homebuyers. This leaves already-vulnerable populations at the mercy of life-threatening weather events.
The term “climate gentrification” was first explored comprehensively in a 2018 study about housing prices in Miami-Dade County. This hurricane-prone region has been a closely studied example of resilience and recovery in response to climate change and natural disasters. In the study, they described three different forms of climate gentrification (Fig. 1). First, low risk of weather damage can make low-income neighborhoods more attractive, spurring the migration of wealthy homebuyers into these areas. Second, and conversely, living in areas with high risk of weather damage requires expensive personal investment into weather-proofing measures. These investments are typically infeasible for low-income households, which forces them to leave. Third, areas in which community investments have already improved resilience (e.g., storm drains, flood walls) are more desirable and become inaccessible to low-income families. Miami falls into the first category. In the study, the authors found that, in coastal neighborhoods that are more exposed to the ocean, home prices are increasing more rapidly in areas at higher elevation (Fig. 2).
Another similar study looked nationwide and combined home price data from Zillow with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s predictions of sea level rise. They calculated that homes that are at risk of flooding due to rising sea levels sell for 7% less than homes equidistant from the waterfront that are not at risk of flooding. This might seem like common sense, but to track down the exact cause, researchers have interviewed homebuyers in flooding-prone areas, like the Jersey Shore. There, they found that an area’s reputation for flooding makes homebuyers less likely to pay as much as they normally would, especially since they will often have to bear the extra expense of getting flood insurance.
Flooding is only one way that nature dictates where people can live. Further from the Atlantic coast, other forces are at play. In California, wildfires are becoming more common and forcing people to move, in some cases because their homes were destroyed, and in others because the threat of fire makes it difficult to get insurance or a mortgage. Los Angeles, in particular, may see an influx of people from the coast (as sea levels rise) and further inland (as fires rage) into its traditionally working-class Eastside neighborhoods. And although the Great Lakes have been touted as the climate-proof region of the future, recent deep freezes and flash floods demonstrate that the Midwest is not immune to extreme weather.
Fighting gentrification with policy
Climate gentrification may seem inevitable: the climate is changing, and in combination with the human instincts that drive real estate prices, it seems like it may be—somewhat ironically—the perfect storm. But local government policies can play a role in blocking such inequity or exacerbating it. For example, improving public infrastructure can make a city more resilient to weather events. The city of Galveston, Texas, built a 10-mile-long seawall and raised the city above flood level with 16 feet of sand, and in 2002, Florida passed a building code that requires buildings to be able to withstand 111 mph winds. Other strategies include improving drainage in asphalt-carpeted cities and increasing the distance between homes and flammable fauna to minimize the spread of wildfires.
But these are not cheap endeavors, and as municipal infrastructure projects, the natural funding source is taxes. Rising taxes would also burden the low-income populations that would be displaced by climate gentrification, however, so some cities look to other sources of income—like tourism or bonds—to finance climate resilience measures. As one of the cities most urgently facing the repercussions of climate change, Miami has taken the first steps among its peers to keep natural disaster-prone neighborhoods safe. The city recently agreed to use its income from the Miami Forever Bond to support flood-proofing infrastructure, like water pumping stations and better drainage systems, and to make homes more resilient. Local advocates are working to make sure that these funds go toward both affluent and low-income neighborhoods; otherwise, there’s a risk of pushing these neighborhoods down the “resilience investment” pathway of climate gentrification, where the increased infrastructure makes certain neighborhoods more desirable and unaffordable. The city has also commissioned research to quantify the effects of climate gentrification on its neighborhoods so that it can implement further evidence-based policies.
One area in which such policies could be instrumental is with regards to flood insurance premiums. Homes in high flood-risk areas that are purchased with the assistance of federally regulated mortgages are legally required to have flood insurance (Fig. 3). As the flood risk increases in low-income coastal neighborhoods (as has been happening in Florida and New Jersey, for example), the added expense of the insurance premium may make these neighborhoods unaffordable, increasing the rate of climate gentrification.
In the wake of a particularly damaging year in 2017, the National Flood Insurance Program increased premiums by 8% on average for 2018 and 2019, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced the adoption of a new system for evaluating properties’ flood risk. Beginning in 2020, this updated “Risk Rating 2.0” will be used to re-assess insurance premiums that have traditionally been determined based on other factors, not direct risk of flooding. This will reduce some properties’ premiums, while increasing them for other properties, potentially making the expense of maintaining flood-prone properties untenable in low-income communities. Some congressional representatives are working to develop a program that discounts the rate for low-income homeowners.
Housing is just one example of an overarching theme arising in the arena of climate change activism: as the climate changes, it will be easier for those with more resources to adapt. The increase in home prices in weather-resilient neighborhoods shows that climate gentrification is already having a measurable impact. It is disrupting communities and widening socioeconomic gaps. Many researchers are working from a scientific angle to understand what is causing the increasingly wild weather events, and how we can better predict them and protect ourselves. Atmospheric scientists are studying the origins of Category 5 hurricanes and engineers are designing climate-proof city infrastructure. This kind of work is crucial to improve our response to natural disasters. But recent examples of climate gentrification show that there is also important work to be done to understand the social impact of these events and how weather can work synergistically with other socioeconomic forces. These dual approaches will be essential to keep cities and neighborhoods resilient for everyone.
Aparna Nathan is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics program at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter at @aparnanathan.
For more information:
- A three-part series (accompanied by a video) in The Root explores the effects of climate gentrification on Little Haiti, and the activist forces combating it.
- The New York Times explains what makes some cities “climate refuges:” cities that anticipate evading the effects of climate change (spoiler: head north and inland).
- Climate-driven migration is not new, and this Rolling Stone article reflects on how we can learn from past cases to forecast how migrations may shape our future landscape.