As rents and flooding both increase on the U.S. coasts, people struggle to find safe, affordable housing and experience higher risk for homelessness.
A recent study in Environmental Research Letters examined how coastal flood risks tied to climate change threaten affordable housing. The authors also touched on the social justice aspects of housing scarcity and climate change, as well as the importance of not displacing people when flood-preparation housing improvements are carried out.
“Affordable housing residents have far fewer safe options and much more to lose than their neighbors as sea level rise increases coastal flooding risks in their communities,” Benjamin Strauss, study co-author and Climate Central CEO and chief scientist, told Invisible People. “This inequity is just one of many social justice issues linked to climate change, and it echoes a broader, global injustice: communities facing the most risk from the consequences of our carbon emissions are often those whose activities and economies have contributed and benefited the least.”
Climate Change and Homelessness
Climate change fuels extreme weather like major heat waves, floods, hurricanes and wildfires. It is also tied to health risks like decreased air quality, increases in warm-weather-loving biting insect populations, and the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19 (due to related habitat destruction). As we’ve covered at Invisible People, many of these conditions can cause homelessness, make it much more dangerous, or both. In 2016, disasters displaced 24.2 million people.
The nonprofit Climate Reality Project points out that 2017’s Hurricane Harvey’s effect on Houston, Texas, was a prime example of how a storm driven by warming seas can fuel a housing crisis. After the event, researchers found its record rainfall was “as much as 38% higher than would be expected in a world that was not warming.”
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “One in six families receiving assistance from the Houston Housing Authority saw their home battered or destroyed” in the storm. A few months later, homelessness in Houston had increased 13% over the prior year. A more recent example is the September 2020 Almeda Fire in southern Oregon, which led to visible growth in existing camps of homeless people.
America’s Lack of Affordable Housing
A 2020 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found a minimum-wage worker can’t afford a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country. Stats for one-bedrooms are not much better. Unaffordable rents are a key factor driving homelessness.
A recent study from the Institute for Research on Poverty states that the result of the affordable housing shortfall is “most poor renting families spend more than half of their income on housing.” This leaves “little left over for basic needs such as food and health care, and results in housing insecurity including homelessness, multiple moves or ‘doubling up’ with others.
The authors point out that affordable housing units are often older and receive less regular maintenance. This makes them more vulnerable to climate-change-driven weather events.
People who live in affordable housing often face multiple barriers, as they are more likely to experience:
- Low income
- Advanced age
- Single parenting
- Lack of stable employment
- Be cultural or ethnic minorities
The research also states (with citations) that socially disadvantaged communities are more vulnerable to natural disasters and their after-effects.
Growing Risks to Coastal Affordable Housing and Potential Responses
This study explores areas of affordable housing in the U.S. that are vulnerable to sea level rise and related flooding, and identifies the places most at risk. The researchers found 7,668 affordable housing units “were recently at risk of flooding per year in the United States.” New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts have the largest number of these units exposed to extreme water levels.
The top 20 most-exposed cities account for 75% of overall exposure of this kind. Threats are primarily clustered in smaller cities in California and the Northeast. New York City has the largest number of affordable housing units exposed per year. The authors estimate that by 2050, the number of affordable units exposed will more than triple to 24,519 units. By this point, they also state “most coastal states are estimated to have at least some affordable housing units exposed to flood risk events at least four times per year.”
The authors conclude that because coastal flood risks are very concentrated, preparing for the floods now could help protect a lot of people who live in affordable housing. However, as building infrastructure projects can make affordable housing units more attractive, the researchers warn against raising the rent on the improved units and displacing people. They call on communities not to price-out affordable housing residents and put them at risk for homelessness.
Homelessness Due to Climate Gentrification
To lose one’s housing due to price increases tied to climate resilience initiatives is one kind of “climate gentrification,” wherein climate change responses negatively affect low-income communities and communities of color. As Sasha Forbes of NRDC explained, another example is when people of greater means flee coastal or otherwise climate-endangered communities, flooding into surrounding areas and thereby increasing housing costs.
The recent study highlights some public-private partnerships that try to make affordable housing more climate resilient while protecting residents, like Energy Efficiency for All and the Urban Land Institute’s Urban Resilience Program.
“Affordable housing tends to be especially scarce in coastal communities, and whatever steps planners and property owners take – or don’t take – in response to rising seas will have a profound, long-term impact on residents with limited choices of safe, affordable places to live,” Strauss said. “We conducted this research to help local governments understand where the risks are likely to be highest, so they can act now to protect their most vulnerable citizens.”