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  • Jacob Bourne

Unaffordable Housing is Pushing People into Disaster Zones

U.S. counties with rising climate-related disasters are experiencing population growth, according to a report from Redfin based on data from ClimateCheck. The trend represents an alarming confluence of lack of affordable housing and escalating impacts from climate change.

Places with the highest share of homes facing increasing heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods and storms had population growth between 2016 and 2020 due to migration. Meanwhile, counties with fewer homes at risk from natural disasters experienced population decline.

"People have been gravitating to places with severe climate risk because many of these areas are relatively affordable, have lower property taxes, more housing options or access to nature," said Redfin Economist Sebastian Sandoval-Olascoaga. "For a lot of people, these benefits seem to outweigh the dangers of climate change. But as natural disasters become more frequent, homeowners in these areas may end up losing property value or face considerable difficulty getting their properties insured against environmental disasters.”

The report found that the 50 counties with the lowest share of homes facing high-heat risk had an average population decrease by 1.4% during the four-year timespan. In addition, the population declines for the 50 counties with the lowest share of homes at-risk of drought, fire and flood had reductions of 1.1%, 1.2% and 1.1%, respectively. The one outlying data point was that the 50 counties with the lowest share of homes experiencing high storm risk had an average of 0.9% population growth.

While a February Redfin survey indicated that the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters is a consideration for nearly half of respondents who are contemplating a move in the next year, the nation’s housing affordability crisis appears to be a top driver of where people are landing.

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Forty out of the 50 counties with the most properties in high-heat risk areas had median home sale prices below the national level of $315,000 in 2020. For counties with the most properties facing high storm risk, 30 out of the 50 had median sales prices below the national level last year.

According to FreddieMac, the U.S. is facing a housing deficit of about 3.8 million units as of Q4 2020, and it’s a problem that appears to be worsening alongside climate change. People need a place to live that they can afford, despite the increasing natural disaster risks. It’s a reality complicating the property insurance picture as premiums are rising in certain areas while some homeowners are having difficulty getting insured. In addition, beginning on October 1, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency will begin factoring climate change into flood insurance pricing, meaning that rates will be going up for homeowners in high-risk areas.

While the trend of people migrating to places getting hit the most by climate change impacts is concerning, it’s important to remember that climate change is a global issue and that no place is immune. For example, the June heatwave in the Pacific Northwest stunned many climate scientists, underscoring that the excess energy in Earth’s climate system due to greenhouse gas emissions is making weather generally more unpredictable.

The Redfin report, coupled with recent events such as Hurricane Ida, makes a solid case for affordable housing creation and a more resilient built environment.

Sixteen years after Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana as a Category 3 storm, killing 1,833 people and costing $161 billion in damages, Ida is causing devastation in the state and beyond. Yet, the Category 4 storm’s damage was likely muted by the $14 billion spent in levee fortifications in the years following Katrina. Louisiana is one of the most flood-prone states. However, its cost of living is below the U.S. average, one of the factors making it a desirable destination.

The entire U.S. population — or the global population for that matter — can’t cram into a few regions deemed “climate-safe,” even if there were such places, making it imperative that resiliency spending on building and infrastructure are fiscal priorities.

Yet, people should have more choices about where they live, especially if it means choosing an area more likely to be impacted by a natural disaster over one with lower risk, just because of affordability. Ample affordable housing creation will give people options to make the best choices about where to live and help stem the movement of unhoused individuals into high-fire risk forested areas in places like Colorado, Oregon and California, which further amplifies wildfire risk.


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