- Rising housing costs have helped push Americans into parts of the country more vulnerable to climate change.
- US counties that have the most at-risk homes are all growing in population.
- The trend shows how the burden of climate change is falling disproportionately on less affluent people.
The skyrocketing cost of housing has pushed many Americans to trade their lives in big coastal cities like New York and San Francisco for more affordable ones in Sunbelt cities and Southern suburbs.
But that move could cost more in the long-run.
These more affordable regions of the country are also facing much more severe impacts of climate change, including extreme heat, wildfires, floods, and droughts. People are pouring into flood-prone Florida, moving into Houston not long after Hurricane Harvey devastated the city in 2017, and relocating to parts of the West and Southwest dealing with the worst droughts and wildfires in the country.
Rather than leaving areas at high risk of natural disasters and other climate issues, more Americans are moving into them. US counties that have the most at-risk homes are all growing in population, while those with the fewest at-risk homes are almost all losing residents, according to a 2021 Redfin analysis.
The pandemic exacerbated this trend. There’s been a recent spike in people moving from more expensive cities to lower-cost, smaller places farther from large metros and closer to natural amenities, in part due to the rise in remote work. These locations – like Bend, Oregon, which is vulnerable to wildfires — tend to be more at risk of natural disasters. The number of loan applications for homes in high-risk areas rose from 90,462 in February 2020 to 187,669 in February 2022, Freddie Mac reported.
In the longer-term, this trend will put many more Americans at risk of losing their homes to wildfires and floods, or being hurt or killed by extreme heat, or suffering from a lack of water. Rich people are already better able to protect themselves from natural disasters and other climate impacts, whether by fleeing, hiring private firefighters, or retrofitting their homes. But if lower-risk cities continue to price people out, the burden of climate change will fall even more disproportionately on less affluent communities.
Experts say there are ways that local, state, and federal governments can help to reverse this dangerous trend.
A recent Brookings Institution report recommended several ways that policymakers can encourage Americans to seek climate safety. First, the researchers say that Congress and the the Federal Housing Finance Agency should work with mortgage lenders and property insurers to factor climate risk into their rates, charging homeowners more based on how much risk they’re taking on.
Often, homebuyers don’t know what kinds of climate risks their property faces, so state and local governments should develop rules about what information needs to be disclosed to a potential homebuyer and then impose higher taxes on riskier property.
“Higher fees in risky areas serve two purposes: they encourage price-sensitive households to choose safer locations, and they also provide local governments with more revenue to upgrade the climate resilience of infrastructure,” Jenny Schuetz and Julia Gill of Brookings write.
Zoning and other land-use regulations, they argue, should be reformed to encourage more dense development in safer places and less sprawl into particularly climate-impacted areas.
Homeowners and landlords in riskier places also need to do more to retrofit homes to make them more fire and wind proof and more energy efficient. The researchers recommend that local policymakers think more carefully about where to invest infrastructure — including roads, schools, and water and sewage capacity — in climate-impacted areas to either discourage or encourage people to move to certain areas.